Ria limped out of the hospital with a white bandage tightly wrapped around her right thigh. Her discomfort was apparent but so was her radiating smile. She hopped faster as Sameer approached her with open arms. As Ria walked right into them, she smiled as nothing else mattered anymore. Sitting in his car, Sameer held Ria’s hand tightly. His mind drifted off to the first time they’d decided to be together at Ria’s new single room apartment. The night when he’d swiftly entered the house with a perfect date laid out in front of his eyes.
At the stroke of midnight, everything was still. It was mid-week, everyone in the neighbourhood had slept by now. Embracing Ria on the sofa, Sameer moved his hands closer to her thighs. This was supposed to be their first night together after two months of dating. The scented candles lit and the lights dimmed, the mood was right. Sameer casually leaned into Ria for a deep kiss. Everything felt perfect. It was when he started tracing his hands up Ria’s shorts that something felt amiss. Ria for some reason had gone stone cold. What he had earlier taken as a shiver of excitement, seemed like trembling from fear. Sameer stopped. He looked at the wide-eyed Ria, with her mascara smudged along the lines of her tears. What had he done? Wasn’t this consensual? His ego giving way to hurt from the rejection. Dejected, he got up and walked right out of the room. Ria, who had this very scenario of desolation planned in her head, now broke down into hysterical cries. But moments later, she felt a warm something around her.
Sameer wrapped Ria into a comforter, put on his t-shirt and sat by her side. Unwilling to hurt her more in the process of expressing his love. He looked at Ria and felt an urgent need to hug her and mend all that he had broken in seconds, but he held himself. Ria looked so small on the huge sofa with the heavy comforter wrapped around her. Her round face showing little colour while staring directly in front of her. As unnerving as it felt, he spoke up.
“Are you okay, Ria?”
Closing her eyes, Ria felt drained. Yet, she nodded her head.
Sameer inched closer, “I never wanted to hurt you. All this means nothing to me if you think I just came here for it. I really like you. More than anyone I’ve met in a long time. Please trust me. I am sorry. I really am. Please don’t cry.”
With her head hanging low, Ria felt the condensation on her cheeks again. It was like a dam has just broken. The tide was washing down all the happy lives that once inhabited the beautiful landscape. She tried to look up at Sameer and saw the pain in his eyes. This poor boy had taken all the blame on him, thinking of how his fragile girlfriend couldn’t bear a man touching her. Speak up Ria. It’s a decision only you can make. Fight or flight. Make it or break it. The voice of her therapist constantly urged her again and again. But she couldn’t find her voice.
“If you want me to leave, I’ll just leave. We’ll forget what happened. Or if you want me to never call you back, I won’t. I promise I will never hurt you Ria. Please trust me.” Sameer tried pleading to her a couple of more times but without any response, every effort seemed futile. It was almost an hour since he had touched her and she still recoiled from even his slightest movement. Sameer slowly got up and gathered his things. The candles, half-melted by now, threw horrid shadows on the walls. Funny how nothing felt magical anymore he thought. He sighed looking longingly at Ria. This wasn’t the time to give up, he thought. Dropping his things, he moved towards Ria and in that instant, as if breaking out of a trance Ria turned towards him. Sameer, mildly surprised smiled at her. Despite the throbbing pain in her head, Ria smiled back.
Slowly patting the spot next to her on the sofa, she nervously glanced at Sameer. He sat down quietly, cautious to keep enough distance between them. Ria smiled again at the twenty-eight-year-old boy, who looked fifteen as he nervously held his hands tightly, trying hard not to reach out to her just in case she felt violated. Before the tears started welling up, Ria found herself telling Sameer what she hadn’t even mumbled to herself in private.
“I was ten when I moved to Dehradun from Chandigarh. My dad, a practicing doctor then wanted to put up his clinic in a town that felt like home. He used to tell me That Dehradun was like a small world of its own. With a bubble sheet wrapped around it to protect it from anything bad. What he didn’t know was evil aliens aren’t the real monster with pointy teeth and sharp claws. Monsters have a charming face and good grades in school” Ria smiled sadly. Sameer felt his heart twist in pain and gave in to his love. He moved his hand to her knees and pressed gently, urging her to continue.
“When I moved here, I was excited to meet all the new kids at school. Mom told me it was one of the best in the city. I was a shy kid then, you know. I think naïve is the word. Well anyway, it was the first day at school. I was excited about the thought of making new friends. I bounced into the class to look at all those new faces. And it was then I saw her. Priyanshi Mathur.” Ria felt the bitter taste fill her mouth.
“From the moment I saw her staring at me, I started feeling uneasy. It was something about the way she smiled, but then I slowly moved to sit right next to her. Do you know what she said? Girls with ticks in their heads and buggers shooting out of their nose aren’t meant to sit in the front row. Her small group of Cinderella’s sneered. My face started to turn crimson but I held my head high. I moved back and sat quietly in the corner. I thought it was just a new school incident and once I’d have a group of friends, they’d punch her in the face.” Sameer stared at Ria, trying hard to understand her pain but yet felt confusion cloud his eyes. Ria knew he heard things but couldn’t understand why was she telling him all this now. She had more.
“The second day I walked into the class with a sense of dread yet optimistic. Kids!” she laughed “As soon as I moved inside, I tripped. I looked up to see a face cocked at me and the whole class laughing. How come you became this fat? Do you eat kids for lunch? Priyanshi spitted. I felt my eyes burn with tears as I tried to get gather my books that had scattered on the floor. I kept hoping that somebody would come to help me, but nobody did. It was ruled out as a slight tussle between kids in class by the teachers. As the days passed, things worsened. First, it was the name-calling, the ass smacking which then moved to my school bag filled with filth or my tiffin disappearing each day. This wasn’t the worse though. The worse part was that I was alone. Nobody wanted to become a target to Priyanshi by associating with me. For some reason, I was an outcast. You know for how long this went on?” Ria asked.
