Contest #151 shortlist ⭐️

Ten for you, Twenty-six for me

Submitted into Contest #151 in response to: Write about a character who keeps ending up in the same place.... view prompt

52 comments

Fiction LGBTQ+ Desi


The metro I take to work, the polluted air of Mumbai, the faces I smile at and the faces that don’t smile back— they are stained a coffee-brown. The same color as old pages and medieval fables. The lives lived in abandoned childhood homes. Memories turned cinder. 


The air inside the all-women compartment threatens to asphyxiate me; smoke whisks into oxygen as cigarettes burn against already scorched fingers of these strangely familiar women surrounding me. 


The word crowded has no meaning here. An open seat is rare and silence a chimera. 


The two women across from me wear saris— which were once bright red but are now a notably washed-out maroon— and mismatched bangles. A set of emerald greens with a single silver bangle adorns the taller woman's bony hands. Similarly, the other woman also wears a set of silvers with a lone green bangle. I wonder if it was a gift to each other or just an impulsive today thing. Either way, they make a beautiful couple. 


An older lady eyes them before letting out a nasty tch in their direction. They seem to take notice, shift in their seats, whisper nervously amongst themselves, then lean forward to spread their knees apart under the layered cloth of their sari. As if manspreading to exude dominance. I’d call this— this boldness of these middle-aged women, their air of defiance— progress, but we are sitting in an all-women’s compartment, and they did have to imitate men to remind others of their rights. 


I stare out the moving metro from the big window, partly painted off-white by birds, as I core the mango my daughter handed me before I left for work. The inertia of the moving train bleeds into reality and suddenly I’m under the illusion that the window is a theatre screen, the memory of you a movie I must rewatch over and over, the idea of us trapped in the past forever. 


Do you remember those days? Your grandpa had planted that lofty mango tree, our favorite hang-out spot as sixteen-year-olds, in your backyard. And we had nurtured it against May heatwaves and July rainstorms and arid Decembers. In return, its scent of sweet fruit and terpene whiff never fizzled from your home. Like a canopy of orange aroma sheltering us from sniffing the acrid disapproval of the then less forgiving society. 


The last day we saw each other, we’d taken our time climbing the tree. 


Then, once we’d heaved ourselves atop the sturdiest branch, we’d begun bargaining. 


“Fifteen?”


“Pfft,” you’d snickered at my request, apparently absurd to you. 


“Oh, come on.” I’d flailed my arms a couple times in an attempt to seem more distraught than I actually was. “Fifteen’s reasonable.”


“Ten.”


“You’re joking.” This time, I’d only gaped at you— half incredulous and half mesmerized by your amber eyes, the lightest I’d ever seen them, in the sun. Through the dense cover of leaves and fruit and twigs and an occasional bird’s nest, the sunlight had swayed across your adolescent face, sometimes landing on your cheeks a little too long to avoid a rosy tint to them. 


“Dead serious,” you’d answered. “Ten mangoes for you, twenty-five— oh wait, twenty-six— for me.”


“That’s unfair.” At this point, I was genuinely upset. “I picked most mangoes. You couldn’t even manage to climb to where the bigger ones were.”


“Yeah, but this is my tree.”


“It’s my labor.”


“Nine.”


“You’re being mean.”


“Mean?” Oh right. You hated being called mean or rude or selfish, all words your mom called you as a part of her victim complex. But at least that was the worst of your problems. “Mean. Fine. What do you need all these mangoes for? Don’t even have a family to share it with.”


I know you had regretted it as soon as you’d said it because you’d blurted out an I’m so so sorry and an I didn’t mean it all in the same breath. Your jaw had slacked, and nose released from a slimming grip as your attention drifted from your insecurities to concern for me, our friendship, and the one other thing either of us barely ever mentioned. 


I couldn’t tell you then how your words hadn’t hurt me one bit. How I’d expected worse because you were the type to bite back, especially with that short temper of yours.


