Nonfiction by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja
He is playing Apex Legends. You are curled at the head of the bed, watching the screen with languid half-lidded eyes. In your fevered imagination you are the leopard in repose, panthera pardus kotiya lurking in the depths of the baobab tree overlooking the watering hole. In reality the screen looks to you like an exploded Starbursts bag because you’re halfway to blind without your glasses. The unwashed blanket is aggravating your asthma. You sneak the inhaler out of your backpack while he’s jumping out of an airplane and deposit it next to the bed. He notices and blows up a hostile.
The inhaler is nothing like those cheap candy-hued things you saw in American movies growing up; it’s an oversized white bullet with a scalloped red base, made in Sweden instead of China. Your mother paid thirteen thousand rupees so you could take three of them to America for the spring semester. Neither of you knew then that three inhalers would need to last you a lot longer than a semester. Now your mother doesn’t know when she’ll see you again. She doesn’t know you’re on your last inhaler. She doesn’t know you’ve been sleeping over with your best friend.
You knee-walk off the bed and wear his slippers into the bathroom. The boys in the house have no toilet paper and the way Fox is telling it, neither does anyone else in the state. You rifle through your backpack for the Kleenex which lives there, beside the hand sanitizer, the mask, the toothbrush, the poetry book, and whichever sports bra you took off last weekend and forgot to put in the laundry. This is your go-bag; every Friday for the last six weeks you have put it on your shoulder at sundown and walked into the woods. Summer is coming, so you have a couple of hours with the trees before you need to decide what to do with the dark. The logic is that if you have your go-bag, you can show up at his house; when he asks you to just stay the night, you will be prepared, with Kleenex and your toothbrush and the ability to say yes. So far this has worked. So far you have not wanted to stay in the woods anyway.
He is on the phone with his mother when you climb back into bed. You tuck yourself in to the soundtrack of digital gunfire and lilting Amharic. As far as you can tell, she is scolding him for not having ordered groceries sooner. You don’t think he’s told her you’re staying over either. In all the years you’ve been his friend, you’ve never asked him if she knows your name. By the time he bids her ciao you are halfway into sleep and your phone has joined your inhaler beside the bed. Tonight you have remembered to put it in Airplane mode so that when your own calls come from the other side of the world, it will not ring. You don’t always remember.
The next time you’re conscious he’s getting under the covers; you can tell from the hushed light and the riot of birdsong that it’s nearly dawn. When this started he had to teach you how to be close, because you’d never slept beside anyone after you stopped sleeping beside your mother. You didn’t mind; to you, this room has always worn an ascetic air, a suggestion of mountain monks sleeping side by side on the monastery floor. You turn into his chest; he leans down to tuck your toes into the blanket. Then he pulls it right over your head, like always, because you haven’t got around to telling him that it cuts off your air. When the coughing bursts from your lungs five minutes later, you struggle upright with sleep-addled resignation. He is worried and because there is a pandemic raging, you let him worry. You fumble the cap off the inhaler he hands you, twist the base, breathe deep. He rubs your back and your mouth floods with chemicals you never bothered to research; you hold them behind your souring teeth and wonder if he can feel your spine through your shirt. When he asks if you’re okay you’re not sure what language he uses for the question, but you swallow the water he gives you and nod. He lies back and you lean over his chest to set down the inhaler; in the light that filters through the blinds, you see that it expired a month ago.
Lalini Shanela Ranaraja is a multi-genre writer from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She holds a BA in anthropology and creative writing from Augustana College in Illinois. Her writing has appeared and is forthcoming from ANGLES Magazine, Club Plum Literary Journal, Entropy, Lammergeier, Off Assignment, SAGA Art & Literary Magazine, Sky Island Journal, and Transition. More of her work can be found at http://www.shanelaranaraja.com.
Photo by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash