CAROLINE is number one in our class.
She’s the president of four clubs, captain of the varsity volleyball team, and has won the statewide debate competition three years in a row now. She raises her hand in class while the rest of us stare blankly at our phones or try to discreetly unwrap a granola bar without making too much noise. She always gets the highest grades on exams but never has the under-eye circles to show for it. Caroline’s hair is always in the right place and she consistently looks like she stepped out of a catalog. Beauty and brains, we say behind her back. Most of us have neither. We wonder if she somehow has more hours in the day than the rest of us.
On Friday morning, Caroline strides into school like she owns the place (doesn’t she?). We all watch in awe. She’s so confident. We would be, too, if we were her.
The principal, the cool principal, is greeting all the students, but he halts when he sees her. He walks up to her and leads her to his office and we assume he’s going to tell her she’s valedictorian or something.
In front of us, Caroline sucks in a deep breath. The dimness of the school after hours casts a shadow upon her face, and she suddenly doesn’t seem so confident anymore. And she’s here, so we know she’s not. She tugs at the neckline of her shirt before proceeding with her story.
She wonders if this is going to be a vote of confidence for the fourth statewide debate competition she has next week or a "congratulations" for getting into her top-choice college. The principal pulls her into his office and closes the door, holding his breath as if he has a reason to.
He looks down, and at first, she thinks he’s nervous, but her heart drops to the bottom of her stomach when she realizes that 1. this is neither, and 2. he’s not looking at the ground.
“That dress is awfully short,” he says, trying to ease into it. “I’m seeing more of you than I want to.”
Then stop looking, she thinks but doesn’t have the voice to say.
He tells her she’s a girl, but dressing like that is only going to bring her the wrong kind of attention. “You want to be noticed for your intelligence, don’t you?” he says. “Why don’t you go home and change? With all of these teenage boys…that dress is too distracting.”
Caroline tries really hard not to cry in front of us. She’s supposed to be strong. She’s supposed to be breaking glass ceilings for girls everywhere, even though that man shattered her before she could even touch the glass.
She tells us that the principal went off to look over some paperwork and call some troubled kids into his office and have his regular day and his regular lunch break and all, while she locked herself in a bathroom stall, wept, and never wore that dress again.
Caroline’s a smart girl, but that didn’t matter.
MARIE is at the bottom of our class.
She went to one fashion club meeting in her sophomore year but left after one of her guy friends told her that fashion was shallow and stupid, and she realized that, yes, it was silly to care so much about that kind of stuff.
She has a weakness for football players. One in particular. And he’s the kind who knows how to smile the kind of dazzling smile that reveals the perfect amount of self-assuredness without daring to come off as cocky.
All throughout football season, she works to catch his eye, his sparkling blue eyes. She whispers the response to him when the teacher calls on him in class. Lends him a copy of the math homework he didn’t do. Wishes him good luck before the big game.
And then one night, she thinks it’s all worth it. The team wins the game against the rival school, and there’s a party to celebrate.
The house they go to is huge, but the room he takes her to is “perfect”: intimate and downright claustrophobic.
Marie pauses for a long time, like she doesn’t want to give us the rest of the story, like she’s going to fall apart if she does. Some of us already are because we know where this is going. We know it too well.
It’s dark. He’s gotten a few drinks in her. A few in him, too, she can tell because his breath is hot against her skin and it’s tinged with the traces of cheap beer.
He kisses her neck. Seizes her arm when she tries to push him away. Forces her onto someone’s unmade bed.
His blue eyes don’t seem like they belong to the same person anymore. They don’t sparkle anymore, or enliven. They paralyze. Terrify. Terrorize.
“Come on, Marie. Didn’t you want this?”
“You can’t just turn a guy on like that and play hard to get.”
“I know you want it.”
The room grows silent. She brings her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around herself, using herself as a crutch. She stays quiet, not giving us the boy’s name.
Who is he, we want to ask. Do we know him? What if we just passed him in the halls and didn’t even know?
She bursts into sobs.
Marie didn’t want it, but that didn’t matter.
BONNIE loves the football team almost as much as Marie does.
But school for Bonnie is the opposite of what it is for Marie, because the boys don’t give her the attention that they give Marie.
They never saw girls like her on-screen, in one of those action movies as the love interest in the impractically tight clothing, or on the cover of the magazines they hid under their bed. But she always saw them, as the superhero or the enigma or the sweet boy-next-door.
They don’t notice her, so she doesn’t know what to do when she does get noticed.
“I know it’s unusual to say this,” a man begins, appearing from behind her, “but I just wanted to say you’re very beautiful,” he finishes off, giving a sheepish smile yet maintaining unrelenting eye contact.
