We’re all on the grassy patch of land east of Christ the King, our school, with our uniform plaid skirts hiked, wearing way too much lip-gloss and not enough deodorant.
“Who, from our school, do you think is most likely to be gay?” I ask, with a total lack of both self- awareness and self-protection. To be fair, this was the school-year before The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill dropped, so I didn’t know who the hell I was yet.
“Well, you’re the one thinking about stuff like that…” says Casey.
“Plus, last week you said if anyone dared you to kiss a girl, you would,” Oba chimes in.
“And your necklace has Keya’s name on it…that’s kinda gay!” Cece adds.
Of course, my necklace has Keya’s name on it —the whole point of having a best friend in seventh grade is to wear her name on a necklace. And have her wear yours in return. So that everyone knows what’s up.
“Don’t forget, you promised Law you’d give him a blow-job in the locker room and then never showed up,” Cece puts me on blast.
Damn, Cece. Why was my unfortunate tendency to promise blow-jobs and then squirm and shriek my way out of ever giving any already defining my sexuality? I was only a kid. I knew I for sure needed to be kissed before high school and maybe show someone my boobs, though I was worried the mole by my nipple might freak people out. My sexual interests were otherwise limited to watching the occasional bikini carwash movie on Cinemax and going through tubes of my mother’s Fashion Fair lipstick, practicing leaving the perfect lip print on paper in preparation for the Aaliyah-inspired Four Page Love Letter I would inevitably write, and seal with a kiss, for the only one lucky enough to win my teenage heart.
Had I known that in less than a decade Casey would update her MySpace with pictures of her high school auditorium-turned-cafeteria-turned-gym wedding, featuring bridesmaids wearing Old Navy flip flops, I might not have thought I was the biggest loser of all time. I might have even had the confidence to defend myself and not cry as she reminded everyone that I was the fat pig who had asked her mother to order more pizza at her sleepover—long after everyone else was full. I might not have fallen asleep on a wet pillowcase the next year when she did not invite me to her slumber party, saying that there wasn’t enough room to invite everybody, even though there was enough room to invite everybody else.
It took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to process this stupid simple middle school cruelty that consists largely of experiencing joy at the expense of others. If I could go back, I’d tell Kid Sheena (but not Kid Casey) all of the ways Grown-Up Sheena is better than Grown-Up Casey. First, I’d share the superficial: the people in my wedding party own real, actual shoes. Not flip flops. Then the profound: I got out of Ohio. I’d want Kid Sheena to know that Grown-Up Casey is raising disrespectful teenagers who will never get off of her phone plan, and she probably has a chipmunk-infested basement. Grown-Up Sheena, on the other hand, has no real responsibilities and plenty of time to google ways in which her life is superior to Grown-Up Casey’s. When Casey wants Popeye’s chicken, she has to drive to a whole other town while Sheena lives smack dab between two locations. What I really want to write here is: Fuck You, Casey. As if that mean, red-faced, snarky seventh grade version of her is responsible for whatever she or I have become. I don’t want to be too petty, so I won’t harp on the haircut in her social media pictures, but, well, let’s just say being gay and insecure and in want of more pizza aren’t the worst fates either of us could have endured.
Anyway. Back to 1997. A few days later, Oba says she knows I’m not gay, not disgusting, not perverted: I didn’t look anything like our gym teacher or our gym teacher’s girlfriend. Oba doesn’t want to do blowjobs either. We hug for a long time (…but not in a gay way!). Then we make plans to resume our spy-work, which mostly entails us taking note of who wears the same socks too many days in a row or needs to wash out her fingerwaves.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Rhian, the basketball champ, approaching us. Is he going to ask me to go with him to the next joint-parish school dance? Does he want to do all kinds of non-gay stuff? Would he wanna try to guess what flavor LipSmackers I am wearing? [Dr. Pepper] Or talk all night on the phone and sing Keith Sweat’s Twisted to me? This is easily six years before Khia’s My Neck, My Back comes out, so I don’t yet know any of the other bodily things I should imagine him doing.
“I need to ask you something,” he pulls me away. Oba pretends to read our spy notebook, but I know she is listening. We are both nosy enough to share a spy notebook, after all.
“You can ask me anything, Rhian,” I look at him and his thick eyebrows, think I see dandruff, and look away.
I thought he was going to ask to make love to me then and there. And I thought I would have said no, not because I was gay, or opposed to having sex in the middle of a public playground, but because I was waiting on the Special One. Plus, I was on my period. And if we had sex how would I ever know if it was hymen blood or menstrual blood?
“Why don’t you shave your legs?” He asks.
“You should shave them,” he walks away.
Maybe he will love me if I shave my legs. Maybe that’s all that’s wrong with me. Maybe smooth legs are the shortcut to perfection. That night I shave, scarring and scratching my legs so much that during school the next day parts of my socks turn red from all the blood.
Rhian comes up to me again, on the playground. “You’re going to die a virgin,” he shakes his head.
I go to the bathroom and, because I am predictable, wounded, and predictably wounded, let the tears rush. Girls like Casey don’t slash up their legs trying to carve themselves into someone new. Girls like Casey are not going to die virgins. Girls like Casey are going to become prom queens and slow dance with boys like Rhian and have pregnancy scares and get jobs at small doughnut shops that provide those cute uniforms that kind of look like bowling outfits. Girls like Casey will get rides home in Mustangs and grow up to become women who know how to use their bodies to do things like make more bodies.
Had I known then that one day I would stop stuffing my bra, I wouldn’t have taken Rhian’s response as a death sentence. Of course, I’ll never know if encouraging him to find a deodorant that actually worked—matching my meanness with his—would have made me feel better or stronger. Had I known then that one day I’d accept myself and most of my many imperfections, and finally live thousands of miles and dozens of years away from the arbitrary rules and neverending taunts of middle school, I might instead have said: “Nope, Rhian, I’m not always going to be a virgin—in fact, for like at least three weeks in my late twenties, once I finally manage to have sex, I’m going to be a total chick magnet panty collector. When that’s over, in my thirties, because someday it will be twenty-five years from now, even if we, in our adolescent glory, can’t yet grasp that, I am going to write about you and Casey. Very cool, smart, and important people will read my story and they are not going to root for either of you. If anyone asks, ‘What became of that Rhian guy?’ I will shrug. And they will, I hope, hate you a little bit, even if they are more forgiving than I am and recognize that your desire to hurt probably came from your own hurt. They will also, I hope, strongly dislike Casey. A part of me will hope that you come across my words and wish you had behaved differently, but a bigger part of me will hope that my piece never finds you, and that you never know that all these years later, despite being unable to do the most basic math, let alone remember anything we learned in pre-algebra, I will still hear and carry so many things you said. I will hear you so clearly that sometimes I will think you and Casey are still making fun of me. That you never stopped. So, when I sit to write about you, I’m not even going to change your names. I’ll probably just misspell them, because anyone who is mean to me in middle school deserves to go on the record for that shit, but not to get all the credit.”
sheena d. (she/they) has West Virginian and South Carolinian roots, was brewed in Ohio, and now splits her time between Brooklyn and South Florida. She dabbles in stand-up comedy and doodling; her go-to scribbling tools include Muji’s black Gel Ink Ballpoint Pens (0.38mm, of course) and Tombow’s Pastel Dual Brush Pen Art Markers. Reoccurring themes in her writing are blackness, queerness, girlhood, diaspora, junk food, and dread.