Yachi Hitoka is eight years old when she sees an older girl on the playground fly past and has the fleeting thought that she looks like a princess with her hair braided, and she would gladly stare at her all day long.
She brushes this off because she is, after all, a highly impressionable child of eight, and the ten-year-old girls on the playground are very cool and pretty and grown-up and anyone would be mesmerized by them. This is a memory she forgets until she’s thirteen and piecing together the clues and it all suddenly makes horrible, terrifying sense.
She’s eleven, leaving her elementary school classmates and, subsequently, her childhood best friend whom she’s known for seven years now, and she wants to cry for some reason. She wants to hold Sayaka-chan’s hand and never let go; tie a string to her finger and keep it pulled taut, never wandering.
She’s just sentimental, she supposes. Dwelling on the past isn’t healthy, her mother tells her. She’ll make new friends and move on.
She doesn’t tell her mother that she can’t imagine her life without Sayaka; that she feels more alive than ever when they’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, hunched over a manga atop Sayaka’s duvet; and the thought of losing that makes her stomach churn. She swallows around the rock lodged in her throat, and holds her tongue.
(She does that a lot, these days: internalizing the feelings that feel too big for her body, that threaten to eclipse her tiny bubble of safety. Bites her tongue, swallows, rinse and repeat.)
Yachi is twelve years old and a freshly-minted middle schooler when her new classmate asks her which boy she likes.
She’s confused and mildly concerned, because why would she like a boy? There’s nothing special about them. Some of them are mean to her and look at her funny when she compliments their bookbags. Last year one of them very rudely pulled on her pigtail, hard enough to rip her scrunchie out.
So she scans the classroom until she lands on the head of a boy whom she vaguely remembers as Doujima-kun, and gives her answer.
Her classmate squeals, presumably pleased, and pesters her for details. What does she like about him? He’s cute, right? Does she want to kiss him?
Her answers are clipped and stilted: He’s nice. I guess. Maybe. Not really. (She’s twelve, why would she want to kiss a boy? That’s ridiculous.)
She sees Sayaka-chan at the bus stop a week later. She’s with a new friend, it looks like, and Yachi is not. Yachi has not made any new friends since entering middle school.
She watches as the new friend pushes at Sayaka-chan’s shoulder with a familiar playfulness and they laugh together giddily, and she feels strangely out of place. Like she’s intruding.
She burns red-hot until her resentment fizzles into a dying ember, and then nothingness, like something in her chest has evaporated and left an empty space. She walks home with the vague feeling that she’s treading on air, and if she makes one misstep, she’ll fall right through.
She joins the soccer club. She’s not particularly athletic nor naturally talented, but it’s fun and gives her something to do. It becomes routine. She makes new friends. (They only talk about soccer, are never interested in her new notebook cover or collection of watercolor paints, but she doesn’t mind. She’d much rather talk about soccer than dealing with a one-sided interrogation about boys.)
She smiles and nods when they coo over the tall midfielder on the boys’ team. She waits for her heart to skip a beat; instead, she feels nothing. They don’t need to know that.
She’s thirteen when she first hears the word. Gay. That’s when men kiss men, or women kiss women. She hears the whispers and giggles that accompany it and thinks, no, thank you. She’s thirteen when she learns gay people exist and that her peers laugh at them.
She’s thirteen, sitting on the bench during a scrimmage match, when her eye catches the tall girl with the thick brown curls pulled into a ponytail and the eternally furrowed eyebrows and thinks, I wonder if she’s gay. Because if gay people exist, then there have to be some around her, right?
I wonder if she’s gay turns into I wonder if she likes me. She spends the rest of the period watching her discreetly from the sidelines, admiring her form as she expertly weaves through defenders and chips the ball over another (much shorter) girl’s head. The way her ponytail swishes and the baby hairs stick to the back of her neck. The rise and fall of her chest with exertion; the elegant stretch in her shoulder blades when she pulls her arm over her head. Yachi always looks gross as she feels when she gets sweaty, but this girl evidently does not. She looks in her element, and Yachi can only watch in awe, transfixed.
By the time practice is over, Yachi’s thought process has shifted to I think I like her. And then: Does that mean I’m gay?
She’s thirteen when she realizes she likes girls, and nothing changes. The rock in her throat does not dislodge; there’s no dramatic weight lifted off her shoulders, only a subtle shift in consciousness.
Yachi develops three more crushes on different girls on her soccer team. She learns to shrug nonchalantly and pretend not to care when classmates ask who she likes, and if they persist, to rattle off the name of a perfectly nondescript boy who isn’t noteworthy enough to encourage follow-up questions.
She learns to brush off the strange pit in her stomach when the coach addresses them as girls—the discomfort with being called a girl is a new predicament, one that she would much rather bury than attempt to unpack. One internal crisis at a time, please.
Yachi is fourteen when she discovers something she shouldn’t in the manga section at the local library.
Written on the inside title page: Lesbian. And next to it, a very lewd and very graphic depiction of two women in a rather compromising position.
She shuts the book and stuffs it at the back of the shelf, frantically glancing around to see if anyone noticed. God forbid the auntie who comes around every Friday and sometimes gives her homemade cookies think she’s some kind of pervert.
(She comes back two more times, just to trace the letters—she refuses to look at the illustration or whatever may come after it among the following pages. She never makes it past the first page.)
