Other girls keep taking their clothes off in front of me. Or at least that’s how it feels when, in grade seven, we start dressing in sports clothes for gym class.
Your bodies are changing, your bodies are changing, the teachers tell us. But they’re not all changing at the same speed. Mine, for instance, doesn’t seem to be changing at all. My boobs are flat as cardboard, my shoulders-waist-hips a straight line. My legs are hairless, but I steal my mother’s razor to shave in the shower anyway, hoping it might get the hairs to do their damn job.
When I look at the girls whose bodies are changing, I feel excluded from a secret club. Their breasts, more than anything, fascinate me, and I sometimes spend the entire day thinking about gym class, waiting to see them. There are a few girls, early bloomers, who already have womanly, rounded busts that hang heavily below their collarbones. But the breasts I like most are the small ones, tiny buds that push nipples a centimetre or two from smooth and creamy chests. Too small to need a bra, but thrilling to me when I catch them pressed against a Billabong T-shirt in class. Those small signs that hint at what’s in store for me soon.
I’m not sneaky about this interest of mine, because I don’t have to be—the other girls are forever comparing their new bodies in the change room, lifting a breast here, sliding a finger along new hair growth there. But I have to act like I don’t care. I think I might enjoy it too much, more than anyone else in the room.
I have a crush on a boy named Brandon. Seeing him fills me with dread and excitement in equal parts.
Brandon is a bad boy. He mouths off at teachers, gets weekly detentions, and once rolled some grass—not weed; like, from the ground—in paper and smoked it in the woods behind the school. He has an older brother named Cody who is also bad, which means Brandon spends a lot of time with teenagers.
But he has a soft side. Earlier this year, we were given an assignment to prepare a speech on a personal topic. Brandon did his on smoking and talked about peer pressure and preparing for the temptations of high school. I practically swooned.
Brandon and I don’t talk very much. We run in different but overlapping crowds. More than that, though, it’s my fear of him that keeps us apart. I don’t speak to boys unless spoken to, especially not the ones I like. I would have no idea what to say. The most Brandon and I have said to each other this month is, “Nice drawing” (me) and, “Thanks” (him). Brandon is really good at drawing.
There’s one conversation between Brandon and me that I think about all the time, the only real one we’ve ever had. It happened two years ago. Brandon was out sick for three days, and he, probably at the insistence of his mother, called me to find out what homework he’d missed. My mom answered the phone, an amused look on her face as she handed me the cordless and said, “It’s a boy.” The conversation was short: I recited the homework, he thanked me, I told him to feel better and hung up.
We never talked about the call when he returned to school the next week, and I’ve wondered since why he chose me. I guess his mother told him to call the smartest kid in the class, thinking it would somehow make his own work better. But I choose to believe he had another reason.
“Trisha likes Brandon,” my friend Jessica says, like she knows everything. We’re at a sleepover with seven other girls from our grade.
“It’s obvious,” she says, while the other girls murmur. “You, like, stare at him in class.”
“I do not.” If anything, I purposely look away. Jessica only knows I like him because I told her, not because of any evidence she’s gathered.
“Brandon’s cool,” pronounces Kelsey, and thus, it is so. The murmuring stops at once.
Kelsey is the queen bee, but she uses her powers for good. She’s popular because she’s nice, not because she scares people. She does actually scare me a little, but that’s more my fault than hers. I only started getting invited to stuff recently, after befriending Jessica, and I still don’t really know how to talk to her.
Tonight, Kelsey wears volleyball-print pajamas, a fake jersey number on the back. It’s the beginning of May, but she’s already tan. There’s roll-on glitter on her cheekbones, and they shine in the lamplight of Brittney R.’s basement.
“He’s, like, nice, but not too nice,” she continues, smiling at me encouragingly. I nod and stare at the floor. “Not like James, who was nice at first, and then became a jerk.”
