Rachel Cochran received her PhD in creative writing and 19th-century studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Ohio Review, Fugue, Masters Review, and others. Additionally, she serves as assistant editor for Machete, a nonfiction book series through Ohio State University Press. Find her on Twitter at @_RachelCochran.
Girls Kissing Girls
The first time I witness two girls kissing, I’m at Kaylee’s house for her thirteenth birthday party. When I walk into her living room it’s to find that she’s invited a bunch of girls I don’t really know, girls who aren’t in the cloister of advanced classes I’ve been shut away in since we started middle school. I didn’t realize Kaylee had so many friends I didn’t know--but then again, I don’t share many classes with Kaylee these days, and I suppose it’s been a while, over a month, since I’ve had her to my house. (It strikes me that, at my own thirteenth birthday party two months ago, she might have felt nearly as disoriented, in my living room which at one time was as familiar to her as her own, now populated by people she scarcely knew, laughing behind their hands at jokes she wasn’t invited to share.)
This isn’t where the kissing happens, of course: not out here, in the living room, with Kaylee holding court, one girl sitting splay-legged on the couch-back behind her, twisting two fat ropelike braids onto her head, and two other girls crouched at her toes, painting them dueling shades of glitter-pink. There is no kissing out in the open, here where the air smells of hairspray and acetone and cigarette smoke, where the TV shouting out the weekly VH1 countdown has been subsumed by the girls’ laughing voices; here where Kaylee’s aunt and brother and uncle and little cousins trickle through as if they’re going about their regular business, except that they’ve always got one eye trained on the girls, curious, teasing, awed, confused. I am an interloper, too: I may be seated among them, but still I am perched outside, squinting in.
One of Kaylee’s guests, a girl named H., I recognize from years ago, on the elementary school playground, from when Kaylee once pointed at her and giggled, insinuated something I couldn’t understand, in order to explain why she’d told H. she couldn’t sit at our picnic table. Yet here she is, with the others at Kaylee’s party, looking for all the world like she’s the same as the rest of them. She offers to braid my hair, but I decline; many childhood battles with headlice have left my scalp a tattered, flaky ruin, so I’ve never been able to take part in this vital feminine ritual, too afraid that if I allow another girl to twine her fingers through my hair she will uncover this hidden, grotesque part of me, and then everyone will know. In this moment, I worry my refusal has been too vehement, that my hands have twitched defensively toward my head, that I’ve given myself away. I see the suspicion in H.’s eyes, like she’s about to pin me down and pick through my roots to pluck out all my secrets. She could do it, probably-- I’m smaller than she is, have always been undersized--but she leaves me alone.
The kissing happens hours later, after we have retired to the bedroom Kaylee shares with her cousin Jessica, and their bedside lamp is the only light left in the house. The kissing happens when we’re all gathered around, cross-legged, knee-to-knee, ranged on the two twin bedtops and clustered in the valley between, and, in that ancient tradition of girls-in-the-nighttime, someone has suggested we share secrets.
My stomach clenches. What secrets do I have to share? Because I know I’ll be called on, and when I am, I have to offer up the right secret. It can’t be something embarrassing, or they’ll mock me, so I can hardly go with: when I was ten years old and they were casting the Harry Potter movies I sent a letter to the director explaining why I should play Hermione, citing my leading roles in elementary school theatricals as well as my “astonishingly accomplished” British accent, and for weeks I wanted it so badly, so incessantly, that I began to dream of being her, to believe that it would happen, until I logged into the library computer to find that the actors had been announced, and I logged out and walked home crying, and I’ve resented Emma Watson unreasonably ever since. It can’t be something sad, because that will make it look like I’m seeking attention, so I can’t say: sometimes my mother forgets to give me lunch money for weeks in a row, so I sit in the cafeteria every day and watch everyone else eat and, if they ever ask me about it, I tell them I’m on a diet, and hope they don’t tell me I’m too fat to be anorexic. It has to be the right kind of secret, the kind that will make me sound more interesting to them, that will make them like me more. But I’ve always wanted so badly to be liked; those aren’t the kinds of things I hide.
