For as long as I remember, my grandmother loved papayas. On Sundays, I would wake up no later than noon, stumble into the kitchen, and stare at all the counters covered in those plastics thank you bags with red roses on them from Chinatown. 

Liesey look, they were on sale. So sweet,” she’d say. 

Before putting anything else away, she always cut open the papaya first. Gently she’d trace along the curvature of the fruit. The green gave way to a bright orange with a yellow that danced along the sides. In the center nested the little bulbs of black seeds. Papayas always reminded her of cool mornings and warm nights in the Philippines. They reminded me–of fire. 

In seventh grade, my class took a trip to a ranch at the end of the school year for a picnic. This would also be the last year the district felt it was appropriate to send city kids to melt in the Livermore Valley, so that we could “get a change in scenery.” Although being surrounded by horseshit and farm animals in ninety-degree weather was not exactly the most appetizing venue for an afternoon meal, there was one thing that made the whole trip worthwhile: the pool. If there is anything to be mentioned about the neighborhood and the kids that I grew up with, it was that this was a momentous occasion. Much of the food went untouched that afternoon. The picnic tables served as solemn altars, with only flies taking worship, set to the faint sounds of children on the other side of the hill. 

The pool was much more than salvation away from the heat, or an excuse to check out your crush. It meant so much more. Each kid plunged head-first and let the cool water swallow them whole, allowing ourselves to be encased in an aqueous shell. We opened our eyes underwater, knowing that in those moments of fragmented sight, still breath, and silence, we didn’t drown in the words underserved youth.

I spent the entire afternoon in that pool. Floating on my back, with my ears just far enough into the water to muffle the laughter and screams. I’d slowly let my eyes drift toward the sun, all the way. up until that moment when a flash of light would burst into my eyes and shrink into a glittering ball in the sky (and I still wonder why I need glasses today). It was sweltering, but despite the forty-plus bodies in the pool, the water still felt cool. I just floated there, with the front side of my body burning in the heat of the sun, and my back cradled and caressed by the cool touch of water. This was the first time in my life that I understood the meaning of balance. 

There was a collective gasp in the girl’s bathroom. Quickly followed by scores of laughter. 

“Look in the mirror!” 

We were comparing tan lines, and of course mine was the worst. 

“Your mom is gonna get so mad.” 

“Maybe it’ll fade.” 

“Did you wear sunblock?” 

“Your boobs and ass are different colors.” 

I took a few small steps toward the graffiti-etched mirror with my head tilted down. Unlike the sun, I wasn’t in a hurry to see what came next. There would be no glittering ball of light—just me. 

At twelve years old, I didn’t really have much of a body to speak of. Although we were all technically children, other girls had already begun to develop and it was noticeable by the boys who followed their G-strings down B-Hall. I was not one of these girls. Everything about my bodily structure could be defined by the word narrow and the only intrusion to that constant was my wide front teeth. I would also hear the words “late bloomer” for years. I looked up at the mirror and my throat pinched. All I could focus on was the faint line of pale skin that ran parallel to the edges of my new swimsuit. I was in too much of a hurry to put on sunblock, and the only kiss I received that day was from the sun. 

Lola was going to kill me. 

“What did you do?! You’re so dark!”

“Nanay…. I just went swimming.”

“Why don’t you ever go in shade? Look in the mirror! Ang itim mo!” 

“It’ll go away.” I felt my voice beginning to shake. 

“Ay, wait til your mom is home. You look like your dad now. Too much outside.” 

My dad wasn’t around much, so this was a two-sided insult. She grabbed both sides of my head and took a deep breath in. 

“Hmph! You smell like araw. You look dirty now. You shower. I’ll get you soap.” 

Growing up, I always remembered three key things about being Filipino: respect my elders, eat all my rice, and papaya soap made your skin lighter. 

The bar of soap resembled a giant Pez. It was orange and smelled sweet. I looked into the mirror at the outline traced onto my body. This pseudo-swimsuit guaranteed that I’d never really be naked for the next six months. I stood in the shower for a few minutes, listening to the crashing of water against the floor, watching the scent of the sun swirl into a spiral down the drain. I clutched the soap in my hand and began to scrub. Gently at first, and then with an increasing ferocity. It was only once I tilted my head away from the jet-stream that I realized that I was crying. I was too young to understand. The words “European standards of beauty” meant nothing to me. No one was going to explain social cognizance to a girl who lost her shit at the sight of a swimming pool. No one would explain that you could colonize the heart as well. All I knew was that according to the rules I’d been taught up until this point, I had gotten at least four shades uglier. I was already scrawny, and by my age, my mother had fully-formed breasts and a complexion so light that people started rumors that my grandmother had had an affair with a sailor. But I am not my mother. 

I’m still not sure whether it was the steam or my thoughts, but my surroundings began to get cloudy. I would never be as pretty as her. She’ll yell too. They’ll start calling me Mowgli again. This will never come off, I’m never swimming again. Now I don’t look good in white. I don’t look like him. I don’t look like him. I don’t look like him. 

And then… my skin began to burn. 

Just a few tingles around my cheekbones at first, little circles slowly prickling the surface. Slowly the pricks began to trickle down, and then a burst of light—no, flames. I turned the water as cold as it would go but the heat still radiated from my flesh as if I were just about to metamorphose into my own glittering ball. But this would not be beautiful. I would feel every lick of flame the sun dressed its surface with. My skin. It was hurting me. I was convinced I was being punished. This was nature’s way of telling me to stay in the shade, to do what I was told, to stop fighting. I ran out of the shower and wrapped a towel snug across my two-toned body and let the pins press even further as I held the towel tight. 

“Nanay! Nanay! It’s burning me! It hurts!” 

She looked at my shoulders, exactly where my “straps” lay… 

“It only burns because you’re too dark.” 

It would be another four years until I found out that I was allergic to papayas. I’d spend four more summers scrubbing my skin, scourging my body for the sin of being kissed by the sun.