In 1986 I was the Horse Girl of St. Margaret’s, the tallest girl in sixth grade, with dark-brown hair I tossed like a mane. I’d once had friends — smaller, meaner girls like Cecilia and Bridget and Diane — but all they wanted to do now was ogle boys and decide what terrible trick they should play on Agnes. I didn’t want to shoot spitballs or stick out a foot to trip someone who walked between the desks to the board. I didn’t care that Agnes was gross, with her boyish haircut and thick body. I also didn’t care that Jason was the best-looking boy in our grade, or that our young gym teacher, Mr. F., was getting divorced. I ran fast in my off-brand shoes, circling the parking lot while the other girls clustered in groups beneath the trees or converged on Agnes, who stood blinking in the sun.
At recess the boys played Burn, which involved hurling tennis balls against a brick wall. If you touched the ball but didn’t catch it, or allowed it to hit any part of your body, you had to stand in front of the wall, right in the line of fire. They weren’t supposed to aim above the neck or below the belt, but it happened all the time.
The nuns and lay teachers stood in the shade twenty feet away, ignoring all of this unless a profanity drifted by their ears. Then they hustled over as if to catch the devil himself.
That’s what happened on that warm day in early spring, when the crab-apple trees had finally turned pink and robins plucked worms from the patchy ground at the edges of our parking-lot playground. Darren, a boy who was tolerated mostly because his clowning made even the nuns laugh, had taken the Lord’s name in vain when it was his turn to be “burned.”
“Don’t you think Jesus has more important things to do than come down to earth only to be rebuked by you?” Sister Josepha, our principal, asked Darren.
He kept his eyes on his scuffed loafers. The rest of the boys palmed their tennis balls and pretended not to watch.
“Don’t let me hear that language again.”
The game started up again, even more raucous now that they’d had to pause a few minutes for Darren’s humiliation. I galloped by, close enough to hear the boys taking what oaths they could within earshot of Sister Josepha: “Oh, gosh!” “Fudgsicles!” “Hey, look, it’s Mrs. Ed!”
That last comment was, of course, directed at me. I pawed the pavement and tossed my head to show them I didn’t care. I knew they’d be watching my plaid skirt flounce against the backs of my knees when I ran past.
Some of the boys were still neighing by the time I’d reached the grass. Cecilia and Bridget and Diane stood under the closest crab-apple tree. I circled them cautiously. The boys might have called me names, but the girls had narrow eyes and slender, pointy smiles.
They were talking about the upcoming dance, the only one we sixth-graders could attend. The seventh- and eighth-graders — St. Margaret’s “upperclassmen” — had the rest of the school year’s dances to themselves. But this one, right before April vacation, was open to sixth through eighth, with only the lowly fifth-graders left out. As such, it was not only cause for great speculation about who would dance with whom but also something to lord over the lowest class. Even then this seemed small-minded to me, but we sixth-grade girls of St. Margaret’s didn’t have much. We all wore the same green-plaid skirts with ties to match, the same white button-down shirts and navy-blue kneesocks. No jewelry, beyond small studs in our ears. Absolutely no makeup or nail polish.
With all this uniformity, hierarchies were determined based on differences too small for outsiders to notice. In fifth grade it had been penny loafers, gleaming leather with a small lift to the heel. If you were cool, you inserted a shiny nickel in the front slot; only dorks used actual pennies. This year it was Eastland boat shoes. If your feet hadn’t grown enough to justify a new pair of shoes, you were ridiculed for wearing last year’s loafers. Or if your well-meaning mother was like mine and bought you a plastic pair that looked “exactly like the Eastlands” at Caldor, you were deemed poor and pathetic. The Eastland company had made the brilliant decision to put its name on a small green tag on the outside of the shoe, so there was no faking it.
“Helena.” Diane flashed me a toothy smile. The sunlight filtering through the crab-apple branches fell pink across her cheeks. “Come talk to us.”
I stopped at the curb, uncertain. Diane and I had been best friends back at Pierce Elementary, but things had changed since we’d transferred to St. Margaret’s.
“We have something to ask you,” said Cecilia.
I snorted, then inched my way over in a kind of half trot.
