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Before the Bell photo

The best part is first thing, that hot blur of hands. There are no boys, just girls, and before class we  share things: combs, lotion, lip-balm. We watch each other’s mouths and smear greasy fingers under desks. We are eleven, and we are on our way.

* * *

Each morning I button my uniform blouse and punch my parents’ landline.

“It’s me, I’m leaving!” I say, when Annie picks up.

“See you in a sec,” she says.

We kick up to the bus stop, hug, and kiss cheeks. In our class of ninety, just Annie and I live in Hackney. We wait for the 26 to take us from beat-up East London to the city’s glinting core.

At Liverpool Street Station, we leave the double decker and walk a half mile through cobble and brick. We weave through history—street-names that conjure Henry the Eighth or the bubonic plague: Poultry; Fox and Knot Street; Crutched Friars.

We speak our favorites as we pass.

“Throgmorton Avenue,” I say.

“The Ward of Cripplegate,” Annie replies a minute later.

“That was every day this week!” I say, and we slap palms. We have no consequences for forgetting. But usually we remember. Annie has the same intonation—long on “Ward” like an announcement.

We grin at the ours-ness and jam our thumbs through the wrist holes scissor-stabbed in our sweatshirts.

* * *

At recess we all scan ID cards to buy lunchroom pain-au-chocolats. We call them “Pan O’s” and tear threads like string cheese. We rest our heads on each other’s shoulders and lower strands into our mouths like baby birds receiving worms.  

The lunch bell rings and girls spill into hallways, elbows knocking. On C-Floor we take big bites—lasagna, shepherd’s pie. We eat to get full and to warm our bellies.

Then we lock arms and march down hallways—hair down, shoes off. We feel big and wild. Untouchable.

* * *

We see it at the same time. It’s breathing. But it doesn’t move as we near, or bolt from the clomp of our school shoes.

Annie and I kneel on the red brick behind Liverpool Street. I touch its domed belly. It doesn’t flap.

“We have to help it,” I say.

“I’ll get something to carry it,” Annie says, taking off for the station shops.

She brings an empty shoebox and I lift the sparrow. I could crush it. It would snap like a fistful of twigs. We shuffle to school keeping the box level.

“This bird is hurt!” Annie tells the receptionist who buzzes us in thirty minutes late.

“I’ll take care of it,” the receptionist says, peering at the quivering thing. “Better write in the book and get to class.”

The book is red leather, and lined inside with columns: Name, Date, Reason. We used to be earnest—all, “Feeling unwell this morning, but slightly better now.” But over the year, time has made us curt just as it’s scruffed our ponytails and lowered our backpacks. We write one word—“Sick,” or “Appointment”—or just scrawl a dash. We are twelve, and testing boundaries.

I grip the ballpoint, newly noble. I write, “Saved a dying bird with Annie,” and Annie writes, “Saved a dying bird with Jasmin.”

We leave the shoebox and stride straight-backed into English.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” I announce, chin high. “We found a wounded bird by the bus stop and we saved it!”

The class turns and murmurs. When the bell rings, the girls surround us, just as I like.

“What happened?”

“Was it bleeding?”

“It couldn’t move,” Annie says, perched on the teacher’s desk. “It could have gotten crushed!”

At lunch I return to the receptionist.

“Where’s the bird?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I gave it to Jake.”

Jake is the technician. He hooks up projectors and wires the stage for school plays. Our teachers are Mister or Miss or Doctor, but Jake’s just Jake. He has buff, ink-swirled arms and he makes girls high-pitched. Teachers, too. Ms. Wilson can never work the cables. She futzes until someone asks, “Shall I get Jake, Miss? He’s good with his hands.” She smoothes her hair, says, “Go on, then.” To me, he looks like a skull.

“Where did Jake take it?” I ask her.

She shrugs. “He took care of it.”

I don’t see the bird again. Maybe Jake called a vet; maybe he threw it in the trash.

* * *

After the 4 o’clock bell, we hold each other then grab our bags.

Annie and I buy cinnamon rolls at Liverpool Street. They cost 70p and we eat them in pinches from grease-stained paper bags.

Back in Hackney, we skip down from the top deck. We either fork home at the graveyard—where mossy headstones jut from wild grass—or do homework together. Later we knock on doors and run away, or act out scenes from our favorite soap opera. We fake yell, How could you do this to me? or throw fake drinks or slam fake doors or fake make out. Annie is the boy, on top.

