In her dream, Meena is drowning. It’s always the same dream—her kicking and floundering, fighting the swirling current, gasping for breath as she breaks the surface. Then she is dragged down again, always back down, down where the water is dark, where serrated teeth gnash at her flesh until she has been consumed and only her bones remain. Even in repeated drowning and death, there is no escape for Meena, and she feels each layer of collagen and calcium sanded away by the scales of deep sea creatures who brush by, brush her off, brush past in their singular fishy pursuits. She is inconsequential to them, barely a tickle on the underbelly of monsters that never sleep. Right before she wakes, or sometimes as she is waking, whatever is left of her disintegrates into salt.
The man in the Lacoste polo buys Meena another drink. He smells like cologne and beer and is resting his hand on her bare leg. They are not the only ones doing this dance; all around them, the other animals also puff out their feathers, plumage on full display, laughing with bared teeth.
He leans in and yells in her ear, “You know, you look like that girl Priya from that show, you know with the nerdy guys?”
Meena shakes her head. What show? Who is Priya?
“You’ve never seen it?” He is incredulous. “You have to come back to my place and watch it. It’s fucking hilarious.”
He paws at her relentlessly in the cab, half undresses her in the elevator, fucks her on the floor of his condo with his shoes still on. “You’re so hot,” he says, panting as he pounds away at her, as one might pound a flank steak to soften it. Meena fakes an orgasm at the appropriate time, flopping beneath him, shaping her mouth into something suggesting either ecstasy or fear. She wishes she could be tenderized so easily.
Riding the streetcar later that night, Meena Googles “Priya” on her phone and discovers that Priya is both the Sanskrit word for “beloved” and a character on a popular TV show who, aside from also being a woman of Indian descent, looks nothing like her at all. Meena drops her phone into her bag and breathes in the wet air. Even in the rain, the city is teeming, bursting at the seams, as multi-coloured bodies spill from the bars onto the street, cabs converging on every corner to carry them home. This is not some backwater hole where she is mocked and gawked at for where her skin is altered by ink, for how she chooses to feed her desire, for her body, for her name. There are so many boxes open to her now—that’s why she came here after all—but despite all the swipe-rights and semicolon-right-brackets, she has not been able to reconfigure herself in a way that fits. Not yet.
Meena closes her eyes and wonders if our names imprint our lives with a certain inevitability, if we all become what we are called in the end.
In her dream, Meena is drowning. She paddles and treads and opens her mouth to wail at the sky, but water rushes in and fills her lungs so that she sinks down, all the way down, again. She snaps with her toothless gums at the creatures who try to eat her, tries in vain to preserve the meat on her bones. They nibble away (with typical fishy indifference) on the fleshy pads of her fingers, slurp out her eyes with barbed tongues, and when there is not enough left of her to make a decent meal, they move on, seeking out fresher fare. She withers and rots, the fragments that used to form a woman eventually washing up on a picturesque shore, to be shovelled into globes and jars and bottles, a permanent piece of kitsch on a teenage girl’s bedside table.
In her disjointed voice, she whispers, “Let me out. I don’t belong here.”
But the girls never see the crystal ball hidden in their cheap souvenirs, and from where they lie sleeping, everything sounds the same.
Meena meets the woman with too-big glasses at the corner of Spadina and College. They are often waiting for the same streetcar and she has attempted flirtation enough times to make her interest clear. One day, Meena decides to take the bait. She becomes this woman’s girlfriend. She cooks her dinner and eats dinners cooked by her, celebrates Diwali with her family, watches Bollywood movies with her and, afterwards, lies stripped and spread open in her bed. The woman likes to keep things clean and she takes her time taking Meena apart, picking out the sweetest bits, spitting out the bones.
“You’re so different from other brown girls,” she says.
“I sometimes feel like I don’t belong here,” Meena says. “Do you ever feel like that?”
Her girlfriend snorts and replies, “Nobody belongs here. Nobody belongs anywhere.”
She means it as a joke, or perhaps as a comfort, but it only confirms Meena’s suspicion that it’s time to jump ship.
In her dream, Meena is drowning. The boat from which she has jumped is sailing away and the sea is pulling her down, down again to where nothing is in colour because there is no light. Her body thrashes and flails even as her mind goes blank and quiet. It accepted the inevitable long before her panicked limbs must do the same. Then, all at once, she is swept up, along with hundreds of others like her, naked and netted, screaming as they are lifted into the sky. All around her, they wriggle and gasp, their eyes bulging, their slick bodies glistening in death. The air kills them even as it keeps her alive. She claws through layers of clammy skin, tears out handfuls of hair, carelessly, remorselessly, until she reaches the top of the pile.
“Let me out!” she calls down to the fishermen. “I don’t belong here!”
But the men never hear her voice, and from where they are standing, everything smells the same.
