Seventeen

“She was unbearable and at war with the world.” – “Prince Charming” by Renée Vivien

 

It does start off with a bang, if bang means sex, specifically sex without love. I am used to my body being used for my partner’s personal pleasure. I am used to the way their body pulses under my hand, gripped in theirs in the dark, the rest of my body only an accessory. It is familiar in the same way that looking into a dog’s mouth still reminds you of being bitten, even when the attack was years ago. I am becoming seventeen while I am becoming an open wound, which is to say: I will still be bleeding trauma into my twenties, because I am still learning how to trust my own hands.

* * * * *

The best view in Peru is from a rooftop in Lima. For three nights, after all my classmates have fallen asleep or snuck out of the hotel to go drinking, I slip under the stars—a new nightly ritual. Perched on the concrete ledge there, I can see the city writhing beneath me. Peru is so alive at night. My gaze drifts from the silhouettes of lovers in the surrounding apartment windows down to the families on the ground, who purchase trays from food trucks and crowd around small fires. I watch the club lights shiver and shake against the walls of the buildings, and I trace the moon as it makes its journey over the Cristo del Pacífico. 

We celebrate our last night in Lima with dance lessons at a nearby bar. The instructor, short and charming, dips me in a salsa, and a man with long blonde hair who refers to me as a beautiful catastrophe teaches me the samba. My favorite is the merengue, which a heavily tattooed man guides me through even though I repeatedly stomp on his feet. They all kiss my hand politely when we finish our respective numbers and ask me to stay a little while longer, but the roof calls to me. I wax away the hours dancing alone on the ledge above the city until my heartbeat starts to sound like the music and my feet move in seamless accordance. 

* * * * *

There’s a boy I’ve still told hardly anybody about, who sneaks me out of my house so he can kiss me under yellow streetlights and in his beat-up car. Every time he runs his fingers up my legs, I feel like I am burning. I feel like there is a forest inside of me that I’ve been growing for years only for his open-mouthed kisses to consume swaths of it in flames. I let him wreck me because I’ve become accustomed to the scars between my thighs, and I need new ones to keep me interesting. I break it off immediately when I find out that he raped a girl, but I keep the old film camera he gave me.

* * * * *

“Family” and “home” are the hardest words in the English language for me to say. They taste like saltwater and copper. Their letters shake on a page like fists colliding with a table and a throat full of yelling. When my teachers ask me if I will miss my parents when I leave for college, I smile at them wordlessly. I go home and try to ignore how my mother’s voice wedges itself within my skull in an incessant panging, try to avoid colliding with my father’s precarious rage. Most of the time, I am unsuccessful. Most of the time, I am toppled over by the weight of daughterhood.

* * * * *

I fall in love with a girl for the first time. She loves the sun so much that she cannot help but radiate warmth herself, and kissing her feels like grazing violets across my lips. Loving her is the most dangerous thing I do this year. She is so soft—so easy to crush between my clumsy fingers. But the crushing part comes later, at eighteen. At seventeen, we are still love poems given blood and bodies, and that is enough. 

* * * * *

There are too many gray spots in my memory. I spend days staring at the wall, at nothing. At night, I finger the pair of scissors in my closet, flirt them against the soft skin of my wrists. I don’t want to die. But I just don’t want to be filled with this humming numbness, either, this numbness like a fog in my skull. But I can’t bring myself to scoop the blades into my flesh—it would make such a mess.

* * * * *

The dance floor is littered with wriggling bodies, all different sizes, all moving to the music pouring out of the loudspeakers. The littlest ones barely reachstand up to my knees, while some of the older dancers tower heads above me. They hold one another’s hands while they dance. When I stare hard into the dimly lit room, I can see that their knuckles are white. They grip each other so hard that to pull away would be like tearing off a limb.

And they are all beautiful, dressed in their suits and glittery dresses. I’m not there to dance, but to adjust the bowties of the beaming young men and fix the flyaway hairs of the girls so that the photographer I’m interning with can shoot some formal photographs. It’s frustrating work; they don’t want to stand still, and they keep elbowing each other because they would rather be free and spinning under the glimmering lights. 

Don’t worry, the photographer assures me. I know it doesn’t seem like they care, but they will. For some of them, this is the first or last time they’ll see their brothers and sisters. This photograph will be all they have for a while.

I swallow my exasperation with a tall glass of fruit punch, and I start to shake my head amusedly at their antics. They grin back at me when I hand them their printed photos. 

* * * * *

We wake up before the sun—3 a.m.—because it is Daisy’s birthday, and she wants to be one of the first fifty guests at the new bakery’s 8 a.m. opening so she can win one of the $50 gift cards they’re giving away. There are seven of us, and we take turns between snoozing in the blanket-stuffed car and holding spots in the chilly line outside. Just aswhen we get up to the front of the line, I am told I am ineligible for the prize because I’m not at least eighteen. But my friends’ grins, huge and sweet, and that striking magenta sunrise, are enough to make me forget about my exhaustion. 

