Field Day, 1990
The girls are laying out. It’s the only sport we play. One week left of school, almost free, but there’s a long day of scorch and sweat to get through first.
We are 13 now. Days of scorch and sweat are different from the way they used to be. Some of us smell where we didn’t used to smell but haven’t figured out what to do yet. Some of us are round and ripe where we didn’t used to be and haven’t figured that out either.
The long-limbed, flat girls are the ones who want to lay out, so they do. That’s the part that baffles and impresses me. They never need to reveal the fact that they want to do things—they just do those things. Their bodies are still and calm, and so are their faces. They give nothing away. My body is pale and round. These aren’t called curves yet. It’s not a good thing yet—only body parts jutting where they shouldn’t, jutting past what I can conceal anymore.
Under the shade trees by the football stands, I was sweating already before the edict came down: we are laying out. When I am with them, I live in dread of their new pastime. Because I cannot say no. Because bottles of sunblock don’t appear spontaneously from nowhere. Even if they did, sunblock smells. Like old church ladies, or those toddlers on the bottles whose naked bottoms need protecting. I cannot bring myself to use the stuff.
Nor can I bring myself to stay alone in the shade and watch those girls walk away from me. I cannot say aloud that I am not one of them. They don’t smell like sunblock. They don’t smell like anything at all.
We move into the center of the field. Far off in the corners, we hear the sounds of boys running in grass and sliding in dust. Their yelping voices are no deeper than ours. Not for another year. We hear the thud of their feet connecting to rubber kickballs. Older girls are off somewhere, practicing cheers. None of us cheers. Not for another year.
The girls lie smooth in the sun. At first I move to protect myself, turning on my side. My legs will not lie in casual angles like theirs do. My hips are too wide. These egg-white legs set against purple gym shorts look awkward enough. But I lie next to the girls. Their bodies lie somehow flat against the ground, but my hip towers over them like Everest. Still on my side, I cover my face with my crossed arms, pretending to nap instead.
One of them says, “You’ll never get tan laying like that.”
At home, I am already willful enough to refuse to do chores. To reject those drudge tasks that boys are never made to learn. To scheme ways of staying home from church. At church, I refuse what passes for answers to my questions. I refuse the water of the baptistery.
Refusing feels good. Any door slammed against grown-ups feels right. I refuse endlessly, indiscriminately.
But these girls I obey. I lie back, in full sun. I obey them because at any moment they may mention my body out loud. I obey them because they scare me to death. They scare me more than my parents’ wrath against my disobeying nature. They scare me more than the church’s threats of hellfire. And I think the girls know it, too. They know they can watch me snap to it with only a word. I begin to think that’s why they keep me around.
Sweat pools at the center of my chest. I will myself to lie still.
But I cannot will this skin to do anything apart from its nature. I know what will happen. In minutes, I will watch myself burn. Redness will spread over my legs, arms, chest, and face. It will be bad. It will peel. It may blister. Then everyone, everywhere, will have permission to mention my body to me, as though I hadn’t noticed it. People will have permission to laugh, too, because I will be comically red, lobster red.
The girls lying around me now will mention it, too, how weird I’ll look. As they eye me up and down, their faces will register offense and surprise, though we’ve done all this before: same game, same lobster.
These girls will also look relieved. They know I need them, but I can see how they need me too—I will catch that moment of relief in their eyes. They do this for the same reason that, at home, at church, I am constantly refusing. We do these things for the hits they give us—hits of pleasure and relief that show us something of where we stand. Is my obedience to them not also another kind of refusal? How I refuse my body its own nature.
I lie on my back, in full sun. It makes me nervous how much I need this. The burns start to come, and pain is on the way. I will take the pain because some part of me likes it. That makes me nervous too.
But for now I tell myself I do it for them—for the girls I fear, the doors I slam. Maybe for the sun itself, which is only taking hits of what it needs, according to its own nature. For now, I burn and hold myself still.
Emily Choate is the Fiction Editor of Peauxdunque Review. Her fiction appears in Mississippi Review, storySouth, Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. She writes regularly for Chapter 16, and other nonfiction appears in Atticus Review, Late Night Library, and Nashville Scene, among others. Emily holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at Sewanee Writers Conference. She lives near Nashville, where she’s working on a novel. Twitter: @EmChoate_Writer