Being a girl was complicated. It was swallowing rusty nails and clawing our way towards something we didn’t even know we really wanted.
When I was thirteen I told Stephanie that drinking orange juice could stop you from fainting because it raises your blood sugar. In sophomore year, she slammed her head, saw stars, and ended up drinking an entire carton in one sitting. She vomited on her kitchen floor, but she couldn’t tell if it was from the concussion or from a pint of orange juice sitting in her stomach. Her doctor told her mother, “All girls try throwing up at some point.”
I remember the first time one of my friends came to me with eyes so red I thought she’d inhaled a desert. She said her mother had died from breast cancer the night before. She said her home was an open grave, a holy space. She said she’d rather be in school than dealing with an absence so loud nobody could speak. I still think about her every time someone says “save the ta-tas” instead of “please god save our mothers haven’t enough of us suffered.”
On certain Saturday nights we’d all get dressed up like we were going somewhere fancy and then sit in and watch Disney movies. We filled ourselves up with popcorn and gossip. When Patty showed up with a black eye again, we all said nothing about it. We were too young to make fists out of fingers, I think.
A girl on the train was reading a book I love. We got to talking. She’s from the Peace Corps, she said, gave me a smile like a thousand volts. She was one of those people who make you feel good about yourself. When she got up to go, she gave me a little wave. I said “Go stop violence,” and she laughed. Hanging off the back of her bag was a little pink can of mace.
We learned to be secret defend-each-other types. We were going to hold the world down until it liked us. There is something bold about being defiant. There is something about having soft petal skin and still showing sharp teeth.
The box was little and teal and had a bow attached to it. Inside was a pair of brass knuckles in the shape of cat ears. “In case,” my father said, “In case.”
I remember my sister, body wrapped in a towel, saying, “It’s not as bad as it looks,” her shinbone a mess of blood where her razor slipped. She said she saw the patch of skin she removed. She wiggled her eyebrows while holding up her pointer finger. “This long,” she said, “And pretty thick.” She had to throw it out rather than let it clog the drain.
He was tall and gawky and if you asked him personal questions, his ears turned red. He asked if I wanted to go out to the pond in the woods. I blushed and told him I couldn’t swim, and he gasped as if he’d been stung. He picked me up so easily, like I weighed nothing. He put me in the trunk of his car. We were laughing.
Much later, a stranger the same size would say, “Hey mama, wanna come home with me?”
I remember I met this one girl passed out on a couch, her dress hiked up around her hips. She was lying in her own vomit. “Let’s keep walking,” someone said, “Don’t get involved.” I was too much empathy in a small body to let her go unprotected. She shivered in the shower we put her in. Her skin was so blue around her eyes, I thought maybe she’d slipped the sky in there. She looked terrified. I asked her how much she drank, she couldn’t say. I asked her how she got here, she bit her lip and shook her head. “My friends… Just left,” she said, “They just left.” Sometimes friends are like that, I guess.
In late nights, I heard Kathrine crying about the things her father had said to her. She once told me that if it was a choice between being born with her learning disabilities and being born without a tongue, she’d choose the latter one. I whispered something of an apology that fell as flat as I felt, we don’t talk about it ever again.
Skeleton hands never stop shaking me awake. Sometimes I think we’re drowning and sometimes I think we are just painted that way. There’s never an excuse not to be dainty. Someone once told me that beauty is pain.
I remember her lips and how they were bright pink, because the words out of them were sick green things. Maggie said she’d swallowed eighty-nine Tylenol two days before. She said they’d filled her with charcoal and had her spit back up the blackness that was swelling like a river inside of her. We were fourteen.
We flirted with people we didn’t know, we used other people’s hands to mess up our hair, we got home late. We towered in heels that hurt to look at. We felt fierce, on fire. We painted our lips blood red and kissed the mirror until we got a perfect mark out of it. We’d spend ages just getting ready. It was the fun part of parties, I guess.
Her spine cracked while she rested her head on my leg. She said, “Let’s never get old, okay?” and I told her that sounded great. Sometimes in the darkness, she’d sound serious about it. I wanted to ask her if she was fighting bigger demons than the ones I can raise, but before I found out, she moved away.
We belonged to a group that was all punchline. Someone says, “teen girls, am I right?” and laughter spreads like ripples through the room.
I remember the first time you find out that they hurt one of your friends, because that’s how you find out you’re not safe either. She looked so whole, and that was the problem. Her mascara wasn’t even running. I watched her tell the story five ten twenty times to officers who shuffled papers and sniffed at every other word and sighed often and looked at their watch even though they were the reason she was talking. They asked her what she was wearing, she gestured to her body: jeans, tee-shirt, hoodie. They asked her if she knew him, she said no. They asked her if she provoked him, she said no. They asked her if she told him to stop, she fell silent. After a while, she’d try to explain the fear that had crept up her throat until she had choked. They sighed. Asked for the story again. She had this look on her face that I still dream about. It looked like someone had sucked her soul out.
Kelly in the ninth grade with her shining face telling me, “One of us is the better person. Everyone always compares us.”
A waiter looking down my shirt and saying, “Just a water for you, huh?”
Ballet class with pin-thin shaking hands and bathrooms that smelt like a bad dream. A teacher who said, “Don’t eat unless you faint, darlings.” You get used to cigarettes in the hands of young girls. You get used to the backstage addictions of “only nine hundred more crunches to go.” You get used to seeing this stuff until one day someone asks you why you know all the calories in a grapenut.
The television saying, “Lose weight, feel great.”
The television saying, “Girls mean nothing.”
The television saying, “If you’re not pretty, you’re not worth discussing.”
The television saying, “If you’re pretty, your personality is awful.”
The television saying, “Spend your money.”
My father telling me: there’s nothing wrong with this system.