She is a girl. Prior to her birth, her grandmother, in hopes of a boy, knits clothes for her, only in blue. On the day of her delivery, her parents are relieved; a boy, they feel, without saying it, could prove more than they can handle. The girl is so pretty, riding along the sidewalk in an old-fashioned pram the mother has found at a garage sale. People stop them, complimenting the mother on the girl’s fine features and graceful comportment, despite the blue outfits she wears day in and day out. She has pink cheeks, soft skin, and a winningly toothless smile. She lets her mother cut her soft curls in the backyard without event. The girl is astonishingly well-behaved. Later, the mother will recall how happily the child played for hours in a kitchen corner with a metal pot and wooden spoon. She is the apple of her father’s eye, her round face unfurling in a wide smile, as he gestures with his finger under the curve of her neat chin. She is adored. She is beloved. She is a girl. In her way, she understands how it is.
In the single digits of her life, the girl stretches. Her limbs elongate. Her head expands. She bats her eyelashes, attends ballet classes, and wears her hair in braids. All the while, she observes how the world responds to her grins, poses, demands. In her, a great deal of information is being absorbed; the means by which it will be analyzed are not yet present. She attends all-girl birthday parties. She accessorizes with pink trinkets. She cries. She notes the existence of boys, and, in concert with her female peer group, douses herself with the contents of an invisible spray can containing an agent that repels boys and whatever it is boys have that could be contagious. On the playground, she is good at dodge ball, but she does not particularly like being on the receiving end of a hit. At her best, she is running, racing the rest of the class to the far wall, most often beating them, which makes her happy. In her room at home, she has stuffed animals and posters of cats. As the years pass, the girl senses that something is coming, but she has no idea what it is.
In her teenage years, she explodes. Her shape mutates, her figure bulges, her mind transforms. If she is a world, it is chaos. There is anarchy on her front and a bloody mutiny in her underwear. She stands, stoic, on the deck of herself, steeling herself in the lashing wind and the tearing rain of hormones. She looks for help, but the only thing she sees is a crew of boys and girls drowning in similar seas. In the past, at each twist and turn of her life, she has reached for the hand of her mother or her father, but this struggle, she believes, she must keep to herself. Besides, things have changed. Now, she knows her father is unhappy, and her mother is unhappier. Previously, they were doting. At this point, they prefer to retreat into the kitchen or the study, leaving her to fend for herself in the wreckage of their future. She has needs. To cope, she develops an intimate relationship with a stuffed sheep big enough to mount.
Midway through her teens, she realizes all bets are off. She has no debt, as what was given to her was given freely. Therefore, she reasons, she has no guilt. Left to her own devices, she must take over her own creation. She will be inventive, she vows, if nothing else. The stuffed animals exit. The cat posters are garbage. She finds their substitutes in too much makeup and the plaintive wailings of Prince. Inside, she is terrible; outside, she is fabulous. This, she thinks, is a great improvement. She smokes Newports for reasons she will not be able to explain later, drinks enigmatic mixtures of alcohol from her girlfriends’ Mason jars, and vomits freely into her neighbours’ trimmed bushes. She runs away, returning three days later, breathless, exhilarated and renewed, to find her parents haven’t noticed. She dresses provocatively, goes to frat parties and makes out with boys far older than her and falls down to hit her head hard against the sidewalk. In a class called Social Living, she is given an assignment to write a note to who she will be ten years from today. She tells herself, in a girly scrawl, “Don’t forget, you had a great time, the best time ever.”
She discovers sex. She has had previous encounters with it—the porno magazines in the drawer of the house where she babysat, the graphic stories that slutty girls recount in her presence, the X-rated video somebody has starring John Holmes as the man who would leave his indelible mark upon her. She is scared. By the force of her will, she has freed herself into a kind of limbo, yet she knows not what to do with herself now that she’s there. She opens her legs. She closes her legs. Some guy at a party says that her knee pointing at a boy across the room indicates she wants to have sex with him. While this is possible, so is anything. She goes with the boy to a small house behind the main house that belongs to his out-of-town parents. She lies on the bed. She stares at the ceiling. The boy devirginizes her. It hurts. It’s fine. It’s whatever. His brother tries to watch them through the window, so the boy gets up, and, with his BB gun, threatens to shoot his brother. The next morning, she leaves before the boy awakens, walking all the way back to her parents’ house. Later, she finds, there are flowers on her doorstep. Her mother spots them, and coos over them, causing the girl to snatch up the bouquet in embarrassment.
At twenty, in college, she acquires her first boyfriend. He is enormous. He is on the rugby team, so they spend most dates in his dormitory dining hall where he eats and eats. They don’t talk much, and when they do, they speak of nothing. It is while living in her all-girl dormitory that she discovers there is something terribly wrong with her. Generally, of course, she can pass. There is no problem when she walks, naked and wet, between the other girls in the shower room. It is what lies underneath her skin that is the problem. She is not a lesbian. Nor does she want to be a boy. But her personality, it seems, is not that of a girl. Without a pattern, she has cut the cloth of her femininity in the form of a Patchwork Girl, creating a cobbled-together female, a Frankenstein of womanhood. Her roommates have carefree ponytails, perfect ankles, fun-loving dimples. She dreams of sorority girls’ heads on stakes in a girl-wide apocalypse. Thankfully, she forgets about all that when the massive weight of her boyfriend bears down upon her.
