We met at a party.
The lights were low. A circle of us were playing strip poker in the living room, sprawled out on low couches and stools.
I slowly looked down at my cards.
I was the only one still to lose any of my clothing and I desperately wanted to show off my matching underwear. I looked down again, lifted one corner of my mouth up a millimeter, and went all in.
Someone tapped my shoulder from behind and handed me a Margarita Atwood.
I closed my eyes as I took a slow sip and waited for everyone else to reveal their cards, savouring the tartness of the lime.
By the time I’d opened my eyes, I had lost.
I feigned disappointment while grinning in delight internally. I locked eyes with the gorgeous topless man in front of me as I peeled off my red bodycon dress, inching the fabric over my stomach to reveal my matching red underwear-
Okay, okay -
So that’s not exactly how it happened, did you honestly believe I was wearing matching underwear?
I had come straight from an all-nighter turned into an all-dayer in the library. My rucksack was the most stylish part of my outfit.
But exhaustion and bad decisions go together better than mint choc chip so here I was, at a party with people I barely knew, because my friend Simmi threatened me, and I was terrified of missing out on a single minute of my nine grand a year uni experience.
So it was less of a sophisticated soiree or an American style frat party with red solo cups and beer pong, and more of a surrealist British tea party viewed through VR.
The poker game was actually Exploding Kittens.
We were playing on the slightly sticky kitchen table under fluorescent lighting so bright I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep for days. Everybody had all their clothes on, some people were still wearing their coats.
And as lovely as my fellow players were, I did not lock eyes with anyone across the table. The biggest interaction I had was when someone offered me half their packet of Pom-bears.
After the game ended, I wandered into the living room to find somewhere quieter to rest my head, but a clarinet and viola duo were freestyling over some dubstep on the sofa and a handful of high Arts students were drinking tea and translating Spanish poetry in the corner.
I returned to the kitchen to find five people doing the washing up.
I know it’s not realistic for students to willingly do the washing up at a party, but I’m not making it up, I promise. I was handed an avocado by a stranger and was asked how many minutes I thought it would be before it was ripe.
Forget literary themed cocktails, the drink of choice was a mango and avocado smoothie because that was all that was left in the fridge.
Someone’s mother facetimed from another timezone, and suddenly I became two of the ten hands in the washing up procession.
When I squinted suspiciously at a spatula I could have sworn I’d already washed up, the person to my left confessed they had OCD and needed everything to be washed up twice.
In the spirit of sharing, the person at the start of the chain shouted, “My drag name is Mini Milk!“
The next person along shouted, “I get intrusive thoughts about jumping in front of the tube!”
Somehow it felt like we were all standing on top of a cliff, sending our secrets out into the sea without a care in the world.
Before I could think of something to say, the person to my right shouted, "I'm poly!"
I spun to face him and blurted out, "Ditto!" in return.
We locked eyes, my hands covered in foam and his holding a blender blade and raggedy tea-towel. We batted identities back and forth ('Genderqueer!" "Agender!" "Pan!" "Bi!" “Fred!” “Eleni!”) until all that was left to do was to grin manically at each other.
My heart felt like it was about to burst out of my chest- it had never felt so full before, so whole; it started to fuse together, stitching together pieces I didn’t know were divided.
The best moments in life were always described as fireworks, exploding apart, too big for this world to handle, but this felt small, internal, a secret coming together.
For the first time in my life my brain was quiet, it wasn’t whirring, trying to figure what to hide, what was safe to share, it was just still. I could just be.
Simmi’s cackle broke the peace and all the sounds in the room rushed in again - the whirring of the blender, the faint tones of a clarinet, and a duo debating if almond liqueur was an appropriate substitute for peanut butter.
I didn’t know what she was laughing at, but I didn’t care to find out.
“D’you wanna,” I tilted my head over to the garden door.
My soulmate nodded once, decisively, and handed me the tea towel.
I stumbled out the door - I wasn’t drunk at all, I was just surviving on sleep deprivation and five reduced raspberry jam donuts from Sainsbury’s - and he caught my elbow so I didn’t faceplant into the paving.
His hand was warm, not burning, through my thin hoodie; a nice, comforting toastiness.
I gracelessly flopped onto the grass, pulling my hoodie over head before laying my head down and looking up at the sky. My twin took off his denim jacket and folded it under his head before joining me.
It would have been more romantic if we could point out constellations to each other, but the usual carpet of clouds blanketed the sky, hiding the moon.
“So.” I repeated, “The whole night I kept trying to figure out if you were gay or straight, I guess I should have guessed you were bi.”
“Damn straight. Or not, rather.”
A low chuckle escaped him and a smile formed on my own lips.
The grass was long, some of it poking through my thin cardigan. Why was laying outside on the cold, bumpy ground always romanticised?
“I wouldn’t have guessed you were genderqueer either”, I said.
“Yeah, I’m just too lazy to buy new clothes. Like, the whole point of being genderqueer is to not feel forced into expressing yourself in a certain way but unless I wear a dress, people think I’m just a cis straight man. How is it even possible to look non-binary?”
I tugged my cardigan tighter around my stomach. It took me hours to crochet it the summer just before I came to uni, and it had stayed at the back of my cupboard for the first two terms until I realised I wasn’t fooling anyone trying to be cool.
“Non-binary looks like long short hair, wearing an oversized vintage cotton t-shirt under mum-fit dungarees.”
His laugh was beautiful, ringing out through the garden, loud and not trying to minimise itself.
“You forgot the painted rainbow nails.”
“And rainbow painted nails that are half chipping off because they did them at home and spend too much time fighting the gender binary to redo them.”
The cold was starting to seep into my bones. It was too fucking cold to be outside at night in April. He wriggled around on the grass.
“How are you not freezing cold?”
“I am,” I replied, “I’m just used to pretending that I’m fine.”
I shivered as the wind picked up and rubbed my upper arms.
“Life’s too short to minimise your feelings.”
He stood up and held out a hand to me. It was warm compared to mine but he didn’t complain, squeezing it tight, before tugging me inside.
about the author:
Radhika Rai is a writer, eco activist and data analyst, who lives just outside of London and eats way too much popcorn. They love writing queer short stories that showcase all the vibrant identities and relationships they want to read about but can’t find. When they are not writing you can find them figuring out how to reduce their carbon footprint on IG or tending to their many houseplants.
Their writing social media is here.