“Are you going to the dance?” Bridget wanted to know. She had pale skin framed by perfectly feathered light-brown hair.
“Maybe,” I said.
“With someone?” Cecilia was Bridget’s shorter, darker sidekick, a half-Greek, half-Italian girl who passed for exotic in our mostly white suburb.
I looked at Diane, but she kept her gaze on her Eastland shoes.
“You should ask Jason,” Bridget said. “He likes you.”
Did they actually think I was going to fall for that old trick? The popular girls all had the hots for Jason and loved using him to torment us lesser beings. Last month they’d dedicated a Mr. Mister song to Jason on the local Top 40 station, saying it was from Agnes. They’d even called her up to let her know it was coming on, so she’d be sure to listen. She still couldn’t walk past him without blushing to the roots of her red hair.
“Nah,” I said. “I don’t really think he’s all that great-looking.”
There was a moment of silence. I stood very still and thought I felt a slight vibration beneath my feet, as if from the boys pounding their tennis balls against the wall for Burn.
“Besides,” I said, “he’s boring.” This wasn’t entirely true. Jason sat next to me in Spanish (taught with a flat accent by the hopelessly Anglo Sister Christine), and we’d shared a few moments. But I was on guard, looking for the trick.
“OK, Horse Girl,” Cecilia said. “Can you give Jason this in Spanish?” She handed me an intricately folded note. “Don’t open it.”
I stared at the small square of lined paper. It probably contained something embarrassing about me, which Jason would read in the middle of Spanish while Cecilia and her friends watched out of the corners of their eyes, nearly spitting in their attempts not to laugh. Only Agnes was dumb enough to fall for something like that.
It was Diane who convinced me to do it.
“It’s not a joke,” she said earnestly. “You’re the only one who sits close enough to give it to him without Sister Christine seeing.”
I stared at Diane, looking for any trace of meanness. We’d once been best friends. We knew each other’s secrets. I put the note in my pocket and galloped away, sensing someone running just behind me, someone I could feel but not see.
The horse fascination had begun in second grade. It seemed like all the girls — and even some of the boys — had favorite animals. Darren loved penguins. Cecilia was into baby chicks. Others claimed allegiance to kittens or puppies. I don’t remember now what first drew me to horses. Maybe I wanted to imagine I was a princess riding a rainbow-colored unicorn. That sounds like the kind of thing I would have been into back then.
Somewhere along the way, I became obsessed. I filled my shelves with model horses and stacks of horse books. I drew them constantly, and soon I began pretending not just to ride, but actually to be a horse.
Diane would play pretend with me. At first I crawled on my hands and knees while she rode on my back. Later I stood and carried her piggyback. One afternoon we got the idea to build jumps in her backyard, small obstacles made of sticks and bricks, and I leaped over them with her on my back. Then we discovered that the switches from the thicket that grew at the side of her house made a great swish! when whipped through the air.
Not long after, my mother noticed some red welts on the backs of my thighs as I raced naked from the bath to my bedroom.
“Helena,” she said, “what happened to your legs?”
Instinctively I lied and told her I’d fallen into a bush. My mother followed me into my room for a closer look.
“What?” I said. “Leave me alone.”
“You’re hurting me.”
“I’m going to really hurt you if you don’t stop.”
I felt a hot stinging at the corners of my eyes. Her focus on me — especially when she gave me the “your body is a temple” speech — made me feel like running away, fast.
“These are welts. Who gave you these?”
“We were just playing.”
I tried to get away again, but my mother pulled me across her lap, facedown, so she could examine the backs of my legs. She called for my dad, who was watching the news on TV. My brother, Ronnie, had already been tucked into bed.
“Paul, look at Helena’s legs.”
“We were just playing,” I repeated.
“Who?” my father asked. “Who was playing with you like that?”
“Let me help you remember.” He began undoing his belt buckle.
“Diane!” I yelped.
“Why was Diane hitting you with . . . what exactly was she hitting you with?”
I had no choice but to spill the whole story: the horse game, which involved an old piece of clothesline placed in my mouth for a bridle and the switches we used as whips. Sometimes I rode Diane, but mostly she rode me. I was better at jumping.
