“So, did you give up meat when you gave up men?” He pointed at her chest.
The man was in his fifties, bald, holding a cup of coffee that had overflowed. He lifted an eyebrow in question as he licked his fingers of spilled cream. He did not seem to notice the stain he’d created on his starched, white shirt.
Sarah meant to say something back, had mentally prepared for this in myriad graduate classes and jobs in public service. Motherhood. Nothing squeaked out. She lowered her eyes to her “Rule like Ruth” shirt, worn jeans and open-heeled Birkenstocks.
The cashier said, “Hello?”
The customer behind her tapped her on the shoulder and then said, “Sorry. I’m late for work.”
The light rock radio station played “Manic Monday.”
The older man shrugged when Sarah didn’t respond. He took his Washington Times to a sun-laden table by the window. The table had an open purse on it. He cleared his phlegmy throat and put his coffee down with his unclean hand. Then, he picked up the wide-mouthed bag (after poking an index finger into it). He dropped it on another, trashed table and nodded to himself. Then he sat down in the filtered warmth. The front page of his paper read: “Disgusted Kelly Berates Congresswoman, Defends Trump in Green Beret’s Death.” The woman who belonged to the purse grabbed her bag and slinked to the other side of the room by the bathrooms. Her eyes skimmed, only, the floor as she led her toddler by the pudgy hand.
Sarah looked over her shoulder, still forming words for a sentence that could ease the dull ache in her own maternal stomach. She did not get her skim latte.
* * * * * *
Janelle’s phone dinged with the classy pick up line: “wanna c my dick?” She felt that sick feeling in the back of her throat. A moment later, a picture formed from unwanted pixels: an uncircumcised, twelve-year-old penis proudly displayed against the grimy, green middle school bathroom stall. Janelle hadn’t realized she’d left the sound on. Her mother would kill her if she were caught with her cell on in class.
“Miss Stevens?” Her math teacher broke the cocoon of Algebra-quiz silence. “Do you have your phone with you, by chance?”
Janelle shoved the iPhone into the nether regions of her desk. She hid it behind crumpled-up drawings of stick figures with alien-sized breasts and Jolly Rancher wrappers. She shook her head at her teacher and grabbed her pink pencil.
She tried to focus on finding the next “X.” But Janelle broke her lead pushing too hard. She’d never be able to decipher the order of operations like this.
Another electronic tinkle. She knew she shouldn’t look, but it was right there on the screen when she muted the phone: U know u want me. Oh my god, shut up!
Ms. Caton walked from her big desk at the front of the class to the back of the room. She stopped directly in front of Janelle and held a hand out, patiently awaiting the dick pic device. Janelle tried to keep her eyes on her paper. She tried, but couldn’t help but notice the teacher’s chipping black nail polish.
Ms. Caton was not blind. “Janelle. Your phone. Now.”
The girl behind her—the one who was cutting her weave with a scissor instead of taking the quiz—was laughing loudly. “Yea, Janelle. Give her the phone!”
* * * * * *
“I don’t want her on my team! Girls can’t run. Or hit. Or anything!”
Madi stared at the athletic boy who was choosing his tee ball team. She was one of only two kids left waiting to be chosen—she and the boy who picked his nose then wiped it on any desk that happened to be near him. The team captain spit in the dirt by his feet. He, also, pretended to moon Madi when the teacher was facing the other direction.
“I pick Nelson.” The boy with the flat stomach then whispered to his group of mini-muscled cronies, “Duh.”
Madi blushed and held back tears against the cool, fall air. She was angry that she hadn’t been chosen, sure. She was angry, too, that she’d forgotten her sweatshirt to wear over her gym uniform. Her mother had refused to bring the sweatshirt into her because Madi needed to learn ‘responsibility.’ Meanwhile, Madi’s nipples were standing straight up like broken portions of the rusted, chain link fence surrounding the school baseball diamond. And everyone noticed.
