You don’t remember me. I was the small, quiet, the kid who wore plain t-shirts and ball caps and got lost in the fourth row of band, the kid who wasn’t liked or hated but just there. But you remember her because she had the beard and the guts to grow it out even though she was the last person anyone expected to do that. She was so damn girly, wore dresses and makeup and was a baton twirler for God’s sake, people liked her, but that was when her cheeks were smooth, before everything happened.
You have to remember how she was gone from school for a week, not that we thought about it at the time, but when she came back she walked to her locker like nothing was wrong, like no one was staring at this beard that was strawberry blond like the rest of her hair. We were fifteen years old and her beard was better than any guy in our class had grown so far. I had dinky fuzz over my upper lip like a dying caterpillar, and I know your attempts weren’t much better. But she had a beard and a ponytail and a fuzzy pink sweater and really, what the hell?
That was when everyone was dyeing their hair, getting piercings and temporary tattoos, trying to be different in all the usual ways. Part of me wanted to be rebellious, but if I’d gotten my ears pierced Mom wouldn’t have blinked. She was a pop culture college professor, spent her days lecturing on trends, and saw me thrashing in the sea of fads. When I came home with a temporary tattoo of a spider on my bicep she said she liked it. No one at school noticed. Everyone stared at the girl with the beard.
Her grin was the same after the beard–she never smiled, she grinned–and I noticed that because the baton twirlers practiced at the same time as the marching band, all of us on the football field. I was in the brass section, hefted my tuba while I watched her routines. Everyone had said she’d be on Homecoming court, and for a while I didn’t think the beard would stop that. She still sparkled like light on a newly polished tuba. But kids started whispering about her, wondering what had happened, if she’d had some weird cosmetic surgery, if she was turning into a guy.
She sat beside me in algebra—you were in that class, too—and she never got a problem wrong. Algebra was my worst subject and I wondered if the beard made her smart like a professor. (My mom was smart though she didn’t have a beard. My dad had a beard but he was out of our house by then.) I wanted to ask her to help me with my homework, but I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to release the question. Science was the only thing I was good at, especially biology because that didn’t need many numbers. I wished she weren’t so intelligent because I could have offered to help her with the homework on flower parts and worm parts and frog parts. In some ways she felt older than me, older than all of us, even though in algebra I heard you and the other guys talking when she went up to the board to solve yet another problem. Why doesn’t she shave and look normal? She was so pretty before.
I should have turned around, I should have said something to you, but I was too quiet and small and it seemed like she could take care of herself. The beard didn’t make her less beautiful, it was just something to get used to, a new way of thinking about a girl’s face. She made me remember when we learned about the Egyptians and how the female pharaohs wore false beards as a symbol of power and wisdom.
She lived two blocks from my house and I followed her home every day. Sometimes she turned around to wave hello. I grimaced under the weight of my tuba and couldn’t smile back. Once she asked if I needed help but I shook my head, didn’t want to seem weak.
I know it was you, you and your friends, who rode up on your bikes and taunted her. You called her Bigfoot and said she’d never get married, and she said she wouldn’t marry an asshole like you, and you called her a hairy bitch. I gasped. She threw stones at you and I know it must have hurt because she had good aim. I stood motionless and mute, a statue with a tuba, though I imagined myself running to help her.
You rode away, but she was panting and smiling. I walked up to her after she’d won the battle. There was nothing I could do but say, “I like your beard. I can’t grow one.”
“There’s no trick to it,” she said. “Just don’t shave.”
“It itches,” I said.
“It only does that for a little while,” she said. “Grit your teeth and resist the razor.”
“The beard looks good on you,” I said. It was as close as I could come to telling her she was beautiful.
Two weeks later at the football game, kids from the other band teased her behind the bleachers, called her she-man and she called them a bunch of brainless fuckers and a flute player gave her a shove and she cracked the girl over the head with her baton. She was out for that game and three games afterwards. I was in awe. Not long after that the rumors started—she was going out with a linebacker, she was going out with a point guard, she was going out with one of the guys who played defense—she had ten or twelve or fourteen boyfriends and had turned into one of those girls, the sort who was easy in the back seat of cars. But no guys bragged about her at lunchtime or after school, no one said he’d done it with her in his bedroom when his parents weren’t home, so all her boyfriends remained faceless.
I talked with her after school on our walks home, but not about her boyfriends.
“I’m sorry you were suspended from the twirlers,” I said.
“I have to stick up for myself,” she said.
“Female pharoahs had beards to show they were wise,” I told her. “But their beards were fake. They weren’t as nice as yours.”
“Thank you,” she said.
She smiled at me. I lived on that smile until I heard she was going out with you. I didn’t believe it at first because you were cruel. (I still want to know what you said to smooth over those hard words.) On the football field she twirled and shone, and by then I had learned what I could do alone in my room, face down on my bed with a couple of pillows. It was a new definition of magic, that tightness and release, and I thought of her.
