A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
- Thom Gunn, The Man with Night Sweats
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With Saira, you forget. It’s easy to forget. Saira with her raucous, easy laugh, offers absolution. Her laugh reverberates throughout the canteen, it washes over you: you’re not crazy, you’re not a freak, it says. When you’re with Saira, you think it truly is possible to just stop plucking.
Saira’s great, man.
And to think, you wouldn’t have known Saira had you not gone down to the canteen that day. The bathroom was full, there were girls everywhere. Your hands clenched, nails digging bloody half-moons into your palms. You wouldn’t have had that initial conversation, painful and halting. That first, fumbling conversation would never have given way to numbers being exchanged, memes circulated on Whatsapp, to a friendship.
Saira laughs at every joke you tell. Even today’s joke, weak as it is, surprises a snort out of her; a giggle which becomes a full-blown laugh.
Soon, you’re laughing along with her. You feel giddy, flush with elation. Your hands unclench. See, Dr. N says, inside your head, making new friends will keep you busy and help resist the compulsion.
Saira’s fucking great, man.
Saira’s life is partitioned and parceled into neat squares. You’re privy to the whole shebang: Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. Click; tap; replay. For all to consume; all to envy. Here’s Saira, jumping in the waves. God, look at those legs. Smooth. Not a hair in sight. Here’s Saira tapping open a lava cake. Here’s Saira with her sisters. Don’t click replay, don’t like everything, you don’t want to single-handedly boost the views on her Instagram videos. You pause at that picture of Saira at the beach. Zoom in. You marvel at that expanse of smooth skin, uninterrupted by sores or spots like yours. Saira’s perfect; why can’t you be more like her?
Scrolling, scrolling – your left hand, unoccupied, creeps over to your knee. You pause over your leg, experimentally, a few times. Your fingers trail over the sores, the ingrown hair, the stubble. You don’t need to look, your fingers know where to go, where to pluck from. Pluck - here’s the first, no follicle - discard. Pluck. Here’s a beauty, black and wiry against your finger. Pull off the follicle, rub it between your thumb and forefinger – it’s perfect. Look at the little white bulb, a dandelion blown bare. Pluck, just one more, one more follicle and you’ll be done, promise. Pluck, need to clear out that patch. It needs to be smooth. Pluck pluck pluck – fuck, it stings – stop stop stop. You did it again, fucking freak, fucking fuck-up. There’s hair lodged between your fingernails. Blood cakes your nails. Your leg stings, needles pricking your skin over and over again. You rub a palm on the patch to ease the pain, not again, never again. Your leg is specked with wiry strands. You carefully gather the hair into your palm and throw them into the dustbin. You’re done with Rukhsaana maasi and her totkas. Baji, why there is so much hair on the floor? Baji, boil almonds in ghee. Baji, baji – enough.
Saira says hi first now. Conversations now extend beyond the jokes and small talk; you’re a good listener. You keep your eyes on her face. No need to look at her arms, bracelets tinkling like bells. No need to look at her ankles. Her pants are not ensconced in her shoes, like yours. No need to look at all that skin, glistening in the sun. No need to think about grazing your calloused knuckles against that velvety skin.
You eagerly gather all the morsels she doles out. You nod and say the right things at the right time. You become her friend, her confidante and the day she thanks you for being such a great friend on WhatsApp, is the day you don’t pluck at all.
“Listen, do you want to come to the beach with us next Sunday,” Saira says.
Do you ever?
Dress code, the text says, a day later, shorts or capris.
What will you wear? What will you wear?
A patch of cleared skin later; you’ll think of something.
A week before the trip, you conduct an experiment. You take your sister’s foundation and squeeze out some your hand. You smear it across your legs. This could work; this could hide the scars, the spots. It’s waterproof; it will survive the waves. It doesn’t survive the tap. In the end, it sloughs off. The smudges seem like an admission of betrayal. You wring out your shalwar beneath the tap, the foundation staining your hands, clogging the basin. Panic is beginning to settle in, twisting your stomach into knots. What will you do?
The day before the trip, you sit on the edge of your bed and pull up your shalwar. You’ve tried. By God, you’ve tried. You waxed your legs raw again and again and again until flecks of skin and blood were enmeshed in the wax strips. Blood outlines your nails – clipped to the flesh. You’ve been good. You’ve tried.
But no matter what, your fingers itched with purpose – a hand would stray, a finger would halt at a promising hair and stop. Pinch, pull, pluck, admire. Rinse and repeat. When you would finally stop – the stinging too much to endure any further, it would be too late, blood pooling around the sores, the skin bruised and red. A bloody patchwork of skin and sores.