When I’d finished telling, I looked from my mother (eyes wild, like something was happening inside her that she couldn’t put into words) to my father (forehead wrinkled, lips set in a stern line) and waited for them to decide my punishment.
My mom went to call Diane’s mother. My father told me to get dressed for bed and watched as I trudged to my dresser and pulled out a pair of underpants and my favorite pink nightgown with the little cowgirls on it.
When I was done, he said in a strangled voice, “I think it’s time you give this whole horses thing a rest, Helena.”
That night, in bed, while straining to hear the conversation between my parents in the living room — I could make out the urgent tone but not the words — I thought I detected a gentle murmuring outside my bedroom window. Soft, guttural, maternal even. But definitely not human.
After recess we had music, led by a young lay teacher named Ms. Levy. She’d only been teaching for a year. Her clear soprano filled the classroom like a flashlight beam in a dark closet. Not that any of us paid attention. The boys sent spitballs through the air, aiming for the blackboard or Agnes’s hair. The girls switched seats so they could be next to their friends. (Sister Christine had a stringent seating chart, but she was in the teachers’ lounge.)
Somehow I ended up next to Agnes. She passed me a note that said, What’s up? in big, bubbly handwriting. She was big and bubbly in general. Big head with short, curly hair. Round cheeks studded with freckles. Her feet were always up on tiptoes beneath her desk, the orbs of her calves pumping up and down, making her entire body jiggle.
Ms. Levy was belting out the words to “If I Had a Hammer,” expecting the class to sing along from the music books we’d dutifully drawn from our desks while Sister Christine had still been in the room. She sang on, even though Bridget and Cecilia were brazenly having a conversation right in front of her.
Did you hear about Mr. F? I wrote back. D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
He is so hot, she wrote. Or, at least, she meant to. Instead she wrote, He is so hat.
I circled the word hat and wrote, You are so dumb.
She wrote, I know :).
I wrote, I have something for Jason, and was in the process of tossing this message onto Agnes’s desk when Darren grabbed it. It was now in the hands of the four not-quite-popular boys, who tossed the note back and forth while Ms. Levy, who had moved on to “The Bosom of Abraham,” continued to belt out high notes as if she were auditioning for Broadway. It occurs to me now that she probably did want to be on Broadway, or anywhere other than a sixth-grade classroom at St. Margaret’s.
“Oh, Mr. F. is so hat. He’s so hat!” Darren exclaimed in an exaggerated lisp.
Darren actually did go on to Broadway, after coming out during his senior year at St. Anne’s High School and almost getting hit by a car in the parking lot. The driver (a boy who shall remain nameless but who bore a striking resemblance to a past-his-prime Jason) claimed that his brakes had just suddenly, for that one instant and never again, failed.
“I have something for Jason!” Darren went on. “He’s hat, too!”
All the not-quite-popular boys laughed until their faces looked bruised.
Agnes did what she always did when she was being ridiculed: she set her lips grimly and kept her eyes straight ahead, even when her hair was so full of spitballs it looked like she’d walked through a paper hailstorm. Me, I wasn’t so easy to ridicule. I whinnied loudly, snatched the note from Darren, and kicked him in the shins.
“Ms. Levy! I’m under attack by a wild Horse Girl. Help!” All the not-so-popular boys bent double, and the rest of the class turned in their seats to look. Poor Ms. Levy, who probably just wanted to get her paycheck and get the hell out of there, finally had to stop singing, just as she was valiantly proclaiming life to be “just a bowl of cherries.”
When Ms. Levy went silent, everyone else went silent, too. She’d never stopped singing before, no matter how badly we’d behaved.
“Helena Corey, what exactly do you think you’re doing, young lady?”
And that was it. All she had to do was speak, and the room erupted into chaos again. Ms. Levy had such a tiny, squeaky voice when she spoke that her discipline was inadvertently comic. It was like being reprimanded by Minnie Mouse.
