I was in sixth grade when the first suggestion of change occurred to my body. I stood in a hallway mirror that hung between the three bedrooms in our house, staring at my bare chest. I was afraid someone would catch me inspecting myself, but as with any gruesome discovery, I couldn’t stop looking. The permanence of the change upon me altered how I felt about my bathing suit. That summer, on vacation in Georgia and Florida, I started to wear a T-shirt over my one-piece. When asked why, I claimed I was cold. I devised ways to get in and out of pools and the ocean quickly and then plant myself belly down on the towel stretched next to my younger cousins. I hated how exposed I felt on the crowded beach while my mom rubbed sunscreen onto my back. My vulnerability and shame made me curl my shoulders.
That same summer I found myself unable to turn away from the older girls who lay out confidently in their bikinis near our family’s cluster of deck chairs. I was nervous that one of them might catch me looking in their direction, so I squinted and played dead when their eyes occasionally met mine. These roots of attraction didn’t yet register as sexual. Instead, I became obsessed with trying to look like them.
I stopped wearing my hair up in a ponytail and let my curled ends fall past my chin. I stood for long periods at the bathroom mirror and wondered if I was pretty. It was clear to me that neither Tegan nor I looked or acted like those girls from the beach, but at night on the pullout couch that we shared, I never dared to ask if Tegan was scrutinizing them as carefully as I was. The physical intimacy between our aunt and her daughters that summer seemed like a language I’d forgotten between childhood and adolescence. Longing to be comforted, I watched Tegan and Mom embrace on the beach at dusk and found I could no longer close the gap between us. My body had become a stranger, and so had my mind.
During those early adolescent years, Mom’s bathroom was littered with makeup and electronics. Before classes at the college where she was earning her bachelor’s degree in social work, she doubled the size of her perm with a flat iron and rollers. Tegan and I perched on the closed toilet lid and watched as she painted her face brilliant pinks and reds and blues. She was the target of male attention everywhere we went. Horns honked, men whistled, boys from school blushed. Calling her “Mom” in public was shocking to strangers. Men and women alike insisted, “You look like sisters!” I was at ease with her beauty and adored watching my stepdad take pictures of her on the front lawn. Those black-and-white photographs were framed and placed with pride all through the house: Mom in profile, Bruce’s leather jacket pulled down off her shoulders as she cast sultry looks into his lens.
When my body began to betray me, it should have been her I turned to for guidance, but instead I disguised the change occurring beneath my clothes. I looted the vanity in her bathroom for deodorant, perfume, and cover-up that I applied ineptly over my pimples. Although she offered her closet full of trendy clothes, fashionable overalls, and black Doc Martens, Tegan and I opted for Disney Epcot T-shirts and our gramma’s hand-me-downs.
When my body began to betray me, it should have been her I turned to for guidance, but instead I disguised the change occurring beneath my clothes. I looted the vanity in her bathroom for deodorant, perfume, and cover-up that I applied ineptly over my pimples.
“Get your noses pierced!” Mom screamed excitedly at me and Tegan on a back-to-school shopping trip before grade seven. We stood paralyzed near the glass case of piercing jewelry, unable to accept her help.
In junior high physical education class, I developed a method that involved wearing multiple shirts in order to avoid removing my clothes entirely in the locker room. Running laps slowly only encouraged the leering from boys, so I began to fake injuries like a pulled muscle or a twisted knee and sat slumped on the lacquered floors beneath the basketball hoops, watching my flat-chested friends sprint across the court. Jumping jacks were out; so were push-ups. I stopped wearing my backpack on both shoulders, preferring to hang it off my right side and folding my left shoulder inward.
“Lily said you guys have floppy tits,” a friend told Tegan and me at a sleepover. I broke down into sobs, choked by shame. This cruel teasing forced us to finally suggest to Mom that we might need sports bras for gym class. At a department store downtown, we rode the escalator behind her in embarrassed silence. A measuring tape was tightly cinched across our breasts by a sales clerk in the lingerie section. I selected the first bra I found in my size, tugging it down quickly and then off again behind the locked dressing room door. “This one” was all I said as I handed it back to Mom. Later, in the privacy of my bedroom, I checked to see if the bra would restore me to my original flatness as I pulled my T-shirts and sweatshirts on and then off.
Among the popular grade-eight girls, our large breasts had been considered a joke, and their malicious gossip was the final humiliation that compelled us to address the situation. But when we returned to school our bras seemed only to inspire further contempt, and their punishment scaled with our cup size. We became the enemies they kept close, rejecting us and then returning when it suited them. When a much-desired senior, Matthew, asked for my phone number, these girls banished us once again from their circle. My crime, scribbled on foolscap, was folded and left for me to find on the corner of my desk the following morning: “You knew that Lily liked him.”
In exile, Matthew told me about his favorite band, Smashing Pumpkins, and loaned me his well-worn copy of Siamese Dream so I could dub it to a cassette tape. Matthew had assured me “Today” was the best song on the album. After school in the basement at home, I placed the CD in the tray and selected the third track. Tegan sat on the couch, and I remained crouched near the stereo. I turned up the volume.
“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” Billy Corgan sang from the black foam of Bruce’s speakers. Goosebumps spread across my ribs as the bass sucked air in and out of the subwoofer. Each lyric provoked a desperate reply in me. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow either; I wanted to burn my eyes out, too; I wanted to turn someone on.
“Amazing, right?” Matthew asked me the next day in the library.
“Yeah,” I said, passing the CD to him.
“I’m going to bring you the Pumpkins’ first album, Gish. It’s gonna blow your mind,” he said.
Matthew was the first boy who shared something with me that I didn’t want to reject, but I had nothing to offer him in return. Over the holidays he stopped calling me, and by January he was flanked in the hallways by a girl who could have been his twin. In their arms, they were cradling skateboards, and their baggy pants were pulled low by the chains of their wallets.
“Hello, Sara,” he said, dipping his chin at me as they passed by.
“Hi.” I nodded back, avoiding his girlfriend’s eyes. Her indifference suggested that I posed no threat. She was exactly what I wasn’t. I shrank from Matthew’s greeting, ashamed I’d ever thought he was into me.
When the bus pulled up to the stop near our house, Tegan and I hurried past the girls who’d threatened us, grabbing our wallet chains in our fists, just in case we had to run. At home I went up to my bedroom and slipped headphones over my ears. They were Bruce’s, borrowed after much begging and a promise to handle them with care. The soft black leather ear pads and headband pressed against my head. I hit Play on a fuzzy recording of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that I’d dubbed from the radio. I pretended my hands were wrapped around a microphone, and I howled Billy’s words as if they were my own. The imaginary crowd watching me was filled with my friends, but also with my bullies from junior high and the intimidating girls from the bus. In my mind’s eye, I stretched myself thin and tall, erasing my breasts from my silhouette onstage. A single spotlight burned white on my face. When the song ended, I sat up and leaned across the mattress to press Rewind, then Play. I listened until my ears rang.