A month into ninth grade, my first period geometry teacher sets a Tootsie Pop on my desk before class starts. The sucker is grape-flavored with a dusty paper wrapper the color of a bruise—the kind that will fit perfectly in the arched ceiling of my mouth, with a fat band around its center like a planet’s rings from which I can sluff off shards with my teeth before crunching into the soft center. There’s a note tied to the paper stick with a ribbon. My name is handwritten on one side; I flip it over to read the printed message on the other. It’s a tradition for school clubs to recruit new members by leaving treats in the mailboxes of students’ first period teachers to be passed out before the bell. This one is an invitation from the newly formed GSA.
“Do you know what that is?” the girl who sits behind me asks, in a tone that shows she does and she’s reconsidering what she thinks of me. “The GSA?”
“Yeah,” I say, my voice a ghost, and slip the unopened Tootsie Pop into my backpack before anyone else can see it. GSA stands for Gay-Straight Alliance, and I’ve heard the way the kids who attend are talked about—at best, objects of curiosity, at worst, as if their existence is a sick joke. My friend Lina, a recently out lesbian, has been going to the meetings after school on Tuesdays for a couple weeks now.
“Are you gay?” the girl behind me asks.
“No!” I snap before anyone else can hear our conversation, and she shrugs and turns away.
I imagine the GSA kids making a list of potential new members on a classroom whiteboard. Lina throws out my name, and the GSA president writes it in slick, precise letters. Maybe he spells it M-E-L-A-N-I-E first, and Lina has to correct him, no, Melody, like a song, and then he erases the ending with the side of his fist and fixes it. Maybe someone says, oh yeah, I know her, she’s in my fourth period. That they’ve been talking about me and I didn’t even know gives me the creeps.
At lunch, Lina asks me if I got the candy and if I’m going to come to GSA, and I tell her that I have violin lessons right after school on Tuesdays, even though my lessons aren’t actually until five.
On the bus ride home, I press my head against the window, which shudders with each pothole, and I think of what I should have said to the girl behind me. As I rehearse fruitlessly for the past, my body splits in two, cleaved right down the center—one eye, one ear, one lung, one kidney on each side. The one side would have known what to say: “It’s the Gay-Straight Alliance, duh. I’m the straight part.” The other side was too embarrassed, ashamed, unsure. She’s the side who’s holding me back. When I get home, I shove her in the empty bottom drawer of my dresser, her single knee bunched against her half-a-ribcage. She doesn’t scream with her half-mouth or cry out of one eye. She knows she belongs there.
At school, no one notices that I am only half-a-girl except maybe Lina, who looks at me strangely but doesn’t say anything. That year, she and I become the kind of friends who talk when we have classes together, but don’t text after school or hang out on weekends anymore. For that, she has her GSA friends, and I have friends from the school orchestra.
At the end of the semester, I’m cleaning out my backpack when I find the Tootsie Pop hidden at the bottom, the attached note folded like an accordion. The sucker is cracked on the side, as if an asteroid ripped a chunk from the planet’s surface. When I lift it, sparkly powder falls from under its wrapper, pulverized sugar from the point of rupture. I open it and rub my fingers on the wrapper for a moment, feeling how the grinding of the candy against the paper has given it a soft texture like cloth. I think about opening the drawer and feeding it to the part of me hidden there, letting her half-tongue wet it into a sticky syrup. But the thought repulses me, and instead I throw the whole mess away.
Sophomore year, my lunch table is a group of orchestra girls. Together, we could be a string quartet: Blair plays the violin like me, Reese the viola, and Sloane the cello.
One afternoon, Blair trades Reese half her cookie for a handful of fries, and I give Sloane a fruit gusher, which I use one finger to press to her lips like a kiss. She opens her mouth and gobbles it, pretending to nip my finger like a dog. Because I only have half-a-stomach, I have to hold it shut or risk an acidic, macerated mush dripping out of me. But I let go for a moment, for Sloane.
Blair and Reese are deconstructing the latest episode of the show everyone’s watching on Sunday nights, the one with the cheerleading troop stranded on a desert island with a lagoon of hot, shirtless mermen.
“Your top five hottest mermen,” Reese says. “Go.”
Sloane counts hers off on her fingers, which are sticky with strawberry jelly from her leaking sandwich, and Blair and I follow. For my top spot, I choose the merman with the jawline of a jagged cliff but a softness to the muscles in his arms and chest, as if he’s tumbled through a rock polisher and emerged smooth and shining. When I see him on TV, I have strange visions of biting his upper lip, of kissing down his chest until I get to the place below his belly button where skin meets scales. I know he would love me even though I am only half-a-girl.
