Fiction · 11/27/2013

Boys and Girls and Women and Men

Boys, you notice, have perfect hair. It sticks up in just the right way — after a swim meet, after a soccer match, after changing their shirts. You think their hair is the best thing about them, even when they wrestle, finding a thing they want in someone’s hand — a box of matches, a basketball, a trading card — and pounce, scrap, pull, scuffle, roll. They pant. They come up triumphant, object between fingers, gasping for air, hair-perfect, and then they are pulled down again, shoving bodies into carpet, into turf, elbows in ribs and hands around ankles and cheeks pressed against chests, smelling of sweat, the taste of a sweet briny palm as it shoves a face into mud. The only thing you want that badly is a body that does not fold and grow soft, that could put holes in sheetrock, that could bounce off of walls. On TV, you watch street dancers who use their bodies like skateboards or boomerangs, who flip and turn and curl, and you, in the mirror in the bathroom, grow breasts.

The boys grow muscle, sprout. Their waists become the tip of the V underneath their cotton shirts. They bump up against one another. Grow more hair, more chest. They wrestle. They cannot keep their hands away — from each other, from the slick line of sweat underneath a jaw.

Out of nowhere, they get angry. You notice it. You recognize it, it sits in your belly, too. You could sit on the white wall of the campus center and dangle your thin ankles, shove your feet into sambas, let your shorts dangle around your knees, and watch things unfold. Keep your eyes low under a baseball cap. You could drive your father’s shit-can car around the suburbs at night, up and down the fog of 280, hit a deer, hit three deer, steal street signs and plunge them into the lawn, give old ladies the finger, saw the heads off of statues, vandalize the gym, the student center, the locker room. You could. When your friend Tim walks by them, they whistle, call him faggot. What do they have to be so angry about, with bodies like those?

No more touching.

Suddenly, they are full of questions for the girls. They look at you askance, draw pictures of your friends’ breasts on their trapper-keepers. Your friends laugh and flip them off. Your friends are pleased, anyway. They roll with it, develop their own filthy mouths to talk to the boys. It’s the only way to outdo them, with even more nonchalance — twat, snatch, cunt — and the boys are delighted, too, they up their game, how far can they go with this? They have contests, about everything — cough syrup as a substance to abuse, swearing accidentally in class, having sex in the parking lot with their girlfriends during passing periods (the record seventeen times in Matt Haney’s truck) — their lives a haze of baby Tylenol, whip cream cans, Ray Bans, pot, beer, Smirnoff ice, Mom’s Vicodin — everything at the ready in the glove compartment.

You’re bored with it. Your attention drifts. You notice bodies, other bodies, girl bodies, the soft curve behind a knee. You practice looking, counting the seconds, and looking away. You never look for too long.

There’s one, a senior, who catches you during soccer practice, makes you pause. She mentions a boy across the field. You’ve been busy trying to match the fold of your socks to hers, the way they hug her calf, the thin slip of her ankle, the mold of her shin guard, but she taps you on the shoulder and you look up and catch the boy’s eye. He smiles. She smiles at you. You like the soft fold of her jersey, the way it falls over her wrist, over her palm, when she nudges you. Your stomach flutters at this equation.

So you try him out, this one who looks at you, who, it turns out, likes you. He presses an eager tongue down your throat in the back of the Miata his father gave him for his sixteenth birthday. You feel that folding underneath your belly, the coiled anxiety in your chest. He has a pool in the backyard. You mother thinks it would be a good idea to marry a guy who lives in a house with a pool in his backyard. He has a few hairs on his chest, wears a little Jewish star on a gold chain. He tries to make you relax with Bob Marley on his black and white checkered bedspread, holds your small breasts in his sinewy hands. He lights incense. His shorts are faded green, have twelve pockets. Their edges are soft and frayed from the dryer. At school you search for your senior, for her eyes to tell you what to do, but she is far off, slipped into the passenger side of her boyfriend’s car.

The other boys, his friends, notice you. They begin to ask you some questions, and you feel that anger, peeling out of their mouths. A challenge, to provide proof. You can taste it, a mix of metal and blood and acne cream. They sit behind you in Chemistry and whisper. How well is he hung? What color are his balls? Blue? I bet they’re blue. They don’t wait for answers. They snicker. Their mouths are full of glass. You watch the way they lean in their chairs, knees spread, the way the veins run down their arms.

