Penelope does not want to be a ballerina anymore. She wants her name shortened to Lee, her clothes more threadbare, used. She’s my new friend Misty’s older sister, and lately she’s been playing the guitar for us—Fiona Apple, the Cranberries—her hair twisted in a long, slick braid, her words too big for either one of us to understand. Lee just began high school—five years older than we are—so Misty and I have taken to spying on her, asking every kind of question. We take our mental notes.
Because Lee likes to eat stir-fry, we eat it, too. She likes to balance baby corns like Jenga blocks, so I do this, too. When she begins writing songs, Misty and I write some, too. Lee’s songs are about aching for and missing random stuff. The past, her innocence, a bag of jelly beans, camp. She strums an acoustic guitar pressed against her bare stomach, whisper-humming the words with her eyes squeezed closed.
Misty and I write about Jewish boys becoming men, the echo range of seashells, a secret place in the sky. We write about blonde girls and their supreme blonde beauty and about how nobody will ever love us because we are neither blonde nor beautiful (When I see you, my heart melts down / Down so far I sink to the ground / But when I see you with that dumb blonde / I scream to myself, What have I done wrong?). Misty is white, with a real kid-like body, and we both suffer from freckles. We sing about this until our throats crack like radio static. We call our two-person act Kotton Kandy. We rename each other Sparkle (Misty) and Shimmer (me), promising to get out of Boca one day, pay for matching boob jobs, and forget who it was we were.
Lee listens to each one of our songs, nodding her head. She records us on a video camera with her hand balanced beneath a padded strap. She tells us we have potential. We believe her so much we keep writing, rehearsing, harmonizing, performing outside her bedroom.
You’ve got to really feel the music, she says. Feel it like you’re inside of it.
Misty and I take turns calling the 800 number for The Box music video channel, punching in serial numbers to request Britney, Christina, Mandy, Jessica. We suck on Warheads and wait for our girls to appear, carefully learning their hair flips and choreographies, the shapes and characteristics of their belly buttons.
On her boom box, Lee blasts a song about going down on a man in a theater.
This is Alanis Morissette, she says. Take notes on this attitude. Take notes on the feeling.
Later, when I ask my mother what it means to go down on someone in a theater, she tells me it’s a way that two people share popcorn. Everybody does it.
Back home, on my Uncle Whack’s black box of cable, I’ve found something I quite like. On channels 590–595, naked people fuck each other. They say this word all the time on the channels. They say Fuck my face, and I’m going to fuck you stupid till your brain shoots out of your ears, and Get over here, my little fucktoy. Once, after school, Misty and I took turns saying the word—fuck—the first time for us both while we hung from the school monkey bars. We whispered it at first, repeated it back and forth until we built some momentum, and after a minute or two we were screaming it—FUCK!—until we laughed so hard it felt like ghosts were crying out of our faces.
When I’m alone, though, I can’t stop thinking about It, that burn that makes me want to turn the television off but also keep it running forever. I discovered It around the time of Jet’s letters, and then again, recently, in the bathtub, the showerhead turned all the way to level three. It is all I can think about lately; I can’t seem to stop. It’s like a fist grabs hold of my brain, squeezing it, until my own thoughts pop out and suddenly I’ve got somebody else’s crazy thoughts. I like to go until it hurts.
I tell Misty none of this. It only happens alone. But when I get to folding my pillows in half and straddling them at night, sometimes I hear the pike of my Grandma Rose’s voice. The first time I tried to swat a mosquito from my arm, she pinched me by the chin, screaming That could be your grandfather! Every fly is somebody dead and sacred. Every cockroach is watching. I wonder if my ancestors know about the showerhead, the hairbrush, the pencil, the pillow lumps, the candlestick, the toothbrush; if they’re screaming Ai yah! from a spider web somewhere beneath my bathroom sink.
Lee goes to a special art school and hangs out with other former ballerinas. The metallic spandex and blossoms of tulle are long gone, only present in the framed photographs her mother hangs on the wall in a perfect, chronological row. Some of Lee’s friends have short hair, shaved like a boy’s, and Misty and I have never seen any grown girl (who’s not a mom) with this kind of hair before, and we laugh about it, ask Lee why her friends do it. Why the baggy pants? Why this look? Why don’t you all wear glitter on your eyes like high schoolers are allowed to do? You’re supposed to look sexy, we say. You’re supposed to wear tight, womanly things—things that hug you in all of your womanly places.
Misty is still a ballerina. I show up to her classes in East Boca and wait behind the glass. I attend every recital and Nutcracker performance because it’s nice to support my friend, but it’s even nicer to watch her teacher, Jaqueline, kick-kick her legs in a leotard. I can see every dent of her body under that skin-like fabric. I can even see her breathing.
Whenever Lee brings her friends over, Misty and I sled down the staircase on linen couch cushions. We usually get snagged somewhere in the middle and tumble the rest of the way down. Lee takes our cushions under her armpits and leads us back up to Misty’s room. She looks sad in the doorway the way adults often do, and she says, Can you please just leave us alone tonight? Can you guys just listen to Hanson or take your quizzes or write your songs? Anything?
