By Divya Manikandan

“I’ve never seen them shut like this,” Meena said, bending her head away from the scorching Indian sun. Her forehead burrowed into a frown as she twisted her sandals into the gravel. A small pebble entered her chappal and she pressed down on it.

“I didn’t even know they could close,” Sid replied. He examined the gate up and down, hand holding his visor to prevent it from falling.

“Do we even know anyone who still lives here?” Gayatri asked. She stood a few feet behind Sid, scrolling through the contacts on her phone.

No one answered her. They were all turned toward the looming, rusted gates of the apartment complex that stood before them, engrossed in its dull shade of brown. Like the color of a policewala’s uniform, its paint was stained with the pollution of years past. Splotches of black moss and rain dust seeped down the front like a wet paintbrush left dripping on a dusty canvas.

From behind the gates, the four faces quietly scanned the edifice for a balcony that was once theirs. Were there chairs? Strewn dolls that left a trace of who lived there now? Were pencil markings of their own heights still crystallized on the walls? Meena could see tape wound around the railings on the third-floor left verandah from when Appa had baby-proofed the house before her birth. Like the building’s bad paint job and popcorn pattern, the tape too had survived the many families that had moved in and out after she had. She could feel their fingerprints on that railing, layered almost too heavily on top of hers.

“It feels wrong,” Jaya said finally, breaking the silence.

They all turned to look at her. She stood a few feet behind, at the end of the driveway, regarding the gate for signs of hostility.

Sid turned around and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, admit it. It feels weird. Being back here,” she looked back at him for several moments. “With the gates closed and everything. I mean, these things have never been shut. We’d walk in and out of them without even thinking about it and now — ”

“It feels like we’re trespassing,” Meena finished solemnly. 

“Thank you!” Jaya exclaimed.

“Well, it’s not trespassing if we used to live here,” Gayatri searched their faces. “Right?”

Jaya shrugged and squatted on a rock by the side of the driveway leading up to the gates.

“Okay, well, I don’t recognize any names on the mailbox either,” Gayatri said, putting her phone away. “But we’ve come this far, it also feels wrong to just… leave.”

“And yet, it feels weird to stay,” added Meena after a pause.


Meena was eight when her mother came back from London with the heels. The lavender mules with chunky bottoms. Gayatri, Jaya, Sid, and she were playing house on the balcony when the taxi floated through the gates. Jaya was the mother, Sid the father, and Meena and Gayatri were their daughters. Twins, naturally. Jaya was boiling imaginary milk for evening tea in the corner when the car drove in. Meena’s mother emerged, in the same creased brown loafers that they all remembered as being staple on her feet. She looked up at the balcony. “Hi, guys,” she smiled as she pulled her suitcases out of the trunk. “Amma,” Meena yelled down three floors, jumping on the railing, “Jaya is making tea! Come up, you can have some!”

The fantasy house of the balcony was soon abandoned, with tea left boiling on the fictitious stove. Unpacking suitcases was a far more exciting enterprise, for from it emerged case after case of Gulyian chocolate shells, stationery boxes, glitter gel pens, pink dresses, and plush toys with soft hair that you could brush. Four anticipatory faces poured over the overseas delights that swallowed them whole on the floor, one after the other, tossing away plastic packaging behind them. Technically, they were all Meena’s possessions, but in a way every item belonged to them all. Like how Sid’s toy stethoscope spent more time around Jaya’s neck than in his bedroom, and how Gayatri made more necklaces from Meena’s bead collection than Meena herself.

“Okay, are you ready for the most important thing?” Amma teased.

Meena’s eyes widened. Gayatri shifted her weight to her right leg, pulling her body closer to Meena. Amma unzipped the bottom compartment of her suitcase, pulled out the purple heels and placed them on the ground. They made a soft ‘cluck’ against the mosaic tiling. The front strap of the sandal was bedazzled with shiny white stones. To Meena, they were diamonds. The back was open, allowing the foot to caress the air before it slapped the elevated sole. The heel, though much shorter than anything she would wear now, was an elevator in the moment. A levitating machine whose half inch rise made her feel six feet tall.

“Lucky bug,” Gayatri moaned, “My parents say I won’t get even small heels till I’m ten or eleven.” She held the heels in the palms of her little hands and looked at them admiringly.

