It all happened during that swift chunk of time when the sharp smell of a boy’s sweat made your mouth dry. The lumps of spit so big and tough to swallow that they made a sound. When you wanted so badly to say the right wrong thing that would piss them off enough to grab your hair, then your neck, the tops of your shoulders, the dimpled parts of your back, the meat that hangs out over your jeans, your butt. Hoping that when they wrestled you to the ground, the part where they were trying to keep you there, still and quiet, lasted long enough for you to tell if they liked you too. The grass stained stretched-out sides of your t-shirt, a sign that for a moment, yours was the only face they saw.
Anthony was a boy and the name of my pillow that I pressed myself up against every night. The puffy pillow corners resting between my legs the moment my little sister turned off her lights. Anthony had a unibrow that ‘grew out’ in the seventh grade. He was the last of our class to learn how to read, and in the summer wore one of three pairs of silky oversized basketball shorts: red, blue or black. He had a slight stutter he never tried to hide and plump girlish hips that I wanted to suck hard on, like one of those ugly fish who spend their lives eating fish tank gunk and poo, using their mouths to make things sparkle.
Anthony was my reason for everything. The reason for burning my hair straight with an iron, for caramel highlights, for a stream of rings in the boney parts of my ears, for painting my face another colour before the acne event hit, for push up bras that made that part of my body look like it didn’t belong to me, for hairless spots that left me bumpy and sore, for South Park, for Tupac, for horror movies, for music that sounded like screaming, for my parents' vodka, my sister’s mascara, for all the girls I put down.
I craved for Anthony to like me back in a way that would make him mine. I had considered the way he treated the pretty girls in our class: snapping Maria’s bra strap against her back like a sling shot, rubbing his sweaty palms together then flicking the formed little black balls of skin against Veronica’s neck, agreeing to a slow dance with both Cassandra and Chantel, only if they decided to time-share the song beforehand. I needed Anthony for myself. I wanted him to like me in a way that made all those other girls dissolve. A way that made him soft, a way that made me shine. I wanted him to like me like one of the older girls.
I used to love to watch the way a boy my age would transform around a girl my big sister’s age. How they turned into a drooling pint-size pup, a heap of greyish snow slush. Like Tom Hanks at the end of Big when he finally makes it home to his mom and suddenly he’s not a man but a child swimming in what looks like his dad’s suit. I adored the way the older girls carried themselves. The way they dragged their feet, stomping around the schoolyard; how they laughed, a cackle straight from the gut, how they called their teacher ‘sir’ and boys ‘hunnie’; more than anything, I loved the way they dressed.
They gifted us, the younger girls, with a uniform of sorts. Hip hugging Parasuco jeans with flared bottoms, Triple 5 Soul hoodies so skin-tight and formfitting you’d wear it as a shirt, pink suede tims paired with itchy over the ankle grey socks, white spotless and starchy bandana headbands, a pill-sized glass container housing a grain of rice etched with your name or initials paired with a palm tree or a teeny dazzling carroty sunset. The older girls decorated their necks with pieces of a broken heart. A declaration of sisterhood and possession. They flaunted their moods on their rings and bared their souls on their asses. DEVIL, REBEL, HEART-BREAKER, JUICY, SWEETIE, DOLL. The older girls were in charge of the choosing, the naming, the self-identifying. They christened themselves and flaunted their titles on the bumpy part of their bodies, the part that grew out and round from their form. The part the boys thought belonged to them; theirs to gawk at, theirs to touch, theirs to name.
I’ll never forget the moment Anthony looked at me. The kind of look I had dreamed up in my head. A look that turned into a study, a second glance; eyes that moved up and down then up and down again. It happened in those pants. A lesson in securing and keeping a boy’s gaze passed on from the older girls.
I treasured the sway of those sweatpants. Cream fleece, billowy bottoms, a drawstring waist riding low on my hips. The words ANGEL BABY in bright pink block letters sewn across the back, marking my cheeks with not one, but two self-given names.
For months they hung in the right side of my closet. A hunk of space reserved for things I told myself I’d one day have the guts to wear. Living in the wings of some play. Perpetually waiting to be called on. Quietly convinced they’d already missed their cue. They existed alongside a droopy grassy green Celtics jersey, glittery kitten heeled flip flops coated in clear jelly, a red tulle skirt freckled with black polka dots and the kind of underwear that rest between you, because after a certain age, you have to make it look like you’re not wearing any. Laced with tags, perfumed with stale department store air. Stiff and itchy as hell. These unsoiled things, all together and in one place, represented a future me.