“Six years.” She said without waiting for a reply. Sameer could now feel something inside him. His confusion clearing into anger. “You should have told your parents Ria. Why didn’t you?”
“I was already a loser. A skirt wetter. A kid eating monster. I couldn’t be a failure too. Getting maa and papa involved would’ve meant I was weak. Someone who couldn’t even manage a bunch of girls” She said.
“By the tenth standard, I spent most of the time on the isolated staircase, rushing between classes. I had even made a friend by then. Preeti, who in her round spectacles and even rounder self, was an ideal target for Priyanshi. Yet, she was too rowdy to be messed with. Finally, I had someone to have my back. We took the art class together. Class 201 – Learn art and craft. The craft of slicing” Ria said vehemently.
“We were supposed to learn how to slice through objects to make half cuts. You know, the ones that are deep enough for things to fold but not enough to completely impale them. I was becoming an expert at it. But then one day while cutting through the cardboard, the blade slipped and ripped right through my thumb. It wasn’t that deep, just a gash that pained every time I moved it a little. Yet it felt sweet and bearable. Unlike the pain that I'd been feeling for years. Inside my head. I ran towards the bathroom to clean it but I just sat there in the stall for an hour. Without even trying to dab the wound.”
She continued mimicking a slicing action “And then I sliced through my palm. It stung so bad but it felt like holding on to the pieces of my body that were still mine. I felt in control.”
“That day mom inquired why my hand was wrapped in bandage in two places. The story about the blade slipping somehow sounded suspicious to her. I had to move to more concealed spaces to stop people from asking questions. By then I was quite sure I would do it again. After exploring, I settled on this” She pointed towards her upper thigh, shifting the comforter off her. Sameer moved his hands slowly onto Ria’s shorts, careful enough not to touch her skin. Ria tried swatting his hand away but Sameer stared at her, making his intentions clear. He shifted his gaze to her thigh and slowly raised the shorts to her crotch. A large criss-cross like pattern adorned her pale skin. Some of those lines showed depth while the others were just on the surface. Most of them had lost colour but a few still looked raw. He softly touched them and heard a whimper escape Ria’s lips.
She slowly shrunk to her side of the sofa, not having the courage to look at Sameer. “You must think I’m crazy. A loser. A coward.” And ugly, she added in her mind. This might be the last time I see him she thought.
“I’m don’t think so. And I’m not leaving” Sameer said, raising his voice, almost hearing Ria’s thoughts. She turned to look at him, “You’re not?”
“No Ria, I’m not. These scars aren’t a sign of failure. These are battle scars. The battle you fought with your inner demons and their outer devils”
Tears started streaming down her cheeks. Warm with shame and pain. She had opened up and he had accepted it. Had it been this easy all this time? Ria felt Sameer drape his hands around her, caressing her hair. It felt like hours before she finally spoke. “I once typed her name on the internet to see if I could find a way to end things in my mind. But before I could even tap on any profiles that remotely looked like her, I broke down.” She straightened herself up and stared at her thigh, moving her hands on what looked like a comparatively newer slash. “I did this that day. I couldn’t control the surge of hatred that filled within me. Loser.” The gash looked much deeper than others.
“Ria, did you clean the wound?” Sameer looked worried
“I never clean my wounds. They aren’t dirty to me.”
“But they need to heal baby”
“No, they don’t. They need to scar. They need to pain. They need to hurt so that every other hurt isn’t significant enough.”
There was no anger in Ria’s voice. There was resignation. Her body had accepted the fate her mind had written for it. Sameer was about to say it out loud but Ria got up.” You want some ice cream?”
Sameer slowly nodded his head. The conversation had to be left for some other time. Over the coming months, Ria and Sameer stuck together. Ria was willing to give herself a chance and Sameer was willing to witness it.
After six months from that night, Ria finally summed up the courage to search for THE profile. Sitting in her bathroom, she held a blade tightly in one hand while the other operated her mobile phone. It wasn’t long before she figured out the profile she’d been searching for. But instead of a twenty-seven-year-old girl, a five-year-old baby smiled at her. A pure smile that she never associated with that name. Priyanshi Mathur was now a mother. Her once curly locks were chopped and tied in a bun as she ran around her little one in a homemade video. Now, she spoke about how much she loved her baby and how she missed her husband, who had sadly passed away the year before. Ria couldn’t help but scroll through the very bottom, trying to find out even an iota of hatred. She kept staring at her phone and felt nothing. Nothing at all. What she had been fearing all these years didn’t seem to be staring back at her.
That day Ria realised two things. One, she had become a victim of her own minds’ creation. It was easy to be one. You had to take no responsibility for your actions because you never took one. All could be blamed on fate or god. Standing up and taking action took courage. And today, she felt courageous. Second, bullies weren’t monsters. They were mere sad people with twisted brains and some form of power. But once you stood up to them, they didn’t look so big anymore. That day Ria, flushed the blade into her toilet gutter along with her self-pity. Something inside her felt warm, maybe it was her heart bursting right out of its cold cage.
In the car now, his line of thoughts disturbed by the traffic, Sameer directed his attention towards her. He saw Ria had removed his hand from hers and placed it on her bandaged leg. It was the first time after months that Sameer had touched her thigh again. He looked at Ria with concern, trying to withdraw his hand. “Does it still pain?” He asked, thinking about the first time he’d made her cry. “They’ve healed Sameer. Nothing pains anymore” She said, placing her hand over his on the fight marks that she proudly owned.