I had felt old for a long time, like a housekeeper, like a working mother; but my body lagged behind. By fourteen, my best friend, had blossomed into a medium-sized-woman while I was still stuck in the children’s pages of the Sears Catalogue. Girls size 12 to be exact and just beginning to outgrow the size–in height only. She had started her period a couple of years earlier. Mine was nowhere in sight. Although I was several-months older, I was oblivious to the secret vocabulary of belts, napkins, or (hush, hush) tampons. Of course I was also spared pimples, cramps …blood.
My life revolved around school and making dinners and looking after my younger siblings on alternate days while my mother worked evening shifts. Mutiny was often in the air, spurred on by my two older brothers who undermined any authority I may have had over my younger siblings. Our television, a black and white Philco that graced us with two channels, was on daily from 4pm to bedtime–filling our meals and evenings with limited programming and pre-Christmas ads. That year, thin flat dolls that came in picture frames were the latest craze for little girls. Flatsy, Flatsy, they’re flat and that’s that. That’s that! The catchy jingle was constantly sung to me in off-key obnoxious tones by my brothers.
My best friend had cleavage and wore adult bras while my bras were concave and could ride up if I wasn’t careful. Her interests had wandered in the direction of teenage boys. They became her favorite topic. She swooned over her latest teenage crush the way she used to swoon over Elvis Presley. I would look at those she drooled over and all I saw were skinny awkward boys with pimples. They all had a bit of colour above their upper lips that pretended to be a moustache, and they all had stringy hair. Elvis definitely had better hair.
What I had was three brothers, and I believed I possessed a certain wisdom about boys: They weren’t that great. They liked to burp and fart, which they thought was funny. They were generally selfish and often treated girls like shit. I wasn’t fond of my brothers during that stage. I felt as if they were always treating me like shit.
Virginity was on everyone’s mind. The previous year, I had looked the word up in our Webster’s. Virgin. I was surprised it was actually there; and like all words in the dictionary, it had several meanings. Most of the meanings were just different ways to say the same thing. I knew this because I had to look up all the other words they used in the definitions to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Words like copulate and chaste. Using the dictionary was like getting to see what was behind all the doors on The Price is Right, then choosing the one you wanted. I decided I would choose definition number four: ‘a person who has not had sexual intercourse,’ which I dumbed down to, someone who hasn’t had sex. For some reason, definition six sent a shiver down my spine, ‘fresh unspoiled, not altered by human activity.’ Number six had a haunting quality to it. I didn’t want to go any further through that door.
I really couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. The last thing my childish body and I were interested in was having sex. But, even in the 70’s, teenage girls displayed the status of their lost virginity like underwear hung on a clothesline for the whole school to see. Most girls seemed more interested in losing it than preserving it. What I couldn’t understand was why Mary was revered for being a virgin yet I was ridiculed. It wasn’t as if I told them I hadn’t had sex, they just knew. It was as if somewhere on my body, probably in full view when I sat half naked in the girls’ locker room, was a huge glowing V. Either that, or it was spelled out by the freckles on my back. Just connect the dots and you get V-i-r-g-i-n. Note the capital V.
That spring, career choices were on everyone’s radar. How many junior high students really know what they want to do after high school? I know I certainly didn’t, but very soon we would have to make one of the most important decisions of our lives. The choice between academic or general courses, a choice that could make or break one’s future.
Teaching was always a popular career for females in rural communities. You could become a teacher, a nurse or take the general program in high school and learn to be a secretary. The guidance counselors who worked at our schools had aptitude tests, probably circa 1952, the same era of our balloon-legged gym shorts, that would tell every girl whether she was suited to be a nurse, a teacher, a secretary, or perhaps hope to get married. So few options in a world of engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, company presidents, artists. I admired the girls who said they wanted to be teachers, even though the thought of spending my days in a room full of kids of any age made me queasy; and those who committed themselves to nursing, a noble career that I found too exhausting to think about. I admired them, not for their choices, but for their ability to make a choice while I waited for the outcome of the tests.
Before the school year ended, before she was able to make her career choice, one of the girls in my class stopped attending. Her sister arrived every morning without a word about her absence. It didn’t take long before the rumors began to fly. They said she was pregnant. I didn’t believe it. They said she was getting married. I didn’t want to believe that. She was fifteen. I picture her sitting at her desk, so much more mature than I was at the time. She wore short skirts, dangly earrings and makeup while I was wearing girl’s size 12 jeans with a waistband lined in a childish-duck-printed fabric. I still wonder whether the rumors were true. Whether her identity was washed away by a marriage certificate that changed her name or a scandal that changed her future. Twenty years later, after the birth of my own son, I thought of her. Twenty five years later, when my son started school, I thought of her. By then she could have been a grandmother.
I still think of her. She haunts me. I don’t know why. It is like she disappeared. Like she was a missing person. And looking back, I can’t help but think that starting to bloom a little bit later wasn’t such a bad thing.
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