Amma calls me into her room. She rummages around in her antique armoire that once belonged to Grandmother—teak wood carved with hibiscus flowers, the only inheritance Amma owns. A bookshelf next to the armoire holds Tamil romance novels on the very bottom two shelves and framed paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses on the top shelves, each painting draped with a fabric flower garland. Amma burns sandalwood incense every morning when she prays, and the smoke swirls around the room for the rest of the day, working its way into hairs and fabric, lingering like a sweet something at the backs of throats. Here’s the truth: I don’t believe in gods.
Amma holds out a silky beige shirt. “Wear this. You’ll look nice.”
The shirt shimmers through my fingers, cool to the touch. Amma waits with her hands crossed at the wrists, watching me. When I don’t make a move, she walks over to me and I remember how thick she is, how she can easily block a doorway.
She pinches my bicep between two fingers.
“Your arms need to be soft, Lucky. Your arms are too hard.”
I pull away. I worked for years to get my triceps to bulge. She sits down next to me.
“You need to think about the way you’re looking to others.” Her eyebrows make an arc across her face. She pets my hair, a shoulder-length frizz. I try hard not to flinch. “This is just too short.”
“Shyama’s hair is past her shoulders. You’re bald!”
I scratch a place where my jeans are starting to fray.
Amma pats my hand. “You’re not a child anymore, Lucky.”
I concentrate on the loose thread.
“With Nisha’s marriage,” Amma says, “the groom’s family will look at everyone around her. Even you.”
The words erase my thoughts.
“Nisha’s getting married?”
“That’s what she’s coming to tell you.” Amma holds out the shirt.
I take it and pull it on over my black tank top. The fabric slides cold against my skin.
“You look like a lady,” Amma says. “Pretty.”
In the mirror, the silk flows around my chest and the pouch of my stomach, small white flowers embroidered into the fabric. I pull at the front of it so it doesn’t hug my chest.
“Stop fussing,” she says.
“I look like—”
“Like a lady. You are pretty.”
The word makes me squirm. Pretty is girls like Shyama who get married to the men their parents pick out, girls who never play sports or talk loudly.
Amma kisses the top of my head and smiles.
* * *
Nisha comes by for dinner, her thin torso swimming in an Indian cotton tunic. She’s a good girl in the same ways that Shyama has always been a good girl. Nisha helps Amma heat up food, gets water for everyone, and makes cheerful conversation during dinner. Around her, I slouch even more than usual and forget to sit with my legs closed. Amma hisses at me to sit up straighter, to keep my knees together, to eat without spilling anything or making any noises.
“Sit up, Lucky,” Amma says. “I don’t know what Krishna sees in you. You’re like a boy.”
“Vidya’s getting married,” Grandmother says.
“No,” Nisha says. “I’m getting married.” She giggles and looks down at her plate. She looks like the girls in Tamil commercials—all perfect makeup and practiced allure. She has a face pinched in the center, her eyes close to a long, straight- bridged nose.
“He’s a good guy,” she says, and looks back down at her plate.
I don’t know how she can eat with her fingers when her nails are so long and painted. She’s gotten her nose pierced since the last time I saw her.
When we were young, Amma would drop me off at Nisha’s house when she went to work. We played in the green space behind her apartment building, replaying scenes from our favorite Tamil movies. Nisha loved movies starring Rajnikanth, a man hero-worshipped by most Tamils. Rajnikanth would leap out of burning buildings and beat up fifty henchmen to get the girl in the end. Outside, behind the apartment building, I leapt out of cardboard boxes and climbed trees, beat up imaginary villains and saved Nisha. She pretended to wear extravagant sarees and we sang duets like they did in the movies.
After dinner, Amma and Grandmother watch Tamil game shows in the living room. Nisha and I talk in the guest bed- room. The bed sags and tips us toward each other.
“I like your shirt,” Nisha says. She looks at me out of the corner of her carefully-painted eye.
I shift in my seat and press myself against the headboard. Cold permeates through my shirt. I can make out a trace of the jasmine perfume she always wears. Muffled TV music works its way through the walls.
“How’s the husband?” she asks.
Nisha’s on her third post-college program. So far she’s quit pharmacy school and nursing school. Indecisive. Or just flighty.
“Boring. I hate living at home. It must be amazing to live on your own, just you and your husband. Must be romantic.”
I bite down on my laugh.
She slaps my arm. “It’s not funny.”
The room is too hot but my fingers are freezing. I sometimes wonder what it would’ve been like if we’d both come out in high school, if we would’ve tried dating for real. But Nisha was afraid even then. Even when we were by our- selves, she’d never acknowledge what is was that we were doing. I’d like to think that I would’ve come out, if she’d been willing, but that’s just another lie.
Most people think the closet is a small room. They think you can touch the walls, touch the door, turn the handle, and walk free. But when you’re inside it, the closet is vast. No walls, no door, just empty darkness stretching the length of the world.
Even during our on-again, off-again high school fling, Nisha never stopped pretending to like boys. She had a rotating string of boyfriends, but none that she actually seemed to like or want.
She watches the screensaver of Amma’s computer and smiles with only her mouth.
I sweat cold patches into my shirt, but my skin feels too small.
She stares unblinkingly at her knees. “My parents arranged this. The marriage, I mean. He’s from India.”
“When’s the wedding?” The words feel foreign, unwieldy. My tongue can’t wrap around the syllables.
“The engagement ceremony is in a few weeks.” Nisha draws her knees to her chest. Her lips shimmer with a remnant of pink gloss, most of it eaten away with the meal. I try to remember what it tastes like.
“The wedding’s in December,” she says.
My tooth cuts skin. I lick away the blood on my lips.?This was bound to happen. Nisha’s parents have been desperate to find a guy since I got married to Kris. As far as anyone knows, Kris and I fell in love.
I tried to tell Nisha once, the truth about Kris and me. It was on the morning of my wedding, and I was terrified. But Nisha refused to hear it. She kissed me on the cheek to silence me, and left the room. That was four years ago, and after that I didn’t hear from her.
Nisha scoots closer and presses up against my side. I wrap my arms around her. She puts her head on my shoulder.
“Do you want this?” I ask.
She breathes in and out. I press my cheek against her head. The words sink in. Nisha is getting married. The wedding’s in December. Wedding. Married. Nisha.
“Sometimes I wish you were a boy,” Nisha says.
A wedding that wouldn’t be a lie. A true marriage with love, and children, and nothing extra on the side. It was hard to imagine.
Here’s the truth: Sometimes I wish I were a boy, too.