Kelsey had a very public relationship—and breakup—a few months ago with James, a volleyball player in the grade below ours. They hung out after practice and went to dinner at each other’s houses. Sometimes to the movies. Then, after three months, James dumped her because he liked a girl in his own grade named Ashleigh.
This is common knowledge, and because it was the biggest relationship of the year, it forms my idea of what dating should look like. When I picture myself with Brandon, these are the things I imagine us doing: seeing movies, hanging out. But how I could ever make those things possible remains a mystery.
One thing that’s not common knowledge is how far Kelsey and James went. I know they kissed because I saw it. They did it at recess, behind the first few trees in the woods. There are rumours they did other things, things I can’t begin to fathom. Kelsey denies them all, and I believe her. James is cute, but Kelsey is out of his league. She’s better off without him.
The conversation has moved on to other gossip, but when I look up, Kelsey is staring at me.
“You should come over, Trisha,” she says. The conversation around us stops. “This weekend. We’ll go swimming, and we can talk about how you’re going to get Brandon to like you back.”
There are—I’m not kidding—gasps in the room. Kelsey does not invite just anyone to go swimming at her house. She has parties sometimes during summer vacation, but only her closest friends have regular pool privileges. Even Jessica has never been alone, something that’s probably going to make her mad at me even though it’s not my fault.
I accept Kelsey’s invitation. “That would be cool,” I say, trying to seem cool myself.
Kelsey’s house is on a cul-de-sac behind the school. It’s bigger than mine, but Kelsey has siblings and two parents and I don’t.
Her mother answers the door. “Hi, dear. You must be Trisha. Kelsey is out back; you can go through the gate.” I tramp across the lawn in my sandals to the backyard.
She’s in the pool, swimming a perfect breaststroke. I don’t announce myself. I just stand there for a while, watching her shoulder blades tighten and release with each stroke.
At the end of the pool, she stops, notices me. “Hey. Come in, it’s so warm.” I dip a toe in. It is really warm, like a bath.
I’m wearing my bathing suit under my clothes, so I pull them off right there, jean shorts and a lavender tank top with Princess written across the chest. My bathing suit is a two-piece, but a modest one. Orange cotton. Kelsey is wearing a sporty, navy blue one-piece. I remember that she takes lessons, wants to be a lifeguard. Her breasts are like strawberries slipped beneath the nylon. I jump in and swim to her.
“Do you have your period yet?” she asks out of nowhere.
I shake my head. Other girls keep telling me I’m lucky to not have it yet, but I’d sell my whole fucking family to get it.
“Me neither,” Kelsey says. I’m relieved. “Makes swimming easier, huh?”
We swim and chat; Kelsey is talkative, so I let her lead. We dive and do handstands at the bottom of the pool. I open my eyes and Kelsey is a blur beside me, pretty even though I can’t really see her.
“Let’s lay out and tan for a bit,” she says when we come up for air. Her pool has stairs, and we sprawl on them, leaning on our elbows with our feet underwater.
“This is fun,” Kelsey says. “How come we never hung out before?”
I shrug one shoulder. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to come here. But I don’t say that. “I guess we didn’t really know each other.”
“Well, I’m glad I know you now.” She touches my wrist, encircles it with her thumb and index finger, like a bracelet. “You’re, like, cool, you know?”
“You are too,” I mumble. My cheeks are red-hot, and not from the sun. “Wanna swim some more?”
We go back in for an hour or so, playing Marco Polo and floating on noodles, talking about a show we both watch. Around six, the sun starts to fade and we get out and go into the house. I follow Kelsey to her bedroom.
I forgot my clothes outside, so I sit gingerly on her bed in my towel, hoping I won’t soak the sheets. Her room looks just like mine. For some reason I thought it would be nicer. The walls are bare, but flecks of sticky tack suggest there used to be posters, maybe for boy bands we’ve outgrown.
She has a dressing table with a velvet stool, though, which is lovely. She sits and combs her hair. I realize I haven’t brought a brush or comb, and my own hair, long almost to my waist, is in knots. I start pulling them apart with my hands.