Luckily, nobody asks me to go first. Instead, Kaylee leaps in. “I’ve got a secret,” she says, conspiratory, demanding our attention. “Lately I’ve been thinking... I might be a lesbian.” The term shocks me. I’ve heard it before, but only ever in reference to my mom’s friend Shari, who lives out in New Mexico, and that Ellen Degeneres sitcom my parents used to watch before the divorce, after they’d put me in bed, when I’d sometimes sneak out to watch surreptitiously from the top of the stairs. Yet here is Kaylee, one of my oldest friends, applying it to herself, and I don’t know what it means, not really, and I don’t know exactly what I’m thinking, either, except, I wish she had told just me.
I see H.’s eyes go wide, and I think mine must be wide too, but before anyone can really react to what Kaylee has said, her cousin Jessica jumps in. “I... I think I might be a lesbian, too.”
And then, as if it is the logical next step, they are leaning toward each other, brushing lip to lip, eyes closed; for the first time since my arrival, the room of girls is silent, quiet enough that all I can hear is the ceiling fan clicking above and the two girls’ lip gloss smacking.
They pull apart. Nobody makes a sound. Then, a third girl says, “I think I’m a lesbian, too.” At which Kaylee turns to her, and dares her to kiss her, and there’s some hesitation, and then the other girls are egging them on, and they lean in and kiss too. Soon, a fourth girl says it, too, those magic words that have her leaning over her crossed legs and kissing Jessica.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I murmur, just to get away, but I’m stuck at the far end of the bed, against the corner of the wall, and so the kissing couples have to part to let me clamber through, the bedtop rocking and tilting in my wake, the sitting girls bobbing like buoys around me. H. stares at me as I leave.
I don’t go to the bathroom. Instead, I search through the heap of girls’ bags piled near the front door until I find my own, which is easy to spot because theirs are gymnastics duffels and Wal-Mart backpacks and mine’s only a ratty pillowcase. I dig out the book I brought, settle into the sofa in the darkened living room, and try to read by the light of the streetlamp that’s pouring through the window. I can’t focus on my reading, though--my heart is surging in my throat, and my eyes are swimming, and all I can think of are the girls’ faces, tilting together, mouths slotting, eyelids drooping sleepily shut.
I think I might be a lesbian, they had all said. How in the world had they known? And did you have to be a lesbian, to want to do that, what they were doing? Do you want to do it? a voice inside me chides. And then, more specifically, Did you want Kaylee to kiss you? Did you did you did you? But it had not been an option, not there in that room, not where I knew nobody and nobody knew me. And so I sit outside, staring at a book I can’t make out, thinking thoughts I can’t understand.
Someone comes up to me, moving quietly through the dark and then settling down on the couch cushion beside me. I don’t look up from my book, but I know it’s Kaylee. It’s the first time all night long we’ve been alone together, and it’s nearly the first time she’s spoken to me when she says, “We didn’t mean it.”
“That,” says Kaylee. “In there. We’re all pretending.”
“We’re trying to get H. to admit that she’s a lesbian. So we decided to pretend we were.” Then, nudging me with her elbow, “Sorry. I should have warned you.”
I realize she thinks I left because I was horrified by what I saw her doing. Maybe I was, but I won’t let her know I wasn’t horrified for the reason she thinks. And I won’t let her know that I’m even more horrified now, now that I know what was really going on. Selfishly, frightfully, in that moment all I can feel is gratitude: gratitude that H. is the one they were trying to trap.
“Come back in,” Kaylee says. “Nobody’s kissing anymore.”
“I want to finish this chapter,” I lie, just to get her to leave me alone. “I’ll be in later.”
She goes, and I watch her pick back through the living room, the kitchen, until she reaches the bedroom door again. She opens it, and for a moment I can hear the tittering girls, as almost as distinctly as if I am in the room with them once more. I think I will never shake that sound from my ears. But for now, I am far away, on the sofa, curled in against myself so tightly the edges of my book are pressing red lines into me through my nightgown, and when the door finally closes, it is mercifully quiet.
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