Image description: a white hand drawn on a black background with many smaller transparent ghost hands overlapping around it.
The first taste of the balcony-vegetable-garden, cat-in-the-sun, plants-on-the-tables, weed-smoking lifestyle I want to live so badly happened when I was sitting at the table on the third floor of your town house eating sliced tomatoes covered in salt and dill on a winter afternoon. After school we watched your show of the day (Survivor on Monday, Pretty Little Liars on Tuesday, Vampire Diaries on Wednesday, Teen Wolf on Thursday), drinking Mexican hot chocolate made the way your dad taught you.
You are the person I’ve thought about the most for the past seven years, even if the last time we spoke for longer than five minutes was 2015. I write this to you like I wrote the letter for you to read on your retreat during senior year of high school, except this time you will never see what I’ve written. This time, I will not have two “missed call” notifications when you come back from the retreat. This time, I will not spend the next four years regretting leaving the call unanswered.
You technically aren’t fully white, and technically I shouldn’t be writing about you in this, but you got mad when someone said you were from the Asian part of Russia. Both of us are children of immigrants, but your immigration is slightly more palatable to the general public than mine is. Your immigration doesn’t come with the henna you thought was pretty and the turmeric-stained Tupperware you thought was gross. I brought pasta for lunch instead of rotis and aloo sabzi so I could eat with you. I dyed my hair red with Kool-Aid with you and we laughed when it came out just as black as before, but I begged my mom for bleach when I got home so we could try again. When she said no, I resorted to putting lemon juice in my hair and sitting in the sun for three hours because the WikiHow page for “how to get naturally lighter hair” said so. With long sleeves on, of course, because I couldn’t afford for my skin to get darker.
The time you spent with me felt so much sweeter when you ignored me. When you walked away from me during field trips but I absorbed your every word when you would tell me later about the day’s drama, dutifully offering advice on tip-toes. When I got excited when you talked badly about your other friend to me, as if her desecration meant my elevation in your graces, as if you weren’t doing the exact same to me.
You will always be my first best friend, my first role model, my first idol. If I hadn’t met you, would I put less emphasis on keeping a distance from nerdiness? Would I have blossomed as someone of their own, or would I have projected onto the next white-passing friendly girl who greeted me with open arms but never actually pulled me in for a hug? If I didn’t spend fourth grade eating lunch with you, would I hate myself less?
I’m at your concert sitting behind a girl with a D.A.R.E. shirt smoking a joint and forcing tears to come out of my eyes as a show of how much you mean to me. Even though it has been eight years since you were on my constant rotation, since I pirated your unreleased music off of Tumblr, I still have the Paradise cover memorized. I still remember part of the Ride monologue that I performed in front of my 9th grade English class, coming out of my attempted edgy phase like someone blinking themselves awake from a clammy fever dream.
I didn’t know young women could love old men until I listened to Cola, which was probably the most cursed thing someone could learn while discovering that relationships and drama and breakups exist outside of TV. Except I was still wearing shirts from Justice and spent my free time going grocery shopping with my mom, so instead of real life I turned to your lyrics for vicarious pleasure. All of a sudden, I was learning about hands on waists and running from cops in black bikini tops, keeping all the experiences I coveted locked in a box for when I could engage with them with the courage and agency I believed I would possess in five years’ time.
After those five years, however, I had thankfully outgrown the hatred of non-whiteness that simmered in me as I listened to your music. I had found Raveena and Tommy Genesis and baggier clothes and I had learned that, contrary to what 7th-grade-me believed (but never acted on, don’t worry!), my worth was not actually in the number of old men I had sex with.
And the best part is that in those five-or-so years you grew too! You had your first Grammy nomination! You released an amazing album and you stopped needing male validation and even got cancelled, and listening to your album (four months after it dropped) didn’t make me want to be white anymore. Instead of dancing in the mirror to the sultry tones of “Burning Desire,” I closed my eyes and swayed and spun to “How to disappear,” dreaming of a backyard to sit and let the sun coat my skin.
You remind me of black tahini mixed with coffee and sneezes and coughs and YouTube videos being played in the library and the first time I felt sad about leaving a friend. I sometimes wonder if my inability to feel genuine care for some of the people around me means I have sociopathic tendencies, but then I meet you on the grass in front of the Cupertino Library and it’s like I’ve never been so happy at someone else’s happiness.
I constantly wish I was your height but you make me feel a bit better about being small. I send you pictures of colorful tattoos and you reply “omg that would look stunning on dark skin” and I look at my phone and try not to let tears slip out for the girl who would have vehemently denied it—or, rather, would never have heard it in the first place.
We sit outside with toes in the pool, eating gummy worms and fried rice with my face ashy and dried out after jumping in, but with you I smile and fully look your way and don’t care if you see the peeling skin. We cry together when you drop me back home and promise to meet up one more time before you leave for college in three days. And after that meeting we take ten minutes to say goodbye to each other, and I look back once as I walk away but you’re already gone. I keep moving, though, because I know you’ll call me later. I know I’ll text you about this—you encouraged me to write it in the first place.
Will you drive to Half Moon Bay with me? We can eat cherry pies on the mustard flower side of the road with the playlist I made for you in the background. I’ll watch you buy sea glass and give you a tramp stamp of a snake, and we’ll rent an apartment in Chicago and raise cats and vegetables. Together we can fill the apartment with the scents of haldi and tikka masala and the parts of the world we didn’t grow up with but are open to all the same.