“There are two heels,” Meena replied slowly. The patchwork of memories built out of things her mother had recounted after the fact reminded her that this is what she had said.

“Can you wear them and show us?” Gayatri looked up at her.

“No. There are two heels,” Meena repeated. “You take one, I take one.”

Gayatri smiled and slid one shoe onto her left foot– the pink of her toes popping out from underneath the band, leaving a space between her heel and the end of the shoe. Meena slipped her right leg into the other half of the pair and stood as tall as she could on the balls of her left feet. Gayatri did the same with her right, clasping Meena’s hand to stay balanced. 

“Ready?” Meena asked, as she wound her tiny fingers around her friend’s. Gayatri giggled as they turned around and limped out into the hallway together, one’s heeled foot in front of the other’s. 


“We should climb,” Sid said suddenly, “I can’t stare at this gate anymore.”

“Veto,” Jaya hurried.

“What would you like to do then? Just stand and stare?” he asked. “We’ve been here for like thirty minutes.”

“Well I can’t climb that thing either. It’s rusted,” Meena said, looking at both of them with a frown. 

“Why’d we come here then?” asked Sid.

The girls were silent.

“I know you were looking at the balconies too,” he said after a pause. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to go see who lives there now?” He looked at Jaya, then Meena, then Gayatri. It was the order in which he had always looked at them.

“I just don’t want to get into any trouble,” Jaya replied.

“You see the car shed?” he pointed at the green aluminum grating inside the compound. “We used to climb it every day. Jaya, you did like half your homework on top of that thing. The well in the back? We climbed that too. The trees behind building three, the swings by Popo’s house, the water tank ladder on the terrace. All we did was climb. So why not this gate?” he said urgently.

“Sid,” Jaya cautioned, “I just don’t think climbing is a good idea.”

“Why not,” he didn’t ask, but stated.

“Look around! There’s no one here, what are we going to do even if we do go in?! What if no one lives here anymore?”

“I would also like to add that I’m wearing a skirt,” Meena added sheepishly. Gayatri grinned with her. He scanned them in his order again. The girls were not the same people as when Sid had seen them last.  Jaya had earrings that dotted up her entire earlobe, and she wore her clothes tight, like cling film, he thought. Meena wore thick eyeliner now. Gayatri enjoyed the company of clips that tugged her hair in different directions, defying gravity and in his view, style. He didn’t know where to look with her, so he looked away. 

He took a deep breath and looked up at Meena’s balcony. The night her mother came back from London lived in his head too. The girls had run inside when she entered and poured over the suitcases in search of some holy grail. The procession of dolls and frocks flowing out of the bags bored him. Playing house was as far as he would go. And he would go there often enough. A necessary sacrifice, he considered it. 

“Coloring pens for you Sid,” Meena’s mother had said, as Gayatri and her daughter walked off in their one-heel-a-girl getup. She always bought him small things when she went abroad. They were never big, like for the girls. They were important, but limited in their physical size. Kind of like him, he always thought.

For a long time, there were no boundaries between them. After school, they would all change out of their uniforms together. Bodies were just fun things to tickle when they were devoid of clothes. On weekends, they would all sometimes cuddle up in the same bed, waking up with one’s head on another’s chest, no lines in the way. But Amma’s trips and the little souvenirs she brought back for them were rising bollards that began locking Sid away on the other side. The heels that Gayatri and Meena wore soon began to replace the sneakers they would all play around in, and eventually their pinafores at school contrasted the shorts and shirts they once all wore together. In a year, everyone had to change in their own houses, and come out once they were fully dressed. Another year later, no sleepovers in the same bed. The girls later had to move schools– to one with only other girls in it. And in a few years, Jaya began staying indoors for a week every month. The heels were the end of everything.

“Okay, so are any of you going to tell me what this is about?” Sid asked. He squatted on the ground before the gate. “There’s a reason you guys don’t want to go in and I want to know what it is.”

“Sid, the gate is closed,” Meena said laughing.

“The gate is not the issue here and you know it.”

The girls looked back at him in silence again.

“Oh, come on!” Sid begged frustratedly.