“Yeah, ‘young lady.’ Don’t you have to go back to the barn?” Darren yelled above the din. Some of the other not-quite-popular boys — and even some of the popular ones — began whinnying. Others squeaked. It was impossible to tell, after a minute or two, who exactly was being made fun of. Agnes had put her head down on her desk. She may actually have been asleep. There were rumors that she and her older sisters had to take turns staying up with the two babies their mom had at home.
I retreated into my favorite daydream: I am being ridiculed by the not-so-innocents in my class, who think they can make me cry, but they have no idea who they’re messing with. No idea, that is, until my best friend, a black mare named Midnight, crashes through the classroom door. Midnight has a long, elegant mane and glossy black flanks, and she rises up on her hind legs while Sister Christine cowers behind her desk. Then Midnight comes to me and kneels so I can climb on her back, and all the other kids look up at me in awe. Even Bridget. Even Jason. Even Agnes, who, if I’m being totally honest, had once been my friend, too, back in the golden days before St. Maggie’s.
“Helena? Are you listening to me?”
I snapped out of my daydream and saw that Ms. Levy had been replaced by Mr. F., our soon-to-be-divorced gym teacher. He had his hands on his hips, and his mustache bristled with purpose.
“Now, I don’t know what you guys did to poor Ms. Levy, but I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to stand for it. . . .” Mr. F. went on so long, his diatribe became an impromptu health lesson about the importance of showering every day and using deodorant now that we were getting to “a certain age.” The girls had gone all misty-eyed, lips parted, hands smoothing skirts and tucking hair behind their ears. Diane must have raised her hand ten times to ask, “What do you think the best kind of soap is?” and, “Is it a sin to wash too much?” Only Agnes had her head cocked, as if amused by how easily Mr. F. had cast a spell over the rest of the girls. When I looked at her and snorted, she looked right back at me and winked.
The previous year, in fifth grade, we’d been taught the Catholic version of sex ed — called, predictably enough, “Family Life.” The boys went into one classroom with Mr. F., and the girls went into another one with Mrs. Dooley, who taught us about ovaries and periods and how, after a man and woman have entered into the sacrament of marriage, the penis is allowed to enter the vagina, and, with God’s blessing, the Miracle of Life begins. None of us wanted to think about our parents’ penises or vaginas, or about how we’d started life in our mothers’ tender wombs, but there it was, in full-color illustrations.
Bridget raised her hand and asked if you could get pregnant if you weren’t married.
Mrs. Dooley — a stout woman whom it was impossible to look in the face when she said the word erection or discharge — seemed uncomfortable for a moment before telling us that, although it was technically possible, it wouldn’t happen to any of us, because we were all good Catholics, and good Catholics knew that sex before marriage was a mortal sin, right up there with murder and stealing. Plus you couldn’t get pregnant if you hadn’t had your period yet.
“Agnes looks like a period,” Cecilia said under her breath, and all the girls within earshot, except Agnes, snickered.
“Now, ladies,” Mrs. Dooley said, “I expect you to be mature.”
That’s all I remember of sex ed, because after I told my mother about the class, she called Sister Josepha and had me removed from it. I listened in on the one-sided conversation: “Helena’s still a child. What does she need to know about sex for?”
Just then Dad called me from the den. He was in his easy chair watching TV while Ronnie put together a puzzle of the Crucifixion on the carpet at his feet. My little brother had finished the crown of thorns but hadn’t filled in the bleeding hands yet. “Helena, get me a fresh one, darling,” Dad said, handing me his empty beer can and burping softly. “I’ll time you.”
Dad kept his twelve-packs in the extra fridge in the back shed. I raced outside, a thoroughbred or an Arabian stallion on a dark desert night. Our house was mustard yellow, and it suddenly seemed small beneath the starry sky. I could see my mom in the kitchen window, pouring corn from a can into a metal pot, and could hear the faint strains of the TV, something about unrest in the Middle East. Out in the backyard the grass was cool and soft against my ankles, a half-moon peeked from behind a silver cloud, and the air smelled of wood smoke. I wasn’t a child. I was something else, wild and free, and in the shadows at the edges of the backyard, where the light from that window couldn’t reach, I sensed another horse — Midnight! — running just beyond my vision. She snorted as she went, tossing her majestic head, and her hooves made the ground shake. I knew, even then, that my grown-up life would look very different from my parents’, that it was just a matter of time before I’d gallop away, too.