Blair leans down so her face is hovering just above her cup of strawberry Greek yogurt; if she dipped down any lower, her chin would be coated in pink. Her voice goes velvet. “Now your top five hottest cheerleaders,” she says. For a moment we are suspended in a breath, hanging between the possibility of laughing it off and the possibility of answering. A new, dangerous territory lies before us. Miles away, the half of me locked in the drawer lurches.
Sloane takes the first step. “Scarletta is pretty sexy. I love her hair and she’s got such—” Her face flushes like a rash. “Such nice, bouncy boobs.” She gives an embarrassed laugh and gestures at her own double-a-sized chest, which I’ve always thought was perfect for her lithe, athletic body.
Sloane has opened a door, and now we’re all saying girls from the show that we like, peppered with laughter and oh-my-god-I-knows. The name of the cheerleader who poses at the top of the pyramid balances on the tip of my tongue, ready for me to flick it out, but I stop myself. She looks, I realize, a lot like Sloane. The same freckled nose, the same hair almost long enough to sit on, the same soft power in her arms and legs. I wonder if saying I like her will cross another line, a line we’ve kept preserved.
“I’m glad we live in such a progressive time,” Blair says, “when four straight girls can think girls are cute sometimes and it’s not a big deal.” Reese, Sloane, and I agree. There is no doubt in our minds that we are straight.
That night, I have a dream that the top-of-the-pyramid cheerleader is in my bedroom, flipping and cartwheeling and jumping topless, her arms moving perpendicular to one another above her head, their motion pressing her small breasts into the center of her chest, then pulling them apart again, like kneading dough. She knocks the blade of my ceiling fan, sending it spinning, and sweeps a book off a shelf with her foot. I’m afraid she’s going to destroy the place, but I don’t want her to stop. She lands with her hair in her eyes, and when she bends down and flips it back again, her face is Sloane’s.
Just as she reaches for me, I wake sweaty and tangled in my sheets. At first, I think the pounding noise is the beating of my heart, but then I realize it’s coming from my bottom drawer. I pad over to my dresser and open it, running my hand over the other half of myself, feeling the softness of her skin, the indentation of her hip. For just a moment, I let her become a part of me, and it feels wonderful, electric, terrifying. When I pry her away again, she struggles more than last time, but not enough to stop me.
By spring, both Sloane and I have older boyfriends, juniors, friends with each other. Mine is named Eli, and he plays the trombone in the symphony orchestra. One night when Eli is driving me home, I tell him to swing a left into the empty post office parking lot. The moment the car is in park, I pull his face toward mine with my one hand and kiss him hard with my half-mouth. For a moment, he is caught off guard. Then he ventures into my mouth with his tongue, nervously at first, as if feeling in a dark room for a light switch, then forcefully. “I have the coolest girlfriend,” he says when we come up for breath.
Soon, we’re spending at least three nights a week in the post office parking lot. Eli’s arms pull me into the back seat like I’m being carried out by the tide. I fling my leg over him and grind my hip against his, feeling him rise through the double layer of denim. We make out for a while, and then I reach for his belt. He stops me long enough to pull a condom from his wallet. Sex feels different than I imagined, more awkward and sweaty, but I like it. I like it so much that for a moment I wish I were whole so I could feel it with every part of me.
On nights when we can’t go to the post office because we have too much homework or our moms want us home for dinner, Eli texts me things he wants to do to me, things that send lightning through my half-a-body. He teaches me where to press my fingers, how to make this half of me shudder and spasm. He thinks it’s cute that I’ve never given myself an orgasm before, cute how much I like it. Most of all, he likes that he’s the one who makes me feel this way, even when it’s my hand doing the work.
Sometimes I even let my other half out of the drawer, allow her to align her spongy pink lung with mine and fuse together into a single body. I run my hands over both halves of myself as Eli tells me about the girls in movies who inspire his fantasies, and instead of feeling jealous, I’m exhilarated. I tell him which of his girls I like too, delighting him. He tells me how to touch myself and which girl to think about while I do it, and I report back to him how it felt. He describes what it would be like to have both me and her on top of him. I have the coolest girlfriend, he can’t stop saying. And she’s all mine.
Sloane and I get ready for prom together at my house, trying on each other’s lipsticks. She’s wearing gold sequins and chooses a matte burgundy lip like an old-fashioned pinup girl. I help her get the edge precise with my fingernail, my face just inches from hers, holding my breath. She lends me her satin gloss, which matches my rose-pink silk and goes on wet.