In her mid-twenties, she graduates college, finds an apartment, gets a job. She is so normal, or so she thinks. The intensity of what has come before fades. She finds this comforting, as if her identity is something from which she can escape. To help facilitate this forgetting, she gets laid a lot. There isn’t much else to do that interests her. She goes home with guys she meets at nightclubs, then doesn’t return their calls. She purchases copious amounts of mindfuckingly complicated lingerie. She is a bitch and says so. She thinks this is funny. Still, she is a girl, but when she speaks the word “girl,” her upper lip curls away from it, as if her mouth is disgusted by the sound. She does not know that she does this. Most of the time, she thinks she is bored, but, really, she is angry at her life, at her parents, at herself. For there is not enough—of the world, of someone for her in it, of herself in it. She walks down the street, and people get out of her way. She thinks this is totally hilarious. It is only when she is home at night, in bed by herself, that she weeps.
On her thirtieth birthday, she stands at a crossroads. On her left, she sees a car. On her right, she sees another car. In her mind’s eye, the two cars are headed for one another. At this moment, she feels something. When she gets home, she checks her telephone messages. Her mother has called. The girl finds herself poised on a stage, the phone at her ear, smiling brightly as the curtain pulls back to reveal her. “Hello?” she says, in a little-girl voice. “Your father is dead,” her mother says. The curtain falls. This is “The End.” Everything blurs. Time smudges. She watches as his body is lowered into the ground, considers jumping on the casket, taking the ride with him, but doesn’t. For the first time in her life, she understands that she is, in fact, alive.
Afterwards, her mother is broken. The girl drifts along in her wake. She attempts to care for her mother, showers her with affection, drowns her with love. It is like trying to get a bulb to bloom off-season. With the disappearance of her father, her mother has vanished. There was, she suspects, not much of her mother there to begin with. Finally, she admits, there is nothing to be done. Carefully, she plants her mother in a clay pot, tucks her under the sink, says a small prayer that she might someday flower. She is, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. She does the dishes, occasionally banging her head into the cupboard over the sink so she knows she is there. She sleeps in the closet. She forgets about makeup. Inside herself, she free-falls.
She meets a man. He seems nice. He takes her out on dates. He asks her about herself. His grip is tight. His face is stiff. All he says is true. “Yes,” she says, and throws everything she knows out of the window. In the bed they share, the man fucks her, chokes her, slaps her. In light of what she feels about herself, this is appropriate. She appreciates what he does, reminding her, as he drills himself into her, that she no longer wants to exist. He bestows strange affections upon her. She is, at times, a princess among his tchotchkes. Then, he hardens. He silences. She becomes familiar with the back of his head. One weekend, they take a trip to the desert. He turns into a blank slate, like the landscape. In their hotel room, he uses his tongue to tear her limb from limb. They travel home; she, splayed like a bug on his windshield as he tries to run the wipers over her. She knows she has to leave. She lets him do it. She is left broken and limp, staring at her hands in her lap. The lines on them are everywhere. She could, she imagines, follow these tributaries in her palms. What a gift, she prays to God. There is not much here to salvage, but there is something.
She puts herself on an airplane. She hates flying, but, this time, is relieved. Where she is going will not be here, and that will be better. The plane takes off, tilting its nose into the air, and she lets go. She closes her eyes and imagines her luggage delivering itself out of the belly of the plane like a whale having a baby in the water, her suitcases landing in the regions sliding away beneath her—Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. She hopes some lady will find her things and wear them the way they were supposed to be worn. The outfits she has donned thus far have been ill-fitting, mismatched. Out of the window, she sees her life in cloud formations. Her mother. Her dearly departed daddy. All the men she’s fucked. They float by in white puffs, shifting into the horizon she is eclipsing behind her. She is going 500 miles per hour. She can’t go fast enough.
She lands in a new city. She makes a new home, using only the ingredients given to her when she was floating in a pink sac. It takes a long time, but there comes a point at which she feels things are sliding into place: her bones, her organs, her nervous system, her skin. Here she turns from something broken into something fitting. On a road trip with a new girlfriend, they drive upstate, cutting through the towering trees on both sides. In conversations, they keep men at a distance. At dusk, the girl sees a sign by the side of the road signalling what lies ahead. Ascension. She doesn’t want to stop until she reaches it. They sleep in the car and she dreams she is sitting at her family’s breakfast table across from her reproductive organs. Her uterus nods politely. Her Fallopian tubes flutter excitedly. Her vaginal canal lies under the table. It is waiting.
In the middle of nowhere, at thirty-five, she sits at a bar. The bartender is no boy. She knows nothing, except that she is no girl. He grins at her. The tectonic plates of her ribs lying protectively over her heart can hardly contain whatever it is thumping inside her. She opens her mouth, and her insides spill onto the bar in front of him. He wipes everything off with a rag, and, for this, she is grateful. As a tip, she leaves her telephone number. She leaves, knowing that, for all the rest of the decades of her life, what has happened to her will never change. In the car, she looks at herself in the rear-view mirror, thankful she was born a girl, and nothing other, that she turned into a woman. And in the end, she is herself.