The attic is small and cramped, the two work tables occupying a good portion of the space, the floor littered with all sorts of clutter: school bags, rulers, rumpled clothes, empty fast food takeout boxes, glasses half-filled with stale water. Taped to the wall on the left are printouts of interesting new architecture found on the internet; ideas on how to ventilate a building in a tropical country, he had said, because glass windows and constant airconditioning are an unnecessary expense.
It’s true, he couldn’t afford to leave the aircon running for too long. At some point, the late afternoon sun had dropped in on us uninvited, shining through the blanket hung against the window and landing on our bodies like a fever. I get the feeling that the shape we make fits exactly into college cliché: a boy and a girl sweating into a twin mattress after school, limbs interlocked despite the heat.
Breathing deep into his shirt, I wonder how it is I could find this calm in the arms of someone so different from me. I think of how to be in love is to be drawn to the unknowable Other, and how, based on experience, I doubt this is always true.
I spend most of my time reading books for my undergrad thesis. I’m writing about Yoshimoto Banana and the girls in her novels. Most of them are my age; they float into reluctant adulthood and live from comfort to brief comfort, constantly on the verge of being swallowed by some great inescapable melancholy.
In Yoshimoto’s Hard Luck, the unnamed protagonist waits for her comatose sister to die. She remembers the nights spent in their shared childhood bedroom: “Back then our imaginations were so vibrant that, even in the absence of a skylight, we could sense how full of stars the sky was.”
The past always seems to be a better place for Yoshimoto. Her girls are always either in love or in a happy family or both, before the future rears its ugly head and turns everything to death and loneliness.
Had I been able to read Japanese, I might have done my thesis on Yoshiya Nobuko instead. An out lesbian in the 1920s, she too wrote about girls. Her first major work was a series of fifty-two stories about students in a boarding school. Each took the name of a flower for its title: “Yellow Rose,” “White Lily.”
(Cultural critic Honda Masuko writes: “When I was a girl, there was nothing more important than the infinitely rich ‘world of our own.’ So those of us who cherished this world joined together and built a small enclosure to protect our secret garden.”)
Yoshiya’s collection was called Hanamonogatari; flower tales. I’ve read her work only through quotation and paraphrase, but I like to believe I’m familiar with the garden she tends to. Her girls might have been my friends, hiding away in our corner of the school. Stealing kisses in a bathroom cubicle, some isolated pocket of time.
Anthropologist Ōtsuka Eiji writes that the girl’s perception of time is emotional, not linear.
Maybe this is why I keep slipping back here: a different room, a different part of the city. A penthouse with wide glass sliding doors overlooking the traffic of EDSA, the mall-goers crossing the street, the condominium residents smoking on their balconies.
She could never stand the heat. All day we do nothing but stay in her king-sized bed, the hum and sigh of the aircon droning on in the background, up until that final morning we spend crying: her small hands on my face, her voice too far away to hear.
But that’s preempting the end. In the beginning, she leaves notes on my desk and writes me poetry.
We hold hands, mirror images of one another.
We go through the motions of love with all the momentum and breathlessness of a romantic comedy: the unlikely meet-cute, the first date over music and beer, the forced separation, the long-distance calls lasting until sunrise. The first night I hear his voice, low and sleepy through my phone speaker, I’m almost angry with myself for how easily I surrender to the dull, gnawing desire with which he seems to invade my body.
Months later, on my first morning back in the Philippines, he holds my hand as he walks me to my next class. It’s the first time I get to touch him: I imagine my arms are made of string, my spindly left arm tethered to his right hand, his grip gentle but unfamiliar, the rest of my body floating like a parade balloon as he pulls me along. Once or twice we bump into someone he knows; each time a look of recognition flashes in their eyes when they meet mine, as if they already see how I’ve willingly tied myself to him.
When we finally kiss, we’re in his attic bedroom. There, surrounded by the clutter of his being, all the books and trinkets and clothes he’d collected over the years, I think about how the girl she knew is still there inside me. I worry about how much of her he could take away.
One day he and I are in the middle of watching movies on my laptop when my external drive crashes, corrupting all the files inside. Later, I recall the night I spent gathering all the photos of her I had taken over the years. I dragged every file into a folder labeled with her name, tucking them away for a less painful future.
Out of sight, out of mind, I had thought, and then suddenly everything blinked out of existence.
In a dissertation on Yoshimoto, a grad student notes how all her novels echo the same themes and narratives, even after a career of twenty years. A girl’s loved one dies; she is nostalgic for the past; she meets a mysterious new lover; she cannot know what lies in the future; she has no choice but to go on.
I wonder how much of her girlhood Yoshimoto remembers and how much she spins out of words. I wonder if, like me, she writes to convince herself she hasn’t forgotten.
But at what point does a girl cease to be a girl?
My mother tells me it’s when she’s “emotionally and psychologically ready to have children.” Whatever that means.
Ōtsuka Eiji is a little more concrete: it’s when she ceases to be a “useless” consumer—a black hole—and becomes a working member of society.
Similarly, Yoshiya Nobuko: when she leaves the confines of the girls’ school. When she gives up her love for fellow girls and finds herself a man to marry.
And finally Honda Masuko, who writes from experience when she regretfully admits: the girl ceases to be when she shares her experience of girlhood to non-girls, allowing strangers access into the garden she cultivated in secrecy.
In an interview with a magazine, thirty-two year old musician Florence Welch recalls an ex-lover who once told her, “I keep dreaming you’re building a house full of rooms that I cannot go into.”
Then again, my mother later adds, maybe all of us are just girls forever.
During one of our long-distance calls, he notices when I trail off in the middle of a question. He asks me what’s wrong, the static of the phone line crackling around his voice as he speaks.
I never know how to put it. Lately everything I write is an attempt to pin it down: her figure blurring into the city skyline in the windows, her voice fading into the hum and sigh of the airconditioning. I understand it isn’t her I’m looking for. I suspect it might be the image of me I saw reflected in her: the girl in love, behind closed gates, in a garden he never could have found on his own.
Maybe this is what love has always been: the whisper of a secret, the eventual click in a door unlocked. If to be in love is to be drawn to the Other, we love in hopes that the unknowable one day becomes known.
But with my ear to the phone in the middle of the night, I fall back into something easier to express: doesn’t it bother you that I’ve only ever been with girls?
I write because I’m trying to understand. I ask him to read because I hope one day, he will, too.
Gita Labrador studied Comparative Literature in the University of the Philippines Diliman. She has been published in The Brown Orient, Glass, and in various independent zines. She resides in Quezon City, teaching reading and creative writing classes for children.