Madi hated her gym uniform. She hated the fact that the polyester shorts rode up her thighs and the boys puffed their cheeks out and oinked when she tugged them down again. She hated that the shirts were so thin the boys could see the tag on the back of her bra. They’d yell on their way to lunch: “’B’ is for ‘boobs!’” Today, she hated that the boys were using their pointer fingers to indicate what her nipples were doing, as if this made her less than human. The teacher, Mr. Thompson, pretended he didn’t see the “horseplay.”
Instead, Mr. Thompson began placing the rubber bases around the elementary school field. He carried the bases in one arm and readjusted his manliness with his free hand. Casually.
* * * * * *
Sarah sat on her yoga ball chair at her desk. She rolled her shoulders; she rubbed her sore neck. She tried to focus on anything but the raging caffeine headache that had eclipsed her entire existence for the previous four hours. She drank her weight loss shake as she opened her email, then fought responding to an enraged parent. He did not understand that his son had deserved the detention for unhooking the freshman’s bra in the crowded hallway. Sarah hit delete and closed her eyes, breathing deeply.
“Knock, knock,” came a voice outside her classroom.
Sarah opened her eyes and looked up to see the football coach in her doorway. “Oh. Hi. Just answering some emails.” She sat up straighter, closed her knees. She wiped at an imaginary smoothie film above her lip.
“That’s actually why I stopped by.” Coach Dread cracked his thick neck and ran a hand through his crew cut. “I heard Tommy is going to miss practice this afternoon. He has detention for you?”
Sarah stood up. She slipped her sandals back on as she pushed her chair aside. “He snapped a girl’s bra in the hallway.”
Coach Dread sighed. “Yea. That shouldn’t have happened. But the kid’s the star quarterback. You don’t really want to punish the rest of the team, do you?”
Rubbing her temple, Sarah said, “The girl’s mother could sue. That’s sexual harassment.”
The coach pointed at Sarah’s chest. “You, uh, spilled something.”
Sarah’s shirt now said, ‘Rule like uth.’ There was a vegan chocolate blob covering the other ‘R.’ She bent down to open her desk drawer. “I swear I have a Tide pen here somewhere….”
As Sarah erased her smudge, the coach said, “Anyway, I appreciate you letting Tommy come to practice. I’ll make sure to beat his ass for getting in trouble.”
* * * * * *
Ms. Caton licked her spoon of some cartoon-advertised yogurt. She crunched cheese crackers in the shape of fish to the beat of Beyoncé demanding, ‘Who run the world?’ She asked, “You know he shouldn’t have done that, right? Sent you a picture like that?”
Janelle shrugged her shoulders. “He’s a jerk.”
Ms. Caton swallowed and wiped her fingers on a napkin. She gestured to Janelle’s bagel-in-Ziploc. “You should eat.” The teacher sighed audibly as she glanced at the news home page projected onto the Smart Board. “Weinstein. You know who he is?”
Janelle pushed her bagel with cream cheese aside. “Can you just not call my mom? She’d kill me for having my phone in class. Like, maybe really kill me.”
“I’ve met your mom.” Ms. Caton zipped up her lunch bag and opened her desk drawer. She took out a handful of Halloween candy and held it out to Janelle. “I don’t think she’d really kill you. Maim you, maybe. Take away your phone. Call the punk’s mom.”
Stuffing a mini Snickers in her mouth, Janelle sort-of mumbled, “You can’t be serious.”
“Calling his mom. I’ll just ignore him.” Janelle began to obsessively smooth the candy wrapper on her desk.
The hallway beyond the classroom began to twitter with other eighth grade voices. Ms. Caton clicked off the news site and put up, instead, a word problem for her next class’s warm up. “I could talk to him, Janelle.”
“Please don’t.” Janelle gathered her binder and trash. She picked up her bagel, too. “It’d only make things worse.”
The twenty-something teacher turned off her radio station. She blew her bangs out of her eyes and tried to muster some inspiring message. Before she could speak, Janelle walked to the doorway, threw her uneaten lunch away, and disappeared into a cloud of tween swear words.
