by Addison Namnoum
The thing is, at a certain age you start to look around at the other girls and pick out the differences. In sixth grade, you notice Erika’s smooth, dark legs folded beneath her desk. In seventh, you see the pinky glisten of Hala and Nance’s bare inner thighs peak out from their gym shorts during group stretch.
The first issue you resolve when you and your mom pull into to a gas station after she picks you up from the tutor she’s agreed you need. She climbs out then back in again while you wait on the tank to fill.
“Mom,” you say, “I think the girls in my class started shaving.”
“Oh,” says your mother, shutting her door a little. “Do you want me to buy you a razor?”
And soon you are equipped with your first Gillette Venus and a can of gel.
In the privacy of the upstairs bathroom, once your mom has turned on her show and the neighborhood kids have stopped throwing the basketball against the hoop next door, you go to work on your legs.
You start slowly at first, frightened you could pull the razor in the wrong direction and accidentally scrape away layers of skin. After a few passes, though, you are confident, eager to see your new legs.
You won’t be dirty any more. You won’t look like a little girl. You will be desirable, an Erika.
You scoot closer to the tub faucet, rinsing away the suds and stubble.
Out of the water you draw your legs. They look up at you: pale, lumpy, spotted with dark pores—more or less the same as before, only now with less hair.
One of life’s first disappointments as a girl.
The second issue is tougher to work out. You aren’t about to ask your mother in a parking lot somewhere to give you tips on maintaining pubic hair. For that matter you are in no hurry to let anyone in the world know you have pubic hair. You resign yourself to this new flaw.
When she brings you along to the outlet stores you tag a few steps behind, trying to catch your reflection in the store windows. Inside the shops, women and girls walk around with hangers on their arms or sit on cushy stools to try one shoe for another, turning their legs this way and that, moving their bodies before mirrors.
Do these women have hair like me? You wonder.
No, you think. Surely not.
Mercifully, Erika takes you into her circle in the ninth grade. You get on at the same bus stop so she decided it was strange, you guess, not to sit down next to you on a bus otherwise full of strangers and some older kids.
Erika, it turns out, is chatty and nice. Her wardrobe seems bigger and more mature than yours, but she never comments on your baggy shirts or your one skort, the sad denim thing in the wrong shade at the wrong length with eyelets up the sides. When you ask her if you can borrow one of her tiered short skirts, the kind of skirt you want to ask your mother for but are too afraid of what she will say, Erika brings it in her bookbag the next day and waits outside the bathroom door while you change before homeroom. Sometimes she teases you for not knowing anything about boys, but that’s about all the abuse she’s capable of.
You are rougher on her. On your first sleepover at her house, she strips down to her tee-shirt and underwear—the cute kind, the kind that slings low across her narrow brown hips—and you say to her, Can’t afford PJs? and, slightly under your breath because you’re not sure you know what it means, only that it sounds cutting enough to prickle heat in your inner ears, Didn’t know this was a bunny ranch. From time to time, you chide her taste in nail polish. She likes a manicured French nail or clear with sparkles. Why do it, you sneer, holding out your Rite-Aid vermillion for her to see, if you don’t commit? In the tenth grade, you laugh at her decision to only eat vegetarian. Who are you trying to please? The cows, or Jay Puskas?
You are scared by her easy prettiness, by her family’s easy wealth. By the easy way Jay Puskas will put his arm around her hip at basketball games and tug her into his side.
When she drops several pounds and starts to apply lip gloss at her locker before homeroom, you feel you are losing her. You realize you want her friendship to belong to you, you only.
“You’re disappearing,” you say to her between flushes in the school bathroom. “You’re so thin no one can see you anymore.”
One year your aunt Cora comes to visit from Santa Barbara where she and her third husband live now. She brings three designer bags with her: You count them on the floor of your bedroom while you collect some pajamas and school clothes to move into the spare room.
Cora and your mother are at the kitchen table drinking coffee when you come in to join them.
“Honey,” says Cora, waving her wrist, heavy with bracelets, at you.
You put your elbows around her and give her a brief hug.
“Sit down,” she insists. Your mother pulls out a chair.
“Your mom was just telling me how well you’re doing in school. No beaus though, I hear?”
“She’s a good girl,” your mom says for you, squeezing the fat on your arm.
“Oh,” says Cora. The Oh floats over the table, revelatory, cold.
You nod. You are thinking, how do I get out of here. You make an excuse about homework you know your mom will like, but Cora just looks up at you over the rim of her plastic red glasses. Her eyes hook onto you and don’t leave you until you sweep from the room and up the stairs and out onto your mother’s roof.
You make another friend, Amara. Amara is not like Erika. Amara does not have a Jay Puskas. Amara not is the kind of girl you should introduce your mother to. Amara is the kind of girl who in exchange for help on her English paper teaches you how to roll your first spliff.
You can’t help but admire the way she licks her fingertips before rolling the paper. You can’t help but imagine her long black hair passing through your hands. Has there ever been a person more thrilling? Your entire body crackles with the open heat of Amara’s name. Amara, who’ll you’ll associate with night buses and beers by a dirty river edge. Amara, who is like a few hours past dusk. Amara.
At a home game, Amara lights up. Amara blows her smoke over her shoulder and, once, into your mouth. Amara takes no interest in the others. Amara cracks jokes from beneath the bleachers while boys trot out under the lights, excited to hear their names shouted over the loudspeakers. Amara catches you sulking despite her high mood. Amara leans her forehead in and dabs her lips against yours, softly, smiling.
It gets to be this way. You lie on your back in the dark as she touches you and sets your body on fire.
In the mornings, you wake and eat toast together on the steps of her family’s apartment building and then walk to school. You are happy, go home happy. Your mother, picking up on your light-footedness, asks about boys, so you tell her whatever she would like to hear. A boy called Bobby. A boy called Alex. She warns you not to trust men and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for her.
Some days you are not happy. Like on the day Amara pats your ass before she walks away to her next class, and Puskas calls you lesbo to your face, and you do not retaliate. Later, you say to Erika, I can explain. But Erika just smiles and hugs you. When she hugs you, she holds her breasts an inch or two away from yours so they don’t touch.
After sex one night, Amara asks if she can call you her girlfriend, and you lie there silent for so long the question seems to drift out of her bedroom window and dissipate into the early summer heat. She falls asleep without an answer. It occurs to you that you are cruel.
The day you are supposed to go on your first real date with a boy, you find yourself in the upstairs bathroom again, scissors and razor in hand.
You sit where you usually do on the edge of the tub. Let the water run hot and steam up the room.
You are cavalier with razors now. You take it up and down your legs until they gleam at you, wiped clean. It’s the pussy you worry over, though. The unresolved issue. You’ve tidied the inner thighs a little by now, for gym class and trips to the beach with Erika and her family. But the pussy? What if he reaches down into your pants? What if he doesn’t like what he feels there in the dark of his car?
Amara had hair like yours, you think, black and curly.
You shake the thought from your head. Go at it with the razor first but, finding it too dense, throw the razor down. The scissors, then. You hack at the burl, angry, afraid. The water runs and runs.
When you are finished, thin lines of blood trickle down your thighs, drip red into the water. Where the air meets your skin it tingles and burns.
You pass through the kitchen, a blur. Your mother turns in her chair, says to you, “Honey, you look pale,” but you go out the door.
Addison Namnoum‘s writing has been published in Public Pool, Platypus Press’ 2412 mini-chapbook series, and Crazyhorse, where her short story “Bozeman, Montana” was a runner-up in the 2016 flash fiction contest, Crazyshorts. She serves as a reader for A Public Space and lives in Philadelphia with her partner and their dog, Sula.