“Here, let me do that.” Kelsey gives me her seat and stands behind me, hands on my shoulders. She sprays my hair with detangler and works on the knots with a pick comb. Her fingers brush my ears, the back of my neck. There’s something about how it feels to have her touch me that I’ve never felt before, and I worry that I’m going to cry.
“You have pretty hair,” she announces when the final knot falls loose in her fingers. “Shiny. You know who I bet would like it?” I watch her wink in the mirror.
“I don’t know.”
“I do.” She spins me around on the stool so I’m facing her, kneels down so we’re eye to eye. “He’d be dumb not to like you back.” She pauses, slides a finger across my cheek. “You’re super pretty.”
“That’s crazy,” I say. “Look at you.”
She doesn’t respond to that. “Trisha, have you had your first kiss yet?” I shake my head. “Brandon’s had his.”
I know this. It was last year on the playground, with his old girlfriend Melissa, and everyone saw. They got in trouble for doing it at school.
Her fingers are on my cheek again. “I kissed James. Obviously. I could show you, if you want. Do you want me to?”
Her eyes are locked on mine, and for the first time, she doesn’t look completely in control.
I nod. “Yeah.”
And she shows me.
I keep touching my lips for the rest of the weekend. I really kissed someone. When I go back to school on Monday, everything feels different and the same. I go through the motions in a daze.
I sit in class, and instead of avoiding Brandon, I stare straight at him when he isn’t looking. He has a square head, his buzz cut making it squarer. There are freckles behind his ears. I can’t get a good view of his face from this angle.
Jessica, who sits next to me, catches me staring and pinches me under the desk. I jump, knocking my knees into the metal drawer underneath it. It’s not quiet, but the teacher doesn’t notice.
Kelsey does, though, and she turns in her seat to raise an eyebrow at me. I roll my eyes in a goofy way, shaking my head back and forth. She laughs silently and turns back around. Beside me, Jessica frowns.
Kelsey’s thirteenth birthday is June first. She has a sleepover party to celebrate. I turned thirteen two months ago, but Kelsey seems much older than me.
We eat four boxes of pizza between eight people and wash it down with Mountain Dew and sour gummies. Kelsey’s mom checks on us and makes a comment about how she wishes she could still eat like we do.
After waiting an hour, we go swimming. It’s nice to be in the pool again, but it was more fun last time, when it was just me and Kelsey. I’m not one of Kelsey’s two best friends, Sarah and Jennifer, so I don’t get to spend much time with her tonight. Instead, I hang out with Jessica, hovering in the shallow end. A couple of times I don’t hear her because I’m trying to listen to Kelsey across the pool, and she interrupts me, saying, “Hello? Trisha? You’re being rude.”
We all huddle into Kelsey’s room to change. Kelsey is halfway out of her bathing suit when Jessica jerks her towel away and leaves her topless in front of the whole room.
“God! What are you, a lesbian or something?” Kelsey snaps.
She clamps her hands over her chest. Jessica replies with a lame, “Takes one to know one,” and I regret ever being her friend.
It’s funny how showing other girls your body can be so different in different situations. Like, when a girl shows off her boobs in the change room, it’s not a big deal. But if someone else wants to see them, they’re an evil lesbian. You’re allowed to do it if you pretend you don’t care. It’s the wanting that’s bad.
I want, badly. I’m not in Kelsey’s gym class and have never seen her body, and I feel an irrational need course through my body. I try to keep my face composed, but I’m worried I’m not doing a good enough job, that everyone can see the desperation all over me.
She doesn’t drop her hands. She covers herself with one arm and rips the towel out of Jessica’s grasp, huffs out a bitchy, “Whatever,” and turns around to put on a T-shirt. When she turns back, she looks at me, and I know that she saw me staring.
Once we’re changed, Kelsey opens her presents—I got her a novel about volleyball players, and she says she loves it—and we go into the basement and set up our sleeping bags. We watch a movie, Remember the Titans, one of the gifts Kelsey got, and talk until the other girls fall asleep one by one. Jessica is first, but I wonder if she’s faking it.
