Changxi shouldn’t be there. She should be at home, practicing her Chopin etudes and reviewing her AP Biology notes for the test tomorrow.
Changxi’s heart began to race as she turned around the corner. It was twilight, long after the close of school. Her mother usually was home by now, but she had a late shift at the hospital, and had texted to say that she wouldn’t be home until morning.
Changxi shouldn’t be there. She should be at home, practicing her Chopin etudes and reviewing her AP Biology notes for the test tomorrow. She should be studying hard, so that her mother’s sacrifices to bring her to this country were not in vain. They had moved to America, which supposedly had the best education system in the world. As her mother had told her countless times, she couldn’t afford anything less than top grades, which would guarantee her placement into a top college or conservatory, which would then guarantee her a high-paying job. Working hard was the only avenue to success; she had been told so countless times.
But today, Changxi didn’t want to work hard. She wanted to let herself go loose like those American girls, let herself dance and sing and shout like they all did. She wanted to let herself go. She wanted to be with… Nandini.
The Indian girl had helped her in so many ways that Changxi could not even express. She’d showed her to classes, helped her with her English, and had sat with her every day during lunchtime. She was always a beacon of excitement, constantly chattering and cracking jokes that dissolved Changxi into laughter. It was so strange, this sensation of joy that stretched across her lips and made her want to lose herself in its madness.
She found she could no longer immerse herself in studying or practicing as she once had. Whenever she opened her algebra homework, her mind glazed over the pages of equations and Nandini’s face wandered into her mind. Whenever she placed her fingers on the piano, she thought of Nandini’s laughter, her deep brown eyes, her full lips and wide smile…
Why am I always thinking of her? She must stop this. At this point, Nandini was an obsession, someone that distracted her from her work and duty. I must stop doing this.
She reached the park. It was a beautiful area, the dark green trees illuminated by the bright moonlight. The full moon was hanging overhead, shining everywhere. Ahead of her, Changxi could see Nandini, wearing a tan skirt and a floral red top. It made Changxi feel self-conscious, with her torn blue sweater that had been passed down by her mother, and she slightly bowed her head.
“You came,” Nandini said, almost in a whisper. She came forward, her dark brown eyes shining. “Come, let’s go.” She lightly touched Changxi’s shoulder.
The two walked in the moonlight. Changxi’s heart beat wildly, partially because she was still afraid of what would happen if she was caught, and partially because Nandini was here, right here, at her shoulder. This is just a dream… She stared up at the moon, the beautifully bright moon that lit up the sky.
“I looked up your name online,” Nandini said, breaking into the silence. “It means ‘moon goddess’.”
Changxi blushed slightly. “I’ve never seen the moon,” she admitted. “At least, not like this.”
“Really?” asked Nandini in surprise.
“Where I lived, there was always so much pollution,” Changxi answered. Back in Beijing, the air had been so much fouler, and there had been so much streetlight as well. “This is… beautiful.” She had never seen something so simple, and so luminous at the same time.
“So, what do you want to do?” Nandini asked, her skirt flouncing as she turned around. “This park is huge, and no one comes here at night. Do you want to take a walk around?”
“Let’s run,” Changxi responded. “I want to run.”
Nandini looked at her in surprise. “You’re in a spirited mood today,” she commented. “Really? You want to run?”
“Yes,” Changxi responded. She didn’t know where this feeling was coming from, either, but didn’t want to stifle it, either. “I want to run.”
“But I hate running,” Nandini protested. “And I’m wearing a skirt. Come on, Chang, anything but” –
“I can make it to the maple tree before you!” Changxi started off on a sprint, running towards the silver maple.
From behind she could hear Nandini shouting, “No fair, Chang, you got a head start!”
Changxi continued running. She could feel the night unfurling itself before her, the dark and mesmerizing trees ahead of her, the moon shining her liberating face across the sky. She would have never done this months ago, but she didn’t care. She was having more fun than she’d ever had in her life.
I’m flying, free… As high as the ravens above her, as insurmountable as liberation itself, she would fly for one night, freeing herself from life’s cruel grasp and living in this breathtaking, fantastical world. For one night, nothing would weigh her down…
She gasped as she felt something crash into her, and tumbled to the ground. Hands were on her shoulders, pulling at her, and her silky black hair fell in strands everywhere. From above, she could hear Nandini’s triumphant screech, “I got you!”
Changxi flipped around and fought Nandini to stand up. The two play-wrestled for some time, laughing and shouting. Changxi could see Nandini’s laughing face as she tried to pull herself up, and each time, couldn’t; although she was physically stronger than Nandini, she could not force herself against the other girl’s will. She adored her too much to let her go.
Eventually, Changxi gave up and fell to the ground. Nandini was still on top of her. The two gazed intently into each other’s eyes. Beyond their usual cheery gaze, Changxi could see something more potent flickering behind Nandini’s eyes. Something… more concrete. She could feel it too, in her own self. And she knew what it was.
She didn’t even stop to think. Instead, she pushed Nandini slightly back, pulled herself up to a sitting position, and kissed her.
The electrifying sensation sent chills down Changxi’s back. It was more thrilling than anything she’d ever felt, more connective than anything. It made her feel alive, as if she was made of the hottest flame, of the fiercest wind. She could feel the moon smiling down on them, the symbol of all that was free, of all that was right…
And just as suddenly, she pulled back.
