My love affair with women started when I learned about the female suicide bombers in Sri Lanka. I was five. It blew my mind that women—the make-upped, dark-eyed beauty queens of Bollywood movies—could be dangerous enough to strap on explosives under the folds of their sarees.
My lover’s scar is crocheted across his chest with baby pink yarn by someone who was just learning. The scar runs through like a tiny mountain range, stretching from armpit to armpit along the line of his pectoral muscles but never syncing with the contours of his body. When the surgeon scooped out the breast tissue, he left my lover’s chest flat.
The scar is pink like his nipples, soft and spongy where it bubbled up from the stitches and healed around them.
Sometimes he’s afraid he’ll catch his nipples on something and rip them off. He has nightmares about being nipple-less.
There are dark spots where his nipples used to be, a sunset gradation of color into the scar. Dark hairs sprout, tall and curly, around the scar line. They weren’t there before the testosterone, but now they grow a forest over his chest and down his stomach.
The outer edges of his scar bulge out in dog-ears, a side effect of having had large breasts.
His lovers, the ones before me, wouldn’t look at his chest. They would turn away, mumble into their coffee, tuck their hair behind their ears. They wouldn’t touch him there, their fingers cringing from the ridges of the scar, their bodies shivering at the absence. He can’t feel his chest anymore. Numbness reaches up from his scar, a vacancy of nerves, hollow when he pushes on the skin. His lungs underneath can discern the pressure, but the message of touch is lost between the skin and his insides.
My mother keeps a leather-bound album of my baby pictures tucked away in the recesses of her closet. These pictures are few, and it took years—decades—to collect them in one volume. Most were lost to late-night flights from our family home in Sri Lanka, where we always kept bags packed. The bags had to be light enough to carry for days, spare enough to unpack and repack at the Army checkpoints. Photo albums were treasured but bulky, and my baby pictures won out over my parents’ wedding album. We were ready to leave as soon as we heard that the battle line was nearing our town.
Now the pictures sleep peacefully in my mother’s closet. I’ve stolen a few photos of my own. I need to remember.
It’s tempting to retell my childhood veiled in virginity, a chaste Hindu girl’s strict upbringing. But it’s a little boy who stands in these pictures, one who was given too much freedom and adored to the point of exhaustion by extended family before they remembered that he would bleed every month.
I had short curly hair and wore boy’s clothes. In beach pictures I wear only my panties. I mourn the loss of that flat chest that allowed me to be rambunctious, wild.
At six years of age my best friend and I pretended to be Americans on vacation at a beach. We walked around in our panties inside locked rooms, windows shut for modesty. We played at being American women—smoking, drinking, kissing—unconstrained by sarees and rules.
To Emily Dickinson: I once met you—but you were dead—
To the middle-aged white lady who pretended to be Emily Dickinson at the library, whom I believed and loved until I told my friends and they made fun of me for not knowing that Emily Dickinson was dead and this lady was a fake: You were too pretty to play the part of a lonely writer. I should’ve known. Even the Americans like their smart women ugly.
The dusty blue linoleum feels warm even though it snows outside. The tip of my nose is cold from the air. I lie against the warm floor, and the heat seeps in through the frilly cotton pajamas my mother made for me. My little brother laughs in the living room; his toddler voice hiccups around the walls as my dad plays with him. My mother types her thesis at the computer.
I am drawing. Today I’m practicing lips, diligently consulting a three-ring binder of tutorials I have printed out from the Internet. I fill my papers with lips like the ones the tutorials demonstrate, the round curves of women’s lips that bite down on secrets and the flat plains of men’s lips that don’t smile.
I am in love with a man who doesn’t believe in God but believes that English majors and hippies are the fussy frou-frou in an otherwise functioning society. He teaches me how to catch and throw a softball, and he buys me fountain pens and leather-bound journals. He tries to train our cat, and when he can’t, he maintains that our cat over-generalizes. He lets me run my hands and lips along his chest scar, asks me to give him testosterone shots. I take pictures of the hairs that explode slowly on his jaw. Together we celebrate the dissolving curves of his body, the woman inside him slowly dying.
To my lover: Do you know, kanna, I learned about life from the female soldiers that patrolled my hometown. And about love, too. Those women had things figured out, their wisdoms wrapped away in the tight braids of their hair.
I see my best friend when I visit Sri Lanka after high school. We have seen eighteen from two different oceans. I wear makeup and short skirts in the Sri Lankan heat. She has hair braided down her back and makes tea for everyone. I wonder why she won’t look me in the eye. I wonder if she remembers the pretend cigarettes and booze.
She doesn’t talk. I talk too much.
When I bled for the first time on New Year’s Day of 1999, my parents threw a party. We drove from Boston to Canada and rented a reception hall that specialized in Hindu celebrations. Manjal neerattu vizha loses its poetry when it spells “puberty ceremony” in English.
My parents hired a makeup lady who pulled and tugged my unruly hair into a bun, added extensions so that my flowered braid hung down to my butt. My chubby body wrestled into a saree. The blouse was tight and I could barely breathe. The makeup lady pinned jewelry to my head and brushed powder on my face, and when she was done, someone pretty looked back at me from the mirror. As a last touch she pressed a jeweled, fake nose ring into my septum. It dangled in front of my mouth. All day long I suppressed violent urges to sneeze.
I watch my mother kill mice. I kneel on an office chair, pumped up to its full height so I can see the frigid steel of the lab table from my fourth grade height. The mice are a white that matches my mother’s lab coat. She pulls them one by one out of their cage labeled “Test Group Four.” They have to die, she says, because they are sick.
She presses a black sharpie to their necks, and they are dead, just like that, tuk.
Excerpted from I Once Met You But You Were Dead by SJ Sindu. Published by Split Lip Press. Copyright © 2016 by SJ Sindu. All rights reserved.