So, I’d averted my gaze, let my smile sink to a frown, slumped my shoulders. You’d immediately cupped my face with your dainty fingers, a warm palm pressing against my cheeks. That is my clearest memory of you. You’d forced me to look at you: amber eyes with flecks of green and black, a nose that had no curve but descended with a constant slope right from where it began, an inch wide scar South-West of your left eyebrow. You’d cut your hair up to your ears that summer. That is why, every time a woman with hair that short walks by me, I turn to look. Always searching for traces of you in strange faces. 


Some days like today, I bring a photograph of you along, tucked deep in the front folder of my work bag. I fish it out, place it on my lap, and stare. 


The truth is, and I felt bad about this till I learnt to forgive myself, the you I remember looks nothing like the girl in the photograph. Your image in my mind is much more mature, perhaps to make up for the fact that I’ve never met the adult you and probably never will. 


Back then, you’d asked me about us only once: that very day I’d tricked you into consoling me, loving me unknowingly, your hands moving from caressing my face to squeezing my hands. 


“Can we hold hands in school?” 


“What do you mean? We do hold hands in school,” I’d said. Under the desk, in blazer pockets, on the terrace. 


“No.” You’d turned my hands around, palms facing up. Your fingers had traced my palm lines as if you’d find an answer through them. “In front of everyone. On the table. Walking down the corridor. In front of everyone.


“They’ll know.” I’d hesitated, but said it anyway, “They’ll know we like each other.”


You’d looked at me heartbroken— and I was too, believe me— and whispered, “What’s wrong with that?”


I’d chosen to pretend to not have heard it. 


I was too cowardly back then and honestly, if I could go back and make the decision all over again, I’m not too sure I’d be any braver. I was terrified of being buried a scandal, of you being buried a scandal. So, I ran away from us. 


I’m out of time now, at least for today. The metro comes to a stop, and the world outside the window grows dark inside the station. 


I don’t stand till the couple in front of me do. The taller one pokes her hand out from behind her for the shorter girl to grab before they dive into the swarm of people pushing to get into or out of the compartment. Then there are those that are stuck in the middle, stumbling to wherever the current takes them. 


I stalk the petite girl, her hair short enough to be blown in every direction by the hot city air, to the chai stand. Her tote, a quaint margin of blue flowers embroidered years ago, looks like the bag we used to collect the mangoes in. Our little bag of happiness. 


While they order themselves a chai, I drop the photograph of you, sitting on a branch of our mango tree in your basketball shorts and oversized tee, into her tote bag and walk away.


I’m trying to forget you. Trying not to return every day to the memory of a girl I can’t even remember right. My regret sits quiet in me: it doesn’t bubble up to rage or impulsivity or even tears. But it does demand reparation. 


And so, I hope she can give you much more than I could: a bangle for keeps, a hand to hold on to, a bold declaration than a weak reassurance of love. 


I’m sorry that you couldn’t recognize me but do remember me. 


Behind the photograph, you’ll find scribbled the conversation we had every day, our mundane arguments, and silly bargaining: Ten for you, twenty-six for me. 

June 23, 2022 20:20

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52 comments

Michał Przywara
17:14 Jun 25, 2022

This was a great read, a great story about love and regret. And, ultimately moving on. The photo was a source of lovely memories, but it was also an anchor. Like an addiction, it came with a high and a perpetual low. The scenes are well described, and I could see both the crowded train and the fresh, sunny tree. Maybe there's a metaphor in there about rose-tinted memories, since the narrator herself misremembers the girl in the photo. Thanks for sharing!

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Aesha Amin
03:25 Jun 26, 2022

Hi Michał, I love reading your comments. They always give me a sort of confidence that only they can give hehe. Thank you so much for reading!!

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Michał Przywara
16:08 Jul 01, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

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Aesha Amin
20:03 Jul 04, 2022

Thank you so much!!

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Ace Quinnton
18:37 Jun 24, 2022

This story pulled at my heartstrings; in fact, I cried a little. Everything about this is just beautiful. Give yourself a pat on the back for driving me to literal tears because of how magnificent this is. This story is amazing and so are you. Great job!

