Breathing Space

The news broke with a phone call from England. A distant relative, calling my Sri Lankan American immigrant parents in Connecticut and asking them, “Do you know what your daughter is putting on the internet?”

They said, “What’s the internet?”

It was 1991; the World Wide Web didn’t exist yet. My computer-savvy boyfriend had gotten me online. I spent much of sophomore year writing erotica, smutty and explicit, and I was posting to newsgroups—text-based forums that let me talk to people all over the world. I signed my own name to arranged-marriage wedding-night tales and raunchy stories like “American Airlines Cockpit.”

They called me in Chicago. My mother was so furious that she alternated between screaming at me and not speaking. My father said, “You have to take it down. Take it all down, immediately. Take my name off it.”

I responded, fighting back frustrated tears, “I can’t take it down — it’s not physically possible. The internet is forever.” True enough. But it’s also true that I could have tried to take it down; I could at least have made the stories much harder to find. I didn’t want to. Mohanraj was my name too.

For years, I told people that it didn’t even occur to me that my parents might find out. I was the only English major at the university who even used her email; almost no one I knew in person was online. But perhaps on some level I knew exposure was inevitable. Maybe I wanted to get caught, to finally have it all in the open.

I was living at college, half a country away. Freshman year, I’d kept my first real boyfriend a secret from them, a secret that churned my gut with the fear of being caught. When I held John’s hand on campus, even months into the relationship, I still felt the electric thrill of it, skin to skin. I was giddy and young and deeply in love. But I carefully kept an eye out for any South Asians. You never knew who might be playing the role of the good girl, who might know someone who knew your parents. They would inform on you, a snitch in the night, and then, catastrophe.

John lasted six months, and then there was Shmuel, briefly, and then there was actually Amanya, for one night. That was a surprise. The weight of all the secrets was piling up on me. I went home for the summer, saw the neighborhood boys I’d secretly fooled around with in high school. I had let them kiss me, put their hands under my shirt, inside my bra. We’d made out in the woods, in the tool shed, in the basement while my mother cooked dinner in the kitchen upstairs.

Back in high school, I knew the likely consequences if I were caught — screaming fights, certainly. My mother would send me out to the yard to cut a switch, and if I picked one too thin, or too thick, I’d be sent back out to get the right one. She’d have me hold my hand out, palm up, waiting for the slice of the cane. The worst bit was forcing myself to reach out my hand, to participate in my own punishment — the caning itself was almost a relief. Almost.

There was the constant threat of being shipped off to Sri Lanka to a convent school. Raised on Catholic martyr tales, I had visions of being immured in a cell, or worse, being married off to a stranger in a strange land. An arranged marriage, like my parents. They were only doing what they’d been taught, trying to be good parents, trying to keep me safe from a dangerous world. Their threats should have been enough to keep me in line, to make my mind and body behave; it worked with other immigrant daughters. I was different.

By the time I went away to college, my parents had stopped laying hands on me, though a visceral fear still gripped me every time they raised their voices. They couldn’t send me off to Sri Lanka against my will. All they could do was stop paying for college, disown me, stop talking to me. Stop loving me.

When I first started writing erotica and publishing it in online magazines, I got hate mail from strange men in India, furious that one of their women would write explicitly about sex. A journalist colleague asked me at a mixer whether I was a nymphomaniac, whether that might explain why I wanted to write about my sex life. Which honestly, wasn’t even that exciting back then; I was 24, had a boyfriend, and I lived with him. Totally normal, by American standards.

Of course, I hadn’t been raised with American standards. My parents hadn’t let me date in high school, or even go to school dances, or have sleepovers with my girlfriends. The rules were much stricter for me than for my mostly American friends, and like many teens, I was a little obsessed with fairness. It was all so obviously unfair.

Years later, I was reading to a group of college students, mostly immigrant students of color. The book I was reading from was literary fiction, Sri Lankan American immigrant stories, but there were definitely some smutty bits. Afterward, the students were full of questions, arms shooting up in the air, almost climbing out of their seats in their eagerness to ask, “How did you end up writing about sex? How did you tell your parents? How did you dare to date white boys? How how how?”

I said, “I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like the walls were closing in on me. I couldn’t live the life they wanted for me; I had to get out, somehow. I didn’t choose to hurt them; I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I accepted that hurting them, shaming them in the eyes of the community, possibly destroying our relationship, was a necessary condition of my escape.”

The students sank back in their chairs, disappointed. I could see it on their faces, how they lived their days caught between desire and fear, love and duty. I wished I had better answers for them, a formula whereby they might do and have everything their hearts desired, while keeping their parents’ love and approval.

A few years later, after screaming fights and estrangement and long silences, my parents and I managed to forge a relationship again. I went home, tensely, for Christmas, and did not talk about the white boyfriend. They did not ask. But as he was driving me to the airport, my dad finally asked me, his voice strained, “Where did we go wrong? Is your mother right? Were we not strict enough?”

I hesitated, then said, “Maybe it was because you were so strict. It made the difference between the rules in our house and the rules for my friends so obvious that I started questioning them.”

I questioned not being allowed to go on dates. I questioned not being allowed to have boys over in the house. I started questioning all of my parents’ rules, and once I decided that their rules didn’t actually make any sense to me, that opened the floodgates. That made it possible to question everything.

That’s one explanation. Or maybe I had always been set on a different path. I was the kid who raised her hand in second grade to tell the teacher she’d made a mistake on the board. Maybe the wild girl was built into my bones and flesh, and there was absolutely nothing my parents could have done to change that.

I’m not sure which answer would make them feel better.

Five years after the call from England, I was living with my boyfriend and our lover, an Australian grad student who spent three months of the year with us — her summer, our winter. After three years together, we tried to figure out a way to live together permanently, to raise children together. But distance and national borders defeated us; we loved each other, but not quite enough.

But I never went back to monogamy; that wasn’t the path for me. I’ve been with my husband for 25 years, but I also have a long-distance boyfriend of 20 years. He comes to our house regularly and is Uncle Jed to the children; he’s as likely to walk them to the bus as we are, or to take out the recycling and fix the broken seat belt in the car. My parents may never understand the romantic dimensions of my life.

Still, now I have everything they ever wanted for me, everything they feared I was throwing away. I am a professor with a house, a husband, and two darling children; I’ve even been elected to local office. We had the same destination, it turns out — secure work and home, loving family, and a respected place in the community — but we were following different maps.