Sim Bajwa is a sales assistant/admin assistant/writer living in Edinburgh. She graduated from Edinburgh Napier with an MA in Creative Writing in 2016. Her work has previously been featured in Fictionvale Magazine and Helios Quarterly, and will be part of 404 Ink’s upcoming Nasty Women collection. She is currently working on her first fantasy novel and learning to crochet.
From afar, she shimmers. Her sari is pillar-box red, her bangles clink together every time she pushes hair over her shoulder or takes a sip of white wine. From where I’m sitting, her make up is flawless. Smoky eyes and a slick red pout.
She laughs at something my cousin says, and it’s more of a cackle. My mother doesn’t know her, but still shoots her a disapproving scowl.
“Shameless,” she mutters to my aunt. “Look at her. Drinking with the men.”
My aunt shakes her head, taking another bite of her ras malai. “It’s God’s grace that father isn’t here to see this.”
My mother and aunt make tut tutting sounds, shaking their heads again. They’re bold and beautiful, shining as bright as the strange woman they’re grumbling about.
I tap my mother’s arm. She gives me a brief, questioning look, her attention on an aunty on the other side of the table.
“I’m going to the loo,” I mutter.
“Go on, then.” She turns back to the table. “Nanda said she lives alone. London. Moved out when she was a teenager.”
Another aunty joins in. “It’s dangerous to let a girl have that much independence. They don’t like it when you say so, but…”
I leave the chorus of tutting behind me, and manoeuvre past groups of people laughing, drinking, eating, chatting. The hallway and bar outside the reception room is busy, but not as loud. My ears buzz with the sudden absence of pounding, relentless bhangra.
I avoid happy, drunken shouts of “hey!” and “Jas, over here, girl!” and push my way into the restroom. I don’t need to pee. I just need a few minutes alone, away from the noise and the heat of the party. Two girls stand in front of the mirror, fixing their hair. They ignore me as I escape into a stall. I lower the lid and sit, letting out a silent sigh as I tug off my painful heels. The girls whisper loud enough for me to hear.
“So they’re waiting outside?”
“They will be. Jake says they’re ten minutes away.”
“What about your parents?”
“I told them I was going home with you.”
“Alright. Okay. As long as my dad doesn’t find out.”
“Can you pass my phone?”
A pause and then, “Your dad won’t know. It’s fine.”
“Okay. But – ”
Her friend laughed. “It’s going to be fine!”
I hear the door open. The girls fall silent. A few seconds later, they leave. Their voices fade as they move away.
When the stall next to mine locks shut, I get up, determined to leave before having to make awkward small talk. I wash my hands, letting cold water run over them until my skin is numb, putting off entering the hall again. The thought is exhausting.
People will start dancing soon after they’ve eaten. I’ve been to enough weddings to know that if I don’t join in, I’ll be dragged from my seat and made to bob awkwardly on the dancefloor. But I’ll draw more attention sitting alone watching, than in the middle of the revelry.
I still as the stall door opens and the woman comes out. The vivid, loud one. I meet her eyes in the mirror.
“Is it okay from the back?” she asks me. She turns away, and looks at me from over her shoulder.
“My sari.” She gives me a warm smile. “It’s not messed up at the back, is it?”
The red silk falls perfectly over her curves. The sleeveless blouse is short and tight with metallic gold stitching, the hem barely an inch below her breasts. I shake my head, and immediately feel shy, knitting my fingers.
“I like your suit,” she says, as she focuses the mirror.
“Oh.” I touch the sequins sewn into the embroidery on the side of my blue kurta. It’s not as heavy as the suit my mother wanted me to wear, but it’s still pretty. “Thank you. I like your lipstick.”
She beams at me and reaches into her beaded clutch. She pulls out a tube of red lipstick.
“You can use it if you like.”
She leaves it on the counter and peers at her reflection. She stretches her mouth wide, and with a long, green nail, traces her lip line, scratching away where her lipstick has bled.
Then she turns her face to the side, then the other side, her gaze assessing. Her nose ring and bindi glint in the unforgiving white lights. She raises an eyebrow.
“No to the lipstick?”
I startle, embarrassed to be caught staring. “I…um, I don’t think so.”
She shrugs. “Okay, then.”
She drops it in her purse and then bends at the waist, letting the ends of her long hair hang inches from the floor. She pushes her fingers into the mass and fluffs it. When she straightens, her hair is in voluminous waves, sexily rumpled. She nods at her reflection.
I’m fascinated. I’ve never done that.
She shoots me a grin, sharp and brilliant. “Well, I’ll see you out there, yeah?”
I nod and give her a small smile. There’s a strange, wondering feeling in my chest as she leaves.
Shameless, my mother had said.
Real, I think. Real and herself.
I follow her out of the restroom and watch her make her way down the hallway. Her hips move with more grace than mine, and she doesn’t squeeze by groups of people like I do, making herself as small as she can. She takes up space. She just touches their elbows and smiles, and they move.
She moves them out of the way.
“Slag.” The ugly word comes from a boy leaning on the wall by my side. He smirks at his friend. “Fucking slag, innit.”
I glance back where the woman disappeared. I think about her easy, generous warmth.
I step to the side, and dig my sharp heel into his foot, letting all my weight fall on it. I widen my eyes at him in mock surprise as he gasps in pain, his hands fluttering close to my hips but not touching. He knows he can’t touch me here, not in front of everyone.
“Sorry,” I offer flatly, as I step away.
I hold myself straighter as I walk through the crowd. The instinct to hunch is still there, but I don’t let myself.
Maybe I can be a little shameless too.