There is an article in this week’s New Paper about convent schools, proposing that all-girl secondary schools turn teenage girls into lesbians. It is front page news. It is baiting readers with a large colour photo of two girls in blue pinafores, faces pixellated, sitting at the bus-stop and cuddling. The word Lesbian is in large, 3-centimetre Arial font, sharp and straight, the way all teenage girls apparently, should be.
I am thirteen. It is the first time I have seen the word lesbian in print. I keep the article underneath the photo albums in the bottom drawer of my desk. I would see the word again three months later in a novel called Ruby, that I borrow from the school library. It is from that book that I also learn the word dyke. Either the selection that came into the library had not been properly vetted, or the librarian knew that a girl like me would read a book like that and slipped it, compassionately, through the cracks.
The tabloid of course had its own ludicrous repercussions within school walls. Girls who sported undercuts were threatened with wigs. Girls caught holding hands or acting intimately would get sent straight to counselling. The resident counselor in fact, took the liberty of making an announcement in front of the whole school during Monday assembly about how we were not going to turn into an institution that produced lesbians.
Of course, not all the girls in school bothered with the new rules.
The day after the counselor recited her ode to homophobia at assembly, which included the perils of girls with hair cut like boys, Alex, two years my senior and perhaps, what some might call the school stud, returned to class with her initials shaved onto the side of her head. We gushed and we gawked and giggled. She wore her disdain for the status quo in the belt that fell upon hips instead of waist; in the silver that ran down one ear; in my adolescent imitation of what has been, till today, an unapologetic contempt for dress codes.
She was toned. And tanned. And walked with a swagger that all of us, at one point or another, either out of jest or admiration, tried to imitate. She taught us that it was ok to have an opinion and to wear it like a medal. She scored three-pointers on the court the same way she scored straight As in class; and she looked as good in her debate uniform, starched and skirty, as she did in the hard denims she wore to town.
I used to think I was in love with her, even though I barely knew her. I now know that what I loved was what she represented. She was someone who taught me, simply by being herself, to be unapologetic about who I was.
But love did come, three years later. I was chairperson of the drama society, which meant that everything was cause for drama. She was captain of the badminton team, which meant that she ran circles around me with perfect poise. This would set the pattern of our relationship over the next 4 years: High emotion, high-drama, two lives once separate, now revolving around each other at breakneck speed.
I had wanted to be an activist, as though it was an actual profession. She wanted to join the UN and work towards ending world hunger. Neither of us would end up doing either of these things but at sixteen, they were as real as undone homework and canteen lunch. I brought her home to meet my mother. Mother called her my ’good friend’.
For months, every day, my house or hers. Bags. Files. Books. Paper. Four pairs of limbs and chalk-white shoes.
Uniform cotton mid-afternoon heat. Pinafore pleats conspiring and crumpled, collar unbuttoned, convent blue from shoulders to knees, caught halfway between ocean and sky, wallet dragging material pocket-down, so that the entire getup was perpetually lopsided.
And that was me, summed up. Sixteen and lopsided. Lopsided hair, lopsided anger, the lopsided smile friends now note to be specifically reserved for women I‘m attracted to.
Lopsided in love, as I have been ever since. Spring diving headfirst with no second thoughts.
And it was the way they always say it is. Every cliché in the book. If she was the sun, I was Icarus in love. If she was the stars, I was a story mapped out. If she was a tornado, I was Dorothy, lifted, house and all, and dumped promptly into a saturated reality not my own. I was outside myself, beside myself, all feeling and no words with which to explain what had just happened. She was an alternate universe and the beginning of language.
In the beginning was the word and the word was god and she was the word. She bade light and the night lifted from my eyes. She bade life and my heart teemed with all manner of things that galloped crawled swam ran howled at the moon. She said up and tongued skies into the roof of my mouth, she said down, and without blinking, drew oceans from my body with the tip of a finger.
She was the word. And then we were the words. Hello. Goodbye. Now. Wait. Please. No. Yes. Don't. Hear. Sshhh. Come. Go. You. Me. Us. Love. Every word was new. Every word had weight. Everything that came from her mouth was something holy I could live on and feast on and pray to until I was whole.
We wrote each other letters. Spoke late into the night. Passed each other notes in class. There was never nothing to say to each other. Even in silence, text re-shaping itself onto our faces and under our skin.
The first time we kissed, words spilled out of mouths and into each other's throats. I choked on them and cried for an hour. Lesbian. I thought of the article at the bottom of my drawer.
Who knew the act of speaking could hurt so much? Could hold in its mouth that one concrete thing that gives weight to the questions you never thought to ask, and shape to the answers you never thought you’d find? Leaving the womb a second time, crying, because that’s what we all do the day we’re born.
And then, words of comfort. Whispered words. Words on palms in the flick of her wrist, behind the lids of her eyes.
On stage, we played various characters, ran amok and annoyed directors. At school debates, we argued on the same team, wore power jackets and black heels. In class we slept on our tables and on the bus, we held hands at the back seat. Head on shoulder, sleep-talk, nicknames, code-words. She was oblivious to the stares and for that, I was glad.
Uniform cotton mid-afternoon heat. Ridding ourselves of bags and shoes. Two of us in my room beneath the planks of my double-decker bed, blue shedding like skin, white undershirts flimsy and translucent. Always, I took off her clothes first. Undid her belt. Pushed pleats above bent knees, ran my hands under her back, lifting her. Only here, us with nothing to say.
The first time I entered her, I found a place inside myself where I no longer needed to speak. She kissed me, exhaled, breathed in so hard I thought she might inhale me whole; lips, teeth, tongue, tonsils, lining of throat. She gave language to a silence I'd not known was even there. She gave language to my body undeveloped. She gave language to me, still teething on amorphous ideas about love, desire, longing and sex.
When she got married years later, her sister gave the speech, and gesturing to the bride and groom, announced that each had been the other’s first love. My best friend and I sat hand-in-hand in silence, watching words wipe away in three seconds, what they’d taken years to master.
You never realize how personal notions of history are till yours has been erased.
The day she left, I lay on my bed and looked up at planks that supported the upper deck. Every time she'd stayed over, she'd left me a note written on the wood. Words in coloured markers I could stare at like stars. Text coded, overlapping, hugging edges, incomplete. I wrote my own in a locked diary stashed up in a cupboard beneath the plastic holder of my Monopoly set. Words sitting uncomfortably between miniature houses, paper money and a sign that told me not to pass Go.
I still keep her letters in a box, in the bottom drawer, much like the way I kept that tabloid article about convent school lesbians. Except I do not hide this because I am ashamed. I hide this because I like remembering a time when words meant something. When words were promises and not excuses, truth and not fact, bridges that link one human being to another instead of the walls that keep them apart.