It seems innocent enough but strange, nonetheless. At first, she can’t tell if it’s strange-because-it’s-new or strange-because-it’s-unwelcome.
“Are you a college student, or…”
“High school,” she answers because she’s sure this must be a nice guy, and it takes courage to go up to someone, right?
“Ahh,” he says understandingly. “It’s hard to tell with Asian women. You know?” he adds, nodding to his own question. “Hey.” He lowers his voice and raises his eyebrows and something immediately shifts. “I know Asian women have the stereotype of being shy and submissive, but apparently they’re actually pretty wild. Is that true? Do you like to party?”
She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she’s not interested, but she hopes that glances to the side will be enough for him to take the hint. He doesn’t.
When he tries to touch her, she recoils and insists that she has to leave, because she has to, she has to.
Bonnie races home to take a shower, wanting to wash away the stranger’s presence that sticks to her like a layer of film. She scrubs and scrubs, though something tells her it’s already seeped in through the skin, spread through her bloodstream, and etched itself into her DNA—become an indelible darkness in her. She rinses off for the third time, though the way he smiled so unassumingly and unwaveringly still remains stuck in her pores, lodged under her fingertips, embedded in her memory.
She lets the hot water wash over her and cries because she’s more disgusted with herself than by the man who came onto her.
She cries now, too, as she recounts it. Before the tears drip down her chin, she moves swiftly to wipe them away with the sleeve of her red sweater, and then hiccups an apology.
For what, we want to say. We’re sorry, we feel the urge to add, partly because we are, and partly because we’ve been taught to put ourselves in the wrong.
Bonnie’s got a kind heart, but that didn't matter.
LOIS is a tough girl.
She graduated two years ago and goes to the community college just outside of town in the city. Whenever she comes home for the weekend, she tells us about all these situations, too many situations in which she was walking down the street and a man took the cigarette out of his mouth and shouted, “Why don’t you give me a smile, honey,” in which the nice guy from her night class thought she owed him something because he was so nice, in which she was sitting at a bar and a guy thought he could buy a drink and a feel of her inner thigh, too.
She tells us that after one of them threatened her family, she went straight home and searched for engagement rings on Amazon. She bought the most inexpensive one she could find, with a rock as fake as the person she realized she had to transform into every night to protect herself.
For a while, the ring works. When Lois meets an unknown man’s eye across the the room, and he sits down next to her, the fake little diamond ring and a joyful, “Oh, my fiancé and I have been engaged for two months!” is enough to ward him off. The stranger respects her (or at least respects whoever the guy must be).
One night, Lois forgets to put on the ring when she goes out with her girlfriends.
She limits herself to two drinks and reminds herself to shut them down if she’s not interested. Be resentful. Cold. Caustic.
And even though she knows all the right things to say and all the right things to do, when a man comes up to her that night, she finds herself trapped. She’s not small, but men always have a way of making her feel that way.
“What, you think you’re so much better than me?”
“Hey, now, who said I was even interested in you like that?”
“It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
He tries to touch her thigh, it’s always the thigh, and she shoves him away from her.
Lois clenches her hands into fists. She should’ve known better, she says. She should’ve acted sooner. She seethes because she felt powerless. She seethes because she can’t help but feel like it’s on her.
Lois is a tough girl, but that didn’t matter.
CARINA is our student teacher.
She teaches history, the parts of it that the textbooks always leave out. We find it unsettling to see her here, because it’s different, because it’s harrowing, because most days it seems like she knows so much.
Sometimes it seems like she knows everything.
She tugs at the hem of her gray pencil skirt. Crosses and uncrosses her legs. Her heels click against the floor when she uncrosses them the fourth time around, and she winces as though she’s painfully aware of it and herself.
She has years on us, and looking at her, frazzled and frayed at the edges, we see our futures.
She’s twenty-one and at a job interview, wearing a blazer that’s a little too big around the shoulders and a pencil skirt she nearly burnt her thumb off trying to iron.
The interviewer’s blazer, on the other hand, fits perfectly around the shoulders. Custom-made suit, she deduces. The name engraved in the gold plate on his desk is stippled all over newspapers and magazines, and her heart drums against her ribcage.
What’s her employment history. What can she bring to the table. How does she see herself fitting into the work environment. Is she clear of the job requirements. Does she have any questions for him.
She remains polite and professional throughout the entire interview, the way she was taught to be since she was a young girl and her mother whispered to her that sometimes the world would seem like it wasn’t meant for her.
They shake hands, and she feels good about the job, and he kisses her.
Carina did everything she was told to do.
That didn’t matter, either.