Some days, when we wait and wait for a 26, we pile into a phone-booth and call the operator.

“H-h-hello, m-m-m-my name is P-P-P-P-P…”

“Yes, please help! My hamster is going bald.”

We lisp and practice accents, palm our cheeks to stop the laughs.

There are sex-cards in the phone-booths. Not the booths where we live, where men have stained hands and paint-flecked jeans. The postcards are in the city, for the shiny-shoed men who bump us with briefcases.

They’re formulaic like our Pokémon cards. A woman kneels or squats. There’s a phone number and writing. Some words we know but don’t understand—like “Escort”—and some we’ve never heard, like “She-Male” or “Golden Showers.”

They thwack as we pull them from the glass. We each slip one into our homework planners. We take more the next day. Soon we have dozens each, maybe a hundred open-mouthed women and their phone numbers. 

“Why do you keep these?” my mom asks, clocking the heap on the nightstand by my twin bed. She’s un-prudish, bemused.

“They’re funny,” I shrug.

We don’t trade or crank call them. They pile up, proof of something we can’t make out.

* * *

We are thirteen, and all we know is each other.

We know whose backs have dimples of Venus, who shaves all their pubic hair, who has hairy underarms. We know who has a boyfriend, who has kissed with tongue, who’s done more.

Lisa is the first to have sex. Her family is messed up so we think that makes sense. Melanie tries to fuck her boyfriend but can’t.

“I was too, you know, tight,” she says.

We know who has her period and who is still waiting. If a girl takes her backpack to the bathroom or sits pool-side in swim class, she has her period. So do the girls who—when they ask Can I go to the bathroom? and the teacher says, No—say But I really need to go.

We do this for fun to the male teachers. No, Sir, I really have to go, we say, true or not. The men crumple, and it is intoxicating.

* * *

School calls it “P.S.H.E:” personal, social, and health education. We call it Sex Ed, when Ms. Benson hulks by the whiteboard, arms crossed over her bosom, and tells us things men will one day do to us.

On condom day we pair up around plastic cylinders—more clinical than phallic. As directed, we  squeeze air from rubbery tips before unrolling.

Then Ms. Benson lifts her cylinder and taps it on her oak desk.

“There is no man,” she says, “who will ever like you this much…”

She pauses, taps again.

“…That he will be this hard. So, keep in mind, the real thing will be trickier.”

Girls titter. I laugh in her first pause, proud to get the joke though I’ve never kissed a boy. Those books my mom bought—Facts of Life and Have You Started Yet?—make me feel expert sometimes, like in fifth grade when I told Britney her vagina was not her pee hole.

We take turns with the condoms and wipe off our hands on our regulation pants.

“What if we do it with our mouths?” someone asks.

* * *

There are no boys at school, but there are men.

Our homeroom teacher finds Annie’s shoes in the corner, where she leaves them at lunchtime to bolt around B-Floor. He’s been complaining: Keep them on. She doesn’t see why. He grabs them by the laces and hurls them out the window. 

Annie’s shoes crash into a plant bed down by the basement. She asks Jake to open the side doors.

“You girls,” Jake says, as she bends to the soil.

Later I skip down the hall, elbow-hooked to a friend, when the vice-principal stops us with a raised palm. He smiles, placid, and leans in. “A bit much décolleté, don’t you think?” he says to me.

I don’t know this word. “Okay,” I reply, and skip away.

In the classroom I ask mole-specked, good-at-French Edith, “What is décolleté?

“You mean décolletage?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. I pull the French dictionary from my bag and flip to D. The words mean the same thing: chest, cleavage. I look down at my school uniform. All the buttons are fastened.

“Did you find the word?” Edith asks.

“Yeah,” I say. She walks to her locker where she’s taped up a photo of the boyfriend who, we know, she’s recently screwed. I picture them doing the things in Facts of Life. I wonder if she has moles down there, too.

* * *

Annie and I don’t decide to stop saying “Throgmorton Avenue” and “The Ward of Cripplegate.” It just happens. It’s too kid-like, all that wonder. We only call each other half the mornings, anyway.

On the path where we found the bird I offer her a breakfast bar.

“What is it?” she asks.

“It’s just like oats and stuff with chocolate around it. It’s really good. Only a hundred and fifty calories.”

“That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I say, jamming it in my backpack and dropping my own in the trash.

After school, Annie doesn’t buy cinnamon rolls so neither do I. She brings her friend from primary school when we hang out. Since Tess has different assignments we don’t do homework together. Tess tells stories about the graveyard—about the “circle of death” in the middle. They talk about kids from their old school.