Misty and I love the Hanson brothers. We love their high-pitched voices, their shoulder-length golden hair. I wonder what kind of conditioner they use, I say. My hair is cut like the top of a mushroom so that it fits neatly beneath my riding helmet, and because I refused to brush my hair—it was not my choice. I think these boys look more womanly than me.
I kiss Misty’s posters on the wall, and she says, Ew, get your slobber off my Taylor! We move on to our magazines and take the quizzes in back to learn what category of flirt we could be. Between each quiz, we play a round of Our Game. In Our Game, we try to predict our sexual futures. We tell each other what our future boys and men might look like—I’m going to lose my V-card to a boy with long, long hair, like Hanson, I say. A boy who is cute, but also, pretty. We predict where these boys will take us. Where they will kiss us one day. Where they will fuck us. Rapids Water Park, Misty says, for my V-card. I want it in the lazy river, on a doughnut tube, under the water where nobody has to know.
When I am not watching channels 590–595 in my parents’ bedroom, when I am not thinking about Monica Lewinsky and her wet cigar, when It hits, I’ve been returning to an airplane with the Wicked Witch of the West. I’m enjoying my flight, seat reclined, drinking an orange soda from a plastic cup, until the Wicked Witch tells me I’ve had enough. She pulls a piece of sharp metal from beneath my seat, some sort of necessary safety appliance, and she lifts my uniform school skirt, shoves the metal up between my legs. After that, she wraps a fresh diaper around these parts until the tape slices into my hips. I want to suck the mole off her face. The Witch opens the emergency door, as if to admire the view. She tells me to come, come, look out at the world, before she pushes me out of the plane and into the sky. I go soaring off into the bent horizon of blue, and eventually land in a field of sawgrass, ass first, the metal piece impaling me under my diaper, stabbing out my insides. It feels good. I spit up ribbons of red into the grass. The Wicked Witch tells me I’m a very sweet girl, that I’ve done a fine job. She rubs my back in small circles.
When my hands stop, when I yank my eyes open, it takes minutes to blink away the color green. I’m so sorry, I say, to no one in particular, waiting for that witch to die out with my ceiling full of stars.
One school night, during Our Game, Misty and I hear Lee click open the front door for her friend Paula. We stand at the top of the stairs to say Hello. Paula is the pretty-boy type, I think. Her parachute pants hang below the knobs of her hipbones, and she’s not wearing a bra. Go back in your room, says Lee. She is more stern than usual, more guarded about this friend. She takes Paula’s hand and leads her to the couch. She flicks off the lights. Go to bed, okay?
We go to our room. Ears up against the door. We want to know what Lee and Paula are talking about more than we’ve ever wanted anything. A few minutes go by before Misty says, Let’s get some ice cream. I like this excuse.
Yes, I say. I need it now.
We open our door and tiptoe down the stairs. Lee and Paula are still on the living room couch. Their limbs are interwoven like cat’s cradle strings. The television turns their skin deep purples and blues, though we cannot see what it is they are watching. What we see is Lee’s heart-shaped face on Paula’s shoulder, and then Paula’s hand on Lee’s head, and then a lift, a look, their two noses coming together, fingers rubbing the baby hairs around their ears. They kiss for a long while, and I think I must be dreaming. Misty’s eyes go wobbly with shine, and she jerks my hand, leading the way back up to her room.
Back to Our Game, she says. I want a French boy, in Paris. He’ll take me on his scooter and we’ll eat fancy bread and cheese and we’ll fuck slowly to a Brandy song.
During a fifth-grade field trip, our class goes to the movies. We see Forces of Nature, starring Ben Affleck, who is afraid of airplanes, and Sandra Bullock, who is much braver than that. I sit between Misty and Duke Freeman, who goes by Devilish Dukie, and my mother sits behind us as a chaperone (all the class moms take turns, but the kids like when it’s my mom; she’s the chillest, and she even let us watch a bootleg VHS of Titanic in our hotel room—naked scene and all—when we took a class trip to Disney). Duke looks like a Hanson brother. His lips are a deep pink, his hair like corn silk. I want any excuse to talk to Duke during the movie, so when Sandra and Ben are somewhere on the road, I reach over into Duke’s popcorn bag, lean into his ear, and ask, sincerely, May I go down on you?
Duke does not understand my request, but, somehow, my mother hears it.
After the movie, when we are back home, she tells me not to share popcorn anymore.
Popcorn, and Alanis Morissette, she says, are best enjoyed when you’re older.
I mention Paula and Lee the morning after we watched them from the stairs. What do you think they were doing? I ask Misty. Do you think Paula slept over?
I don’t think they were doing anything, she says.
We never got the ice cream, I say.
You watch too many movies, she says. You get confused.
I ask about the incident for weeks, almost every day, until Misty tells me to stop asking. I wrote my sister an e-mail about it, she says, just to make sure.
Did your sister write back?
They’re just friends, Misty says. Best friends.
We never see Paula again, but from then on, when I write our love songs, I write them with Lee and Paula in mind. I want to live inside that feeling, fumble my way through it, the way Lee taught us. I think about that haircut, my craving for ice cream; their hands had such purpose. I think about the look just before the happening.
Copyright © 2019 by T Kira Madden. From Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden (Bloomsbury, March 5, 2019)
Read T Kira's first submission to Hyphen magazine back in 2013: "Deliveries."