I am nine years old when my misery forces me to Google: “ways 2 not wear a bra”
Something is on Dad’s mind. I know this because of the way his hand hovers over the key in its ignition, the hesitation that keeps his lips apart. His expression is a mix between thought and discomfort, where his eyebrows meet the wrinkle that is smack-dab in the middle of his forehead. “Your mom told me you have to start wearing bras,” he announces, with an air of authority that he is not sure he possesses in this moment.
The color drains from my face. I’m haunted by the training bras that Mom bought for me, all of which are some variation of a neutral color. “Crazy colors will just show through your shirts. You don’t want anyone seeing that,” she tells me. They sit in the corner of my room in a department store bag, untouched, save for the one I wore for a half-day before declaring my contempt for my cotton prison.
Ushering in the bra means boys talk to me more and stare longer. My best friend, Kayla, declares her jealousy and talks endlessly about how she can’t wait to get a bra – a pink one, with lace, just like the one her big sister wears.
My chest aches when I run in gym class and my transition into puberty is obvious when the room is a bit drafty. I’m painfully aware that I’m the only girl in my class who has developed so quickly, so young. I walk with my arms crossed unnaturally over the mosquito bites I call my breasts, my own bra made out of flesh and bone.
“It’s just something you have to do when…” he takes his sunglasses off, stows them in a compartment above his head. He is not looking directly at me, and I’m grateful for that. “…Well, when it’s time. You don’t want boys noticing things they shouldn’t notice.” He sounds just like Mom. I wonder if mentioning that will amuse him.
I don’t want people to notice that I’m not wearing a bra as much as I don’t want them to notice I am wearing a bra. It’s the point of no return; if I made bra-wearing more routine, what’s next? Will I have to do my taxes and sit at a desk and find a husband? Will I have to kiss him and share a bed even if he takes up all the space? Will we get divorced? Will there be a custody battle? Will he have them “every other weekend”? I’m not ready for what I think is the inevitable fate of every person coming into adulthood.
Dad asks me if I would please promise him that I will do as Mom asks so she can get off his back. They haven’t been married for seven years now and are blindly feeling their way through “co-parenting.” Sometimes they talk on the phone, but when things are strained, they send passive aggressive emails that they think I don’t read when I’m allowed to have my allotted thirty-minutes-a-day on the computer.
I pick at a scab on my ankle and, in desperation for an end to the conversation, promise him. His wrinkle disappears. “Good, good,” he chants. “That’s very good.”
We retreat inside where I watch Cartoon Network. Dad makes me a root beer float. A peace offering. Or a mutual agreement of silence on the matter. I can live with both.
I am ten when my eagerness prompts me to Google: “when will I get my period??????”
I notice something curious when I pull down my pants to use the restroom: a quarter sized spot, brownish-red in color, like rust. Oh, no, I think, fumbling out of my underwear and tossing them down the laundry chute. Mom is going to be so mad at me.
Only five minutes after I discard my shame, Mom is standing in the doorway of the room I share with my twin sister, Morgan. The incriminating evidence – white with multi-colored stars and that damned copper crotch stain – dangles from two fingers. She looks like a detective who is keen on finding the culprit.
I am scared shitless.
“Whose are these?” She has her Mom Voice on, which translates into meaning business, and there’s no good cop to bail me out.
I think of a lie becauseI do not want to admit to Mom that I lapsed on the hard work she put into potty-training me. Ten-year-olds don’t have accidents, I reason, because we are practically adults now. “Not mine,” I tell her. Her focus then turns to Morgan. I effectively damn my sister to interrogation, and it feels good.
Mom pulls her to the restroom. Morgan, confused, maintains her innocence.
“Do you know what’s happening?” I overhear Mom ask, her voice making those hitch-pitched squeaks that it does when she’s stressed. When I’m mad at her, I mimic those squeaks to myself, reenacting an argument in my favor. “You got your period.”
That changes everything. I’ve read the coming of age books – the ones where the protagonists develop those sacred mounds of confusingly erotic fat on their chest and get the guy – with the same reverence that some read the Bible. I often wish for my period and no longer reject bras. Now, I’m wearing real ones with padding even though Mom thinks I’m too young for them, but is too exhausted to argue against it. I want to be like the sophisticated, beautiful women I see on the television. I want to feel womanly, whatever that means, and escape my lanky, awkward body. I want to shave my legs like Mom does, and I puff my chest out when I walk to make my breasts appear bigger, and I want to put on makeup, and style my hair, and say things like “whoopsy, it’s that time of the month” or “this wine is a good vintage, isn’t it?” and “let’s do brunch!”
I’m positive my period is the first step to being womanly. And makeup. And brunches. And C-cup breasts.
