Anne Marie isn’t a friend, but even so, I keep looking over my shoulder and watching her. Good girls don’t sit in the back of the bus, where no one can see, where everyone pretends they can’t see, but she is, right now, and I can see her. I can see her and the two boys she shares a seat with and the way their hands move and the jeering smiles on the other boys’ faces that crane their heads over their seats to watch. It’s dark and it’s a long ride back to school in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska and I think about telling a teacher but I’m no snitch. Still, I consider the coy smile of her lips and the way the boys gravitate to her as she straddles Nate’s lap, of the way they all bow down, down, down and I’m jealous for a moment, of all that power. I want, without knowing how or when it started, for someone to look at me like the boys are looking at her. Like I’m looking at them from the anonymity of my own invisibility.
But just for a moment. Because when we all leave the bus, between the going home and the coming back the next morning, she’s a slut. She’s easy, that’s what they say between slamming lockers and swapping homework. She’s a sure thing.
I keep my eyes off the back of the bus but my mind buzzes live-wire-hot.
In Health class, they tell us what sex is—just another unit sandwiched between Nutrition and The Dangers of Smoking. They explain it like this: it’s special and it’s dangerous and don’t do it, not yet, not until you’re married. Someone in the back raises their hand, asks about condoms, asks about safety. But there’s nothing safer than abstinence, they say. Nothing better than purity.
The closer you get to our town, the further away you drive from the city and find yourself passing more cattle than cars, you’ll see the billboards. There’s one with a tiny fetus, all curled up and pink like chewed bubble gum, and the faded blue script that pleads: take my hand, not my life. Or the dingy-white hand-painted square tacked to someone’s red barn, a thick pulse flat-lining across its width that bluntly states in block letters: ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART. I don’t know the people who painted these signs, who stuck them in their fields or their yards or on their barns for all of Highway 92 to see. But whatever the reason, I’m struck by their bold conviction. I want to hold it for myself and feel righteous for it, want to believe in the simplicity of this and not that. The comfort of black and white. Small town, bigger God.
I sing Nearer, my God, to Thee in a white satin gown provided by my Masonic youth group, lined up and kneeling like the other girls in the form of the cross, the whole congregation straining to hear over the sound of my trembling. I am a daughter of Job, a gift born of humility and faith. The weight of my damp palms pressed in prayer, the burn of the carpet against my tender knees, drowns out the doubt and the questions that whisper: why are we made to fear God? Sometimes I think I’m afraid of the wrong things.
I’m thinking of my older cousin. The girl scout, the 4H blue-ribbon-winner, blonde-haired golden girl, future leader of America, living amongst the rusted cars and the scrap heaps and the stray cats breeding wild in her family’s front yard, the tiny house cluttered with junk and too many squawking parakeets that shit on newspapers rarely changed, her New Kids on the Block poster tacked to her door and all the dreams and hopes of youth waiting to explode once she gets that diploma, that ticket to somewhere else. I think about the months after graduation when she finds out she’s pregnant, and the months after that when I tiptoe through her baby shower, mindful of the slurs people whisper about unwed, teenage mothers who never get to leave home. I think about the woman she was. Still is. Became. And I wonder where those signs are, the billboards for her and women like her. Like Anne Marie. Or even like me. What aren’t they telling us?
Elizabeth Fiala is a native Nebraskan and current graduate student studying Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has been published in 13th Floor Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and numerous self-made paper booklets which she sold for a quarter each, as an industrious child, to kind elderly neighbors. Follow her on Twitter @elizaefiala.