By Sarah Goffman
For every day that went by since Mara Shi had gotten her period and Ariel still hadn’t, Ariel became more and more convinced that she was probably a boy. She’d read articles about hermaphrodites whose inside-out penises looked exactly like vaginas until one day they hit puberty, and their real genitals popped back out like the noses of those squishy stress dolls. Every time Ariel went to the bathroom, the unmarred crotch of her underwear served as silent confirmation. While her best friend had become a woman along with what seemed like every other sixth grader she knew, Ariel would soon transform into something unexpected and terrible. She fell asleep at night thinking about whether she would simply keep her penis hidden for the rest of her days (sex didn’t seem like it would be that hard to avoid and she could always adopt a child) or if she would let it turn her into someone else, and whether or not that would mean she’d have to run away.
Everywhere, Ariel looked for proof. People always told her she was Daddy’s girl, his “spitting image,” an expression that still made her think of actually spitting. It was true: she had his eyes, round and dark with short eyelashes and dark, archless eyebrows. She had his broad, pointy shoulders and muscular, outturned legs, and on the broad plain of her chest were two barely noticeably, pointy mounds of fat, which stopped reassuring her once she heard the term “man boobs” on a television show that paired computer nerds with former beauty queens. They were nothing like real breasts, like the ones Mara already had, which filled not just a AA but an A cup. And they were nothing like her mother’s breasts, which hung halfway down her torso when she undressed, and apparently were a real hindrance when she was Ariel’s age. “I was the best pitcher on the softball team until these got in the way,” she would often tell Ariel, looking down at them in resignation. “You’re so lucky you don’t have to worry about that yet.”
Ariel’s legs had a dusting of dark, long, hairs that looked turned blond in summertime. Until recently, it wasn’t so different from what she saw on the legs of other girls. But lately she had been noticing the smooth sheen on other girls’ knees as they sat Indian-style on the floor during gym class.
When she asked Mara about it, Mara said, “Duh everybody’s been shaving since fifth grade.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Ariel.
“I thought you knew.”
After school one day, they went to Mara’s empty house to have what Mara called a “shaving party.” Mara’s house always smelled like cleaning products and cinnamon, unlike Ariel’s house, which smelled like coffee and Rufus, their Cockapoo. Mara’s family kept a little table in the corner of their living room that was draped in shiny fabrics and covered in candles and little Buddha statues and a bowl filled with candy that Mara said they were never supposed to take. It was like leaving cookies out for Santa, she said. The bowl sat on top of a portable CD player which played very low music on a loop that sounded like a hundred sad children singing in unison. The music protected the house, Mara told her, and this always made Ariel a little jealous. Ariel’s family was Jewish and Episcopalian, but really they weren’t anything at all. This was the year most kids started going to catechism and Hebrew school. Ariel was glad they didn’t have anything for Buddhist kids that would interfere with her and Mara’s after-school plans. She used to think of asking Mara for a copy of that CD so she could play it sometimes at home in her room. But then she imagined her mother walking in and asking, “What is this?” and the thought of having to explain was enough to deter her.
When they got upstairs, Mara said, “Okay. First we have to put on our shaving outfits,” taking a pair of shorts out of her top dresser drawer and handing them to Ariel. When Ariel unfolded them she saw that BOO-TAY was written across the butt. The two O’s were turned into cartoon eyes, and underneath was a smiling mouth with a long, pink tongue hanging out and two round drops of drool falling from it.
In the bathroom, Ariel stood between two full length mirrors and looked at her juxtaposed reflections: one that was looking back at her, and the other being looked at but not looking back. Seeing the BOO-TAY shorts from this angle made Ariel think of an episode of Winnie the Pooh that always frightened her as a child, in which Pooh gets stuck trying to leave Rabbit’s hole, and Rabbit decorates Pooh’s helpless behind with two sticks that look like antlers, painted on eyes and a mouth, and a clown nose secured between poor Pooh’s butt cheeks like a protruding red turd. The overall effect was that of a mounted deer head, and Ariel, a vegetarian since age six, didn’t know what was more terrifying: Pooh’s humiliation, or the idea of a rabbit wanting to decorate its home with a severed head of a deer.
First they exfoliated, scrubbing their legs with loofahs until the skin turned pink and almost numb.
“You have to scrape away the dead skin cells,” Mara explained, scrubbing harder as she talked. “Or the hairs won’t come off as easy.”
“Oh,” said Ariel, trying to match her friend’s vigor.
Then they applied a thick layer of shave gel in Mango Moisture Mania from their ankles to their thighs.