While Sloane uses the bathroom, I get the other half of myself out of the drawer and try her on. I just want to see what my dress looks like over my whole body, but once I see it in the mirror, I can’t take her off again. I’m radiant. I twirl, letting my two arms rise from my sides together, as if attached by strings.
Eli and Sloane’s boyfriend, Theo, pick us up in rented tuxes, and no one says anything about me being whole. After we exchange boutonnieres and corsages and take pictures in my backyard, Eli drives us to dinner at Bella Italia and then to the dance. It’s just in the school gym, but it’s been decorated with draped fabric and fairy lights, and I can almost imagine it’s not the same place I failed push-up tests and got hit in the head with a basketball. The DJ plays a throwback. Sloane and I yell “Apple Bottom jeans, boots with the fur” into each other’s faces, and the guys do the echoes. Each time the song says “The whole club was lookin’ at her,” Theo and Eli point at Sloane and me, respectively.
Next is a slow song, and we separate into couples. Eli pulls my whole body close, and he smells like cinnamon and rain. He looks down into my eyes, and he sees me, the whole me, as no one has before. I want to show him everything.
I take a deep breath. “I’m bisexual,” I say. The word bisexual comes out of my undivided mouth like a puff of air, then flows smoothly down my tongue. I wonder if telling Eli that I’m bi will make him want to go out to his car and get his hands on me right now. I wonder if it will make him say the words I’ve been waiting to hear.
But instead, he pulls back. “What?”
He takes another step backward, bumping a swaying couple who shoot him a look. “Are you going to leave me for a girl?”
Before I can answer, Eli tears out of the gym and into the atrium with the coat check and snacks, and I follow. I catch up to him by the punch table and reach toward him with the side of my body that he’s loved for all these months. I grab his arm, but he wrenches it from my hand. Students milling about, talking in groups, glance our direction.
“Take it back, or we have to break up,” Eli says. “I can’t let my girlfriend dump me for some chick.”
“I’m not going to leave you. I love you.” It’s the first time I’ve said it to Eli, and I know it’s not the right moment, but I don’t know how else to keep him here.
“Then take it back.”
Something has happened to my throat, and words won’t come. The half of me that’s been hidden away for so long won’t let me speak. All I can do is reach with the one arm she doesn’t control.
“I can’t believe you would do this to me,” he says, backing away. And then he’s gone, lost in the crowd.
I puke my pasta primavera in the handicap stall. When I emerge red-eyed and teary, there’s a girl standing at one of the sinks. She turns, and it’s Lina, wearing a corset and hoop skirt, her recently chopped-off hair coiffed like cotton candy at the top of her head.
Lina doesn’t ask where I’ve been for the last year, why I stopped calling her, or why we don’t even talk at school anymore. She doesn’t ask me who I’m here with, what happened, or why I’m crying. She just holds all of me as I sob.
When I get home, I wrestle that horrible, betraying part of me back into the drawer.
My friendship with Lina starts again like a movie paused while someone went to fetch more popcorn. By junior year, we’re hanging out at the empty playground across the street from her house after school every day except Tuesday. We sit on the swings, spinning them until they are twisted so high that our feet can barely touch the wood chips, then releasing them to whirl like maple seed helicopters, talking about everything and nothing.
When I tell Lina I’m bi, she says I should come to the GSA holiday party with her.
“I’m not that kind of bi girl,” I say.
“What kind of bi girl is that?”
I want to say that I’m the kind of bi girl who still misses her boyfriend so much that every morning she wakes up in unknowable pain, gasping through her single lung, and has to remember again that he’s gone. I want to say I’m only half-a-girl, maybe less than half, mangled beyond repair. “I just don’t want to,” I say instead.
The day of the GSA holiday party, I linger by my locker, as if Lina might come by if I just wait long enough, even though I know she’s already upstairs in the French classroom where they normally meet. The hallway is empty except for a girl waiting outside the boys’ bathroom, leaning against the corner so the two cinder block walls cradle her shoulders. I realize with a pang that it’s Sloane. The last time we spoke, I asked her not to invite Eli to her birthday party.
“I shouldn’t take sides,” Sloane had said. “Not when the breakup was mutual.”
I wondered how Sloane could have such a clear idea of what happened between me and Eli when I didn’t understand it myself. Mutual sounded so corporate, as if we’d ended our relationship with a firm handshake instead of a few strange texts after prom followed by a long, painful silence.
“Hey,” I call down the hallway.
She looks up, her freckled face alight. “Melody.”
