Chapter 3

When Tej was five, his kindergarten teacher put him front and centre for a dance his class was preparing. It wasn’t a very anticipated performance, just the parents coming to watch their kids perform on a half-day, but Tej was careful with his responsibility. 

He practiced all his steps with great care, memorised the few position changes he needed to keep in mind and went as far as learning the skill of smiling while moving his limbs. The facial expressions didn’t quite stay on for the entire duration of his practices, but his parents clapped, and Tahira begrudgingly patted his head and said he was doing well. That was more than good enough for him.

The day of the performance dawned, and baby Tej was excited albeit nervous beyond belief. Maa had promised him an ice cream no matter how well he did, so all that remained was simply getting through the performance.

And technically, Tej did get through it.

Just not entirely intact.

Marcus Wellham – a name he refuses to forget in case they ever run into each other again and Tej needs to strangle the root of his life problems – had, apparently, been much more nervous than Tej himself.

A nervousness that was personified squarely in the form of a bad case of stage nerves and throwing up whatever he’d eaten for breakfast. 

Unlike the other kids who found themselves giggling at Marcus’ plight, Tej might’ve managed to muster up some sympathy for his classmate had the unfortunate accident not happened smack dab in the middle of their performance, with the back of Tej’s neck as the sole victim.

As it happens, Tej made a lifelong enemy that afternoon.

Tahira always argues Tej made things worse for himself by continuing to dance even though he could definitely feel Marcus’ generous gift on his neck. The other kids had broken off, some giggling, others cranky and Marcus simply wailing, but little Tej danced like it was an audition and he had the toughest panel to crack.

For good or bad – although most who hear the story usually agree it’s for bad – he was the only student who kept dancing till the end. Perhaps ‘end’ is a rather kind way of putting it; his teacher sort of switched off the music early to stop the chaos. Tej’s last hopes of impressing his parents with his indomitable spirit and practiced moves were snuffed out neatly.

Tahira’s second argument about this incident is that it was the genesis of what would go on to become Tej’s most rigid and ungiving flaw: his paralysing self-consciousness.

It’s not that Tej was unable to ever regain confidence and recover from all the jokes about that day; it just took a long time for his awkwardness to wane. And even when it did, nobody in his family realised the small but unshakeable impact it left behind.

Tej’s inhibitions grew faster than his faith in his skills. People playfully poking fun at him became a sharp sting in his throat, a teacher calling on him required measured deep breathing, and any chance to do something ‘silly’ for fun was crushed because he couldn’t imagine the judgement it would bring.

He’s better now, obviously, but the idea of being caught off-guard, looking foolish, is still a nightmare to think about, let alone live through.

Which is why, standing before Mrs. Park’s door in his Superman pajama set – Mohini beside him trying to quell her giggles – makes Tej feel like he’s currently dying seven simultaneous, painful deaths.

“You didn’t read the notice board outside?”

“I did,” Tej mutters, hushed in the elder’s presence. For some reason, it always makes him feel like a disobedient schoolboy when she squints at him with that expression. “I know you don’t take resident concerns after nine pm but it’s kind of urgent, Mrs. Park. I wouldn’t bother you otherwise, I swear.”

The sliver of her face that is visible doesn’t seem to believe this promise. Through the small gap in the chained door of 101, Mrs. Park is aiming her best suspicious look at Tej. 

A glare that is slightly unnecessary, in his opinion; the past couple of months, she’s been one of the only three people ensuring Tej eats non-takeout meals every few days, and generally stays alive. It’s a two-way street, of sorts. Just last week, Tej had connected all her smart lights to Google when she was struggling to do it herself. He’d like to think they have a closer dynamic than the usual landlady-tenant bond.

To be fair, though – a part of him reasons – he is here past ten in the night. She’s stated pretty explicitly how much she hates being disturbed after nine. She’s allowed a little grump.

“Mrs. Park,” Tej tries again, cautious. “The keys? Can I have them, please?”

The frown, disappointingly, doesn’t leave her face but she does mutter something before putting out a palm. 

Then the door shuts in his face and it’s just Mohini and him in the hallway again.

“Wow,” she says immediately, and it’s with the same intonation she’s been mumbling in for the past few minutes since the discovery. It’s like standing next to a mini Owen Wilson wind-up toy. Tej considers asking if she needs to sit down, then decides against it. He’d rather not lead her to think he’s trying something again, standing before her in his Superman set. 

“Seriously, Tej. Wow.”

“You can stop saying that now. Really.”