“Changxi?” Nandini was immediately next to her. “What happened? Wh-what’s wrong?”
“Everything,” responded Changxi. She stood up and began to walk towards the maple tree, stroking its rough hide. When she turned around, Nandini was a stride-length away from her, her eyes filled with worry.
“All my life, I’ve been told to work hard, to allow no time for the things you Americans like so much, such as going out with each other and having fun. And I must continue with that. I need to get into a good college, and continue with my study of piano.” She was well-aware of Nandini’s breath in front of her, staggered and gasping.
“But ever since I’ve met you, you’ve made me want to change. You’ve made me want to do things that are clearly so wrong, but make me feel so good inside. You’ve made me want to misbehave!” Her heart was beating wildly as she forced out the next words. “And worst of all, you’ve made me do something so unnatural. You’ve made me love you, when we are both girls, and when I should be working instead of searching for, well, love.” The word sounded so foreign and strange on her tongue. “So tell me, Nandini. Why am I like this? Why am I so broken inside?”
She leaned against the tree and closed her eyes. Only a broken person would succumb to such human vices and want something that wasn’t attainable. Only a broken person would spend time away from studying, when she had a test tomorrow and three auditions coming up in the next month. Only a broken person would kiss another girl. This whole country is broken.
“You’re not broken,” Nandini’s voice pierced through the air.
Changxi opened her eyes. Nandini was now only mere inches away from her now. She wanted to draw away, but the tree behind her inhibited her mobility. “What?” she asked.
“I said, you’re not broken,” Nandini repeated. She placed her hands on Changxi’s shoulders. “You’re beautiful. You’re clever, and you’ve got a heart of gold. You’ve also worked yourself to death, and beat yourself over the head for no reason at all. And by the way, there’s nothing unnatural about love.”
“You’re another girl,” Changxi protested. “It’s just – I can’t feel this way for you. It’s so… wrong.”
“It isn’t wrong,” Nandini answered quietly. “It’s beautiful. People like us have been around since the dawn of time, amid all persecution, and will continue to be around for centuries to come. Changxi, I’ve felt this way for you since the moment I set eyes on you. And ever since I’ve been with you, you’ve proved it to me. You’re clever, you’re hardworking, and you’re a brilliant person – not to mention a kick-butt pianist. So please, Changxi. Stay with me.”
A month ago, Changxi would have run for the hills and never looked back. She would’ve turned away from the light of the moon, not just breaking her heart, but also pounding it against the rocks. After all, her own happiness wasn’t important – it was her duty to her family that took precedence above all else.
But she gave in. The two sat on the grass, with Nandini’s head leaning against her shoulder. The two were silent for some time, and then Nandini began to speak. She said a joke, one that made Changxi lean over and her sides hurt with laughter. It made her heart expand with happiness, like a balloon that was being inflated and inflated, but could never reach its full capacity.
The two girls talked and talked for as long as they could. Eventually, tiredness overtook them, and they collapsed on the grass. Changxi entwined her legs with Nandini’s, feeling the other girl’s heartbeat as well as her breath, feeling that as long as they were together, nothing could ever go wrong… She fell asleep, her thoughts finally at rest within her mind.
Morning came. Dawn started to poke her way through the sky, lighting the horizon with pale streaks. Changxi awoke, her body aching from the revelry of the previous night. Beneath her, Nandini was still snoring. With the coming of day, the ethereal splendor of the previous night had faded, and she sat up straight, anxiety taking over her nerves.
Mama will be reaching home any minute now, she realized. I have to go. She couldn’t stay here any longer. That beautiful dream was all gone, in the past. It had only been for one night.
Or was it? She could reject the values she’d been brought up with, and continue to meet with Nandini in secret. She would be a good girl on the outside, but at night, could explore her innermost desires, with the girl she loved.
She looked down at Nandini’s face, her perfect face, framed with short curly hair. If she had a choice, she would stay with her. But she knew this couldn’t be who she was. She was brought up to work, and work she would do. For the rest of her life, she would continue to work hard, to do her duty to her family and mankind.
Now the guilt was settling in. She’d snuck out at night, kissed another girl, and spent so much time that should have been spent practicing or studying for the biology test that was… today. She was going to be in a lot of trouble.
I can’t do this, she realized. This isn’t who I’m supposed to be. I have to go back to not wanting, doing what I’ve always done.
She looked up at the sky. The sun was beginning to emerge from the horizon, a wondrous red color. She tried to find the moon, but realized it had vanished. It had set sometime while she was asleep, along with her foolish, frivolous dreams of ever finding love.
“Goodbye, Nandini,” she whispered, placing a final kiss on the girl’s forehead. She pulled herself up and began to walk towards the entrance to the park, never looking back at what she had given up or what she had lost.
Nandini was right. She was not broken; she was destroyed beyond repair. She had been whole just for one night, when that sensation of love had swept across her, corrupting her mind and making her fall prey to decadent desire.
But she would no longer do it again. She would be the girl she was raised to be, always obedient and dutiful. She would never make that mistake again.
With the moon long gone, she took a deep breath and made the journey home.
Sahana Narayan is a senior in high school. She loves reading and writing, and has written many stories of her own. Her short stories pull together a blend of American culture, Asian culture, and worldview ideas. She is the editor-in-chief of her school’s literary-magazine.