But then the person Sloane’s been waiting for emerges from the bathroom, and it’s not Theo but Eli. He drapes his arm over Sloane’s shoulders and kisses her temple, then sees me. Under his breath: “Lesbo bitch.”
I freeze for a moment, shocked how much it hurts. And then I’m running, pounding the floor with my single foot, my backpack bouncing up to my shoulder and slamming down again with each step. But I can’t stop. I don’t even know where I’m going until I’m outside the door, until I’m turning the handle.
The French classroom is decorated with cardboard Christmas tree and menorah cutouts hanging from the ceiling by fishing line. Lina is talking to a redheaded girl by the snack table, where someone made a pride flag with fruit-flavored candy canes—pink ones with green pinstripes and blue ones with purple swirls.
“Melody!” Lina squeals, hugging me. “This is Amie.” She gestures at the redheaded girl. Amie is tall and curvy, and her thick hair is parted beyond where it naturally falls so the front swoops over her forehead, defying gravity. Around her neck hangs a Canon with an enormous lens. Some kids get her attention and pose, and she turns, squatting to get the perfect angle, her jeans tightening around her thighs.
“Are you okay?” Lina has noticed that my half-a-body is shaking. Amie turns back to us, her camera resting on her chest.
“Someone called me a lesbo bitch.” I don’t want to admit that it was Eli—someone I loved, trusted—in front of Amie. This half of me who loved Eli is broken. As soon as I get home, I’m stuffing her in the drawer and becoming the other half instead, shiny and new.
Amie nods sympathetically. “At least you’ve come to the right place,” she says. “We lesbo bitches have the best snacks.” She offers me a gingerbread man. I snap his little smiling head right off his plump body.
Amie smiles. “We should hang out over break.”
“Yeah,” I say, and I’m surprised to find I really hope we do.
I go to Amie’s house as my fresh, unblemished self. Packed away inside a drawer for so long, this half of me smells a little stale, like plywood, but is otherwise preferable. Amie has a makeshift photography studio in her unfinished basement, with sheets pinned to the wall and draped along the floor.
“I got those for Christmas,” she says, pointing to a tripod and umbrella flash.
The rest of the basement is decorated in lesbian chic—there’s a pride flag, a framed poster for The L Word, and a homemade canvas painted with the female symbol and a raised fist. I suddenly wish I were wearing something edgier than my pale pink V-neck sweater or that my hair were shorter. Most of all, I hope Amie won’t notice that I’m only half-a-girl.
But Amie says I’m the perfect model. She takes a picture of me sitting on a folding chair backward, my single leg dangling, then lying on my back kicking my foot in the air, then some action shots of me banging my half-a-head around so my hair is flying all crazy. “Beautiful, beautiful,” she says as she dances around just beyond the edge of the sheet.
“Now,” Amie says, “Really be yourself.”
I close my eye, trying to feel my real self somewhere within my half-body. All I feel is anger, the pressure that built up during the years that I was locked away. I swing my arm up into the air and scream, letting my rage shoot out of me like water from a fire hydrant. Only when I’m out of breath do I realize how strange Amie must think I am. I like her, and now I’ve ruined everything.
But when I open my eye, she’s standing right in front of me. She kisses me, and my hand goes to her chin, which is startlingly small and soft. Amie lowers me onto the sheet and slides my sweater over my shoulder, revealing the top of my bra cup. She runs her lips along my half-ribcage, traces my single collarbone.
Amie and I touch and kiss every part of each other, and it’s different, maybe even better than it was with Eli. Afterward, we lie wrapped in the sheet together like a single cocoon.
Spring returns with yellow pollen that coats car windshields and sidewalk cracks, and Lina and I resume our playground afternoons. Most of the time, Amie joins us, and on Tuesdays we all three go to GSA meetings. I don’t know what I thought GSA would be, but it’s mostly just an excuse to hang out and eat snacks, and I like the group. Amie and I perch on top of adjoining desks, holding hands.
On Saturdays, Amie and I hang out in her basement binge-watching and having sex and messing around with her photography equipment. The first day it hits seventy degrees, she finds some old sidewalk chalk and a jump rope in her garage, and we play with them in her driveway. I draw a hopscotch grid while she jumps and chants childhood rhymes to the beat of the rope slapping the pavement.
She does “Cinderella dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a fella, made a mistake and kissed a snake” and makes a snide comment about how the snake might be the better choice. I laugh, but I have an uneasy feeling in my half-stomach. Then she switches to “First is the worst, second is the best, third is the one with the hairy chest.” The rope tangles around her foot, tripping her. She gives up on jumping and comes over to see my handiwork, leaning over and hugging me from behind as I finish numbering the final box.
