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I Didn’t Know Love, What Was It Supposed To Feel Like?

February 10, 2021

Anya N
// Gabrielle Henderson

Content warning: sexual abuse

The Message is There

I’m wearing an oversized, round-necked, long-sleeved, blue t-shirt. There are 6 small, grey buttons that run down my chest, halting at my stomach. It’s 12:08 PM on April the 14th, 2020; another afternoon in quarantine with family.

I pour myself some cranberry and grape juice from the fridge, turn the fan on in my room, and sit at my desk. Amma calls out from the kitchen. But she won’t tell me what she needs until I’m standing in front of her, looking at her. She says she doesn’t have my full attention until I look her in the eye. Sometimes, I have to ask what it is.

This time, it’s about an appointment with the doctor. She had typhoid a week ago. Her SIM card is on my phone, so I have to forward all the important messages to her. She’s wondering, no, inquiring — about an appointment message. I vaguely remember sending it to her last week.

I’m leaning forward on the dining table, searching for it in the SMSes and also scrolling through my WhatsApp chat history with her. She looks towards the kitchen — Appa is cooking, with earphones on.

She asks me to stand up, sharply.

“The message is there," I mutter, in half-disgust, half-shock.

She pulls my t-shirt from behind, making sure the neckline is reversed. The other day, before leaving for the hospital to stay over with my brother, she’d asked me to change my t- shirt.


Isn’t the neckline too deep?

I don’t want to be around Amma. Even the day she came back from the hospital. I couldn’t stand it—being around her. I was supposed to be happy, but somehow she had violated me. I couldn’t breathe.

Trigger, No Warning

When I was 11, I asked my mom why I couldn’t come out of the bathroom with just a towel around me. I imagined running naked through empty streets. Meanwhile my mom continued instructing me about who I could allow to touch and see my naked body.  I remember thinking it would be so freeing to run like that. Without a care, without a single fear.

When I was 11, an uncle came to stay with us. We used to role-play monster and kid. I didn’t know any other relationship with him. He pleasured my body, and pained it when I didn’t let him. My body was doing one thing, my mind another. He stayed for two more years. I felt my throat burn each time he slid his hand under my top— in front of my cousins, at home. Under the noses of passengers on a train. Under the noses of my parents, every time. Those were the only years I was grateful for my period. When he couldn’t touch me.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

I didn’t know love. What was it supposed to feel like? I couldn’t hug anyone for a year; I felt cornered. No, claustrophobic. No, violated. How was I supposed to express love when I recoiled from the simplest gesture of affection?

My body collapsed on my first kiss.

It was an empty classroom where voices echoed off the walls. Over the years, it had turned into our secret place. We hugged, he closed in, and when his lips touched mine – I remembered my uncle’s tongue forced into my mouth. I remembered how his teeth felt on my lip. I remembered that that was my first kiss. I ran and almost threw up in the washroom. I washed my lips, and tongue aggressively. I looked into the mirror, panting, I slapped water on my face three times. I cried for a full five minutes inside one of the stalls, sinking against the wall.

The mirror in the school washroom had seen me almost every week, all of high school. All the days I practiced speeches, the months I sang out loud for the reverb, the years I read secret letters and poems—the lunch breaks I cried and then fixed my kajal before class.

It burned, and that kept me awake, aware. Writing helped me sleep.

The sound of a pencil stroke on paper, the practice of calming myself to navigate through an echo chamber of self-doubt, insecurity, and low dignity. I took my time breaking them down into singular voices, literally outlining and documenting teardrops and fleeting thoughts with an ink pen. Writing felt like dancing with a mirror image of myself, following every movement with perfect synchronization.

Time and Tide

I have learned other ways to relieve anxiety. I know when it’s about to take over. It feels like there’s heat trapped in your head and it somehow adds weight and gets bigger. It spreads to your ears, buzzing, screeching, and pulls your eyes to your jaw. It kneads your skin, like you knead dough – pushing, folding, tugging.

As you take a deep breath to face it, it catches your lungs, and then your stomach. It clenches and rotates and squeezes, and then, your knees buckle. I don’t let it get to my knees. I close my eyes amidst all the clenching and kneading, and feel my feet on the ground, then my ankles, my calves, and slowly take control of my knees. I massage my thighs and cross my arms to hold myself.

I rub my shoulders and then hold my face. I concentrate on the feeling of my fingers on my face, and of my face in my hands. I reach my fingers to my eyes and feel the temperature of my fingers. I focus on the fading colours behind my eyelids, and then breathe it out. All the anxiety.

I see birds, I feel the sunrise, I hear the air, and smell the ground beneath it. I don’t want to share this.

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