In that moment who was to say what belonged to me—Munir’s mouth, my luminous skin color, a setting sun, the shady place we were in, I could never tell anyone.
My mother made me sleep in moonlight to improve my dark complexion. She laid out a folding bed, tied the ends of a mosquito net to the four columns in the patio and instructed me to pull the blanket only when it got unbearably cold. “Allow the light to get absorbed, let it make you fairer,” she said. I fell asleep to the bright button of moon rising and falling, its dye whitewashing the world and filling my nose with mucus. In the mornings, my mother inspected my skin, a grim resignation growing in her eyes. During the bath hour, she rubbed my body with a paste of wheat fiber mixed with honey and sandalwood. My limbs and torso rippled like a sea floor with bumps. Red and blue. Bruises, cuts-bright and raw, eventually swallowed by a darker, healing layer. “No one likes a sanwalee girl,” my mother hissed, “No one,” and scrubbed harder every subsequent time. “But what about Munir who follows me after school all the way to home?” I asked. “Munir isn’t yours, he’s engaged to your cousin Razia,” she yelled, and emptied a bucket full of water on my head.
Late at nights, I imagined Munir, walking behind me, his hands in his pocket, a light bulge growing between his legs. I touched myself thinking of him, his sparse, brown beard tickling my torso as he ate my tanned pigments, foamed them out of his mouth, a pale liquid skin.
“Will you take some pictures for me?” Razia texted. “Now,” she insisted.
In our ancestral home, I found Razia sitting at the dressing table, gazing into the circular mirror that leaned against the wall. Her bangs curled, her cheeks, her neck, glossy, pale like plastic Barbie’s. “Just what you see in the mirror,” she instructed and handed her phone to me.
After I finished, she pulled the muslin over the mirror. “The cloth protects the beauty of my reflection,” she said.
“Dead spirits and jealous girls,” she replied. I stood, watching her face, and then picked up a box of Jolen cream bleach from the dresser.
“You can have it,” Razia said as she cropped what it seemed like the edges of my dark fingers from the photos.
I wore low cut blouses, short skirts. I smiled at Munir. The days of sleeping in moonlight and scrubbing were gone. All my mother did now was consult a local matchmaker.
Optimistic, I followed the instructions to bleach my skin as if it were the solution to my life’s problem in a grey square box. I let it sit, fume my temples and nose-a thousand needles plucking my dark. Then with a soft, butter knife I scraped the white paste and emerged bronze.
After class, Munir and I walked to an abandoned train car. He unbuttoned my blouse, ran his fingers over my arms. I looked past his lush hair, past the square window, an old platform, the city’s name graffitied, unrecognizable. He sucked my mouth and the little veins on his forehead pulsed; the grotesque, cobwebbed ceiling above us like a veiled belly. In that moment who was to say what belonged to me—Munir’s mouth, my luminous skin color, a setting sun, the shady place we were in, I could never tell anyone. I wondered if my hunger was sanwalee too. A carnivorous flower, with a gleaming throat. In the distance, a train whistled, the vibration approaching. I cupped my palms over his ears so all he could hear were our moans boomeranging off the walls of the coach, all we were—mirrors protecting the reflection of each other’s body, our mouths open to swallow whatever we could sink our teeth into.
The day Munir and Razia got married, I danced the night with Munir’s friend, Rashid. He brought ice cream, and a coke mixed with vodka. The music was loud. Everybody letting go. “Sweetheart,” he said, and led me away from the dance floor. Watching us leave, Munir shifted uncomfortably at the celebratory table while Razia waved at us, threw kisses. Behind the bushes, we set the glasses and the night, threading each other’s words in our saliva. Rashid pulled up my ghaghra, dug my hole and made it a river. The air became slicker, warmer, the crickets stiller. He pressed his nails on my back, unbuttoned my blouse and bit my nipples, little drops of blood pooling, settling. It felt better than when my mother scrubbed my skin in hope of something it could never be. I imagined her walking in the party with a bowl of desert and an untouched spoon, looking for me to introduce to dark-skinned, bachelor boys. The moonlight peaked and fell over my naked body, glowed it like whipped coffee. “You look exotic,” Rashid said, his tongue, a thirsty leech on my sweaty neck, my hot cheeks. “IknowIknowIknow,” I said, and held his light-skinned face, bit his lip. He let out a sharp scream. “Sorry,” I whispered, “shh, shh,” and kept licking it, nibbling it, until it no longer bled, until it was just a stain.