For some people, like Buddhists or Chinese numerologists, three is a lucky number. But for girls—thirteen and needy—three is impossible.

I let them have each other.

One of the last evenings we spend together is at my house. After they leave I close the door behind them.

“Tess is a bit dykey, isn’t she?” my mom says.

“What’s dykey?” I ask, and she drops her jaw like she’s shocked she said it.

“Oh, I just mean she’s kind of strong, you know? Like a dyke in a river,” my mom says, holding out her arms and puffing her cheeks.

“That’s not what you mean.” 

“Okay, it means gay,” she says. When I frown she says, “It’s not a bad thing!”

I sort of believe her; her best friends are lesbians. But still, I wonder, Does Tess know she’s talked about? Does she know she’s the type of girl someone else’s mom calls dykey?

* * *

Alone on the 26 I listen to my Discman: Christina Aguilera’s Stripped and P!nk’s M!ssundaztood.

Miri knows every lyric on Stripped. I don’t ask her if she also likes Xtina’s chaps and curved waist or just the music. 

Miri is wild curls and low-slung pants. A candy-pink thong peeks from her waistband. She’s a virgin but she’s done things—things with her mouth—with more than one boy.

When she gets a gold stud shot through her cartilage, the drama teacher cocks his head and says, “Why do you keep putting holes in your body? You have two perfectly good ones already.”

Behind his back Miri says, “It’s like, which two? There are more than that, you know,” as if saying this is something like power.

In physics we swipe our fingers through Bunsen flames as Mr. McCarthy sips black coffee.

Miri bends to level a table-leg and a lace T cuts the milk skin of her back. Mr. McCarthy stares at her flesh and the fabric—his eyes green beads pressed into pocked pink. 

We watch him looking but he doesn’t turn away.

“Now we know what kind of girl Miri is, don’t we?” he says.

“What?” she says.

He grins.

Miri rolls her eyes and saunters to her seat.

We close ranks around her, a girl army.

Miri’s thong!” we cough-yell when we see him in the hallway. “Miri’s thong!”

He doesn’t seem to care. At least until the fieldtrip, when he’s one of four staff chaperones for our hiking week in Andalusia.

We mutter “Miri’s thong” as we pass him on trails, say it as our chairs scrape when we stand after meals. Miri isn’t even on the trip but everyone knows the story.

All twenty of us pile into a hostel room and our hot thighs press as we cram onto twin beds. We sing “Miri’s tho-ong” in time to Frere Jacques, building to a four-part round. Mr. McCarthy flings open the door. Ruby-cheeked, he shrieks, “Enough, girls! Go to bed, now!”

It’s eight o’ clock. We laugh our pointing, violent laughter and sit still, safe in our unity.

We march up the Sierra Nevada, soil stuck to sweaty shins. We shower at campsites, hand-wash our socks. Some girls wear push-up bras and leave their hair loose. Others go comfy, like Dani, with her baggy, knee-length shorts and scraped-back red hair. My clothes are snug but not tight. They make no clear claims.

Dani and I walk together. She knows all the words to M!ssundaztood, and we both like Borat and Ali G. Very nice,” we say to rest-stop waiters who pour our cold cokes, “Dziękuję.”

Our speech snaps together. We hold hands. She’s taller than me, and our bodies fit. There’s something else I like, too. Something I can’t make out.

* * *

In lunch breaks Dani and I pull up music videos on the teacher’s computer. Lady Marmalade is too saucy for school, so we play Just Like a Pill. We watch P!nk drawl with black X’s taped over her nipples, Dani on the desk chair and me on her lap.

“She’s so hot,” Dani says.

“Uh huh,” I say back. 

P!nk is hot. I like the slope of her back on the album cover I keep in my room, and the cut V of her abs like on a Ken doll. But I didn’t know we could say that out loud.

Her tour comes to London and we buy tickets. Before the show, we press close in the belly of Wembley arena. Screens as big as houses show a Pepsi commercial: P!nk and Britney and Beyoncé sing We Will Rock You in a coliseum, gold-clad and bare-bellied.

“They’re all so hot,” Dani says.

“Uh huh,” I say back.

P!nk soars over us strung by steel wire. The crowd screams and we stick up our arms. She feels just out of reach.