I locked the stall door before I took the note from my pocket. Inside was a single word, written in pen and traced over and over until the blue was almost black:
I turned the paper this way and that, even holding it up to the light, to see if there was anything else, but that was it. Just Yes! What question was it answering? And was I supposed to tell Jason it was Cecilia who’d given it to me? Talking in Spanish class was a much more dangerous proposition than talking in music class. Sister Christine had been known to call parents for lesser offenses.
The bathroom door opened, and someone else came in. I remained where I was and kept still. It could have been an eighth-grader. I stayed away from upperclassmen as a general rule. If the sixth-graders barely tolerated me, the seventh- and eighth-graders saw me as basically equal to Agnes.
I waited to hear a flush, but none came. Whoever was in that other stall was being as quiet as I was. Maybe she wanted to hide, too. I considered leaving, but something — perhaps the note I’d just opened — kept me rooted to my spot.
It began as a sniffle, then a hiccup, and pretty soon it became clear that whoever it was couldn’t stop crying.
It went on for a long time, low and keening, and then high-pitched sobs of righteous fury. I’d never heard anyone get that upset at school before. I’d always assumed everyone saved their tears for home, after bedtime, when the house was dark and quiet. That was the best time to rage over your mother’s babying or your father’s freewheeling belt. If your parents were still awake, there was a good chance they wouldn’t hear you over the TV. Keeping grudges was a sin. Catholics were supposed to be humble and suffer gladly. Turn the other cheek and all that. Confess it all on Saturday, go to church on Sunday, and return to school on Monday. Wash, rinse, and repeat for a clean, clean soul.
Finally the stall door clicked open, and the crying girl walked to the sinks. I could just make out who it was through the crack. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see her face — I’d recognize the feathered helmet of Bridget’s hair anywhere. She patted her face with powder from a tiny compact and applied clear gloss to her full lips.
“You are a dirty slut,” she said to herself in the mirror. “You are nothing. Nobody likes you. Not Cecilia. Not Diane. Not even Jason. You might as well be a freak like the Horse Girl.”
I opened my mouth reflexively, but then swallowed and kept silent.
Bridget sniffed and was gone.
I approached the mirror cautiously. When I stared at my own face, I didn’t see the noble Horse Girl. I saw a frightened sixth-grader with mustard from lunch in the corner of her mouth. I saw a little kid with no boobs. A loser with no friends. If Bridget hated herself, what hope could there be for me?
But then I felt the note in my skirt pocket and remembered that I had been chosen, deemed worthy. Of what, God only knew, but still. There was a mystery to be solved, a Yes! to be delivered.
Jason was emerging from the boys’ bathroom just as I left the girls’. He wasn’t in our music class — he was part of the sixth-grade group that had science that period.
“Horse Girl,” he said.
“Tall Boy,” I said. We were each the tallest of our respective genders.
Neither of us knew what else to say. We were never alone together. All of our conversations came in furtive bursts in the back of the Spanish classroom. The rest of the time Jason hung out with the popular boys, and I trotted around the perimeter.
“So . . . ,” Jason began.
“Are you going to be the Horse Girl forever?”
“I don’t know. Are you going to be tall forever?”
“The rest of the guys will eventually catch up, I guess.” He picked at a scab on his chin that had probably once been a zit. “You’re not really, you know.”
A subtle thrill flashed through me. “Not really what?”
Jason cleared his throat. “A horse.”
The dim hall seemed very private just then. Just him and me. “What else am I supposed to be?”
He laughed, a sound that was somewhere between pity and recognition. And then he was opening his classroom door, and I was opening mine.
Halfway through Spanish I wondered if I’d daydreamed the whole incident with Bridget in the bathroom. She was poised and pretty at her desk, like a new daisy. She and Cecilia sat next to each other, and I could see them passing notes whenever Sister Christine faced the board.
Jason was nervous. I could tell he hadn’t done the homework and was trying to dash it down while Sister Christine wrote verb conjugations in her perfect cursive. Darren, who sat next to Bridget and Cecilia, kept turning around to smirk at me and/or Jason, I guessed because of the note he’d read earlier.