I have no hope of falling asleep soon. I’m buzzing from earlier. I don’t know what to do with everything I’m feeling. I want to use every trick I can think of to manipulate Kelsey into showing herself to me without her thinking that I want her to. It seems impossible.
In the end, no manipulation is necessary. Kelsey and I are the last ones awake. She slips out of her sleeping bag and tiptoes through the others, gesturing for me to follow her. There’s a tiny room off the main one that houses the family computer. She shuts the door behind us, the only light in the room coming from the little window near the ceiling.
“Jessica was so bitchy earlier,” she says immediately.
“Like, maybe I don’t want everyone looking at me naked, you know? That’s, like, something I only want to share with my close friends.” Does that mean I’m one of them? I have no idea.
“You probably have nicer boobs than I do,” she says.
“I have no boobs. Nada.”
Kelsey frowns. “That’s not true, you totally do.”
Before I understand what’s happening, Kelsey’s hands tug at the bottom of my shirt. “Can I see?” she asks. I nod.
She pulls my shirt up until it’s bunched at my armpits. My breasts, or lack thereof, are on full display. Kelsey considers them with the gaze of a surgeon. “They’re definitely not totally flat,” she says. I start to reply, but she slides an unpractised hand over my right nipple and I shut right up.
It’s a weird feeling. I can’t breathe, and I think my brain is exploding. My stomach clenches and I can’t unclench it. I want more, more, more.
She moves her hand while she talks. “I know Melissa has huge boobs now, but she was flatter than this when she and Brandon dated. I don’t think he likes big boobs.”
“Doesn’t everyone like big boobs?”
“No, I think some guys prefer small ones.” She stops moving, like she’s just realized what she’s doing, and takes her hand off my chest. I wish she’d put it back.
“Do you want to see mine?” she asks. “It’s only fair.”
I can’t pretend anymore to be indifferent. I help her lift her shirt up, and she takes it off and tosses it on the floor.
“Here they are.”
Her breasts are perfect, the exact shape and size I wish mine were. Her tan line stops an inch or two above her nipples, which are pink and soft.
“Do you wanna touch them?” she asks, reading my mind.
I’m overwhelmed, so I go to the window and close the blinds, extinguishing the light in the room. I make a joke about not wanting pervs spying on us, but really, it’s easier to touch her in the dark.
I press my hands to her breasts, compressing them flat and releasing them, feeling how they expand back into my fingers. They’re so soft, and I think absurdly of marshmallow Peeps as I squeeze them. I don’t know what to do, so I touch her all over, nothing like in a sexy movie. But maybe that’s okay.
I pull her against me and press our nipples together, and when I do I feel like we’re connected through more than just our bodies. I’m jealous of her, I want her to like me, I want to be her, and somehow touching her makes it all true. Makes me more her than me.
She slides her hands down my stomach, up to my face. I stroke her hair like a doll. We try to kiss, once, but I can’t see her lips and I end up pressing mine to her chin. She laughs, and I laugh, too, and we break apart, because this is all so silly, isn’t it? We put our shirts on and I pull the blinds up and in the light Kelsey looks just like she always does.
“Want me to tell Brandon how nice they were?” she jokes. I snort. I realize I’m not afraid of her anymore, not at all.
“Pssh,” I say. “Let him figure it out himself.”
The next week, I approach Brandon at school. He has headphones on, even though they’re banned.
“Whatcha listening to?” I say. He doesn’t hear me, and he frowns. “Whatcha listening to?!” I repeat louder.
“Oh,” he says. “Korn.”
“Cool.” I hate Korn, but whatever. “Maybe you can play them for me sometime.”
Brandon looks understandably shocked. “Uh, okay.”
“Cool,” I say again. I give him a small smile, not too big, and head back to where Kelsey is waiting for me.
“Nice flirting.” She waggles her eyebrows.
I don’t say anything, but I grin, my cheeks hurting from the stretch of it.