“You have to leave it on at least ten minutes in order for the Mango Moisture to really absorb,” explained Mara.
“That makes sense,” said Ariel. “Like conditioner.”
“Exactly,” said Mara.
Mara was a good teacher. When they were eight, it was Mara who told Ariel about sex. The man, Mara explained, put his penis in the hole the woman peed from, and he went in and out, in and out until he was too tired to do it anymore. The woman—and Mara knew this from several movies she had seen—always wore a bra but no underwear, and she screamed a lot, and when it was over, instead of putting her own clothes back on, the woman had to make a dress out of the bed sheets.
“I know, I didn’t believe it either,” she said, looking off at something out the window. “But that’s really what happens.” It was that summer afternoon in Mara’s bedroom, their Totally Hair Barbies tossed naked and splay-legged on the floor with their multi-colored braids unraveling around them, that Ariel first knew she and Mara were not the same. Mara, Ariel surmised, would one day be this screaming woman in a bra and no underwear, whereas Ariel knew in her heart that she would one day be something entirely different. And the more certain she became of this, the more she harbored secret terror of its eventual revelation.
They lay on their backs, their legs at ninety-degree angles with their feet resting on the edge of the bathroom sink. Covered in white like this, their difference in shape was even more apparent: Mara’s legs were short and thin with dainty, pointed knees and ankles that were probably the same size as Ariel’s wrists. Ariel’s legs were thick and long and straight: a pair of snow-covered tree trunks.
After a little while, Mara reached over and began to draw her initials, “M.S.” on the plateau of Ariel’s thigh. Ariel pushed her hand away halfway through the “S”.
“Stop it,” she said. “Now the moisture won’t set in.”
“Yes it will,” said Mara, and Ariel could tell she was a little wounded. “In fact, I bet that part will be even more moisturized because I rubbed it in.”
“Yeah right,” said Ariel.
They shaved slowly and methodically, rinsing the blade after every length from toe to knee and knee to thigh and watched the dissolving shave gel and dark splinters of hair spiral down the drain.
When they were finished and dried off, the two girls examined their faces side by side in the bathroom mirror, something they did often. Lately, Ariel noticed that every time Mara looked at her reflection, she pouted her lips slightly and shook her head as if it were causing her hair to reposition itself more favorably.
“God,” said Mara. “I want to rip your eyelids right off your face and put them on mine.”
Ariel laughed. “What are you talking about? What’s so great about my eyelids?”
“You have the crease. Look,” Mara said, taking her finger and tracing the concave part of Ariel’s eye socket below her brow bone.
“So?” said Ariel.
“So look at mine. They’re flat and puffy and I only have these tiny little slits for eyes. It’s the Asian girl’s curse my mom says.”
“You are in-sane,” said Ariel.
Mara gave a little sigh. “I know,” she said and gave her reflection a quick peck on the glass.
When Vanessa Dumont switched to Ariel’s homeroom and Mrs. Spearling sat her at Ariel’s table, directly across from her, Vanessa decided to hate Ariel for no reason whatsoever.
She sauntered over to Ariel’s table at the back of the room near the Reading Corner and sat down, dropping her bookbag onto the floor and leaning back in her seat so the front legs came off the floor, something that drove all the teachers crazy. She was the tallest kid at the table and wore a tight black t-shirt with the words BOW DOWN TO THE QUEEN stretched and distorted over her breasts, which were bigger than any Ariel had seen on any girl in her own grade. She wore the kind of lip gloss that made her lips look like they were coated in glass, and her brown and blond streaked hair was sculpted into perfectly uniform waves slicked wet with gel that looked, to Ariel, like plastic telephone cords growing out of her scalp. Ariel pretended to concentrate harder on her photosynthesis chart, but she could feel Vanessa’s glare. She watched her deep purple acrylic nails, each with a palm tree decal, draw menacingly loud circles on the uneven wood of their table near Ariel’s open textbook, the fingers extending and contracting like the tentacles of a jellyfish.
Finally Vanessa lowered her head so that Ariel could no longer block her from her field of vision.
“Hey there, Farmer John.”
“What?” said Ariel.
“I was just telling Matt that we got stuck at the table with Farmer John.”
Ariel looked behind her.
“I’m talking about you, freak,” said Vanessa. “Where are you going in that outfit—a ho-down?”
Ariel clutched the intentionally undone right strap of her denim overalls.
Matt DiNardo, who sat next to Ariel and often traded fruit roll-ups for her granola bars at lunch, grinned and nodded as if this was something he’d always observed in Ariel but had never been able to articulate. “Yeah,” he said, doing a strange, breathy laugh Ariel had never heard before. “But like, what do you call it for girls—Farmer Jean?”
