I remember telling you about the dead girls.
It always came down to the same thing—a boyfriend who threatened to post videos of her online, a father finding used condoms in the trash, a mother seeing the angry bruise of a hickey on the soft fat of her neck.
I didn’t know any of their names, but I knew how they died. How they hung themselves with ropes attached to ceiling beams, how they threw themselves on to train tracks, how they choked themselves with their school ties in the girls’ bathroom. How alone they were, in the end, weighed down by the purpled, bruised burden of their grief.
My mother told me their stories. She tilted my chin up so I would look her in the eyes. This is what happens when you grow up without a sense of shame, she told me. When I told you this, years later, you nodded sadly. This was a lesson you had been taught, too.
All these years later, as freshmen at our international college in Singapore, I retold these stories to you. Where you came from, you knew different stories, about other dead girls: girls who drank rat poison or cut themselves or overdosed on too many drugs on a too small body. Where you came from, the stories were the same: leaked nudes, the solitude, the sharp slap of the word “slut.”
We told each other these stories, and we talked, like anthropologists, of the dead girls and the shame that killed them all.
I told you everything. This is how we made our lives. I would come home to you and our broken couch and we would sip tea out of chipped mugs. You would tell me your stories—the small ones first, like that time with the pigeon; that night in Mexico City; and later, the big ones—about how you grew up; your father; the stories you chose for yourself. You would tell me your stories, and I would tell you mine.
I came to you when I was 19 and had sex for the first time, on the floor of a handicapped bathroom stall at the mall in Tiong Bahru, with a man I had just met on Tinder. He came on my chest. I remember how sticky I felt, even after I had washed it off. I told you what happened. You listened closely, intently. When I was done, you picked out a white flower from the bushes at the bus stop by our dorm. There. A symbol of your deflowering. I stared, then laughed for a long time.
We smoked all night by that bus stop. Earlier, someone had torn cigarette filters into little flowers and had laid them out on the curb. A little garden, at our feet.
I learned strength from you. In college, I remade myself in your image.
We knew what the world did to girl bodies. We remembered the dead girls. And so, like prophetesses, we anticipated danger and we buttressed ourselves accordingly. We hardened. We cloaked our vulnerabilities with sarcasm. We took muay thai classes and memorized feminist theory. Together we laughed too loudly, and danced on table tops. When men walked too close to us, their gaze lingering on us long after they were gone, we would curse at them, roll our eyes, try to shake off the fear.
We told ourselves there was no shame here. We declared ourselves inviolable. We performed strength, for ourselves, and for each other.
That’s a lie. There are some things I did not tell you.
I never told you the truth about M.
I told you that I was in my sophomore year, and I matched with him on Tinder. He told me I could call him “Master.” I saved his number in my phone as M. He texted me while I studied at the library. I told him I was busy; he asked me how wet I was. He told me to go into the bathroom and masturbate. I obeyed; I locked myself into a bathroom stall and slipped my fingers into my bra, skimmed the pebbles that my nipples had become. I felt the way the way my body pulled down to the heat that was pooling between my legs. I licked my fingers and shoved two of them inside of me, gasping at the force it took to penetrate myself. I was twenty, and I had never learned how to touch myself.
M asked if I would like to meet at the Starbucks near his apartment. No, I told him boldly. I said that I would come straight to his place. I did not want the awkwardness of the ritual of a date. I did not want to wait to see if he would pay for me, to pretend to care about soccer or IPAs or Tarantino, or any of these other things men wanted to talk about on dates. I wanted it to be over, to flash forward to where I knew this would eventually go.
He told me to wear a skirt and no panties. So I did. On the way, I texted him that I was nervous. Don’t be, he promised. It will be fine. I latched on to this little lie, this small kindness. When he came out to greet me, I was struck by how much shorter he seemed in real life, the way the sun caught the wispy red of his beard, making it look like half his face was rusting. He said hello, and sounded American. His profile said that he was Spanish. We had sex. I left. I never saw him again.
We have words for certain kinds of stories. Words like rape culture, like patriarchy, like assault. None of these words fit this story. A word is too easy of a thing: one either is, or it is not. Can’t two things be true at the same time? To not want and to still say yes? To say yes because you think you cannot say no? To say yes because you do not think you deserve any better than what you are given?
