A Girl Called Abang
By HALI MUNAN. This story is the 1st part to “The Bi and the Binary”.
The man wanted a boy, and then I arrived.
As the boy-child, I went with him to the barber. I wore all the clothes daughters didn’t wear. I followed him into the men’s changing room and only played with boys in preschool (we teased the girls, of course). I was lasak and distracted. My mother tolerated me dissecting garden life with boys outside her kitchen window, but was less pleased to come to school because a dude and I got into a fistfight. What else were boys supposed to know? I must have learned every lesson. My father assigned me classes to sports he loved. He had some vision of me playing rugby, tennis, football. It was swimming that settled deep. When slicing through a long pool, my mind became most clear, my singular body just a blank and moony vessel. I become light as a flying plane.
I liked swimming even though I had to wear what daughters would wear. When I started school I had to do that too, but unlike the baju kurung uniform, my swimsuit clung to every part of me that I could not ignore was changing. I eventually had no place in the men’s changing room.
More horrifying than my body changing was the horror of realising what life in this growing body is meant to mean. I learned this body could bleed for a week every month and not die, the only exceptions were being sick, pregnant or old. I learned people with bodies like mine found love when their bodies were supple, fair, and beautiful. They only found love in people with bodies that weren’t like theirs — in every movie, every TV show, every book. All the different landscapes, time periods, and stories, yet the same ending every time. I was confused at the simplicity of this lesson until I took it as truth.
Later I would learn of course, that people with bodies like mine were historically powerless over their own stories, that they were groped and invaded all over the world. They were heard less, paid less, assigned narrow roles, sacrificed more to squeeze into those roles, and were told that the best they could achieve is to be desired, married, to raise children and repeat the cycle all over again. People with bodies like mine were unsafe, they disappeared the higher up the food chain I looked.
But as a child with growing tits and ass, I didn’t know all that yet. I had to make a call. I told my father I would stop being what he wanted me to be and find my own way. Later, my mother told him she would do same. I saw her change before my eyes into a woman free to laugh and love. Being a boy made the world feel wide open at my feet, but if it also meant being cold and disconnected, if it meant not caring about my feelings or showing them, then I had to learn to be happy being a girl.
It wasn’t easy. I was already comfortable being called “Abang” at school, “my son” at home, and winning when I arm wrestled boys. The body was curvy, and I ate as much food as I could to smooth out every curve. All the guys I liked were my “bros”, and they crushed over one girl. She looked nothing like me.
I did not know how to be friends with girls. They were aliens who smelled good, and unlike boys, their cruelty came from places I did not yet understand. But this pretty girl everybody wanted, she had no meanness in her heart. Popular girls courted her to join them, but it was me she chose to be kind to. We called each other after school, sometimes even at 3 am. We doodled in notebooks together. I wrote poems about her. We talked all night at sleepovers.
This is how I found myself sitting in the bedroom of the prettiest girl in school, learning for the first time how close a face can get when putting makeup on is involved. Giving me makeovers was always her idea, but I didn’t hate it either. Wasn’t she helping me get the attention of the boys I liked who liked her? It was confusing. I wasn’t sure who I wanted attention from. I wish it didn’t matter what I looked like. I wish I didn’t have to choose who I wanted.
Before we left school, she asked to kiss me. Can you believe it? Everybody wanted to kiss her, and she asked to kiss me. She felt sorry that I would leave high school without being kissed at least once. Her proposition confused one of my friends so much that he asked to kiss me too. What was happening? I said yes to both of them, my first kisses. At the time, I thought anyone who wanted to move closer to my body wanted to change it, not kiss it. Now I think about how I turned out, it would be foolish to say they didn’t change me at all.
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Hali Munan is a pseudonym. This story is the 1st part to “The Bi and the Binary“.