This essay was originally published on 20 July 2018 on Medium.
In my first year of university, I was generally naked or close to it in my dorm room, even though the windows didn’t have any curtains. My building was on a slight rise so no one outside could see in, and my roommates were almost always away. Mostly, I spent my solitude on the phone, lying about my state of undress to a man who justified his inappropriate lusts by repeatedly remarking how mature I was for my age. But sometimes I had company.
I don’t remember how the thing with her started; all I know is that one day I realised that this Girl had been in my virtually empty room almost every day for many days, and every time she crossed the threshold her hands would eventually find their way across my scantily clad body. Slowly, with intent, spreading a stifling heat throughout my torso, she would smile as she clouded the mind that velvet-voiced, predatory man praised for its sharpness. She would put my head in her lap, her hand in my lap, her face in the pulsing seam of my neck and shoulder, and laugh at how I seized up in response. I didn’t know what she was doing or why. Then one day, having endured one too many of those destabilising visits, it occurred to me that she did.
“If you keep touching me like that, don’t be surprised when I start touching you back.”
It has been a decade, and I still don’t know how I managed to say those words. The surprised laugh that escaped her reverberated through me; she had not left enough space between us for the sound to bury itself anywhere but deep inside my belly. “So touch me back then,” she responded. Or maybe it was, “Who said you shouldn’t touch me back?” In any case, we were alone, I was already naked under my wrapper, and this Girl had told me that my days of slowly stewing were at an end — if only I had the courage to fulfil the threat I had not even known I had the courage to make.
At first I was hesitant: scared, maybe; certainly awed. She had a body on her, that one. Small, peaking breasts; a waist that flared gently into solid hips; thighs so meaty that they filled me with a searing hunger, laughing lips that invited me to sate myself. I did all the things to her body that the Maxwell-playing, midnight-calling man had told me he wanted to do to mine; things that I had not quite realised actually could or should be done to a body.
Years later, in a random conversation, she mentioned how her boyfriend said she looked like a helpless puppy when she came. This time I was the one to laugh; I knew exactly what he meant.
She said her name was Michelin. We were not friends, not really, even though we sometimes played together. She was my grandmother’s maid; an unruly girl who was strong-smelling in the way that people who don’t take chemical-based skincare products for granted can be. I hated the heat, but I would often stay in the kitchen to watch her sweat. Sitting on one of my grandma’s Ghanaian stools, I wondered about the masses of tiny glass beads that clung to one another against the pillowy softness of her stomach. She, like the Girl, spent inordinate amounts of time laughing at me. I often laughed back, tickled by the inchoate deliciousness of it all.
One day, she stood in the doorway to prevent me from passing. Without thinking, I walked right into her. The prepubescent beam of my torso pressed into her breasts as she pushed up against me, and her chest’s all-over softness filled my body with a leaden lightness. This time, I could not laugh with her, so I ran away. After that day, she would invite me to watch her not just in the kitchen but in her bedroom; in the shower; while she did the laundry. I had never even considered the reality of breasts until she pressed hers into my chest and arms. The day I was to leave for boarding school, she took my palm and smilingly placed it on the sloping swell of them. I squeezed. I didn’t want to stop.
Instead of tiny glass beads, this girl had a silver chain with a crucifix around her waist. She was long and lean, with the type of body that invites inane questions about runways and magazines. The chain always sat about an inch above the band of her tiny boy-shorts, the crucifix below her navel. It was from her I learned the freedom of being nearly naked in a dorm room; she was doing some sort of long-term program at the French Village and had had the same roommates for years. It was almost as if they didn’t notice that she was naked anymore, which made me feel my own inability to not notice even more acutely.
At French Village, I felt completely out of place; I was much younger and more sheltered than almost everyone else, and it showed. To make matters worse I resumed late, with too many provisions and too little understanding of how tertiary institutions worked. The teasing was immediate and relentless: before long I was spending my entire allowance on call credit to stay connected to my people at home. And thus, I met Queen: I ran out of airtime in the wee hours one night and, desperate to continue my conversation, started traversing the hostel in search of one of the rooms with a “BUY CREDIT HERE” sign outside. When I finally found one with a light still on, Queen came to the door in only her boy-shorts and crucifix. I stood there, stunned, until she tilted her head at me. “What do you want?”
Within a week, she was introducing me as her school daughter to justify how I shadowed her every move — and why she let me do it. Her boyfriend, a forgettable man with a forgettable name, filled me with raging resentment. In the evenings, when everyone poured onto the communal grounds for sports or gossip or God knows what, I wished him ill. During lecture breaks, as I sat in the sun and stared at her gleaming legs, I wished him ill. My inventiveness in imagining his demise was surpassed only by my ability to picture Queen’s naked body under her clothes; taut, straining, the tight muscles of her back rippling with each movement.
I slept in her bed once. Or rather, she invited me to sleep in her bed once, and I spent enough of the night so alive with lust — so hyper-aware of the crush of her hip against mine, her naked breast close enough to taste, the crucifix burning against my skin — that I never accepted the offer again.
One weekend, just when I finally started to feel like I fit in somewhere among those bilingual, illegible people at the school, I went home to visit my family. When I came back, Queen was gone. Her roommates said she had a family emergency. I sent her a few texts; halting, foolish missives painstakingly typed out on my T9-only phone. She never replied.
I rented Dee Rees’ Pariah and spent the majority of the next 90 minutes feeling like I had been punched in the gut. When Pero Oduye’s Alike woke up the morning after finally allowing herself to have sex with her crush, only to be met with crushing, brutal rejection — “I’m not gay-gay. You’d best not tell anyone.” — I paused the film and closed my computer. I lay down and shut my eyes, breathing deliberately, trying to push past the imprint of the look of desolation on her face. Tears welled and escaped me, softly at first, then in an overwhelming rush.