When you call him to tell him it’s over, he cries. He calls you back, asks you to reconsider. You take all the anger for those other boys and ball it up. You imagine the muscles of your hands, the long fingers crushing that feeling into an orb of hate, dense as metal, as a bullet, and you smash it into the receiver. He cries more, and you feel what the boys feel while they sit on the white wall.

Your senior graduates, her eyes hidden underneath the tassel of her mortarboard, and you feel listless all summer. In the fall, someone hits a girl on the side of the road, riding home on her bike. Drags her body along the street, under a truck. You knew her, had seen her, had played with her on the soccer team, and right now you don’t know where to look. There is no one to tell you how to make sense of this, how to find the way to hold her body, put it back together. People shelter their eyes in the hallway. No one speaks of it after the first day, swallowing it down, the shape of her. Three weeks later, on a Saturday after practice, girls gather in the locker room, arms full of paintbrushes. You join them. Everyone draws in color on the walls, in the locker room, offering her their bodies, still lithe, their blood sealed in, where the boys cannot see.

Your body keeps growing, though hers does not. Your body curves out around your hips, and hers does not. You wish things were like they were before, when you were all ankles and elbows and not this strange alien thing that seems to bloom up and bury you, that makes the other girls cross their arms and roll their shoulders forward and hide behind their hair, while she does not. She is buried, and you are not.

You practice not thinking too much. You don’t get any taller, though you think that would help, give you leverage, make it even, somehow, this widening gap between you and the world. You decide to get away, try college in another state, where your body might take another shape. You buy a skateboard. You cut your hair short. You buy a blue Adidas jacket with stripes on the sleeves. You eat two small meals a day and wear your corduroys around your hips, pelvic bones jutting out just so above the loops. You keep your eyes low, the way the boys have taught you.

In this new state, there are new girls, and now they notice, begin to have questions. They have found their voices. You have answers, though you’ve made them up; they aren’t the real ones, just the right ones. They hold this new attention. You fine-tune. Your hair sticks up on top, but it takes work. It’s not straight, never straight, needs your constant monitoring. You check that hair in every mirror and window and side-view you catch your own eye in.

Maybe everybody’s bored. Maybe everybody’s angry. Some days you just want to sidestep the whole thing, but it works, somehow, your hair, the questions, girls slipping their tongues along the inside of your lower lip in bathroom stalls, in hallways, in parking lots. So you keep going. You keep your hands in your pockets and lean. As long as you lean, as long as you let them lean in (this is the trick, leaning away, just a little, a little withholding, because if you lean forward you’re done for, got it, the whole thick as thieves in the parking lot scene will be over because she doesn’t need that kind of pressure, and you can hold onto it, that coil in your center can hold so much more before it springs), you are safe. You keep your touch light, at the small of the back, the collarbone, the hipbone, the wrist. You open their knees with your knees and wait, and they like that, the space, the intimacy, the anticipation. They like it, and you hold it there between you.

The boys have not disappeared. They have new questions. They ask them in the daylight, at dusk, in the middle of the night. They ask them with beer cans, crumpled and thrown from a car, with fingers sucked down throats, with glares and nods and shoulder shrugs and not so slow pacing behind you on a city street. They still wear baseball caps. They ask you if you wish you had a cock. They ask you how it’s done. They don’t believe you, look for language, dyke, nah, nah, bulldyke, nah, lesbo, how about bitch with a dick, a plastic dick, do you wear it all the time? Cocksucker. The last one really for good measure. You wonder at their lack of imagination. You think of sheetrock, of your hands. You start to wonder how much pain you could take, if you could break a hand in a fight. You test it, rubbing your knuckles until they bleed. It’s less than you want. You wimp out pretty quickly, cry too often. You still haven’t grown any taller.

The girls, meanwhile, show signs of waver in their attention. They take their time, let their eyes flit to the far side of the parking lot, to their friends passing by on their way to class. And you are distracted, too, moving from one set of eyes to the next, noticing their ambivalence, the tepid smiles of their roommates. You try to regroup, find something permanent, one (she calls herself a woman) that says she’ll stick around, who waves you like a flag in her conversations. You’re a political hammer, a fist of righteousness, a solid fuck-you in the face of fossilized assumptions about your girlfriend’s tastes. You win the conversation, and you don’t have to say anything. She’s a good mouthpiece. She storms around in t-shirts with loud slogans about your clitoris. She’s never even seen your clitoris. She would probably have very little to say about your clitoris were it not written on a t-shirt like a proclamation. You don’t like things to get this specific, this one note, this personal, and anyway her friends have been circling the wagons, casting glances over their shoulders. You double down on your lean, keep your hands in your pockets, wear a white t-shirt and feel glad you’re still skinny enough for a flat line. She dumps you for a boy from Harvard. You get a haircut.