* * * * * *
Madi hid her head in the crook of her arm while the teacher passed out the history quizzes. She tried to secretly wipe her eyes; the tears seemed to trickle right past the dam of her eyelids, anyway. She felt tired and headachy; her stomach hurt and she worried that she’d pass gas. As if that wasn’t enough, Madi couldn’t let anyone see the note she’d hidden beneath her chair with rainbow scotch tape.
“Your fat. Your ugly. I could never like you.”
For a ten-year-old girl, the day had already been too much to handle. Madi could feel her shoulders jumping hurdles and her confidence oozing through her nasal passages. As she sniffled and snuffed, her pencil rolled off her desk and beneath the chair in front of her. She didn’t care enough to bend over to get it.
Madi rubbed her seeping nose with her sleeve. She peeked her eyes just above her elbow.
“Are you ready to take the quiz?” The teacher waved her stapled papers like a wing walker guiding a plane in with bright orange batons.
Madi nodded. She didn’t speak; she couldn’t.
“Don’t you need your pencil?” The teacher pointed to the nubby No.2 on the ground.
As she stood obediently to grab her runaway pencil, Madi heard Mikey Gromley giggle. Then, his co-op of tormentors joined in. There were whispers like white noise and the screeching of one, shrill bully.
Caroline Masters—master of all tiny blondes with perfect hair, pre-pubescent hips and expensive Mary Janes—forgot the unspoken sisterhood. “Eeeeewww! Madi got her period!”
On Madi’s scarred, plastic seat were the streaks of early puberty. On the faces of her fellow classmates were varied states of horror and hilarity. Her teacher dropped the stack of quizzes. Madi left her pencil on the ground and ran out of the classroom.
* * * * * *
Sarah was not dressed to meet with parents. It was day one of Sojourner Truth High School’s Spirit Week: Jeans Day. And Mondays were not parent-teacher meeting days because no one wanted to meet with parents until she’d gotten back into the swing of completely hiding all visible irritation after two days of being able to speak one’s mind and pee whenever nature called. So why was her name being called on the intercom?
“Ms. Carrington, please come to guidance for a parent-teacher meeting.”
On the long walk to the guidance office, Sarah wracked her brain for possibilities: angry parents/ overprotective parents/ parents to new students/ parents going through horrendous child custody proceedings. Then, she scanned her paper planner. When neither gave her an answer, she remembered the shake stain on poor Bader Ginsburg. Under her breath, she admonished the universe: “Fuck me.”
“Well, if you insist.”
The special education aide was maybe twenty-two. He worked at a video game store at night and didn’t seem to bathe regularly. He was chugging a Dr. Pepper in the library, ostensibly to impress the just-engaged librarian. Sarah normally ignored him. Today, she lacked coffee, respect, and patience. “Shut up, Lars.” He belched in response.
Inside the counseling office, the secretary pointed to the right. “Mr. Martin’s office.”
“Any idea who it is?”
The young woman mouthed: Bra snapping?
Fabulous. It’s the crazy email dad.
Mr. Martin was seated calmly behind his desk, though, peeling silver chocolate kisses. And there was no fuming father in sight. Instead, Sarah saw a smiling woman in the usual crying-kid seat. This woman radiated calm with her broad smile and soft scarf. She stood up and offered her hand. Sarah took it and was pleasantly surprised by its firmness. Maybe she held on too long; it wasn’t often she touched beautiful women, anymore. “Ms. Carrington. I’m Gabrielle’s mother. Well, one of them. I think you talked to my ex? I just wanted to thank you for standing up for her.”
* * * * * *
Sarah pulled into her driveway without the customary swearing at the trail of girls’ school accoutrements: backpacks on the blacktop, letters overflowing the mailbox, keys left, abandoned, in the lock. Her head was in literal clouds with thoughts of a middle-aged romance, or at least her eyes were. She didn’t see the graffiti on the garage door until she was standing directly in front of it.
It said, “Slut.” Red paint raced her heart to the ground. Just one word, and yet it was aggressive enough to make Sarah drop her purse and grade book. It forced her feet to run toward the front, cracked door, cracking her corked heel in the process. She yelled, “Janelle! Madi! Where are you?”