A me who’d wear gluey pink lipstick to the grocery store, a me who’d chill outside of malls past closing, bobbing my head to whatever fuzzy music traveled through borrowed parked car windows, a me who’d know where to put my hands, a me who’d turn my voice thick and scratchy from singing, a me who’d say hi to my reflection, a me who’d kick soccer balls back that rolled at my feet, a me who’d lie flat in a pool, clad in a bikini, no gym shorts, no baggy t-shirt, my belly puffed out and free so the sun could smooch it, a me who’d think a thing, sometimes more than one, and do it.
Barely knowing myself didn’t matter because I knew vividly and with such ease who I wanted to become.
Through their whispered jabs, poorly coded notes and hurried over the shoulder glances, it was girls my own age who taught me how to deal with all the ugly bits that came with change. Like the sticky June morning I raised my hand in class unaware of the hair that sprouted under my arms, or the time I entertained my mom’s idea of adding a layer of toilet paper to my pad - ‘just to be safe’- before gym class, or my boobs coming in overnight, how I didn’t think I needed to wear a bra because they weren’t something you could squeeze in your hand, they didn’t jiggle, and even if you pushed them together really hard they still didn’t touch.
I don’t think the boys knew exactly why they didn’t like us, the girls their age. The ones who knew them before they got famous. All that time before the 4th grade when we treated them like they were one of us. Before they had all that weight. Boys, they’re just like us. Sure, they could easily spit out some single syllabled snubs, but I think for them it was more of a feeling. Either something happened or it didn’t. And if nothing happened when it was meant to, then that was that. No take backs. But those girls in my class knew why. They could size up your lacking in a second.
Maybe the pants could scrub away all those messy bits of me that had somehow gone awry. All those disappointing fleshy changes I envisioned playing out like the final shot in some under the skin movie makeover. A salon chair swirl, a listless march down a twisty staircase, two pals curled up outside a joyless chain store change room, tuckered out and hopeless, and then suddenly, a fitting room door creaks open and they come alive. There she is. She’s beautiful and round but slim and it doesn’t matter which part of her you catch first because everything on her is exactly the same on all sides. This whole time she wasn’t ugly, just a half-formed, partly grown thing.
Looking back, I really don’t know how, with all that fear taking up so much space inside me, I was able to make it to school in my ANGEL BABY’s. The biggest part of that fear was the knowledge that if I wanted to be seen by Anthony I had to be seen by everyone else.
I wished there was a way to do both those things at the same time: be seen and unseen. Like living mostly in some dark place. Not a scary kind of darkness, but the kind that wraps around you right before something good starts. Like in a movie theatre or an airplane. Lights off right before wheels touch the ground to someplace new. Beginnings of delicate things, delicate because you want them so badly they could break easy in your hand, wrapped in a snug duvet. That kind of darkness, the kind that lives under covers.
And then, in no time at all, you can see.
Eyes don’t sting those first couple seconds after opening them. The light slides off the ends of your hair into a puddle at your feet. It shines down so hard on you that you can’t see anything else. You feel safe because you know, even though you can’t see them, you’re not alone.
I think that’s maybe how I could do it, because being liked by someone is like being seen and unseen at the same time.
Still, I sported my ANGEL BABY’s on the same day I had a dentist appointment- knowing well this would be a half-day. My wonky spirits could make it through three hours of putting myself out there. My bravery expired around the time it took to watch both VHS tapes of Titanic.
I made it back to school dead set in the middle of ‘lunch recess’ and marched unsteadily to the patch of yellowed grass behind the 3rd grade class porta potties. This was the spot where the boys liked to hang out and smoke ‘cigarettes’ (lined paper stuffed with bark shavings and dandelion stems.) I weaved through the mob of boys bellowing out ‘Jessica’, the name of my best friend who I pretended to have lost.
It happened almost immediately. A look from Anthony, then the approach, another look (up close this time) then the words ‘you look different’.
The first thing was felt inside. It came fast, starting in my stomach, then spreading out to both ends of me at the same time. Something close to that feeling you get on a roller coaster, the one where your feet dangle out, that rushes down that one monster hill it’s named after. It wasn’t the falling part exactly, but the moment after when your feet touch back on the ground and after all that fuss and all that unease, a tiny voice reminds you that you’re still here.
And from that view I could see that I was cheated. There was no magic. No filling in. No smoothing out. Just a flush of relief from a story I told myself to keep me safe. One fake reality toppled over by another. Like in a film when you see a couple curled up tightly on a couch, engrossed by something on a screen that actually exists in the world. Something you love so much, that inside you it’s real. Seeing that film play out in another, reminds you of how painfully silly you are.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I probably nodded and scampered away, wobbly and silent. The pants harvested a look, but the root of their power was mine. They belonged to me, not Anthony.
And I was the only one allowed inside of them.