After that first time when the Girl whimpered helplessly under my touch, it felt like we would never stop touching each other. I fell for her without noticing that I was doing it, alight with all of the newness and rightness and specialness coursing through me. We had always been part of a circle of friends who would make small talk during lecture breaks, poring over other people’s misadventures and sharing our frustrations with our status in the campus hierarchy. The key was to pretend to have it worse than we really did.
But then, almost as imperceptibly as I had fallen for her, she started to pull away; to address me as part of the circle rather than as a person — her person; to casually nod and walk by when we passed each other on the way to or from wherever it was that we found to go; to slip her shoulder out of my reach or her body further down the row whenever I was near. This distance had a circadian rhythm; awake and growing in the light of the sun, then swallowed up by the darkness. She still came to me at night. She still came for me at night.
One morning, as she tried to brush past me in the foyer of our building, I grabbed her hand. “Why do you act so weird sometimes, as if you barely even know me?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you see me in the Faculty you just act…somehow.”
She stared at me from under her perfectly winged eyeliner as I started to talk earnestly about feelings; the ones she hurt when she bestowed the same cool glance on me as on everyone else, the ones I had somehow developed without realising it. When I stopped speaking, her brows were knitted together in confusion.
“Are you mad? You want me to hold your hand in public, or what? What do you think this is, a relationship? You’re crazy!”
The words left her as if she felt stupid for even needing to say them out loud. Yet, it had never occurred to me that my desire to hold her hand — to smile into her eyes and laugh at inside jokes as the rest of the world swirled around us, to venture into the day with our bodies still in tune — was crazy.
The Girl continued on her way, turning back once or twice to look incredulously at my frozen form. Sight unseen, something inside me slammed shut.
There were other girls; secret girls, invisible girls, girls who walked past me as I walked past them, unflinching. Don’t go down on me, that’s a sin. Mornings after with asinine questions feigning ignorance of the night’s events. We need to stop doing this. Mornings after with averted gazes and no conversation. My boyfriend found out. Mornings after when their side of the bed had been empty all night anyway.
The boundaries were clear: No craziness, please.
I was in Bahia for a conference, delighting in the endless cocktails and desserts at the all-inclusive resort that had been full of shocked white faces when I arrived. It was the middle of the night — the start of the morning — and ten or twelve Black women had pulled a couple of the too-small tables in the cafeteria closer so we could look into one another’s eyes and mouths as we laughed. My shoulder was against someone’s chest, my hand on someone’s arm, my feet in someone’s lap.
From the beach, the sound of Yemoja’s sea layered itself under our voices. Someone told a story about finding her own Gods as her lover smiled and played with her hair. Someone performed a poem about the thrilling revelation that was kissing a girl for the first time. Someone made a joke about all the pleasing being done in the hammocks, all the touching being done in the pool, all the sounds being drowned out by the surging sea, while we sat there and ate cake. Our laughter mimicked the waves; never quite receding, always on the brink of a fresh crest.
Suddenly — or maybe not suddenly at all — I noticed a strange sensation in my body. A slow flush started in my throat, warm and vaguely tingling, spreading from the fleshy lobes of my ears to the naked arches of my feet. As the stories and laughter poured forth, I felt something forgotten yet familiar falling open in my mind. All around me were women who loved women; tenderly, fiercely, with a bright and beckoning certainty. And there I was; warm, safe, and at peace, among them. That night — that morning — almost as if finally awakening from an enchanted sleep, the flush settled in my chest, and I realised: this is who I am, too.
I sagged in my chair, exhaustion and exhilaration flooding my body. Imagine: I had to travel halfway around the world to make my way back to who I always was. I found myself, without even knowing what was lost, inside another Black woman’s mouth; heard my own forgotten song in her story. “I kissed a girl, Ms Myrtle. I kissed a girl because I wanted to, because I loved her.”
I ran into the Girl at a mutual friend’s house party. As the raucousness rose around us, we talked about the things you talk about when you haven’t seen someone in a few years. We settled on the couch next to each other; the room was packed, and her fiancé was not in it. Then someone suggested drinking games, and the invitations masquerading as confessions — open-ended solicitations to the lonely or freaky or both — started to flow. Never have I ever had a threesome. Never have I ever fucked a married person. Never have I ever kissed someone of the same sex.
Her body, softer and fuller than it had been 8 years before, went rigid as I turned to her. “Well?” I brought my red cup to my lips, chuckling as she returned my gaze from under her perfectly lined lids. She did not move: her cup stayed in her lap. “You’re fucking crazy,” she said. There was consternation in her tone, some discomfort, maybe even annoyance. She looked away; her cup remained in her lap.
I remembered that long-ago day when this Girl taught me that it was okay to touch a woman, but crazy to love her. It felt like lifetimes had passed. I remembered the girls after her; the ones who touched my body with no chance of reaching any other part of me. Settling into my seat, staring back into her steely eyes, I put my cup to my lips and drank. She looked away again and I drank some more, even though I wasn’t playing their game, even though nobody had said, “Never have I ever loved someone of the same sex.”
The room swelled with sound; someone’s racy story was being investigated for incriminating evidence or inconsistencies or something. I remembered Yemoja’s sea and the laughing circle of women who, without realising it, turned me around to face my full self. Nobody except the Girl noticed me drinking, and I could almost taste her relief. As the game moved on, she glanced at me again, her eyes repeating the claim: You’re fucking crazy. I returned my attention to the party, laughing quietly to myself as she shook her head. In the end, I’m not — never was — crazy.
I’m just queer.