* * * * *

It is tradition every Christmas for my family to make a trip to a quaint German town called Fredericksburg, about an hour north from our house. There, each of us buys a new ornament for our Christmas tree, something that represents us. I am ecstatic to find a singular, small rainbow, hidden behind the snowmen and Santa Clauses. My mother is not. 

I’m not putting that shit on my tree, she says, turning her face away.

The crystal bird I leave the store with is pretty enough, and I hang it about midway up the tree. In the mornings, when the light streams in just right, I sit on the stairs and watch the colors the crystal creates dance against the wall—a silent, shimmering protest. 

* * * * *

Blueberries and pecans roll off the counter and onto the floor and for once, I don’t mind the mess. NorNeither do I mind the stickiness of the pineapple juice on my cheeks and the grape skin stuck under my fingernails. It’s March 14. That means it’s pi day and it’s pie day, when my friends and I gather each year to bake an assortment of the flaky pastries. Like the year before, the coconut cream pie is a disaster, but the apple and rhubarb pies are smashing successes. We fall asleep early, a pile of bodies that are half-girl and half-woman, our bellies all filled with warmth.

* * * * *

According to the psychologist Arthur Aron, there are thirty-six questions that are guaranteed to make you fall in love with someone. I find the study while on a call with my best friends at the time. We can’t believe it, so of course we have to try it, just to prove our angsty teenage biases. We giggle our way through the questions about if we’d like to be famous, what our perfect day would look like, who we dreamed about having dinner with. But by the end, we are all softly sobbing into our phones’ receivers. 

I can’t remember most of my childhood. I don’t know when I started becoming numb.

I’ve already slept with so many men that I shouldn’t have, just to feel wanted, and I just feel dirty.

I’m starting to realize my last relationship was abusive.

We fall asleep on the phone together. Alone in my dark bedroom, I pretend that my blankets are their arms around me. At school the next day, wWe don’t discuss the secrets we shared at school the next day, but we squeeze each other’s hands as we listen to the macroeconomics teacher drone on, and we pretend that nothing bad has ever happened to us—that we are safe together. 

* * * * *

Huckleberries are almost like blueberries, but bigger and sweeter, and they only grow in the Nnorth. While on a summer vacation with my family to Montana, I try everything huckleberry-flavored that I possibly can: huckleberry tea, huckleberry coffee, huckleberry pancakes, the huckleberries themselves. My favorite is the huckleberry ice cream, two huge dollops of it squeezed precariously into a waffle cone, which stains my lips purple all day, to my mother’s embarrassmentchagrin. Truthfully, I don’t even like huckleberry very much. It is just good to feel filled by something.

* * * * *

My name flies out of the judge’s mouth without warning and slams into my eardrums so abruptly, I am sure I’ve fallen out of my chair. I feel everyone’s eyes on me as I shakily stand up and follow her excitedly- motioning hand to the podium. If my ears are working, I’ve just won my first poetry competition, and I am terrified to read my poem to a roomful of peers and adults. My voice doesn’t shake from stage fright, though—it’s the fact that I am reading a love poem that I’ve written to another girl. I take a deep breath—then cry. And then I read.

* * * * *

I’m glad that it’s my step-father who takes me to attend the scholarship weekend at the out-of-state college because he doesn’t ask as many questions as my mother does, and I am tired of getting punished for wanting something outside ofwhat is external to their wishes for me—for wanting at all. They still think I’m going to be a journalism major, not English, and I don’t fight it; at least I can call home and say I’ve changed my mind while I’m sitting beneath a beautiful magnolia tree. I picture it months from now, when the leaves absorb my mother’s sharp cries of offense and drift on the wind away from me. 

* * * * *

This is the year of the total solar eclipse. I don’t get to see it directly, though I want to. I watch the kitchen fill with shadows like a bowl, like the sky is slowly pouring itself in, and feel the whole Earth drink. Then the darkness recedes again, and the countertops glimmer in a way I hadn’t noticed before. It is the same day; only I am different.

* * * * *

It’s a regular Saturday afternoon. I sit in a blanket fort before the television with some of my friends, watching a movie in Japanese. We couldn’t find an English version, but it’s one of Kayla’s favorites, so we’re all content to watch the colorful scenes flit across the screen and imagine our own dialogue. There’s a mug of matcha tea between my palms and all the windows are open. I close my eyes and lift the cup to my lips, letting the warmth fill my mouth and the laughter around me soak into my ears. 

* * * * *

To celebrate our impending high school graduation, Helia, Rain, and I want to consult the spirit world for insight into our futures, so we perform a wish spell. Helia finds the three of us a candle each—yellow for her, red for me, green for Rain—and a chant. Supposedly, if we say the chant over the candle, make our wish, and blow out the flame, whatever we asked for will come to fruition within five years. We do. Helia and I are both superstitious, so we refuse to say exactly what we wished for out of fear that it might not come true. We decide, though, that it will be fine if we merely share what kind of wish it was. Rain gleefully exclaims that he hopes for happiness. Helia desires wealth. I cross my fingers to give my wish extra strength as I tell them that what I want, more than anything in the world, is love, love, love. 

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