“I guess second really is the best,” she says. “I’m your second girlfriend and your best girlfriend.”
I straighten, wiping chalk dust on my leg. I told her I’d dated one other person, let her assume it was a girl. But I don’t want to lie to her. “You’re my first girlfriend,” I say. “I had a boyfriend before.”
“Oh.” Amie looks hurt.
“You know I’m bi.”
“I thought you just hadn’t come all the way out yet,” Amie says. She gestures at my crotch. “I didn’t know you’d actually had a penis in there ruining things.” A sprinkler kicks on in the grass, and droplets hit my chalk drawing, creating a pastel bleed.
That night, I can’t stop thinking about the word ruin. I imagine my internal organs made of crumbling marble, the folds and cavities of my abdomen petrified in ash like Pompeii. Finally, I text Amie: I’m hurt that you called my body ruined.
I didn’t say it like that, she replies. I was just surprised. Guys skeeve me out.
I open my drawer and look at the half of me trapped there. She’s the one who’s ruined, not me. I want to wrap her in a trash bag and dump her in the woods to rot. But I also want to hold her, to tell her it’s going to be okay. And so I let her crawl into my lap. I cradle her, rock her, whisper in her single ear. And when she wants to be a part of me again, to fuse back together, something moves inside of me, and I let her. For just a little while, I say. Let me protect you.
Caring for my other half feels good. Every Monday, I brush her hair. Every Thursday, I floss her half of the teeth and trim her half of the fingernails. Every Saturday, I lotion her elbow and knee, rubbing my fingers in tiny circles until her skin feels soft as velvet.
At first, she hangs limp, letting me pull open her mouth or press down her cuticles or yank a comb through her tangles. But soon, she starts battling me, kicking and flailing. I’m surprised to find that I like her strong. That I don’t want to fight her anymore. That I want her to win.
By senior year, I rarely have the energy to lock away my other half anymore. Amie likes me less when I’m whole. We get in more arguments. “You don’t appreciate how lucky you are!” she shouts one day, stomping around her photography studio. “Whenever you get tired of this you can quit and say it was all a phase! You’ll end up with some boring dude and never have to worry about it again!”
One day during passing period, Amie and I are at her locker when she accuses me of checking out a guy. I don’t even know who she’s talking about, and I tell her so, resting my hand against the metal side of the open locker. But then, just as Amie really starts in on me, Eli and Sloane turn the corner, arm in arm. She’s laughing at something he said, and he’s looking at her like her laugh is his reason for living. I’m consumed by how much I hate them. I wish that I could feel nothing, that I could peel away the part of me that once loved them. But she’s fierce now; she clings on tight.
There’s a metallic bang, and my finger sears with pain. I whip back around and see that it’s jammed into Amie’s shut locker door, the metal buckling. Amie scrambles at the combination, but I can’t bear to wait. It reminds me too much of being trapped in the dresser drawer, clawing for escape. I yank my finger out, scraping off the skin under my cuticle. A white line cuts across the darkening blue of my nail, and it aches as if it’s bruised down to the very bone.
Amie shrugs. “If you’d been focused on me, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Alone, neither half of me would be strong enough to leave her. But they’re together now.
“It’s over,” I say.
“Figures,” Amie says. “Bi girls will always break your heart.”
Lina and I meet at the playground, where we sit side by side on the swings. It’s dark, but a street lamp lights up the plastic slide, which casts the glow back at us like sunlight reflecting off the moon.
“No one is ever going to love me,” I say.
“I do,” Lina says. I give her a startled look, and she laughs and swings herself to the side so that she bumps me with her hip before gliding away. “Not like that.” She looks up into the sky, blue with light pollution and empty of stars. “Someday,” she says, “you will find someone who will love you like I do. As a whole, not by halves.”
She pushes off the ground and starts swinging, really swinging, not the lazy rocking back and forth we usually do. She pumps her legs, stretching them toward the black outlines of tree branches. I imitate her with my two legs, my two arms, my whole abdomen, practicing moving the two sides of me together as one. One body, one girl who is more than the sum of her parts. Soon I’ve matched Lina’s rhythm and we’re in sync, rising over the wood chips together, then plummeting back to earth.
Jenna Wengler holds an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University, where she served as fiction editor of Indiana Review. An alumna of the Tin House YA Fiction Workshop, her fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain as the winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Literature and is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket. She is currently at work on a young adult novel.
1 thought on “Not by Halves”
Moving story, strong structure. I like that it does not wrap up with a happily ever after. The friendship for her whole self will give her the strength to find love of her whole self.