national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Girls and Boys

Madeleine Cravens  • 
Oberlin College

1.

When I was seventeen, boys grabbed my neck in the dark of movie theaters. Boys with lukewarm beer, boys with guarded egos. They grabbed like there was something inside me they needed to get out.

I lost my virginity to a boy with a bear tattooed on his chest. The boy’s name was Hunter, and the tattoo was an impossibly delicate line drawing, one that stretched over the pale expanse of his left pectoral muscle. “You’re so small,” he whispered, over and over again, until the words gained rhythm, too. His sounds had rough edges, so I kept my eyes closed. Leaving his apartment, I didn’t feel as if I’d been robbed of anything other than one spring afternoon’s worth of time. I never came close to loving Hunter. I envied him. I envied his slouches and shrugs. I envied his feet, and how they were allowed to stick to the ground.

Hunter was not the only boy who stared at me as if we shared a secret. There were sinewy boys on the subway, reckless breakdancing creatures. A-train angels. They leered as the doors closed, as the doors separated us. There was a homeless boy: He gripped my arm so hard that I could trace his fingerprints in the shower the next morning. I soaped over the indents on my skin. There were boys who held open doors and hailed Midtown cabs like it was no big deal. Boys whose collars I wanted to straighten, and whose hair I wanted to cut with my sharpest scissors. Boys who looked into the well of my face during snowstorms, only to find my gaze had drifted. They were the boys who carried me on their shoulders until I forgot what my own legs could do, until I longed for solid ground.

I secretly resented their slumping masculinity. I was taught to intertwine my keys through my fingers as I walked home at night, was taught to keep my eyes on street corners. I was taught to say, “I think,” instead of “I know.”

 

2.

Between late February and the morning of April Fools’ Day, I was probably pregnant. I was seventeen, and I spent most of my time lying on an unmade bed in my favorite underwear that had been stretched out from too many washes. I spent most of my time staring at ceilings.

By the time my period was one day late, I was in Turkey, distracted by spice markets and mosque-studded skylines and metallic calls to prayer.

My period was five days late. I woke up and vomited in the tiled bathroom of our rental apartment. I used a dog-eared travel guide to find the words for “Can I have a pregnancy test?” in Turkish, but was too afraid to say them to the ancient man at the corner drugstore. The phrase was harsh: Bir gebelik testi alabilir miyim? I practiced the pronunciation in the mirror, figured out what facial expressions I would use, what I would do with my hands. I folded money into my pocket. I left the drugstore with some half-melted candy and a Zippo lighter.

My period was eight days late. I was on a plane, heading home. The television was broken so all I did was stare: at my hands, at the people next to me, at my half-empty cup of ginger ale. There was turbulence; I thought I felt things moving deep inside me. I threw up in the alien-blue toilet water.

In the cab back from Kennedy Airport, my period was still eight days late. The weather in New York was the same as it had been in Istanbul: warm and hazy. My body was silent, but for the beginnings of a tiny heart. A mouse heart, barely bigger than the head of a nickel.

My period was fourteen days late. I sat in the doctor’s sterile office, discussing Options. She said some fancy words, but I wasn’t listening. I was not listening because blood had soaked through my polka-dotted hospital gown and onto the waxy paper I was sitting on. The foreign object inside me had decided to come out on its own. I didn’t cry. Still, I had never seen blood so dark and so true.

 

3.

This is for all the girls who grabbed my wrists the summer I was too skinny. Girls with clenched fists, girls with cagey eyes. Their nails were always sharper than they looked.

I lost my virginity to a girl with a scar on her kneecap. The girl’s name was Sadie, and the scar snaked around to touch the pale expanse of her calf. Afterwards, we faced each other, our torsos mirrored parenthesis. I could not make eye contact with her. All that sweat and skin. She traced my jaw with her thumb and said, “You know the feeling of wanting to sink into the ground? To just end it?” I was quiet. I did not know. All I knew, in that moment, was the aching softness of my bed and the fading maps on my walls and the beginnings of a tiny heart. A mouse heart, but this time it was my own. A heart that belonged only to me.

Sadie was not the only girl who rubbed my thoughts raw. There were girls who terrified me into silence, because I did not know what I was supposed to want from them. There were girls who blew perfect smoke rings. There were girls who faced the windows and slept their dreamless sleeps. There were girls that I hated, hated with a burning deep in my ribcage, girls on rooftops, quiet girls wanting to be kept warm. There were girls at summer camp, running through the forest at night, their pale limbs ghosting through lake water.

 

4.

This is for the boys who wanted to tuck my hair behind my ears. For the girls who wanted to keep the radio on. This is not for the clump of cells that may or may not have been multiplying, and then stopped on a spring morning. This is for the girls who wanted to take a walk tonight. This is for the boys who wanted to run as fast as I could. “Catch me,” I cried. At seventeen, no one ever did.