Growing girls

 Valerie Hughes

In the long mid-stretch of November and a few days after my eleventh birthday, I began dreaming of hermit crabs. Their shells were neon, the hot colors of bad manicures, and they scorched my fingertips. In glances, I swore smoke curled up from the sand. Upon waking, I recognized a dread plodding through me with the amber glow of molasses. But the only images I could understand were the banality of the still crabs, waiting to move or to be touched in the stifling heat. 

Every summer on the Cape there were shops with quiet cages of unmoving hermit crabs, meant for easy buying. None of the stores had air conditioning. I stared through the tiny wire cages, every part of me shiny. The crabs rustled when I looked away, distracted by packs of folded kites or crocodile pool floaties hanging from ceilings. But when my eyes returned, so did the stillness. Were they dead, was that it? Was this little shack selling dead crabs with no refunds?

When would they flinch? In my dreams, empty shells surrounded the crabs and I prayed that one night my mind would conjure the image of one sliding into the air—gooey and skeletal as an alien—and it would move to something bigger, its body fitting perfectly. But nothing happened except for the sweat I’d wake to, my bedsheets damp.

On a Sunday afternoon, in a square of sunlight on my mattress, I noticed a yellow faded ghost in the shape of my body, stark against the white sheet. I stripped my mattress. My mother hadn’t been home so I stuffed the crumpled ball into the washing machine, poured in a generous glug of detergent, and prayed the cycle would be done before she arrived home.

She was at church and then brunch with her friends, women who cackled laughs and clinked mimosas. That day, my mother would drink because I wasn’t there. I’d faked sick that morning, pouting under my blanket as my mother’s body weight sagged the mattress.

 “You’re not warm,” she said.

It was a blessing that she hadn’t discovered the sweat herself. She always did my laundry and it took me a few years to realize why my bedsheets were always clean. If she discovered my sweating in the night, she would find a way to connect it to my impending puberty. Your body will be foreign is how she always said it. I imagined my body as an arid continent with disappearing streams and brittle tumbleweeds.

It’s where the hermit crabs could live. I didn’t know what they ate or how much water they needed to survive but maybe my body could be their home. I often imagined them crawling across my navel and nestling in the hollow of my throat. 

My mother didn’t teach me to dread puberty but I hated when she alluded to it because of her tired exasperation or—worse—boredom. I couldn’t imagine that the realities illustrated in a puberty book from Aunt Linda were boring. The book was my most straightforward teacher about it all. The girls at school chattered about advice from their older sisters but when asked how or why, the only answers were shrugs.

“But how doesn’t the tampon string get lost?”

“Why doesn’t everyone have hairy arms?”

“What if no bra fits me because my boobs are too small?”

Nobody knew. 

My mother spoke in vague metaphors and my aunt, despite having given me the book, talked only of menopause. “I sweat like I’m going to die tomorrow!” she’d say. There was always an impromptu fan in her hand: a sun hat, an envelope, and once, an empty dog poop bag. She’d dragged me outside to walk her one-eyed chihuahua with her. “Oh, us women.”

I pored for hours over the illustrations of breast development and a page dedicated to tampon insertion. There was a serene-faced girl on a green toilet and an unwrapped tampon in her hand. The pages were vibrant with purple fonts. Shaving advice was given, plus tips for cliquey girls and the encouraging words: all labias are beautiful. My stomach always tilted with a queasy excitement when I realized that another month had gone away, drawing me closer to that elusive future date when I would find blood in my underwear. 

I thought that my breasts and my period—what I thought would be a dime bag of blood—were delayed, stuck in traffic. I tired of the body I’d known, a continent already explored. Every morning at the mirror I stared at my face. Not a single pimple. But I wanted a shock of red, a whitehead’s crater. If I started getting acne, maybe the rest of it would come, too. 

I wanted desperately to understand how my body could become something foreign. So I waited for that too, the rush of movement that demanded attention rather than the gentle twitching that occurred when my eyes were roaming elsewhere, watching the calves and shoulders of the girls in my year, or peeking in the metal boxes in the bathroom stalls, desperate to see something.

But sweating in the night was the only thing my body could do. Sometimes two or three girls piled into a bathroom stall and whispered about the bathtub faucet or pillows between their legs. Whenever I mustered up the courage to attempt the things that set them giggling, there was no fizzling through my body. No warmth at all. It was futile. So all I did was sweat. And I uselessly wore deodorant to make myself feel better.

The awareness of my stillness did do some things for me. It’s when I started to do my laundry. I memorized the book so I could answer as many girls’ questions as I could at school. And every summer, at a quiet Cape Cod bay, I plinked hermit crabs into a pink bucket filled with water and sand. The crabs crawled around my hand with legs gentle as eyelashes, never hooked or mean. I took it as whispers of a language not yet made for me but I held on for understanding.

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