When Tina calls you a slut in front of her girls, you don’t know if it’s an insult or a compliment. You’re not sure if this means you’re in good with her circle of girls with the easy Indian names—Rubys and Renas and the like. You’ve seen them tossing their hair in the corner of the middle school gym after puja, their pink glossed lips whispering in front of pictures of a blue-skinned baby Krishna. Their side-eye memorized from some Bollywood film your Nani listened to on repeat so loud because she was going deaf in one ear. But you play it off—shrug and do a half-smile like you’ve been practicing in the mirror ever since you went to Sears and got a training bra with nothing to really fill it.
Practicing has been your best defense even as red is creeping up your neck and you’re sure those girls can tell you’re sweating. Never mind that you’ve only just kissed your first boy two months ago. A white boy from your Catholic school whose dad’s in the Navy and who kisses like a dying fish, all open-mouthed and no tongue. But you have nothing to compare it to until your next boy, an Indian guy named Nithin, Seema’s cousin from New Jersey, who’s come up for New Years. His tongue lay like a limp sponge in your mouth, heavy and morose.
It took you those two to figure out that’s not how this is done. But, you got in a kiss before midnight in Seema’s room along with the champagne and Sprite you all had snuck and drunk quickly before the parents could get suspicious. That was something. Even if Nithin’s lips, coated in slick sweetness, had almost made you gag. You kept taking quick, shallow breaths to stop the wave of nausea rolling through you. He’d played U2’s “New Years Day” over and over until you had to press your fingernails into your palms to stop from slapping his phone out of his hand. You learned a little bit about patience that night. All the breathing and sitting in the pink corner of Seema’s room while you watched the ball drop on her TV while Nithin’s thin, nervous fingers occasionally threaded with yours. New York City looked cheap and loud like there was too much red everywhere, which you imagined was pretty much how New York City looked on any given day.
So given what little went on by the age of 16—two terrible, brief kisses, when Tina turns to you and calls you that word, you don’t really know how to take it. Her smooth, milky brown face gives nothing away. She’s neither smiling nor smirking, having mastered the blank-faced, bored look from the age of 12. Resting bitch-face before it had a name. You try to gauge the expressions on the other girls’ faces hovering around you. Girls who could blend in anywhere. Who didn’t have anyone stuttering over their names during the first day of school. No terrible mispronunciations, no mangled syllables following you through each grade until you switched schools and it started all over again. They had it easy.
They were good at pretending, too. They could fake almost anything—piety when at temple, ambitious when at school, and wild on Saturday nights in some white boy’s basement. They’d spent three years, at least, training themselves. Had prepared and plotted since they got their first periods and heard about their cousin back in Delhi marrying a boy she’d met only twice. They’ve stayed up late nights studying chemistry and Chaucer. They will get into those colleges that are at least 2 hours drive from their homes. All those Saturday afternoons of their moms combing coconut oil through their hair while studying SAT prep words over and over— abate and elicit and complacent—were going to pay off. They could taste the silvery freedom of COLLEGE, that one word that they mouthed every night before bed like a mantra, drowning out that threat of “arranged marriage” like a countdown clock ticking down the hours and days and years until the inevitable.
United by this common threat, we had all peered at the black-and-white pictures of our moms in their wedding saris and tried to picture ourselves. The red-gold of our imaginations bleeding from the seams and stitches into a dull gray. That look on our mothers’ faces would haunt us for years—call it melancholy or lugubrious or down-right mournful. But it was that look that would make us roll up our skirts in the school bathroom and line our eyes desperately thick with Electric Eel and Purple Haze. But we had come here from a country shaped like a tear drop and our parents had given up so much, so wasn’t it right that we, the daughters of these unwitting Sitas, take advantage of all this new world had to offer? We had time enough for those years when our parents would pressure us to date good Indian boys from Shaadi.com—and yes, we would eventually abate our elicit activities: the drinking, the turns around the dance floor with the wrong boys—who wouldn’t ask us to prom, who we’d sneak out to meet and hope our mothers wouldn’t see the marks left on our skin.
We would eventually turn complacent and give in to the proper Punjabi-top-of-his-class-from-so-and-so-prep-school boy. The words, “love match”, would never cross our lips. It would either all fall into place or fall apart, and we wouldn’t know which one until the weight of the wedding jewelry made us bend and ache with worry. For now, we had freedom in the form of boys and basement parties and terrible kisses. And sometimes it earned you a name that was true. And sometimes you didn’t care that they got it wrong as long as someone called out your name, made it sing in the air even for a moment.