My head pokes through the doorway. Morgan is sitting on the toilet and mortification stains her cheeks an apple-red. A small, cotton torpedo is in Mom’s hand while she reads some paper instructions aloud, pointing at the illustrations as she goes along.
Time to come clean, to confess my crime. I clear my throat and put on a deeper, more impressive woman’s voice.
“Mom? I actually think that underwear is mine.”
Despite my tenuous confidence, the end of my sentence ends in a high-pitched squeak.
I am fourteen and desperate when I Google: “how to get boys to like you”
When the teachers wheel in the television stand for students to watch the coveted Bill Nye Science Guy, or when there is in-class group work, there is a game that 8th graders play. My assigned seat is with three boys, and the one that sits directly next to me – Eric, who almost exclusively wears shirts that are too big for him – likes to play this game with me. He rests his hand on my knee and, slowly, always slowly, approaches my upper thigh.
The boys will contend that I Am Not Like The Other Girls, not stuck-up or prude or annoying. I laugh at their “your mom” jokes and the drawings of anatomically incorrect penises. I listen attentively to their stories about smoking weed with an older cousin, or the chick that lets you touch her breasts underneath some school stairs (she insists on not taking off her bra, which is, apparently, a really big bummer).
I pray Eric doesn’t go much farther than what he usually does, that he doesn’t become too bold, because I know I won’t stop him. A confident piece of myself wants to let Eric know how uncomfortable it makes me. But I have no voice, and I am not there yet – I Am Not Like The Other Girls, and the Girl Unlike Other Girls knows that it’s just a game, nothing serious, lighten up.
When class is dismissed, the game is done, and the skin on my thigh is red-hot and dirty. I am relieved that it never goes too far, but this is the price that you have to pay to be Not Like The Other Girls.
I am willing to pay it in full.
I am fifteen and terrified of hellfire when I ask Google: “Will I go to hell if I have sex?”
Mrs. Nguyen sits crossed-legged on the floor, beaming at my Church youth group. She is the mother of an outgoing girl named Grace who sports a band t-shirt of religious music that I don’t listen to. Once, I joked that I am always able to tell the difference between secular and non-secular music within five seconds. In return, Grace said that I was so funny, but the skin around her eyes didn’t crinkle when she smiled, and I didn’t feel so funny.
Mrs. Nguyentucks her pin-straight dark hair behind her ear before she starts to talk about relationships.
“Your purity is the best gift you can give your future husband,” Her demeanor changes into grave seriousness. “You can’t just give it away to anyone; a woman’s virginity is special from God.”
She makes eye contact with every single one of us, and I’m pretty sure she is reading my mind. Does she know about my curious Google searches? The responsibility of where those internet queries take me are replaying in my head: pictures and videos that were the source of a virus on my brothers’ computer years ago. Shame creeps into my face and burns like hellfire.
“If you’re reckless with your gift, what will you be worth to your partner? Don’t you want to give your special gift to him, and not someone who doesn’t value you as a woman of God?”
God terrifies me. I think I love Him, but it is the kind of love that is born from obligation. During worship, when I observe my friends shaking and crying about their relationship with Him, anxiety creeps inside the bottom of my stomach and rises like bile, paints my taste buds with acid. I close my eyes and pray hard during the songs that praise Him. I want to cry. I want to experience God the way my friends experience God, but I can’t.
God is all around me, but not in the way Mrs. Nguyen tells me He is. He doesn’t come to me in dreams or burning bushes. I see Him when Mom creeps in, late at night, when she wakes up five a.m. to get us ready for school and to go to work, only to return at 10 p.m. from night classes, to eat a bowl of cereal and to do it all again tomorrow. I feel Him when Dad grabs my hands and guides me across the grocery store parking lot and his callouses and the rough, dead skin of his hands rub against the smoothness of my own and I am reminded of his twelve-hour shifts at Honda and the online classes and how he goes out himself to chop the wood for his fireplace.
God is the electric buzz that runs from my heart to my inner thighs when my first kiss touches the small of my back. It is the taste of victory when an older boy wants me. God is the thump thump thump of my heartbeat in my throat when I’m alone and begin to get to know my body.
He is the shameful excitement of doing something that wrong. He is the kiss on my forehead when I fall asleep watching television. He is shaking legs and fingers clutching pillowcases. He is baked mac-and-cheese and canned pears for dinner. He is delicious shame.
When Mrs. Nguyen leaves, we all sit in silence, still digesting what she said.
I go home and contort my body around Mom’s handheld mirror. I wonder: if God’s most precious gift is in-between my legs, couldn’t he have made it look prettier?
