I was in the third grade when I learned how it was done.
The mechanics of it, I mean. I’d had an idea before then, taken clues from the movies and soaps. Bare shouldered people in silky sheets, kissing with open mouths. I used to strip my Barbie and Ken dolls down to their plastic Malibu flesh, and then tangle them together to pretend they were “making love.” That’s what they called it on TV.
The truth is, I learned it from a naughty playground song.
One day my mother found Ken and Barbie in a corner of our basement, still tangled in a nude embrace. She turned to me with eyebrows raised, was there anything I wanted to ask? “No,” I muttered, and scampered off with a prickly heat in my face. I thought I’d been caught knowing something I wasn’t supposed to know.
It sounded innocent enough at first,
But I didn’t really know. I didn’t really know until the third grade, when the girl whose name I forget taught us that song in the little girls’ bathroom. She repeated the words for us again and again, and our voices echoed against the cold marble stalls, the thick oak doors. We sang as we washed our hands with pink soap in cast iron sinks with streaks of rust around the drains, our eyes fixed on the holes in the tile where the mirrors used to hang.
unless you were paying attention to the words.
The next year, at my new school, I had a crush on a boy named Mitch. He couldn’t pronounce his ‘R’s, but he had shaggy hair and clever eyes that made my heart stir when they locked with mine. Mitch liked to chase me on the playground, and sometimes I allowed myself to be caught.
It was the boy next door,
I secretly enjoyed his arms around my waist, the thrill of our bodies panting in sync. Then I’d work my fingers against his grip to open the lock and run away. One recess, though, he pulled me into the tire structure while his friends blocked the tires’ open mouths. Memory holds the taste of fear, an acute scent of rubber.
who pushed me on the floor.
We had a middle school teacher we often wondered about. He liked to seat the girls in the front of the room, touch the lockets on our necks. What a pretty necklace, he’d say. He wasn’t fatherly like the others, laughed a little too hard at our jokes. He had olive skin and a piercing gaze, wore cologne that liked to linger. Once, during Truth-or-Dare at a sleepover, someone confessed that he’d appeared in a sexual dream.
He lifted up my skirt,
That’s when we started to wait for each other outside the classroom door, if one of us was ever asked to stay right after school.
and said it wouldn’t hurt.
Don’t ask me how we knew that this is what you ought to do. Or that showing up all by yourself would seem like wanting something bad to happen. It’s like my father told me when he gave me the key to our house. Always keep this hidden, he said. Don’t lose it, don’t play with it, don’t ever dangle it in front of others. Here’s the lesson I heard: even if it’s stolen, it might still be your fault.
He counted, ‘one, two, three,’
A few years later, during high school gym class, as we were jogging on the track, we caught up with Christina, who had stepped aside to cry. What’s wrong? we wanted to know, and gathered around her like a cloak. My boyfriend, she could barely say. It had happened in the basement.
and stuck it into me.
Except she wasn’t sure, and it became a matter of internal debate. Something in us had been trained to wonder: was it rape or just regret? We didn’t know her well enough, couldn’t tell by what we saw. She didn’t have any bruises, no black eyes, no scratches like the victims on TV. Wouldn’t a good girl have put up a fight?
My mother was surprised to see my belly rise.
In college, during the winter, we used to swim laps at the rec center and then go back to the dorm to smoke cigarettes. The nicotine felt more potent after a workout, we savored the menthol in our chests. But on that particular night, our friend Faye never showed. Fucking lazy Faye, we said. What we didn’t know was that while we squeezed the water from our ponytails and formed our mouths into ‘O’s to blow little rings of smoke, Faye was in a shadowy part of campus, being forced to open her mouth for something else.
My father jumped with joy: it was a baby boy!
No ambiguity there. At least I didn’t think there was. When I told my parents what had happened, my father seemed perplexed. Why didn’t she fight back? he asked, Did she actually see the gun?
Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, writer, and mother whose work is inspired by social and environmental issues, and the intersection of the natural world, family, and place. She is a 2015 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship recipient, and was honored with the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, sponsored by Ashland Creek Press. Noble is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine, and has had work appear in several literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Minerva Rising, Literal Latté, and Utne Reader. She currently lives in Vermont with her husband and two daughters, after nine years living in Central Oregon. Read more at www.maryheathernoble.com