I was five years old at the time—this was in 1986, when we lived in our first house in Lafayette, LA. Our neighborhood, Fox Chase, was a quiet and friendly one, and the street we lived on, Golden Fields, was full of driveways with basketball goals, and this was where I spent an endless number of hours shooting hoops, hoping that the basketball would reach the rim or backboard or anything but air. I’m short now and, of course, was much shorter then, and I had to use my utmost amount of energy to push the ball toward the goal.
I had a couple of neighborhood friends back then—some were my age and some were a bit older. My closest friend was on the other side of our house. We spent countless hours playing basketball or pretending to be Transformers, He-Man, or G.I Joe characters. I had another friend who lived in the same subdivision but not on the same street—I didn’t know that he was white and I didn’t know that I was brown then. His name was C——, and we were pretty good at falling off of our bikes. One evening, just before the sun was going down, C—– and I were playing in the front yard of his house, searching for four leaf clovers. I had just found one, when C—— asked me if I was a ______. I had never heard of the word, and I wasn’t sure, so all I could answer was that I didn’t know. It was just about to get dark so I had to run back home to wash up before getting dinner, watching Looney Tunes, and going to bed.
I was in the bathtub—my mother was washing me. As she poured water over me to clear off the soap, I looked at her and asked her if I was a ______. I remember her eyes narrowing; she stopped pouring the water over my head and though I still had a bit of soap in my eyes, I could see that my mom looked angry, angry like when I had done something wrong or when I was in trouble. She asked me where I had heard that word. I told her. She told me to never say that word again, without any explanation as to why other than that it was a bad word. Her anger turned to sadness, and it looked like she was about to cry. She poured water over me one more time before telling me to dry up.
Since that evening—of searching for four leaf clovers in his yard and hearing the word ______ for the first time and asking my mom about it, my mom told me that I couldn’t play with C—— anymore. And I didn’t. And I didn’t know why, but to see that pain and anger in my mother’s eyes, that was all it took. I just continued to shoot hoops with my neighbors or play He-Man or Transformers. I still didn’t know if I was a ______, but my wonder vanished after getting stung by a bee for the first time in my front yard of my house. And to be honest, 35 odd years later, I still don’t know if I am or not.
Shome Dasgupta is the author of i am here And You Are Gone (Winner Of The 2010 OW Press Contest), The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India), Anklet And Other Stories (Golden Antelope Press), Pretend I Am Someone You Like (Livingston Press), Mute (Tolsun Books), Spectacles (Word West Press), and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, New Orleans Review, Redivider, Necessary Fiction, New World Writing, Parentheses Journal, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Lafayette, LA, and can be found at www.shomedome.com and @laughingyeti.