“There are no girl farmers, idiot,” Vanessa said, leaning back further in her chair, turning her head toward Matt but keeping her eyes on Ariel. “Look at her—she’s Farmer John.” Then she rocked forward on her chair, reached over and flicked open the front panel of Ariel’s overalls. “You might as well buckle up, slut,” she said. “You’ve got nothing to show.”
“Oohhh,” said Matt DiNardo. Danny Cooper sat next to Vanessa, but, at least a foot shorter than her and clearly uninterested in her breasts, had the good sense to move his seat to the far corner of the table.
Ariel felt sick. She rolled her eyes at Vanessa but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“What the hell are you looking at, weirdo?” said Vanessa, leaning in and glaring closely at Ariel. At this distance Ariel could see that Vanessa had two jewels glued to the corners of each eye.
“Nothing,” said Ariel. “Sorry.”
Two tables over, Mara was coloring in the intricately drawn fern on her photosynthesis chart. Ariel’s was just a bent line with halved elliptical shapes that looked more like mouths than leaves. To make matters worse, the crayon she was using, which appeared to be dark green in the box, was looking closer and closer to blue the more she colored.
Vanessa knew, Ariel thought. She was doing this because she knew. It was the only explanation she could think of.
Later, on the way home from school, Ariel asked Mara what to do.
“Do I say something back? What would I even say?” Ariel’s mother had always told her to just ignore kids who said mean things, but Ariel worried drastic measures were needed to deal with Vanessa.
Mara thought for a minute. “I know something you could say, but it’s really bad. I once saw Kelly Barsch say it to Lindsay Miller at camp, and Lindsay cried and didn’t come to camp for three days.” Mara stopped walking, brought a hand to her chin in a kind of posed way and looked at Ariel carefully. “I don’t know if you can say it though. It might sound funny coming from you. Vanessa might not believe it.”
“Shut up, what is it? Mara you have to tell me. This is serious.” Ariel could feel the tears at the back of her throat and tried her best to swallow them away.
“Fine,” said Mara. “Kelly Barsch looked Lindsay Miller right in the face and said”—here Mara imitated Kelly Barsch and pretended Ariel was Lindsay Miller, looking her slowly up and down before fixing her gaze fiercely at her eyes—“‘God must have been drunk when he made you.’” She said it slowly and quietly, emphasizing the hard “k” sound of “drunk” which made it sound even more profane.
“What did Lindsay Miller do?” asked Ariel.
“What do you think she did? She cried and ran home,” said Mara. “Wouldn’t you? I mean, what else can you do when somebody says that to you.”
“That’s true,” said Ariel.
“Now you say it,” said Mara, and waited.
“God must have been drunk when he made you,” said Ariel.
“No,” said Mara, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk and grabbing Ariel by the shoulders. Mara looked at Ariel, parting her lips and widening her eyebrows in this way she had that conjured immediate intensity in her face, which was sometimes genuine, like when she told Ariel about Mrs. Shi’s hysterectomy, and sometimes not, like the time at Lizzy O’Hara’s slumber party, when she told Ariel that she needed to wear her bra backwards while she slept if she didn’t want her breasts to grow in saggy.
“When you say it to Vanessa, it has to be better.”
“Okay,” said Ariel. “I’ll practice.”
Mara let go of her shoulders. They walked in silence for a few blocks.
“What do you think it’s like,” Ariel asked finally, “to have boobs like that?”
“Probably pretty awesome,” said Mara.
“Do you think they’re heavy or something?” said Ariel.
Mara did an almost-laugh, like she had water in her mouth she was trying not to spit out. She stopped and hunched over, curling her arms at either side of her like they were carrying bowling balls and walked slowly, dragging her feet along the concrete.
“Look, I’m Vanesssssaaaaa,” she said. “My boobs are sooo heavy I… can’t even… move.”
“Stop it,” said Ariel.
“I’m trying to make you laugh,” said Mara.
“I know,” said Ariel. “But it’s not funny.”
“Okay, weirdo,” said Mara.
The next day in school, while Mrs. Spearling was reading a chapter of The Outsiders out loud, Vanessa looked over at Matt DiNardo, pointed at Ariel and then took her two index fingers and drew these strange, symmetrical lines on her face, starting under her nose and ending in dramatic curly-queues at the corners of her mouth. Matt DiNardo mimed a silent, overly-theatrical laugh. When Vanessa did it again, Ariel realized she was drawing a moustache.
