Growing up is scary.
Growing up as a girl is even scarier. It’s traumatic and messy and awkward.
It’s also beautiful and strange and whimsical and fun.
There's nothing else like it, for better or for worse.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my experiences growing up – those formative, topsy-turvy teenage years of high school. I’ve actually cried a good deal about it lately, in response to all the things I was too naïve to understand or appreciate or put an end to. I’m not sure that I’ve been crying out of sadness, though some of the things I remember are quite sad. I’ve always been a very reminiscent person – as a writer I draw a lot of my inspiration and imagery from the things I remember. I tend to recall things in very saturated colors and visceral, gut reactions. I live for my memories, almost as much as I live for the present and the future. Is that bad? Maybe, I don't know. But my past is a huge part of me, and putting myself back in to moments of vulnerability, euphoria, nervousness, and terror are somehow cathartic – as well as inspiring – for me.
Here are the things I’ve been remembering lately (in no particular order)…
*names have been changed*
**some things below may act as a trigger**
My first kiss. It tastes like animal heat and spearmint. It’s sloppy, a dress rehearsal of sorts, and we slip our tongues back and forth with curiosity. I don’t know what to do with my hands so they hang limply at my sides, sticky patches of sweat beading on my palms. My eyes are closed and colors zigzag against my eyelids. I feel like I’m kaleidoscoping, my body shrinking and expanding against my bones. The curvature of his mouth catches my lips, and I forget to think about anything other than the softness and the sensation. It is the first time I lose myself in someone else.
“You’re anorexic!” Lauren yells as I pass her in the hallway. “Augusta’s anorexic! That’s the only way she could be so skinny!” I feel tears blossoming in my eyes, and embarrassment flushing my cheeks and neck. Everyone stops and stares at me. I want to yell back at her, tell everyone that I don’t have an eating disorder, I’m just naturally thin and I'm a runner and I can't help it! But I don't say anything; instead I look at the nubby, blue carpet and hurry to my next class. I’m well aware of my boyish figure – this isn’t the first time someone has commented on my frail limbs and very unwomanly body. My peers are growing up around me, and I feel years behind, like a little girl watching women from behind glass walls. For weeks there are whispers about my eating disorder. The thing is, while I’m not anorexic at the time, I will be within the year.
The way my fingers feel between my legs, the soft grip of my body and the electric thrust that sweeps through my hips. I learned to masturbate years before this, but it’s as a teenager that I begin to associate it with sex. I want to talk about it with my girlfriends, ask them if they too are aroused by fictional characters in books and cute boys at the beach, but no one seems open to discussing it. There is talk – dismissive, disgusted talk – about how boys do it all the time. But no one talks about the fact that girls might like to masturbate too. I wonder if there is something wrong with me, but am too embarrassed to ask. So I keep my actions secret and learn to lock my door.
Curfew. Racing home down a windy, two-lane road, I alternate between staring at my clock and at my speedometer. If I'm late one more time my parents will ground me. I already have the earliest curfew, I can't afford to be grounded.
Later I'll learn to tell my parents I'm spending the night at Samantha's, when I'm really sleeping in the backseat of Jeremy's jeep. We stay out all night, his car nestled in amongst the trees, an old sleeping bag opened up and spread across our laps. We listen to the radio and make out, before falling asleep to the sound of cicadas and the buzz of silence. In the morning we wake up early, our legs numb from the cramped space, and he drives me back to my car, parked in the senior lot at school. He kisses me goodbye as I stifle a yawn, and I spend all day basking in the glowy haze of mischief and puppy love and teenage rebellion.
Laughing uncontrollably in the parking lot after school. My best friend and I sit on the roof of her car, kicking our legs back and forth and gossiping about boys. We recite inside joke after inside joke, our conversation like a different language. We take silly pictures with our handheld cameras, making pouty faces and contorting our bodies like they do in high fashion magazines. There’s no doubt that we’ll be friends forever – we have a bond of sisterhood, strong as blood and rooted in moonlight and the goddess of girlhood.
Listening to heavy metal and bands that scream profanities. All the boys I know like this music, and it’s become a sort of strange soundtrack to my summer. We blare it in our cars as we drive to the lake. We play it through a stereo as we sit on the cliffs overlooking the water, the ripples and waves etched in silver starlight. I play it in my room and dance like a wild woman, intent on learning all the lyrics to make the boys laugh. One of my friends – the guy I have a crush on – burns me cd’s with all his favorite songs. Years later I’ll find one of those cd’s and I’ll listen to it, grinning ear to ear and singing along, word for word.
Gina shows up to school one day with her arms completely shaved. I run my fingers along her forearm, and tiny bristles of dark hair poke up from beneath the skin.
"You shaved your arms?" I ask, "Why?"
"The boys were calling me Gorilla Arms," she whispers, and I watch in dismay as her eyes turn glossy with tears.
I look at my own arms. You can only see the blonde fuzziness in certain lights, but I wonder whether I ought to shave them anyway. That night, I grab my razor and take off a tiny patch of golden hair. I prepare to do a second swipe, but something stops me. I'm only 14, but somewhere deep inside my heart and soul I resent the idea of looking a certain way for someone else.
My voice cuts across the summer heat, sharp enough to startle the boys standing on the outcropping of rock.
“Don’t!” I scream, “Please don’t!”
A few of us have driven to the lake – something we do almost every weekend – and the boys are intent on cliff jumping into the murky water below. But I'm a wreck. Several kids have already died from diving off this very edge - I saw it on the news just last week.
“You don’t know how deep the water is,” my friend Leah says desperately.
They laugh and wave hands dismissively in our direction.
I’m emotional and angry, a temperamental crybaby, and tears start to roll down my cheeks as I storm toward them. I grab Caleb’s arm, “Don’t do this.” I urge in frustration and fear, “Don’t be stupid.”
Caleb looks at me, and I become immediately cognizant of the fact that my face is puffy and red, and that my bathing suit is loose around my barely there breasts. But I don’t care. I don't care if I look stupid or naïve or childish. I don’t care as long as he doesn’t jump. The other two boys tease me, chiding me for being such a wussy girl. I don’t acknowledge them. I stare at the boy standing right in front of me, his tousled hair glowing from the hot and melty sunbeams. I can feel the warmth of a sunburn on his already tan skin, and I’m caught off guard by how fast my pulse is pounding in my fingertips.
Don’t jump, I want to say, because I think I love you.
There is darkness. Long hallways where the darkness is so thick it feels like velvet. Stifling and suffocating. I am barely there, roiling woozily in and out of consciousness. Stay asleep, my body screams, stay asleep! There are monsters in the shadows, built with thick and gruesome hands that pry and pray that a little girl won’t remember. But there is always an awakening. Stiff and sore, aching in the in-between, the soft and silky sweet spot. An inky blackness seeps and stains, before folding itself into a lie. A lie built by a body, a secret keeper of the most nightmarish realities.