I am sixteen when I search: “losing your virginity”
My friends have told me horror stories about losing their virginities. There is Laurie, at the age of thirteen, to a boy who was eighteen on a football field. A last hurrah, he contends, before he goes off to college. He promises he loves her. He swears he will visit every weekend that he is not studying or doing the things that mature, collegiate guys do. She says the stadium lights were still on but the bleachers had been deserted for a couple hours, only candy wrappers and soda cans left behind. She says she bled a lot, she says he never did call.
Then there is Britany at sixteen. Britany tells me it was so uncomfortable that she could not stop crying even though, at the time, she insisted she was fine.
“It was like someone was inside of me, banging around my insides,” she cringes with the type of shudder that overtakes her whole face and I think she may be there again before she snaps her bright blue eyes open.
“Wasn’t someone, technically? Banging around your insides?” I ask, genuinely confused. She glares at me. I inwardly chastise myself and further avoid satiating my inquisitiveness.
I do not hear good stories, justa plethora of inexperienced hands applying inexpert pressures in unintelligible places, a dash of the hurried covering of exposed body parts at the sound of a garage door, and the occasional “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” followed with an “I’m so sorry, that doesn’t usually happen, we can try again in fifteen minutes?”
No, I do not hear good stories, but I know they exist. They must exist. I despise the notion that there is no toe-curling, no laughing because you’re comfortable and minimally embarrassed, no accepting that your satisfaction rests in impossibly incapable hands without reciprocation, and that is just how things are. It reinforces that Mrs. Nyugen is right, and in the past couple years, I’ve realized that I desperately want her to be wrong. She still insists that sex is inherently shameful. Sex is inherently bad. Sex is only beautiful when it’s in the marital bed, between a man and a woman, when they are exchanging their “pure gifts” as a testament for God’s love.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I desperately want her to be wrong.
Romanticism is the only thing that gives me faith in sex, in spite of my own virginity. It’s one part a desperate feeling that sex might actually be pleasant, and another part fear. Fear of porn. I am no longer curious-for-curiosity’s-sake about it. I avoid it when I can, circumvent tempting keywords when I spend my time on my family’s computer.
Maybe because it makes me self-conscious: I am short, not long-limbed, with frizzy curls, not bleached blonde extensions, and I am on medicine for acne (that I, for some reason, had to sign a waiver at the Dermatologists stating that I won’t sue if I get pregnant and my baby has physical deformities as a side-effect) and do not have their smooth, poreless skin.
But wait, no, that’s not it – that’s not it at all.
I’m starting to think my faith in Good Sex has a lot to do with the fact that I’m different. I do not want to assign myself to these unsatisfying intimate moments. Maybe that’s why I avoid porn. Because as much as I’m looking at the men, I’m looking at the girls, too. And I don’t think Mrs. Nyugen will approve of that very much.
I am seventeen when I get my own laptop and put in the Google search bar: “bisexuality”.
I lay in Caroline’s bed and watch her get dressed. She’s not the first person I am intimate with, after a year of self-struggling, but she is the first woman. She is a little older, pretty with long hair and full lips and skin that tans easily. She brings me a glass of water and watches me lift the glass to my lips.
“Everything okay?” Caroline asks.
Her bed is not a proper bed: if you fold it, it transforms into a futon. If you concentrate, you can feel the metal bars through the mattress. But I don’t mind. She’s a freshman in a college, and I will be in a couple months, too. I’m ready to leave my hometown, and I hope to feel the metal bars of my own shitty bed, too, because I know it’ll be mine, backache and all.
I shrug. “I don’t feel any different.”
She raises a brow, leaning forward. “How did you think you’d feel?”
I blink, taken aback. I haven’t considered that, not really. Sex was never painful for me, and this time was no exception to that. I don’t regret my first time with Caroline. In fact, I hope this isn’t the last time we get to spend time together. She is kind, and thoughtful. She is polite to my friends when they invite her out for dinner and she makes conversation between the dinner rolls and salads that are 25% lettuce and 75% Caesar dressing. To top it off, she used to be the only openly queer person in my school, a gay goddess when I was a junior and she was a senior, making me wrestle with the dichotomy of wanting to be her or deciding if I wanted to be with her.
“I don’t know,” and it’s the truth. “I don’t know if I should be in pain, or if I just bought my one-way ticket to hell, or if I should feel…” The words swam unguided in my brain.
“Should feel, what?”
“Feel bad, I guess.”
Caroline frowns. She puts her arm around me, her palm rubbing circular motions into my upper arm. My mother does the same thing when she knows I’m upset. “Do you feel bad?”
“No,” I say. “No, I don’t.”
KASEY RENEE SHAW is in her final semester at Ohio University and is pursuing a B.A. in English. She has been previously published in Sphere Literary Magazine.