Girls and Boys: Growing Up in Four Parts
BY MADELEINE CRAVENS
This is for all the boys that grabbed my neck in the dark of movie theaters. Boys with 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. I kept my eyes closed. Leaving his apartment, I didn’t feel like I had been robbed of anything other than one spring afternoon’s worth of time. I never came close to loving Hunter, but I envied him. I envied his slouches and shrugs. I envied his feet, and how they were allowed to stick to the ground. Hunter and I were both fiercely stubborn, but he was received as a charming asshole while I was called worse names in bathroom whispers.
Hunter was not the only boy who stared at me like 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 traced his fingerprints in the shower the next morning. He may have wanted me to save him— someone should have told him that I couldn’t save myself. 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 want to cut with my sharpest scissors. Boys who looked into the well of my face during snowstorms, only to find my eyes somewhere else. They were the boys who carried me on their shoulders until I forgot what my own legs felt like, until I longed for solid ground.
I secretly resented the effortless slumpings of masculinity. Dresses are not meant for climbing trees, and they only cover yellowing bruises so well. I was taught to intertwine my keys through my fingers as I walked home at night. I was taught to keep my eyes on street corners. I was taught to say, “I think” instead of “I know”.
Between late February and morning of April Fools’ Day, I was probably pregnant. I was seventeen. I was seventeen years old, 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 the ceiling, thinking about what it would feel like to drown.
When 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 two days late and I thought maybe and then of course not. A toothless street vendor asked me if I was from Hollywood. My mind immediately jumped to Juno, the movie that took place in a mythical land where a teenage pregnancy could be quirky and offbeat. A hobby for hipsters. The street vendor grinned his gummy grin, and I ran away.
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: I 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. Still, I was too afraid. I left the drugstore with some half-melted candy and a growing pit in my stomach.
My period was eight days late. I was on a plane, heading home. The TV 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 and 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 strange object inside me decided to come out on its own. I didn’t cry, and I don’t know if I should have. Still, I had never seen blood so dark and so true.
This is for all the girls that grabbed my wrists the summer I was too skinny. Girls with clenched fists, girls with cagey eyes. They grabbed like I had a prize. It was a prize won because my heart was beating far too quickly. They grabbed at me, and their nails were 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 forming mirrored parenthesis. I could not make eye contact. 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 to only 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 picture-perfect smoke rings. There were girls who went to bed facing the window and slept their dreamless sleeps. There were girls that I hated, hated with a burning deep in my ribcage. There were also girls on rooftops with starry breath and bitten lips. There were quiet girls, girls who needed nothing more than to be kept warm by one more searching body. There were girls at summer camp, running through the forest at night. Every cracking tree branch was a murderer. Pale limbs ghosting through lake water. Cold cheek kisses, wonderbread, a riot grrl manifesto pinned to the wall—the way we live.
This is for the girls who wanted to keep the radio on. For the boys who wanted to tuck my hair behind my ears. This is not for the clumps of cells that may or may not have been multiplying within me, 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. This is for the boy I loved, but not close to enough, and not in the right way either. This is for the girl I loved, but too fast and too hard. Someday, somewhere, I will uncross my fingers and scream.
“Cravens’s ‘Girls and Boys: Growing Up in Four Parts’ lyrically evokes the trials of adolescence in a way I found entirely fresh and convincing.”
- Wendy Rawlings, 2014 Prize Judge
Madeleine Cravens is from Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be found in The Postscript Journal, Revolver Literary Magazine, the Winter 2014 issue of The Adroit Journal, and the Human Parts collection of medium.com.