Her smile inches back on her face. He hasn’t seen this one before but it fits her perfectly, sharper and more certain compared to school. “Wow,” she says deliberately, making eye contact with him. “Wow, wow, wow.”

Tej is unimpressed. “Somehow your vocabulary has shrunk since we last met. Usually it’s the other way round.”

“I’m just so surprised,” Mohini teases, lounging comfortably against the wall. “What are the odds?”

She’s said that one too, after the laughing fit and before her self-invitation to his trip down to beg Mrs. Park for spare keys. He doesn’t want to dwell on it – dwelling on anything, considering their context, can make things very awkward, very quickly – but she still has the faint, defined accent he’d noticed when she first joined their school. Soft ‘th’s, clear ‘d’s. Privately, Tej thinks she pulls it off better than his one Tamilian cousin back in India. 

“Yeah,” he says, allowing himself a smile before turning away quickly. “What are the odds.”

When the mission is successful, and the landlady has handed the keys over with a baleful warning, they set off again. Mohini hums cheerily as they walk up the stairs so it’s not entirely stilted, but Tej doesn’t know what to say to break the silence, either.

Thankfully, he doesn’t need to. “I’m not giving up the Wi-Fi by the way,” Mohini says, easy as anything, and Tej abruptly stops on the second step, groaning. Of course he forgot to mention that bit to Mrs. Park. Mohini boos, sound echoing in the empty stairwell. “Don’t be a snitch.” 

“Don’t be a thief,” he complains, slowly restarting his trudge behind her on the stairs. “I can excuse premeditated murder but I draw the line at Wi-Fi stealing.” 

There’s a snort. “Can you imagine the portfolio I could build with just those two?” Mohini poses, looking like she’s genuinely considering a career shift. “Not many criminals have this crime combination, you know, I could be a radical first in the field.”

Tej senses a return to his earlier state of wanting to pull out hair from his scalp. “Just stay away from my Wi-Fi, yeah?” He needs to keep his roots (and internet) safe. 

Mohini groans. “Come on, Tej, I’m barely ever even home. Would you pay a shit tonne for Wi-Fi if you didn’t use it that much?”

Hm. “Quit your job.”

“Fuck off,” she says but there’s a good-natured smile on both their faces. “Okay, look. What if you just think of it as compensating for everything that happened in high school?”

Compensating?” he asks, incredulous. Sensing that he’s a little more riled now, Mohini starts climbing quicker. “No, stop runn–you broke up with me!” 

Mentioning that is a critical self-hit to his dignity but he’s not letting this lie in any grey areas. It was his first breakup; he remembers it more than well enough. Taking the stairs two at a time till they’re in sync again, Tej sends her a calculated glare.

It doesn’t do much. Mohini just gives him a sage expression that vaguely makes him consider homicide himself. “You’re right. Let’s just call it a fifty-fifty for the breakup. Both our faults, yeah?”

No. Yo—”

“Look at us,” she interjects affably. If there hadn’t been an eight-year period of radio silence between them, Tej suspects she’d have an arm around his shoulder by now. “Getting along so well. I’m so excited to tell my coworkers at the store. People love a story with coincidences.”

That’s not incorrect but something tells Tej that any story being told by Mohini attracts similarly positive reactions. When they reach their floor, he stumbles to his apartment, eager to get his Superman merch-clad body in bed. “If you come back tonight to a changed password, try not to break down my door.” He’s not sure he’ll do it but issuing threats is the only card he has left.

Mohini just snorts, waving at him to go on in.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” Tej asks, almost all the way past his now-open door. Mohini is making for the stairs again to go down but she stops at his question so he continues. “Can’t imagine there’s anything more exciting for you than staying home and planning the murder.”

It’s quite sudden to watch. Tej doesn’t understand why the words have such an impact but Mohini halts for a second before turning to look at him, expression completely still. She’s smiling even now but there’s no lightness to it anymore. If this entire conversation had been his attempt at carefully cracking open a safe, he’s just made his first slip up, tripping all the alarms and lockdowns. 

Ironing careful unconcern on her face, Mohini just lifts her hands in a ‘who knows’ sort of gesture. Which is concerning, because Tej’s hope is really that she does generally know what she’s doing. “We’ll see,” she answers, cryptic as ever, before striding back to her destination.

Tej just shrugs and shuts the door. 

Lying in bed later that night, he has to stop himself from listening to hear if the door next to his apartment swings open to welcome back its resident. He’d wasted enough hours on her in high school; no matter how good things feel right now, Tej hardly wants a repeat.

*

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