The first time I heard the world ‘lesbian’, I was seven years old. I was sitting in front of the TV on the living-room floor, half-heartedly flipping through my maths textbook, when Regina George told Cady Heron that Janis was, in fact, a lesbian.
I remember the disgust on her face very clearly. I remember tracing the word with my lips for the first time and wondering what could be so powerfully repulsive that it could earn social isolation from the entire school, and even from a best friend. Better yet, I vividly remember sitting on the floor, the definition splayed out in thick matter-of-fact lettering on my standard school-distributed Oxford English Dictionary, feeling nothing, nothing but white cold shock.
It never occurred to me that the word could be so sharp; that it could ever hope to describe the way it felt when the light hit her hair and glimmered in streams of dazzling purples, reds and yellows; the tiny shivers of electricity that jolted through our interlocked hands, the way her eyes would crinkle at the edges as her laughter bubbled out in waves and waves of uninhibited joy. The word felt nothing like the warmth that crept up my face, to the tip of my ears, when I sat next to her, knees touching, grinning like a large bumbling buffoon against her small delicate frame. I never thought a word so coarse could envelop the innocent giggles hidden behind small hands that contained the world in them; the silly made-up ‘playing house’ games, the treasure maps to nowhere; the music lessons with her snoring head balanced precariously on my shoulder, trusting that I would guard her sleep and never let her fall.
The word was so heavy, so much heavier than the light butterfly kisses on my forehead.
The word was like lead. It sank to pits of my stomach and festered there. At night, it would rise up to my throat and threaten to spill out of my mouth. It would drip out in tiny salty tears from my bleached shuddering face, bent over the toilet seat. It would swirl round and round in my head, a delirious carousel of nightmares. I remember, one night, the cracks in my skin split open and I bled steaming hot lava, smoke rising up in devilish curls like I was already in hell.
I threw myself into work. It made me a terrifyingly good student because when my head was in a book, I was no longer a person. I was words and numbers, figureless and emotionless. I never looked up at her again, my nose was too far buried in a novel. The friends I did make I held at arm’s length, afraid that I would make the same mistakes again.
I took my isolation to be the holiest penance for my crime of existence. Some days, my laughter would choke and die on my tongue and compliments withered away before they reached me. I felt like a fraud. “If only they knew,” I’d think, “If only they knew the truth about me.”
It took my years to pull myself out of that hellhole. It was her again, showing me that I wasn’t alone. It was her love for me that let me love myself again.
At the end of the day, I don’t blame the Mean Girls franchise. They catered to a different audience, at a different time when social standards were different. Their purpose was to portray an authentic American public high school, not to introduce a closeted kid to the fact that women could love women. I do, however, wonder how easily Regina George’s script was written. I doubt they’d ever have imagined that the ease with which they printed out that sentence could make it still so difficult for an educated sixteen-year-old, studying at one of the most liberal schools in Bangalore, to spit out “yeah, she’s my girlfriend”.
I mourn all those missed sleepovers, all those experiences I never had, the nights and days I spent trying tie up my feelings. I regret all those words that shamefully cowered away from the light of day, all those ‘i-love-you’s that got stuck in my throat. I wish I could do it all over again. This time, maybe I could be a child, maybe I could love more freely, have the strength to put myself out there.
Maybe, this time, I could set my paper boat out into the world.
Maybe, this time, it would float.