Meena wakes, not disintegrating this time, but simmering. Buttered and battered, she is all tender flesh falling apart, each morsel melting softly on the tip of her eater’s tongue. She reaches with her hands and finds a head between her legs, the wet now pouring from within her, filling the man’s mouth, dripping from his bearded chin. His fingers are slippery from handling her and his teeth flash white when he smiles, a brief warning before she is impaled.
“You’re mine,” he says.
She remembers that she read somewhere a French expression for orgasm is “la petite mort” and now, with this iridescent man stretched out on top of her, she wants it to be true. She doesn’t want to die alone in a net or in a jar, trapped in her bones, screaming without making a sound. Better to die here than in a dream, she thinks. Better to die once than over and over again.
They take the streetcar together, he on his way to work, she just along for the ride. They push to the back where there are still empty seats and sit together, necessarily close but not touching, the memory of earlier intimacies filling in the spaces between them.
“Hey, what does your name mean?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” Meena lies. “What does your name mean?”
“I guess it’s the name of a river or something. But originally, I think it just means ‘the sea.’”
Meena looks around and realizes that of the people around them, his is the only white face. In this small herd at the back of the Spadina streetcar, he is the only one not in colour.
“Do you ever feel like you don’t belong here?” she asks him.
He looks up from his phone. “Yeah, but I think everyone feels like that.” The streetcar lurches to a halt at a busy intersection and the people shift and shuffle around each other as the doors open. He pulls the wire for the next stop and stands up. “Everyone belongs somewhere, Meena,” he says.
She watches him descend onto the street, weaving between the umbrellas and the backpacks, until he is swallowed up by a city that is hungry and wet.
She texts him, I looked it up. Meena means fish. Maybe we belong together 😉
Later, when she lies down alone in her bed, after he has sent the awkward joke about having too many fish to fry right now, as she comes to understand that she will not see this man again, she still harbours the hope that she will dream of him: an expanse of white and blue and blonde that she could have called home.
It doesn’t matter, she thinks, imagining the golden babies they will never make, tasting salt on her cheek. He’ll be extinct soon.
Meena pushes through the crowd, leading her pack in a line behind her, until they claim a circle of dance floor and begin to move to pounding music, all painted in bright colours, each absorbed in her own pursuits. One of them extends a heart-shaped tab on the tip of a finger and Meena licks it off, letting it dissolve beneath her tongue. Everywhere, there are hands, boats, nets, glass, and she is drowning again. She doesn’t fight it this time, lets the air escape from her collapsing lungs and open mouth in bubbles that go glub glub glub as they rise. Meena closes her eyes, ready to die for the last time.
“You don’t belong here.” The voice of the glitter lip gloss goddess reaches down, down all the way to where Meena is caught in the strangling grasp of a pair of eels, and pulls her to the surface where she can breathe again. Off the floor, out of doors, onto a corner where the lights blur in the rain as the streetcars glide past—here is where they stop. “You were dying in there,” they say.
There are questions Meena doesn’t know how to ask as they link an onyx arm with hers and meander down the sidewalk, then down the stairs, into an underground space where they peel her clothes away. The strong hands tipped in fuchsia, the long hair that gets hung on a hook, the cock, the caress, the music of anatomy that is discordant and harmonious at once—none of these things matter to Meena as she curls with them into a dark ball that opens and rolls and delights to be caught and thrown and then caught again. Caught and held. Meena is unexpectedly content, but confused. The dream—the death—has been interrupted, an inevitability left unfulfilled. She is in uncharted waters now.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
They laugh and there is something new and something ancient in the sound. “Mwani,” they reply. “My mother would try to get poetic about it and tell me it means ‘One Who Feeds the Ocean’ or ‘One Who Blankets the Beach’ but really, it just means seaweed. So sexy, right? She basically called me fish food.”
Meena has to laugh too, tries to make the sounds of her name, tries to explain why Meena wrapped in Mwani is so funny and so right. But she is suddenly so tired, the taste in her mouth so sweet, the sound of the rain so far away.
“It’s okay,” Mwani says, as Meena falls asleep. “You’re safe here.”
In her dream, Meena is swimming, as fish are meant to do. She breathes the water in through her skin as her ancestors have done for a million years. Their fossils guide her through the dark, skirting the teeth and the traps, the piles of bones and the clouds of salt. She swerves from current to current, makes great leaps through cresting waves until she is seen, shakes the monsters from their caves and vibrates until she is heard. She eats until she is full. Meena swims on and finds belonging in the movement, in the spaces in between. Right before she wakes, or sometimes as she is waking, she feels the tickle of a seaweed strand brushing by, brushing lips and inner thighs, brushing her dead scales away until whatever is left of her is left alive.
Anuja Varghese holds a BA from McGill University and is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Toronto. Her work appears in Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Folklore & Fairy Tales and is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review. She is currently a finalist in the Pigeon Pages 2019 Fiction Contest and has been shortlisted for the 2019 Alice Munro Literary Short Story Competition. Anuja can be found on Instagram (@anuja_v) and Twitter (@Anuja_V).