You were penitent. You have doused your skin in creams and gels. You slit aloe vera leaves and smeared the liquid on your legs. All promised redemption. None delivered. The spots remain dark and defiant. The sores have not healed, red and accusatory. They stand out, a witness to your crimes. You run a hand along your leg. Your fingers graze each sore, each spot. You think of Saira and her flawless skin. The boys love her. You think of the scene you stumbled across last week. Saira and her boyfriend, arms around each other, laughing. Would your body ever be worthy? How can your bruised and mutilated skin ever be worthy? What if your body goes to waste? It is all you have but you won’t stop plucking, will you? And when you do - if you do - nobody would ever want to touch legs as ugly and splotched and scarred as yours? But you still don’t stop plucking, do you? Saira would be disgusted.
You should stay home, what if someone sees? What if Saira sees? You’ve done this before; excuses fly off your tongue. You pick up the phone: I’m not feeling well. My Bhabhi has gone into labor. You pause. What if you wear those tights? The plain black ones? You could wear them – your skin wouldn’t show.
Her phone buzzes. Saira. R u coming tomm? You look down and text a definitive yes.
The day of the beach dawns. Your heart beats to an unsteady, erratic rhythm. Your fingers are itching – one pluck, one follicle to fondle, one sore to scratch – but you must be good. Your fingers are itching but you’d trimmed your nails, waxed yourself raw and forgave yourself for the two – alright, five - hairs you plucked. They were ingrown; no big loss.
The beach. Everyone changes. You bring out the tights, cover story on your tongue. Nobody asks. Fuck, there’s a hole in the tights, how the ever living fuck did you not notice this? You’ll have to stick with what you’re wearing. White pants. No, no. You remember that day at Seaview. The pants, wet, sheer. The looks. You can’t. Saira ambles up to you just then, are you coming? You smile weakly at her, hands clenching around the tights. Yes, you say, swallowing down bile, and leave the tights by your bag.
The waves lap at your feet. Your feet are rooted in the sand. Seaweed nestles between your toes.
The water rushes past you, warm sand clinging behind. Beside the roar of the waves, the sun beating down on your back, you almost forget the others. But then Saira laughs and drags you in until you are both knee-deep in the waves. “Isn’t this great?” Saira says, pushing her hair off her face. “It’s great,” you say plastering on a smile. The waves recede but the salt stays behind. It encrusts your pores, meshing with the dried blood. Your eyes water but you focus on Saira. You push the pain to the back of your mind. The pain remains; lurking, constant.
Soon, the others join you two. A game of throwball starts in the waves. You remember the pictures of the last match. Everyone jumping up, exposing their skin. You can’t afford that, what if someone sees? You mumble an excuse and start plodding towards the hut.
By the time you reach the hut, your feet are caked with sand. The stinging sensation has dwindled down to a dull throbbing. If you wash the sea-water off now, it’ll hurt less. You make your way to one of the rooms, grabbing your bag along the way. You empty your water bottle on the tights and begin the process of cleaning your legs. You hiss every time the cloth touches skin; shards of glass ramming into your skin. You are careful not to sponge too much skin at once.
“Oh hey, I was wondering where – Saira stomps in” She trails off and you don’t need to look up to know why. She’s seen it; your secret’s out.
You try to be nonchalant, some half-thought excuse about needing water but Saira doesn’t listen. She sits beside you, her eyes fixated on your leg. “What happened?” she asks, her eyes wide and clear. It’s the first time you’ve hated her big fucking doe eyes and you’re surprised by the white-hot anger that races through you. “Nothing, nothing,” you say, tugging the pant down, “I tried a new wax waali, never calling her again”. Your voice sounds jokey and shrill, even to you.
Saira isn’t buying it. “Come on,” she says, “you can tell me.” The anger recedes. Panic swoops in. It fills your lungs, blocks your throat. You bite your lip hard enough to draw blood. Can you? Can you tell her?
Saira’s your friend now, she’d understand.
You exhale, a long shuddering sigh that leaves you tired. Slowly, the words tumble out. The diagnosis, the treatment.
Saira listens, quiet. You search her face for signs as you talk, but her expression is inscrutable. The panic intensifies; lead amasses on your tongue, making you stutter.
Silence. Saira doesn’t say anything for the longest while, fingers tapping against her phone. You are beginning to think it might almost be okay when she says:
“Have you tried not pulling your hair?”
You don’t remember much of the journey back home. You remember pressing again the door, trying to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. Nobody talks to you – they must know by now – and you talk to no one. You breathe in, you breathe out. Only 6 kilometers left. The minute you get inside your home, you head for the shower. Water courses down, hot and unforgiving and you scrub yourself vigorously. Your legs sting in protest. The sand pools around the drain and until your skin becomes reddened and raw, you don’t step out of the tub. Clutching a towel, you stretch out a leg. The hot water has opened the pores and your leg is mottled red and brown, punctured by sores. Gosht left out in the sun for far too long. The hair never grows back right, not like before. It’s sparse and wiry; in patches. The scabs gleam red while the hair sticks limply to your skin. Against the white fluorescent light, your bruised and battered skin is all that remains.