When she enters high school, she hesitates before joining a club. Stares at the application form for Girls’ soccer club; doesn’t fill it out.
Then Manager position for the Boy’s volleyball club drops into her lap like a gift from the goddess of beauty and grace personified, and she accepts it with grateful hands. Who’s she to look a gift horse in the mouth and all that, except she does stare at her mouth. Stares at the delicate mole just under the beautiful upperclassman’s bottom lip; does not think about kissing it.
Yachi is fifteen when she meets Shimizu Kiyoko, and consequently becomes instantly enamored with her.
Shimizu is beautiful and smart and calm and collected, everything Hitoka is not. Shimizu has a voice that sounds like windchimes, a laugh that tastes like bubblegum, and hands that play a symphony to rival any orchestra. Girls envy her and boys left and right fall over their feet to claim her attention.
Except Shimizu doesn’t like boys, Yachi comes to learn.
“Why didn’t you respond to Tanaka-san’s confession?” Yachi asks after a particularly embarrassing incident involving Tanaka, a rough-looking bouquet of daisies, and the surprising appearance of an angry swarm of bees.
“I’m not interested in boys,” Shimizu tells her, just like that. Like it’s simple. Like it makes perfect sense. (If she thinks about it, it really does. Shimizu is good at making things make sense.)
“Oh,” Yachi says. Then, “How—when—how did you...know.”
Shimizu looks at her like she knows something Yachi doesn’t, which Yachi wouldn’t be surprised if she does—she’s very smart and observant, and Yachi’s own observational skills are often muddled by irrational anxieties. Yachi still doesn’t know if that time she saw Hinata kick—kick!—the ball and the referee seemingly didn’t notice it was against the rules, and at this point, she’s too afraid to ask.
“I dated Sugawara in first year, just to see if I liked it,” Shimizu continues. “I didn’t. He didn’t either, but that’s—well, that’s another story.” She frowns, but Yachi’s come to recognize it as merely her thinking face, as opposed to discontentment. “So, now I know.”
“And that’s it?”
Shimizu hums, considering. “I don’t know what my feelings will be in the future.” She puts a finger to her lips, and Yachi can see the urge to chew on the tip. Shimizu does that sometimes; her cuticles are bitten and ragged, a stark contrast against her delicate hands. “But right now, I know I don’t like boys. I don’t see myself ever liking boys. And I’m perfectly content with that.”
Yachi wants to ask, What about girls? Or, what about not-quite-girls? She almost does; she holds her tongue, what’s become a habit.
There’s something blocking her airways, tangled with her lungs, and she’s afraid to test how far she can push it.
She tries again.
“Hey, Shimizu-senpai,” she starts, staring pointedly at the ground. “If you don’t like boys, then. What if you’re, um, not a girl?”
Shimizu blinks. She’s frowning again, but this time, it looks a little bit sad, and Yachi immediately wants to apologize.
But she tilts her head ever-so-slightly, and Yachi can tell she’s forming words together.
“Hitoka-chan. Can I tell you something?” Yachi nods once, twice, in rapid succession.
“When I was younger, no one else knew that I was a girl. It always made perfect sense to me, you know? I just...knew. But I had to work really hard to convince everyone to treat me the way I viewed myself.”
Yachi finds that hard to believe. Shimizu is the epitome of what a girl should be, and Yachi is not. Shimizu is dainty and feminine and comfortable in her own skin, but most importantly, Shimizu wants to be a girl, and Yachi does not.
“That’s how I know I’m a girl. You know yourself better than anyone, you know?”
She ignores the way Shimizu says You instead of I. Like she’s not just talking about herself anymore.
She’s sixteen when Yamaguchi shyly asks What pronouns do you prefer, Yachi-san. She stares blankly.
“Um, I’m not sure what you mean,” she answers, suddenly self-conscious again.
“Would you like me to explain?” Yamaguchi prompts softly, kind as ever.
“Yes, please,” she says, resolving to delve into the unknown.
Her tongue begins to loosen, only in Yamaguchi’s presence.
“It’s okay if I like girls, right?”
Yamaguchi gazes at her sympathetically. Hitoka suddenly feels all-too transparent. “Of course. Lots of girls like girls.”
“But what if I’m not, exactly, a girl. Like, a little bit. But not really.”
“So, girl-adjacent. Who likes girls.”
“Girl-adjacent.” She nods wisely, because yeah. That makes sense. Yamaguchi is so smart; she’s so lucky to have them as a friend.
They venture a little further, step by step, Yamaguchi’s steadfast support never wavering. With every breath of fresh air, her throat begins to clear.
She’s sixteen-and-a-half when she kisses Yonezawa Maiko on day three of the Spring tournament, behind the bushes separating their respective hotels.
“I didn’t think you were gay,” Maiko tells her.
“I—well—you know. Girls. Girls are good.”
“Ah, well. I’m not really a girl, actually.”
“Huh.” She pauses, letting the words wash over her, gently tugging at the knot that’s found a home deep in her core. “Me neither, I don’t think.”
“That’s cool,” Maiko says, and then she kisses her again.
(“Girls are good,” Maiko declares after the third, fourth, seventh—she’s lost count—kiss, “Not-girls are good, too.” Yachi agrees wholeheartedly.)
The knot begins to untangle. The bubble in her throat bursts and dissolves into laughter. What’s there to be afraid of, anymore?