This piece is written by Nicole Pereira, one of Spicy’s Guest Contributors. Nicole is a writer telling stories about culture, identity, and connections between people. Illustration courtesy of Deval Mistry.
In the orange heat of the Asian sun, uniformed girls line up in a courtyard to listen to the afternoon announcements. If you watched from above, you wouldn’t see much that excited you. Little people with dark heads and crisp white dresses would be dotted across a dusty, grassless ground. If you looked a little closer, you’d find that uniformity didn’t actually exist amongst these girls. Some of them had pressed skirts and carefully plaited hair, while others had bobby pins desperately clinging to their heads.
If you’re perceptive, you might notice a dark excitement moving through the girls like a current. You’d find me—greasy after an afternoon outside—watching a straight-faced nun walk up to the podium.
The nun’s voice travels lazily through the heat and reaches her audience as a quiet murmur. This doesn’t matter, because the girls didn’t assemble in the courtyard to hear about changes to the bell schedule, but to learn the deepest, darkest secrets of their peers. Teachers shoo and shush as the whispers begin but eventually stop paying attention to the stirring. They throw the free ends of their saris over their shoulders and fan themselves with loose papers from their handbags. Now, with grown-up eyes averted, real movement begins.
The older girls knew everything about everyone that went to this all-girls Catholic school and the vibrations always began where they stood. Everyone turned towards them like sunflowers towards the sun, eager to hear gory details being passed down ear-to-ear-to-ear-to-ear. Loud whispers traveled towards us like a wave and when it broke over Shan, her eyes widened and my heart started to race.
“Tell me!” I whispered.
“Okay, come here.”
She cupped my ear and said words I had never heard before.
“Dhasha is a lesbian.”
I needed clarification.
“A lesBEAN?” I asked.
“No a LESBIAN. It means she likes girls.”
“So? I like girls!”
“No, she like likes girls.”
Shan’s face wrinkled. “But don’t tell anyone,” she said, “It’s a secret.”
“Oh,” I said, watching the wave move past me.
When the last girl knew the secret, everything quietened, and the girls made their way back to class. If you looked from above, you’d notice all the black dots emptying out of the courtyard except for one that stayed silent and unmoving on the grassless ground.
I don’t remember knowing Dhasha well, but I remember the tight, dark curls pasted onto her head. I remember she was quiet, even before the secret was out. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t that good of a secret, anyway. If I knew the girl she liked, then it would be interesting.
But I couldn’t, because something like that can only be whispered. Nobody told me but I knew. I think she knew too.
The next day, we were back in line for the announcements. Everything would look just like yesterday: snickering girls, shushing adults, and me—greasy after an afternoon outside. But this time, when the wave came, I went under. I didn’t hear the laughing girls, the traveling news, or the announcements ending. I was below the water, where it was quiet and dark.
Finally, I could think. Finally, I could say something. That afternoon, under the wave of whispers, I screamed.
DHASHA LIKE LIKES GIRLS. IS THAT OKAY?
I LIKE LIKE GIRLS. AM I OKAY?
Shan grabbed my arm, the sound came screeching back, and I was above the water again. I didn’t know anything about sexuality or spectrums or anything else. I was a little girl with the knowledge that I sometimes liked girls the way I liked boys. I was scared.
“What just happened?” Shan asked.
I told her 12 years later when we were college students. I said I had a secret I had been keeping and when I told her, I was finally able to breathe. The waves stopped pulling me under and I could finally see the sun.