As soon as the chapter was finished, Ariel asked to go to the nurse. There, in the nurse’s bathroom, which was a private bathroom–not like the short stalls of the girls’ room where you could see everyone’s legs up to their knees and the tops of their heads when they stood up—there, in the giant mirror framed in greenish fluorescent lights, Ariel saw something she’d never noticed before: a line of fine, dark hairs that created a rippled shadow over the ridges of her upper lip. It was as if, by drawing those lines on her own face, Vanessa had caused something new to exist on Ariel’s. But Ariel knew this couldn’t be true.
There was a knock on the door. “Honey?” said Angie, the school nurse, who allowed everyone to call her by her first name. “Are you okay in there? You having tummy troubles?”
“Yeah,” said Ariel. She unbuckled her overalls, went over to the toilet and sat down, her elbows on her knees, her cheeks pressed into the knuckles of her fisted hands. She sat there and wept quietly until the end of fourth period, letting the tears fall onto the spaces between her bare legs and the her underwear, which was bloodless as always.
The next day, Ariel stayed home from school. By 3:15, she could hear Mara, who knew that Ariel’s family kept an extra key in the giant conch shell on the side porch, unlocking the front door. Ariel emerged from her bedroom, sat on the top of the stairs and waited for Mara to find her.
“I know you’re not sick,” said Mara from the landing of the stairs. “Ashley Park told me what happened.”
“How did she know?” said Ariel.
“She was sitting behind Vanessa and Matt.”
“Oh,” said Ariel.
“Look. Vanessa’s a bi-atch,” said Mara. “And her face is busted too. She just has those giant freak-boobs.”
“Freak-boobs,” said Ariel, and laughed a little.
“See?” said Mara. “Told you it was funny.”
It was Mara’s idea to go to Pinky Nails. “The only thing you can do,” she told Ariel, “is wax it off. If you shave it you’ll get whiskers like a man.”
When they walked in, the woman at the front counter said “Anyonghasayo” to Mara.
“Sorry,” said Mara. “I’m not Korean. No Korean. Chinese. Ni hao.”
The woman, whose nametag read “MI-SOOK”, laughed a little. “You don’t look Chinese,” she said. “Your face very Korean.”
“Well, I’m not,” said Mara. “And she needs a lip wax.”
As they walked toward the back of the salon, Mara said, “That’s their way of saying they think I’m pretty.”
“Oh,” said Ariel. “That’s nice I guess.”
“Sort of,” said Mara. “Not when you think about it.”
“Oh yeah,” said Ariel.
Ariel had been to Pinky Nails once before, when her mother took her to get a manicure for her eleventh birthday. They sat at adjacent tables, and the manicurists put each of their left hands in little dishes full of warm water while they filed the fingernails of their right hands.
“Isn’t this fun?” said Ariel’s mother who grinned and drew up her shoulders like they were doing something secret and bad.
“Yup,” said Ariel.
When Ariel’s manicurist took out a frightening metal tool that reminded Ariel of the pliers the dentist used to pull out an abscessed molar when she was five, her mother leaned over suddenly, laying her wet hand gently over Ariel’s.
“NO CUT JUST PUSH DOWN,” Ariel’s mother said.
“Okay,” Ariel’s manicurist said, switching to a much less scary tool that looked like a tiny shovel and began to push down the waxy half moons of Ariel’s cuticles.
“You never know if their tools are really sanitized,” said Ariel’s mother, who assumed the manicurists couldn’t speak English, but Ariel, who watched their expressions carefully as her mother spoke, wasn’t so sure. Still, in that moment, at Pinky Nails, Ariel was grateful that her mother could still make her feel safe.
Ariel did not feel safe at this moment, as Mi-Sook led her and Mara through the aisle of women getting pedicures, their bodies limply jostled by the vibrations of their black leather massage chairs.
The waxing room looked more like a doctor’s examining room, with a leather table lined with paper.
“This is her first time,” said Mara. “She’s a vir-gin.”
“Shut up,” said Ariel.
Mi-sook frowned and clicked her tongue at Mara. Then she turned to Ariel and patted the waxy paper on the table so that it crinkled loudly. “Lie here,” she said.
Ariel wasn’t expecting to have to lie down for just a lip wax, but she did as she was told. While Mi-Sook bent over her, examining the mustache, Ariel clutched the material of her shirt because she didn’t know what else to do with her arms. Mi-Sook’s breath smelled like medicine.
“Lot of hairs,” said Mi-Sook.
“Mmm,” said Mara.
“Don’t worry,” said Mi-Sook, smiling down at Ariel and brushing the hair away from her face, her hand cool against Ariel’s hot cheek. “We take it all off.”