Agnes kept her eyes on Sister Christine and dutifully copied everything into her notebook. The air was filled with tension — Sister Christine often called on students and demanded they conjugate a verb out loud from memory — but I was bored, as bored as I would be later in life with office politics and long commutes. I didn’t know it then, but this was only the beginning of the many years I would spend stuck in small rooms with people who hated each other almost as much as they hated themselves. Or maybe I did sense this on some level, and that’s why I resisted the whole project of Growing Up. I didn’t want to care about periods and ovaries and erections and shoes and who liked whom. But I can see now that I did. Not in the way that everyone else did, and not in the way I’d expected to, but I still cared very much.
I tossed the note from Cecilia onto Jason’s desk and waited to see what would happen.
He unfolded it in his lap, slowly and quietly. When he finally had the page flat, he put it on top of his half-finished homework.
I could feel him staring at me, but I kept my eyes looking straight ahead. Now Bridget and Cecilia and Diane were turning to look at us, along with Darren, and I felt something deflate inside me as I realized that I’d been as dumb as Agnes, after all. I’d fallen for the prank. It didn’t matter what the question was; it could only have been designed to humiliate me.
Jason looked quizzically at me.
“It’s from Cecilia,” I whispered.
And then Sister Christine was marching down the aisle between desks, her hand outstretched, demanding the note. When it was in her hand, she read its single word, looked from Jason to me, and said, “Yes to what, Miss Corey? Tell me the truth.”
Now all eyes were on me. If ever there was a moment to gallop away on a powerful steed, this was it.
Later I’d learn that Darren had told Cecilia that Jason wanted to know if she would go to the dance with him, and that she’d written the note in answer, not knowing that Bridget and Jason were already meeting near the bathrooms during next-to-last period to make out in the stairwell. It was the end of Bridget and Cecilia’s friendship, and Jason couldn’t, in good conscience, date either one of them after that. (Diane got the prize!) Me, I continued being the Horse Girl until eighth grade, when I discovered Guns N’ Roses and became the Metal Chick instead.
But for now I needed a story, something that would satisfy Sister Christine and let me off the hook. The words were out of my mouth before I had time to reconsider: “It’s from Agnes. Ask her.”
Of course Agnes got sent to the board to conjugate verbs, and of course she failed miserably at them, which caused Sister Christine to vibrate with fury. But when I think back on my years at St. Margaret’s, there are two other moments I remember even more vividly.
One happened a few weeks later, when Agnes decided — God only knows why — to play Burn with the boys. She was tagged and had to stand against the bricks while they pelted her with the tennis ball. I trotted past, unable to look away. The boys used all their strength and aimed for her face and her breasts and her crotch, and it seemed to take a long time for the teachers to stop them. Agnes’s face twisted up like she was going to cry, not in anguish but something else — ecstasy, almost. And, in that moment, something stirred inside me, and I began to understand the beauty of her soft, lush body and all the wanting that roiled beneath the surface just like mine.
The other moment happened at the dance. I don’t know why I even went — maybe I was a glutton for punishment, too. What I do know is that at some point Diane and I ended up alone in the bathroom together, and I told her she looked pretty. I’d never seen her wear makeup before, but she was like a movie star that night, with shining lips and curly hair, and I couldn’t help but admire her.
Diane seemed about to thank me for the compliment, but then Bridget and Cecilia walked in, and her expression soured. “Are you checking me out, Helena?” she spit. “Are you gay?”
The others laughed, and I felt my face burn. I tried to conjure Midnight, my fantasy mare, so she could save me, but, ever since the day of the note, I no longer heard her outside my window or felt her running behind me. Somehow I’d gone through the gate of childhood, while Midnight had stayed behind, locked in the paddock behind me.
Only now do I appreciate Diane’s clarity, how she could see something so essential to my personhood when even I couldn’t. The answer was right there, in dark-blue ink, folded up in a secret note, but I didn’t want to open it yet. So I screamed the first thing that came to mind — “Fuck all of you!” — and galloped out into the hall, where Sister Josepha waited to punish me, as I knew she would.