chai half full

A short story by Adi Sud

“It’s going to be fine,” Adrian says as he moves a little closer. Our hands are intertwined. The apartment complex looms in front of us, casting a shadow that covers the width of the street. We look at each other with a mix of optimism and anxiety. His brown hair has been messed up by the wind; we go to brush down the stray frazzles at the same time. It’s what he does when he’s anxious but trying not to show it.

“What if they’re not ready?” I ask.

He pulls me towards the automatic doors – “Sunil, it’s not like they’re meeting me for the first time, and I’m pretty sure they like me.”

– and into the lobby. It’s modern, with a nearly spotless black banner running behind the building’s reception desk. I nod at the receptionist. She’s seen Adrian and I before, when he came to pick me up before we went for a picnic to celebrate our second anniversary. It was one of the best days of my life, but right now it doesn’t feel like three months ago. It feels like a lifetime.

“It’s their first time meeting us.” I say quietly and through my teeth, and that makes us let go of each other. Adrian moves in front of me, with his back to the escalator, and stops me from moving by placing his hand gently on my chest. I take a deep breath to prepare myself before meeting his gaze. It used to be effortless.

“We don’t have to do this now if you’re not ready.”

Technically, he’s right. We could wait for a better moment, or until they figure it out. Worst case scenario, we wait another twenty to thirty years and they’ll probably be dead. But there’s something in his voice that says that he isn’t able to wait any longer. In the silence between us, we’re having a conversation that we’re reading in each other’s eyes.

We move to the elevator, and as the doors open, we take each other’s hands.

* * *

Mum has redecorated the apartment again. The wooden TV cabinet now has a sheet of glass on top of it, and sandwiched in-between are photos of the family. Adrian is in one of the photos, back when we were twelve. In the picture we’re standing proudly in a backyard with lush grass, both in blue jean shorts and shirtless, with towels tied around our necks like capes. It’s the only photo on the cabinet where our smiles don’t seem faked, but Mum wouldn’t see that.

“Sunil, go offer Adrian a drink,” she says in a low whisper over my shoulder. Then, with a slight smile, “Chi, I thought I raised you better but you’ve clearly taken on more of your father’s habits.”

I go into the kitchen to make us a chai, staring at the light on the kettle switch while Adrian walks around the living room complimenting the changes. “Are those new cushions?”, “was that photo always there?”; he’s warming her up, reminding her that she already likes him. Of course, we all know that he can tell every change that’s been made – but Mum cares more about the gesture of asking than the sincerity of Adrian’s words. It helps that he’s always been good at small talk. The kettle hisses, the switch clicks, and in a few more moments the chai is ready.

“Jitinder, chai!” Mum calls out as she sits on one of the couches, cupping the steaming mug like it isn’t twenty-four degrees outside. Dad emerges from the study still wearing his reading glasses. He smiles when he sees Adrian.

“It’s good to see you again, Adrian. Things are going good?”

“Better than ever.” Adrian flashes him a smile. Dad takes one of the mugs on the coffee table and sits down on the recliner, placing his feet on a slightly worn-out foot stool in front of him.

“And how’s the family?”

“All alright, Mum’s recently started a new job as a research assistant.” Adrian turns his head to face me as he pauses, and our eyes meet. I cough nervously.

“Hey, so Mum, Dad–”

Mum cuts me off. “A research assistant! I always did say that she was the smartest woman on our street; is she enjoying it?”

He breathes in when he goes to answer, maintaining our eye contact for a moment before facing her. “Yeah, she is. I think she’s just happy that she managed to get back into the work force, you know?”

“I don’t think I could ever do that.” Mum sips on her chai. “Go back to working, I mean.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Suneta,” Dad says. “If you wanted to go back to work you could. It’s all mind over matter.”

Adrian leans back on the couch as my parents talk between themselves for a moment, and he puts his hand between mine in what he must assume is a subtle gesture. In India, handholding isn’t a big deal, guys do it all the time. But somewhere in the immigration process, my parents gave that cultural belief up. To them, there’s significance in handholding between boys. Mum is deep in her conversation with Dad but her eyes dart from him down to us, and then back upwards. Her brows furrow for a split second, and Dad doesn’t notice, but we do. Adrian’s grip tightens for a bit before he lets go.

She knows.

She makes a small cough like something is caught in her throat and takes another sip of her chai.

“So Mum, Dad–”

Mum suddenly slaps her forehead with her palm. “Agh! Look at me being a bad host, I haven’t even offered you boys any food. Let me go put some samosas in the air fryer.”

“Oh don’t worry about that,” Adrian says, trying to do damage control, “we had a late lunch before we came so we’re both pretty full.”

“Nonsense, Adrian. I’ll be back in a second.”

“So Adrian.” Dad takes a sip. “How are your studies going?”

Adrian takes a sharp breath in, forces a smile. “They’re fine. Two more years to go for my undergrad.”

They carry on with their conversation, but Adrian’s pleasant, happy-go-lucky façade is beginning to fade. He’s bouncing his left leg quickly. I want to put my hand on his leg to stop him, the way that I do when it’s just us together, but that might be too much for them to handle without context. So I let his leg bounce, and feel the movement of the couch cushions beneath us.

“Are you alright, Adrian? You seem nervous.” Dad nods his head to point out Adrian’s leg, and Adrian blushes and stops moving. The couch feels unnaturally still now. Mum comes back in from the kitchen carrying a china plate with too many samosas for all of us. One of the triangles falls from the plate onto the floor, sending small golden-brown flakes of pastry across the navy carpet. Mum smacks her lips in annoyance.

“I am a bit nervous, I guess,” Adrian admits, forcing his eyes away from the hot food on the coffee table to meet Dad’s gaze. “Sunil–”

“Adrian? Nervous?” Mum sounds incredulous, flustered. “I’m sure whatever it is, you’ll be fine.”

“Suneta darling, let the boys speak.” Dad raises a hand to shush her.

“I am,” Mum says a bit too defiantly. “I’m just saying that Adrian is a good boy and he’s been raised well – he’ll be able to handle whatever struggles life throws at him.”

She puts a bit too much emphasis on the word ‘good’, and when she says it her eyes dart over us again.

“I don’t disagree,” Dad reasons, “I’m just saying that we should let the boy speak.”

“And I’m saying that I am letting him,” she bites back.

This type of argument has happened before. It’s always starts as something small, but one by one they’ll bring in new things to argue about, all unrelated. If it doesn’t stop soon, one of them is going to storm off.

This was meant to be our moment. It dances in front of us, teasing us with its fleeting nature. Adrian starts bouncing his leg again.

Chi, I’m just letting him know that this is a safe environment for him, not that I’d expect you to understand!” Mum’s started talking louder.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dad takes his feet off the footrest and sits upright in his chair. I can feel a knot tightening in my gut, the heat from outside warming the air, Adrian’s breathing getting tense.

“Adrian’s my boyfriend.”

The sentence shuts them up. In my head, there wouldn’t be this pause, because they wouldn’t care. They’d go straight into a hug, maybe take us into the prayer room and feed us sugar as a blessing. But instead, the revelation hangs heavy in the air, weaving through the steam that rises from the plate of samosas and the four near-empty mugs of chai. Mum and Dad are staring at us, taking us both in at the same time.

In the heavy silence, Adrian takes my hand.

Adi Sud is a student at the University of Melbourne. Bisexual, and coming from an Australian/South Asian heritage, his writing explores the intersections between race, culture, sexuality, and gender.

Cover image by Tim Foster on Unsplash

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