The first time a boy pulled at the edge of her shirt, it had glittery bubble letters on it. She had gotten it at Limited Too, the one thing her mom allowed to make it to the cash register without a devastating veto in front of the whole entire store. It was her favorite shirt, worn so often that the edges of the iron-on glitter letters were starting to curl up and crack. It had been through three years of summer camp, and now it was going to be the one she wore when the boy she really, really like tried to take it off while her bunk mate was sleeping.
Even before he had come in through the window from across the boys’ side of the camp, making sure to scoot across the floor on a hand towel she had left by the window so he didn’t make the wood floor creak, she felt that she was too old for camp as a whole that year anyway. There’s a point where you grow out of that kind of thing, and maybe that point was sophomore year of high school. She looked around at everyone else, young and happy to play sharks and minnows in the pool when she was obsessed with finding a waterproof material to stuff her bathing suit top with. She had outgrown it, just as she was rapidly outgrowing that shirt.
When she didn’t let him take it off, he told everyone that she did anyway.
She’d never wear it again.
That was the year that she learned, perhaps because she already knew how to make lanyards and god’s eyes and sand candles, that who she let take off her shirt meant something about her. Even if she didn’t particularly care — even if she was much more concerned with finding good creeks to go sneak a beer with her friends in or how to talk quietly enough to stay on the phone past midnight — everyone else was going to. They were going to look at her and see the number of hands which had touched her, the number of strikes against her young, still-growing body. She found that, even though he had betrayed her trust and made her feel like she had done something wrong simply by saying “no,” she still liked that boy. She still wanted his approval. Something about his very boyhood made him objective and reasonable and valuable. When all of the other girls were snickering, it was his quietness she hated most.
And you, you are quiet, too. You let her go for days on end waiting for a response to something simple, waiting to be shown that she means something. She asks you questions and you let her linger on the edge of your lips, waiting to catch the answer that will fall out. She calls, and you let it ring, watching it across your table as it buzz, buzz, buzzes. You are quiet, your approval measured and uncertain, and your boyhood makes her just as anxious as it did for her in summer camp. Because she wonders if you, like that boy, are going to hurt her. She wonders if you are going to decide one night that she hasn’t given you enough, and proceed to just take it anyway. She wonders if you are going to tell people things about her which, despite not being true, seem just credible enough to make you look good in comparison. She wonders if you count the number of hands which have touched her and judged her based on some cold, mathematical rubric for the kind of person you think she is.
She wonders if you’ll ever love her.
And one day she will be tired of wondering. She will outgrow you, like that shirt, like that summer camp, like those high school corridors which seemed to drip the word “slut” from every crevice in the mortar. She will realize that, just like the boy from camp, your words — even in their kindness — will never be a replacement for actual confidence. That there is nothing you can give her which she could not more efficiently give herself, without having to wait so long for it. She will one day see your call and let it buzz, buzz, buzz in all of its impotent desperation. And you will be the one to wonder what you did wrong. Maybe she will tell you, maybe she won’t, so allow me to clarify in the absence of an explanation:
You have been raised to believe that, if she is good, she will follow you around. She will have had no past. She will want you unconditionally. But she has been taught through experience that, if she is good, the definition of “good” will always change to suit someone’s judgment. So she might as well just try to be happy.