“Well… I don’t know about all of you” Jaya said after a long pause, “but I’m kind of scared to go in.”

“Scared of what?” Sid asked, looking up at her.

She hesitated for a second. Was she scared to go in or did she just want to escape the heat?

“Just say it!” Sid pushed.

“I don’t know Sid!” she snapped. “We came, we saw. What’s the big deal? Let’s get ice cream at the shopping center and call it a day.”

“There’s something you want to say and you’re not saying it,” Sid said.

Meena and Gayatri glanced nervously at each other.

“I just don’t understand what the fuss is! The doors are quite literally closed on this chapter of our lives. Why are we trying to force them open? Let’s just relax and have a good time together now,” Jaya replied.

Sid frowned. “Jaya! That’s a little bleak,” Gayatri laughed. “It’s a gate. Not a metaphor for some dead childhood.”

“Yeah Jay, I’m not sure it’s as big of a deal as you’re making it out to be,” said Meena, resting her head on Gayatri’s shoulder.

“But having said that we’re gross and sweaty, so I don’t mind the ice cream,” Gayatri said, shrugging out her shoulders from Meena’s arm, causing her to lose balance and trip on the gravel. Gayatri laughed hysterically, as a fallen Meena tumbled over and screamed a string of profanities as she rolled.

“Did either of you ever grow up?” Jaya asked over their laughter. But Meena and Gayatri couldn’t hear her over their squealing pitches.

“Seriously guys? You’re going to do this right now?” she asked again, putting her hands on her waist.

Meena’s language got worse and Gayatri began howling even louder.

Jaya closed her eyes and inhaled audibly. When they first walked toward the complex an hour ago, the first place she had looked was Meena’s balcony. The second was Gayatri’s. How many hours had she spent wondering how easy her life would have been if she had lived up there with them instead of on the bottom floor, isolated? Meena and Gayatri ran across their hallway, one foot always in the other’s open door. The same cricket match on both TVs; pizza always ordered on the same nights; no curfew to come back home when home was ten feet away. Two floors of distance on the other hand, may not have seemed like much to people that weren’t Jaya, but to her, it was all that stood between friend and soul sister.

The day they got the heels– the purple ones that they shared and trotted around in across the complex as everyone stopped to take pictures of the cute best friends– was the day that Jaya’s grandmother had died. She didn’t tell anyone. No one asked. When Meena moved to Canada for a year, Gayatri’s grandmother had knit her a sweater and helped her draw a card with the words “I MISS YOU” embroidered onto the front. When Gayatri had caught a splinter on her thumb, Meena’s grandmother had pulled it out with a safety pin and kissed the laceration to make the pain go away. But the lavender shoes with the ugly stones on the front had taken precedence over Jaya’s life that day. She had fought with her parents to be let out so that she may spend time with her friends instead of mourning in the house like she was supposed to. She had realized a long time ago that she couldn’t be a third in their duo, but if she just made herself present, witnessed moments that Meena and Gayatri so effortlessly created with each other, at least they wouldn’t make memories without her.

                                                                                   ** *          
“Okay can we dial the laugh back please!” Jaya repeated. Louder this time, so they heard. Their laughs fizzled out.

“Jay,” Gayatri sighed, “you’ve got to loosen up! We’re all here now, aren’t we? And it doesn’t matter if we go in or stay out here and laugh. We’re back together. The squad!” she said, putting one arm around Meena and extending the other for Jaya to join. Meena smiled and rolled her eyes, letting herself be pulled in.

Jaya stayed put across from them.

“ ‘The squad.’ Really?” said Sid, one eyebrow raised high.

“Yes Siddy, the squad….” she said matter-of-factly, walking towards him. “Guys, we grew up. We moved out and moved on with our lives. But we’re seeing each other after seven years today and look, we’ve picked up right where we left off!” she smiled.

“Really? And where did we leave off?” Jaya asked awkwardly. “Because nothing, literally nothing, is the same. We can’t even get into our old home! And we’re standing here, pretending that we’re what… the same eight-year-olds who used to run around here together? Maybe the closed gate is telling us something. We are not welcome here anymore.”

“Jaya, can you stop being dramatic for like one minute! Please?” said Gayatri. “Inside the gate, outside the gate. What is the big deal?”