I mentioned you to her only once.
“I thought he was mean to you,” I said.
“He apologized,” she said. “He’s pretty nice when he wants to be.”
“You shouldn’t go out with someone who isn’t nice,” I said, but after I said it I wished I hadn’t. It sounded like something a dad or a first grade teacher would say.
But she smiled and told me I was sweet, that I shouldn’t worry.
I blushed. “I didn’t mean you couldn’t take care of yourself,” I said.
“I’m just fine,” she said. I don’t know what we talked about after that, but it wasn’t you.
I had to protect her from you and your insincerity. I knew you hadn’t changed, but I didn’t know how to warn her. There were too many cafeteria rumors about you and her in the stadium bleachers. I figured you had spread them, which is why I almost cried when she was on your arm at Homecoming. You probably don’t remember the color of her dress, a cherry blossom pink that set off her hair in the darkened gym. You had your hand on the small of her back and I left to pace outside for a while, then trudge home like the other dateless people who went to dances pretending we didn’t care we were alone.
I feigned happiness to my mother, said I’d had a great time, but it was a cruel lie repeated by all of us who saw the people we wanted to dance with embraced by someone else. Nothing is like the passion of fifteen-year-olds who have read Romeo and Juliet for the first time in English and can imagine drinking poison for the one we love. It is the moment in our lives when that story makes the most logical sense.
I don’t know if you saw the article in the newspaper four days later, a blurb on page two about the fifteen-year-old kid who laid down in the middle of the street with a tuba at seven-thirty Monday morning, two days after Homecoming. They couldn’t use my real name because I was a minor, and in the end I was glad. I wasn’t sure about death, but nothing made sense in life. I wanted to cry for help but didn’t know the words to use, and Mom didn’t keep enough prescription drugs around the house. I often suspected that I was invisible, so I reclined at the corner of Madison and Pine for a chance to be seen.
I had the fantasy that everyone has when they want to brush death, dreamed she’d be driving along and find me in the street, but I was hauled to my feet by a woman who stopped her minivan three yards from me and my tuba, a woman who had two dangerously quiet toddlers in the back seat. Even those little kids knew I needed help. It was in their eyes. They understood my pain, had thoughts they could not say because they did not know the words. We looked at each other and sympathized as their mother drove me to the hospital. I was not injured, just a little chilled from the pavement because it had taken a while for someone to find me. The doctors said I was fine, just a head case, so my mother sent me to a shrink. I didn’t mention the bearded girl to her, though I explained how I often assumed I was invisible.
A few kids looked at me strangely at school, perhaps suspecting I was the fifteen-year-old in the road with the tuba, but they didn’t care one way or the other; the most they could muster for me was idle curiosity. Even after Homecoming, no one talked against you, but she was still a target. I heard the lunchtime jeers. You didn’t try to protect her from being called a skank and a cunt and a whore. That was another reason why I cursed you on my walk home, another reason why I knew you didn’t care for her. Why didn’t you stop those taunts? I couldn’t eat because the names filled my head with angry pressure. I knew I would explode with love, which is why I took off my shirt.
You must have heard the story, how I was so calm when I laid the shirt on the table, unzipped my jeans, and let them puddle around my feet. I stepped out of my shoes and stood in the middle of the cafeteria with only my socks and underwear, everyone staring. I sat down and resumed eating. I could use my skinny body to protect her for a moment, to silence the cruelty. That was my dream. I was almost as naked as David holding that sling after defeating Goliath, though my act landed me and my pile of clothes in the principal’s office.
My mother came in and explained to the principal that I was a head case and seeking therapy. Because I was a quiet kid and this was my first notable action, he was happy to let me go without even a detention.
“What was that about?” my mother said on the way home, wondering if I was indeed a head case or if she should attribute my behavior to some undiscovered trend.
“My head hurts,” I said, which was true.
I saw the bearded girl on the afternoon following my disrobing, but couldn’t explain that it had been for her.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“I think so,” I said. Part of me was caught in the fantasy of saving her. I would have paraded around school every day in my underwear if only I could have replaced her as the spectacle. But my pitifully normal body wasn’t worth attention, even when exposed.
We moved in December of that year, me and Mom when she got a job at a different college and I had to follow. I don’t expect you to remember that, but I came back to town last year, my job brought me here, and the other day I recognized your name in the paper. I also wanted to congratulate you on your marriage though I see your beloved is not her, so I wondered if you knew where she’d gone after graduation. I want to find her, ask if she shaved or if she’s still growing out that strawberry blond beard. I have twenty years’ worth of things to say, now that I know the words.
From our Spring 2011 Issue