Sarah ran to the kitchen, her now-broken heel flapping—plop plop plop—on the most direct path to her children. In the ten seconds that it took to get to the sink full of dirty dishes, she’d pulled her phone from her pocket. She’d dialed: 9-1-….
“Mom!” Madi threw her arms around her mother’s waist. Sarah dropped her phone.
“Are you okay?” Sarah kissed the crown of her child’s head.
“I got my period. At school! It was horrible.” Madi pressed her blooming chest into her mother’s softening middle.
Sarah smoothed Madi’s hairs with gentle strokes. Her mommy eyes continued to search the kitchen and adjoining living room for her older child. Over Madi’s hot sniffles and trickling tears, she called, “Janelle? Honey?”
The tween’s response was small, meek like her shaky hands or her trembling shoulders. “In my room.”
Sarah walked with Madi attached to her as if they were in a three-legged race. They stopped at the threshold of Janelle’s bedroom. Janelle was on her bed, coiled in the fetal position. When Sarah moved closer, she saw it: In her baby’s closed fist was an iPhone with an “I” message: “fuck me or die dyke.”
* * * * * *
At Target, Sarah had three main objectives: maxi pads for Madi, Easy-Off stove cleaner for the graffiti, and a bra that actually fit, for herself—and future dates. In addition, the trio had decided ice cream was in order, not because it was a stereotypical response for women to gorge on ice cream when upset, but because they were celebrating. They had triumphed, quietly, that day, by simply surviving. They would triumph on Tuesday by stepping wholeheartedly into a new world order where they could speak up for themselves, where they could scream their strength, if need be.
As Sarah handed her older daughter the items at the self-checkout, Madi asked, “How old were you when you got your period?”
Janelle said, “I was eleven. At summer camp. Thankfully, it happened at the end of the day. And Mom picked me up just in time. We went out to dinner that night to ‘commemorate the occasion.’ That’s what Mom called it. You were at Momma’s house.”
The scanner pinged: Always Ultra Thin Maxi Pads, 32 count. $5.49. Easy-Off Lemon Scented Fumeless Oven Cleaner. $4.19.
Madi asked, “What were you commiserating?”
Sarah pointed to the Ben and Jerry’s in the cart. “Hand me those before they melt, will you?” Madi handed her mother the necessary frozen pints and Sarah explained, “Commemorating. Like a party to remember something important. You can have a baby, now. One day you can have two amazing and phenomenal girls just like me. Men can’t do that. We’re special.”
“Boys suck,” Janelle added.
“Not all boys suck,” Sarah said. She turned to Janelle, “Remind me to bring your phone with me to school tomorrow, though. To show the principal.” She picked up the t-shirt Madi had chosen: I Will Write My Own Story. $6.00.
Janelle undid and redid her hair bun. The smell of incense filled the air and the spiral of dark hair was reminiscent of Cleopatra’s great crown. “I can’t wait to see jerk face tomorrow after he knows the principal has seen his penis.”
“Don’t forget, your mother saw it, too,” Sarah said.
“Gross.” Madi wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue.
The self-checkout beacon began to blink. The red light seemed to symbolize the beginning of a movement for the Stevens-Carrington ladies. They were, in fact, stronger together. Instead of shaking her head and rolling her eyes, Sarah told her girls, “It won’t take long. Someone will come over.”
“Hi, Ms. Carrington.”
Sarah turned to see the bra snap-ee. “Gabrielle! Nice to see you.”
Behind the freshman victim was her mother—still smiling wide and wearing her cotton scarf. “Wow. Twice in one day, Ms. Carrington. How lovely.”
Sarah hurried to say, “Call me Sarah.”
Brittany Fonte holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction). She has written three books, edited a Lambda Literary Poetry Anthology Finalist, and teaches fiction in the MFA program at Concordia University --St. Paul. She is currently working on a romantic comedy screenplay with her writing partner.