Ariel didn’t say anything. The florescent ceiling light directly above her face buzzed. When she closed her eyes she could still see it through the skin of her eyelids. How long, she wondered as Mi-Sook smoothed the warm wax over the right side of her lip, had the mustache been there? How long had she been looking at her own reflection without seeing it? And then, as Mi-Sook pressed the skin against her teeth, a much worse thought: When would it grow back?
When Mi-Sook ripped the wax from her skin, tears streamed down Ariel’s face as if by reflex, like some valve had been opened that was no longer connected to feelings.
“Baby,” said Mi-Sook, wiping away her tears.
“I’m not crying,” said Ariel.
“Okay,” said Mi-Sook. “Not crying.”
Ariel had the urge to clutch Mi-Sook’s hand, still poised at her cheek, but she didn’t.
When Ariel got home and looked in the mirror, she saw that there was a distinctly outlined, bright red shape on the skin where the moustache had been. By the time her parents got home, that was gone too.
That night Ariel lied awake in bed, touching the skin of her upper lip with her tongue and fingers. It felt smooth and numb, like she was touching someone else.
The next day as Ariel and Mara were leaving the cafeteria and heading toward Mr. Frometti’s math class, Ariel heard someone rush up behind her and latch onto the back of her hair with clawed fingers. When she turned around, Vanessa was holding her hair elastic.
“Thanks,” Vanessa said. “I needed one.” Then, examining the pink and green braided hair band closer, which had several of Ariel’s hairs still wound around it, she said, “Ew. Never mind,” and tossed it onto a nearby overflowing garbage can, where it landed on top of a half-eaten piece of French bread pizza.
Vanessa looked at Ariel and raised her eyebrows in a way she hadn’t seen before. Ariel looked over at Mara, who looked at the ground.
Then Ariel looked right into Vanessa’s bejeweled eyes, and said, slowly and unwaveringly, “God must have been drunk when he made you.”
Vanessa’s eyebrows fell and twitched a little. She brought one hand to her sternum in a way that made Ariel believe that she was about to burst into tears and run home, just as Mara said Lindsay Miller had done.
But instead, Vanessa pulled something out from under the collar of her shirt, something that glinted in the florescent cafeteria light.
“I’m Catholic, bitch,” she said, pointing at the cross with the other hand. “You can’t say that to me.”
She reached for Ariel with both hands, her facial expression so serene and unchanging, Ariel almost thought she might hug her. Then the flats of Vanessa’s palms hit Ariel on the fronts of both shoulders and sent her stumbling back, her sneakers skidding a few feet across the cafeteria floor. As her hip hit the edge of the garbage can, her knees buckled under her so that she fell next to it, jarring it just enough so that some of the garbage–a few balled up napkins, a Styrofoam bowl of tater tots, a Yoo-hoo container and the half-eaten piece of French bread pizza–rained down on Ariel’s head.
That afternoon, they went to Mara’s house, where Mara applied a clarifying treatment to Ariel’s hair.
“This will get all that garbage grease out,” she said.
Ariel was quiet. The thick, cement-like substance was cool on her scalp, and something about the way it felt as Mara separated the wet sections of her hair reminded her of the way her mother used to French braid it every morning until fifth grade, when Ariel decided French braids made the top of her head look pointy.
When Mara was done, she put the treatment on her own hair, and then the two girls went down to the living room to watch TV while it set. They sat quietly, but every once in a while, Ariel could see Mara’s thickly pasted head out of her peripheral vision, leaning forward, Ariel knew, to make sure she wasn’t crying. She wasn’t.
“Do you want a snack?” Mara said after a few minutes.
“Not really,” said Ariel.
“Okay, well I’ll go get something just in case,” said Mara.
When Mara had disappeared into the kitchen, Ariel walked over to the table with all the Buddha statues. She noticed now that some of the statues were very fat with fleshy breasts and round bellies. Others were more slender, with wider, angular shoulders, very narrow hips and no breasts at all. Both wore a kind of skirt draped over their legs, which were woven into inhuman-looking pretzel shapes.
Then Ariel reached into the bowl that sat, vibrating a little, on top of the portable CD player. She took one piece of candy, untwisted the red cellophane wrapping, and examined the hard pellet, felt its powdery coating. Then she placed it on her tongue.
It tasted sweet and stale, the way that, years ago, she’d imagined red checkers pieces would taste, but had never been allowed to find out. When Mara came back, she tucked the candy into the space between her upper gums and the inside of her cheek and kept it there until it dissolved completely.
Copyright Goffman 2012