The buds on the chestnut trees are sticky with resin, but the cold wind still cuts round the angles of the high school courtyard like it’s a winter’s day. My classmates and I are sprawled over the benches, standing at casual angles and chatting like we’re on display. I’ve been living in France for three years, but I still can’t bring myself to dress appropriately for cold weather. As soon as the sun’s weak winter rays grow strong enough to warm the denim of my jeans through a car window, I swap over to sandals. I challenge myself to start wearing them earlier and earlier every year. It’s a hopeful offering to the sun. A small statement of difference. A futile protest against adaptation.
I’m quivering in a short sleeve t-shirt and a pair of cotton trousers, bare toes white from the cold, and Éloise is staring at my chest. I glance down. My nipples are erect, the buds casting small shadows on my t-shirt. Her eyes flick up to meet mine and in a silent instant I know I’ve been challenged. Challenged to acknowledge it first. Challenged to be more flippant about it than her eyes suggest I should be.
“Caught you!” I say with a smile, keeping my gaze steady while Éloise blushes and giggles through the gaps between her fingers. Fuelled by embarrassment, her quiet shaking swells into laughter. She’s in hysterics now and all eyes are on Éloise.
“What? What’s so funny?”
She tries breathlessly to explain, but can’t bring herself to say that she was looking at my breasts. I’m quietly relieved and begin to think I’ve won the spat when James cuts through the subtlety of our interaction, stating the obvious loudly as if it were the height of wit.
“Hey Jo! I can see your nipples!”
He grins and in an instant every curve and shadow of my meagre, braless cleavage is under the scrutiny of my entire class. I know what the girls are thinking. I’m a candidate for reform, renovation, un relooking. I’m the unfortunate. The diamond in the rough. They could polish me up in no time if I only let them. It would be me, mais en mieux.
Maybe it’s because she’s a lesbian.
I had expected gossip, but not this. The words slithered out of Olive’s mouth as she and a group of my classmates toyed with the fact that I never wear a bra. What is it about that sentence? Is it the implicit disdain? The fact that a bra is the difference between my secret remaining hidden and it being known? I worked so hard to seal every possible leak with a wad of oaths. I swear Jo, I’ll never tell! But simply being me was all it took to betray myself…
Could it be that who I am and what I do can be explained because I am a lesbian?
Whichever way I look at it, no matter how much I seethe and fume at the shallow stereotype that spawned Olive’s statement, I still come up against the infuriating fact that she’s right.
Trust me to be a textbook lesbian…