* * *

Dani and I are two of six Jews getting an easy A in a Judaism elective. They bring in a young adjunct. Mrs. Gould’s curly hair and straight teeth glint in the science lab where they put us to learn things we already know about Moses, mitzvot, and the Talmud.

Mrs. Gould explains divorce laws in the Torah. She writes on the board, arms bare in a white tank, and Dani stares at the sinew-seamed globes of her shoulders. I trace Dani’s gaze and poke her under the desk. She hits my hand away, half-smiling.

Is Mrs. Gould dykey? I wonder. She has a husband, but she’s loud and hard.

“Judaism is sex-positive, you see,” Mrs. Gould says. “Women’s pleasure—it matters.” My thighs clench. So does something up between them. Dani looks down and fiddles with the gas taps.

“They say the way to get pregnant with a son, which is what you want, is to make the woman cum first,” Mrs. Gould says.

That sounds both nice and hateful to women at once.

The bell rings.

* * *

Dani’s friends aren’t my friends, but I try. I ride a bus and two tubes to their parties. The girls know boys—older boys—and on Saturday nights we meet in parks and living rooms.

Fleur has a free house. A Catholic with short skirts and long hair, Fleur has sex but feels bad about it. We shoot vodka from the bottle in her kitchen, dig toes into tile waiting for it to take.

“Are you gonna talk to him?” Fleur nudges me. I smile and peek at Noah uncapping another Heineken from the fridge. He sweeps a hand through his dirty-blonde spikes.

Fleur winks when Noah asks if I want to get some air. I follow him to the yard. I’ve never been alone with a boy.

His lips are soft. After a few seconds, which seems long enough for a first kiss, I draw back. His tongue snags my nose. I cringe, but he holds my hands as we sit together cross-legged.

I sense that he’s wanting but I push up from the grass. Back inside, I feel worldly. Noah taps my shoulder as the crowd thins after midnight. We kiss again—my second then my third—under a gray felt blanket on Fleur’s leather couch. Kissing lying down feels more serious than kissing sitting up.

Then there’s something new. Something I can’t make out. I brace. I realize it’s his hand, under my skirt and under my underwear, his fingers scratching at my softest parts as he rasps, wet, on my ear. I still. He stops. I spring from the couch, saying, “I need water.”

I check the bathrooms but Dani is gone. Fleur is on her front stoop, dragging on her cigarette. I tell her I’m dizzy.

“Every girl feels that way the first time she gets fingered,” she says, blowing a plume to the stars.

The next morning, she tells me, “Noah said he had fun, but he was like, ‘She doesn’t give.’”

* * *

Fleur sings Coldplay at the talent show. I can’t imagine standing on stage like that, staring the world in the face.

Next, four girls do “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. In baseball caps and baggy jeans they swagger and thrust. The theater thrills. Up front, the teachers peer back at a hall full of girls, screaming in thrall of these boys who are girls.

Finally it’s time. One girl grabs the mic; another strokes the bass. Dani lifts her sticks and counts them in.

It’s “Seven Nation Armyand it’s breathy, hot magic. Dani’s arms clench as she smacks out the beat. She’s good with her hands.

The rhythm throbs deep. I lean forwards. It builds, drawing us closer and closer until, at the climax, Dani flicks the sticks through her fingers and freestyles until the whole room stands. The sound comes and comes and then it’s over.

The band climbs back to their seats as the next act readies. Dani hugs me and I hope everyone is watching. I smell her sweat and the floral chalk of deodorant. She throws an arm around me, my shoulder pressed into her dampness.

“Can I be your groupie?” I say, looking up at her slick red hair and running eyeliner.

“Of course you can be my groupie.”

We don’t want each other, but we do want something. We hold hands.

* * *

We are fifteen, and we drift. Maybe she lives too far away, maybe I’m scared of how she sees me.

In the student lounge, Dani’s clique downs bowls of Frosted Flakes for lunch. Mine eats leaves. They grunge party with boys and bongs as we take fake ID’s to West End clubs where men buy us pink cocktails.

We don’t let them touch us. Instead we stand there and give each other hickeys, bruising into each other something impossible.

“Why do you guys do that?” my mom asks, spotting yellow-blue blooms on my throat.

“It’s funny,” I shrug.

At school they stop ringing the bell. It’s a new policy, the teachers tell us, to ease congestion. You know your schedules, they say. You know when to move rooms. This way there’ll be no hot throng in the hall.

It works. There’s no rushed blare as we crash into each other, books and bodies. Instead, we quietly file out. We are ordered.