“Gayatri, watch it,” said Sid from his seat on the ground.

“Say that to her!” she said flustered, “I organized this reunion so we could take a trip down memory lane or whatever, and all Jaya has been doing is complaining!”

“Gayatri, you should stop. Right now,” said Sid sternly, getting up and dusting his pants off. She scowled back at him. His voice had turned deep in a way she didn’t know it could.

Gayatri glared at him from the top of her glasses as he walked over and stood next to Jaya to comfort her. It was a gesture he would never have made for Gayatri. Yelling, disciplining, telling her what to do, that’s all she had ever gotten from him. The way he would make her drink all her milk when they were four or tell her that she should go home if she was going to cry when she lost a game of Piranha. He was taller and stronger now, but he was still the same boy from the day Meena’s mother had brought back the heels from London. The ones in the framed picture on her desk, with Meena’s foot in one heel and hers in the other. They were holding their hands in front of their bodies, but you couldn’t see either of their faces – their heads were thrown so far back laughing. As Sid, Gayatri, and Jaya had walked back to their apartments that night, Gayatri still holding onto the singular shoe Meena had given her, Sid had pulled her aside in the hallway before heading downstairs. “You know you have to return that tomorrow, right? It’s Meena’s not yours,” he had said sternly.

“She gave it to me! We’re best friends, we share everything.”

“You say that because you want what she has. Because your parents won’t buy it for you. Meena is being nice, but you can’t always take what is hers.”

“They’re not your shoes. They’re Meena’s. She can decide what she wants to do with them,” Gayatri had reasoned.

He had grabbed her arm, just above the elbow. “You should give them back.” He maintained her gaze for a moment and then sprinted down the stairs. As he turned the corner to enter his apartment, Gayatri had leaned over the railing and stared at Sid much as she was staring at him now. Even when he was smaller than her, he was somehow better. 

In the picture frame on her desk there was a folded part of the photo paper that she had tucked away behind the cardboard. A part that she didn’t like looking at and didn’t care for the world to see either. It was Sid, standing beside her and Meena, smiling with his crooked white teeth, blissfully unaware of the effect his words would have on her. He never knew. And she always did as he told her to. A week after the picture was taken, she had returned the shoes. She had wanted Sid to think that she was a good person. She still did. Maybe that was the reason then, that even after these seven years, her first love had continued to haunt her.


“Maybe we should all go back,” Meena said suddenly. Jaya looked up with her red eyes and nodded softly.

“But we came all the way here already,” whined Gayatri. “I don’t want to leave yet.”

“The gate is closed, Guy. It’s not worth it.”

“What do you mean it’s not worth it? So many years of our lives are in that building. That’s important to me. All we have left is pictures.”

“I know what Meena means,” said Jaya quietly. “These gates were open for different people. And becoming them again just to open these gates isn’t good either.”

“Life isn’t always some big metaphor Jaya!”

“Hey!” said Meena quickly, “We have the building. We have the four of us. Guy, if all we have are pictures, I say we take a new one for the pile.” She ran over to the rock she had been sitting on and kicked it to the center of the driveway. She rested her phone against it and opened her camera. Behind her Sid had already crossed his bare legs on the ground by the gate. Jaya and Gayatri walked over as Meena set the timer for 10 seconds and ran over, falling into all three of their laps.

As she lay horizontally, supported by the three pairs of crossed legs under her, Meena’s camera captured the burst of their laughs and the theatrical “oohs” and “aahs” of Sid’s bones being crushed by her elbow. It caught the laughing groan of Jaya as Meena’s leg flew near her face and Gayatri’s tooth-grinned chokehold of Meena’s neck. And long after the camera stopped clicking its saga, the four friends continued to sit there, pushing Meena off and watching her roll on onto the ground yet again. This time all of them laughed. The conundrum of inside or outside the gate had not been forgotten, but it had been laid to a temporary rest. So they stayed there for several moments, by the rusted gates, leaning on it as they laughed. Eventually, not because Meena’s dusted bottom ceased to be funny, but because they were finally ready to eat, they used the bars of the gate to hoist themselves onto their feet and walk together to the shopping center. Behind them, their rock sat for a long time in the driveway, waiting to be moved. 

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