I wanted to tell you everything, but I did not have the words to piece my story together.
We have talked about these kinds of stories so many times before. I have said the words rape culture, patriarchy and assault so many times that they have ceased to have meaning. All these words, in the end, sound the same to me: I am hurting.
I didn’t tell you the truth about M because I am afraid of what you might say. Despite everything I know about you, I am afraid you will ask me why I did not just leave. I am afraid I will not have an answer for you.
And worse. I am afraid I know the answer, but neither of us will like it.
Do you remember the spring break of our freshman year?
We were in Phuket, lying on a beach, sun-drunk and happy, watching the purple sky fade into dusk. It was getting late and the crowds had dispersed—the beach was empty except for us and the crashing of the waves on the shore.
You propped yourself up on one elbow and looked at me. You winked. Have you ever gone skinny dipping?
I hadn’t. I laughed, but there was nothing funny in this. We had not yet become the kind of friends that shared everything. You did not yet know the shame that clung to my body, how desperately I wanted to be smaller, to take up less space—all of the things that we would spend the next few years unlearning.
You got up, stripped your shirt off and stood in front of me, skinny and long limbed. With a shout, you bent, tore your shorts off and ran into the water.
I watched you splash around, laughing. The water shimmered around you, silvered in the light of the setting sun.
I got up too. Slowly I peeled my clothes off. First my t-shirt, then my shorts, and finally the swimsuit I was wearing. I walked into the water with you.
My skin was singing in the salt-soaked breeze.
On that day, there was no shame. There was no fear.
I was fool enough to think that this meant I had escaped it forever.
Here is another story.
As soon as I walked into M’s apartment, he shoved his tongue in my throat. There was little to no talking. I let him push me down on to my knees. Afterwards, he flipped me over and fucked me from behind. He did not look me in the face. Not once.
Afterwards, he offered me water.
This is not a rape story. There was no assault. I did not say no.
I did not say yes either. In any case, it did not matter. He did not ask, and I did not offer a response.
Later, on the train ride home, I wrote a note in my phone in the rudimentary French I knew from a few semesters in high school. I needed to say something, but I did not want to write in the language I lived in. To do so felt like admitting to something I did not yet feel ready to face.
And so, in French, I wrote. I feel used. He masturbated into me.
I never told you this story. I did not tell anyone this story. Still, now that I write it out, I remember it so clearly that it could have happened yesterday.
Once, I told you that I did not think I was beautiful.
You sat up straight. Of course you are, you said. Inside and out. You said it so quickly it might have been a reflex.
I’m not, I told you. But at least I am still fuckable.
You looked like I had just slapped you, like you could not quite believe that I had said that out loud. We were not used to seeing our armour fall so readily.
Still, I don’t know why you were so surprised. This is part of the story, too.
Last summer, you threw a garden party. Everyone there identified as a woman. We sat in a circle on the sun mottled grass and drank sangria out of ceramic mugs and braided flowers into our hair. Our conversations meandered, and then settled as they always did, on sex. On gender. On power. On what we did with what we had.
Slowly, someone volunteered: He wouldn’t go down on me, because he said it was too dirty. He said that I could give him a blowjob, though. She slipped her small fingers behind the frame of her glasses and softly pressed down on her eyelids.
We looked at each other in silence. And then quietly, a friend—
I don’t even know how to ask them to go down on me.
And like a dam breaking,we told each other about all the times we said yes when we wanted to say no. All of the times we said no until it just became easier to say yes. All of the times we said yes when we should have said no. When we were drunk. When we were sober and lonely and just wanted to feel beautiful. When, for all our trying, we could not bury the softest parts of ourselves.
These are not the stories we wanted for ourselves. But these are the stories we have to tell. In order to heal, you must first acknowledge that you have been wounded.
Our voices hung suspended in the air among us like living, breathing things. Wine glasses clinked. My friend lay her head down on my lap. You curled your hand into mine. The breeze lingered softly on our exposed shoulders and in the heat of the midday sun, we made a tapestry out of our limbs. We allowed ourselves to be touched in ways that did not hurt.
Lishani Ramanayake is originally from Sri Lanka, and now lives in Singapore. Her work has been published in anthologies in Singapore and abroad, and she was most recently awarded an Honorable Mention for the Gulf Coast Journal: Barthelme Prize for Short Prose in 2017.