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Aesha Amin
03:23 Jun 26, 2022

Hi Ace, That’s so sweet of you to say! Thank you so much for reading :))

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13:19 Jun 24, 2022

Aesha, I freaking love this. Wow. Love a good romance, and a melancholy tone like this always gets me. The ending was brilliant - unexpected, emotionally resonant, earnt. Your prose is magical. My favourites were the opening paragraph, the metaphor of the window as a movie screen, and the description of her lover's face. Feedback-wise, as much as I love the opening, I actually agree with previous comments that it might be stronger if you remove the last two sentences. Though it would be a pity because "memories turned cinder" is nice. The ...

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Aesha Amin
03:22 Jun 26, 2022

Hiii I agree with the stuff you said about the opening paragraph. I thought it read a little too dramatic. I’ll just use it in some other story. And thank you so much for reading the story!! Literally cried a little reading your comment <3

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Claire Lindsey
20:56 Jun 23, 2022

Really lovely work! I enjoyed the recurring elements, especially the mangos and how they seemed to tie the story together: memories, the present, and a future that won’t be. A couple small suggestions: Perhaps tweak this sentence, you lost me for a moment : The two women sitting across from me wear once bright red, now notably washed-out maroon, saris and mismatched bangles. Something like - The two women across from me wear saris—which were once bright red but are now a notably washed-out maroon—and mismatched bangles. You’d looked at m...

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Aesha Amin
06:01 Jun 24, 2022

Hi Claire, I'm so happy you liked the story! I was honestly nervous about this one hehe. As for your suggestions, I edited the story according to them as soon as I saw them. Thank you so much!!

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Claire Lindsey
15:57 Jul 01, 2022

WOOHOO!!! Congrats on the shortlist ❤️

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Aesha Amin
16:02 Jul 01, 2022

YAYY right back at ya! (also noticed the name change and I feel like I was let in on a secret lol)

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Claire Lindsey
16:05 Jul 01, 2022

Lol my former pen name was already in use so I slapped my real first name in there 🤣

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H L Mc Quaid
20:37 Jun 23, 2022

Incredibly evocative and moving. Rich characterisations, an overall feeling of loss and regret. As for suggestions, these are really minor. The paragraph describing the two older women on the train, 'wear' is used quite a few times, so there's a chance to mix a new verb. The first paragraph, I wonder if might be stronger without the last 2 sentences ( The lives lived in abandoned childhood homes. Memories turned cinder). This will probably be a controversial suggestion--but I think ending on fables sets up the next paragraph nicely, and th...

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Aesha Amin
06:03 Jun 24, 2022

Hi! You were so right about the repetitive usage (I reread that part and noticed it immediately) of 'wear'. Tweaked it a bit. Let me know how you like it! And thank you so much for reading and also the feedback :))

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H L Mc Quaid
07:49 Jun 24, 2022

Nice! yeah, adorn works well. :)

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Raluca .
16:17 Aug 02, 2022

This was a truly lovely story. Thank you for sharing and keep writing!

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Aesha Amin
03:18 Aug 03, 2022

Hey! Thank you so much :)

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Avery Mossop
03:00 Jul 06, 2022

What a beautiful read! Thanks so much for sharing!

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Aesha Amin
19:01 Jul 06, 2022

Thank you Avery!

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J.C. Lovero
20:28 Jul 04, 2022

Aesha, Finally getting around to reading your lovely story. First off, let me say that your prose is beautiful. Loved the descriptions and turn of phrases throughout. I found myself in awe of some of your beautiful sentences and imagery. Since I'm late to your celebration, I don't have much to offer that hasn't already been said in the comments. Well-deserved shortlist! Notable lines: Beautiful: The inertia of the moving train bleeds into reality and suddenly I’m under the illusion that the window is a theatre screen, the memory of you a...

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Aesha Amin
12:16 Jul 05, 2022

Hi! It means so much that you liked it, especially because I’ve always admired your stories. Thank you so much for reading!!

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Zack Powell
23:37 Jul 02, 2022

It's a shame there's only one winner per contest, because this is amazing, Aesha, and you should feel proud of this. Just know that this is a winning story in its own right. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this. Phenomenal writing all around. I seriously wouldn't change a word. I'm not even sure what else to say. This is honestly one of the strongest Reedsy stories I've read this year. You nailed the honesty, the voice, the emotion, and POV (I find this to be THE trickiest POV where it's first person but addressin...