Anyway, there are other girls. Always other girls. Some like to make out in front of headlights, show it off, to prove a point, like she does, some keep it behind closed doors, some in public places, like bathrooms, or basements, some on their parents’ beds, god, that’s the worst, and you have to keep going, onto the next. It’s a rite of passage, a bottleneck, or at least a challenge, but for whom? She’s onto the next boyfriend, you’re onto the next lean. You never take your clothes off. It makes it easier to avoid the words, and there’s too much language. You’re drowning in it. You can’t figure out your own spelling. People hand you labels like they’re Halloween candy, but you’re in a world of bodies, of girls with long collarbones and arched feet. Honestly. Fuck it. You’re late to the rulebook. There are too many terms. You call yourself nothing.

Still no touching.

How long can this go on? Not forever. Eventually, you take your clothes off. You weren’t paying attention, lost your vigilance. You’re thrown off-balance. Whole groups of eyes begin to lay claim to you, to outline your shape, give it a name. You miss the space. You scream for the space in your head. You’ve given up on haircuts. You ignore the girls, the women, their laughter and light touches on your arm, that’s too much, too inviting, brings too much heat to your face. You look around to see what the men have been doing. You sleep with one or two, out of inertia. They are interested to hear about all the girls you’ve fucked. They ask if you’re a virgin, then, an old word made new. You try not to disappoint them. They call you lesbian with a wink before sticking their tongue down your throat. You wonder if they are also trying to be ironic in their kissing style, or if you’ve just had bad luck, if you’re a magnet for this kind of thing. Sometimes they seem amazed, dumbstruck, that you are naked underneath your clothes, and you recall this feeling, the sheer disbelief of a woman naked in front of you, how it can move a person to grief. They ask you about the hair on their chests, how it feels to you, but not about the way their stubble rubs your mouth pleasantly, hungrily, painfully raw, and you wonder about that hunger, because you both have it, seeking out what the other holds. Are you looking for the same thing? Who are they touching, anyway, when they encircle you with their arms, their broad shoulders, their narrow waists, let your fingers slide in between the bones of their ribcages? And then — it breaks, it shifts, and you’re out of questions, throwing off the covers, searching for your jeans. They like to look at you naked. They sit back, admire, let their eyes cover you. You squirm. You long for dark places. You care little for the sweetness of it, for the things they whisper. You’ve heard it. You made it up, you’ve said all this, you know what they’re doing. You feel that coil compressing, unleashing its language. You are surprised to hurt them, at the hurt that crosses a face in the dark.

You could get a haircut. You could try a lean, you could buy a jacket, a skateboard, a car. You could start running, biking, skating, rock climbing, or at least wear those kinds of outfits, you could get a tattoo, get sleeves, get pierced. You could develop allergies, intolerances, you could imbibe, imbibe a lot, find a favorite bar, a favorite bartender (but that could lead to something) — you could find a cult, speak in tongues, take vows, you could get a diagnosis, you could get three, get a shrink, get three shrinks, and a psychic, and an acupuncturist and energy healer and shit, you could grow old this way. There are ways to not live in the world. There are ways to avoid the in-between, that great vacant space rolling out in front of you. You could jam it full of mothballs, be done with it.

Do this. Do this now, so we can both be saved: Stand naked, in front of the mirror, on a tile floor in the bathroom, for easy clean up. Cut open your chest. Watch your heart, in all its slippery blood, pulse there. Count to ten. Dive your hand below, in the space left in the hollow, and pull out the coil. Look at it. That is the child you were given. That is the child growing inside you, the one you didn’t ask for, the one who made you, so put it back. Hold it there. Keep your fingers in the shape of a womb, a little hollow. Know it, now, in your hands, its texture, its skin, slippery, maybe sharp, a gum, an eye, a foot, a fist, hold it. It will release you when it’s ready. Withdraw your hands. Sew yourself up. You will have questions. I can’t tell you how, or where, or why, or when. What this feels like reminds me of nothing else.

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Elisabeth Hamilton is a recent graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.  Her work has appeared in Five Chapters. Currently, she is at work on a novel about California, where she grew up. She lives and teaches in New York City.