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Aesha Amin
20:04 Jul 04, 2022

Hi Zack! I feel much more confident in my writing after reading your comment. Thank you so much!!

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Riel Rosehill
06:33 Jul 02, 2022

Aesha! I'm late reading, but wow this was so deserving of the shortlist. Absolutely loved reading this story - every single sentence. Beautifully written and so full of emotions. The characters, the world, the story, everything felt real and I just loved it. Well done!!! 🤩👏

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Aesha Amin
20:04 Jul 04, 2022

Hi Riel! Thank you so much! 🥰❤️

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Kelsey H
05:59 Jul 02, 2022

I love writing like this, a simple plot which contains so much story, of love and loss and regret and friendship as well as touching on wider themes such as discrimination and sexism in society. Also the switch to her speaking as first person to 'you' of the memory worked really well, I feel like that sort of thing can be confusing if not done right but it was always clear what was present/past , I really loved your evocative descriptions they put me right there in the train. Congrats on the shortlist!

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Aesha Amin
20:05 Jul 04, 2022

Heya! Congratulations on the win! And thank you so much for the comment, it means a lot!

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L. E. Scott
05:37 Jul 02, 2022

This is beautiful but so sad.

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Aesha Amin
20:08 Jul 04, 2022

Exactly what I was going for. Thank you!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:33 Jul 01, 2022

Congrats on the well deserved shortlist! 👏

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Aesha Amin
20:06 Jul 04, 2022

Hii Jay! Thank you so much🥰

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Zelda C. Thorne
17:26 Jul 01, 2022

So pleased for your shortlist! This is beautiful. Melancholy, sad, tinged with regret and ultimately letting go at the end. I loved it. Particularly your descriptions. Well done.

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Aesha Amin
20:06 Jul 04, 2022

Hi! Thank you so much! Also, I love your new name ;)

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Zelda C. Thorne
20:34 Jul 04, 2022

Thanks! 😊

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Kevin Broccoli
16:33 Jul 01, 2022

I thought you gave the story such a visceral punch while not sacrificing any of the emotion. The descriptions were stunning and I love the way you utilize memory throughout the piece. Well done.

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Aesha Amin
20:06 Jul 04, 2022

Hi! Thank you so much!

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Suma Jayachandar
15:49 Jul 01, 2022

Aesha, this is simply brilliant! Congratulations!

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Aesha Amin
20:07 Jul 04, 2022

Thank you Suma!

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Shea West
14:31 Jun 28, 2022

What a vibrant love story😍 I loved the crowded train and the flashbacks to the youth and all the regrets rolled into one!

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Aesha Amin
07:42 Jun 29, 2022

Hi Shea, I don’t know if you remember but you were one of the first people I interacted with on Reedsy back in 2020. I remember showing your comment on my first story to my mom and that’s one of the main reasons she’s been so supportive of me wanting to write (like agreeing to let me minor in writing and such). I couldn’t be more grateful for your encouragement. Thank you so much and I hope we never stop talking hehe. ❤️❤️

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Seán Mc Nicholl
14:08 Jun 28, 2022

Wow Aesha, that was beautiful, well done! A very mature and heart rendering ending. So beautifully written with wonderful imagery. Loved it!

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Aesha Amin
07:43 Jun 29, 2022

Hi Seán! Your comments always make me feel so happy. Thank you for reading :))

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Ava Raim
01:19 Jun 28, 2022

Your opening scene was so evocative and compelling that I felt I was right there in that train compartment.

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Aesha Amin
05:37 Jun 28, 2022

Thank you so much Ava! I tried to keep the opening interesting enough for people to stick around for the rest of the story so I’m happy it worked :))

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L.C. Schäfer
11:24 Jun 27, 2022

I think this is my favourite story I've read on here so far. It's so vivid. Thank you for sharing it.

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Aesha Amin
05:38 Jun 28, 2022

Wait that’s so sweet omg. Thank you so much!!

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