age seventeen. the little girl finds that she has grown into a young woman & that the world expects great things of her. her parents separate & she loses her mother to a man who renames her sheeb after his skinny black cat & sweeps her from the motel rooms into an apartment a mile from the dairy queen. the little-girl-becoming-woman hunkers in her closet more & more, clutching a patient white manx cat to her chest, & loses her breath to the dark. poppa tells her he can’t afford the house, not alone, & they look at smaller houses where the mortgage payment becomes rent & costs less. in wyattville, at a house across the road from a gas station, they wander through dim rooms, & little-girl-becoming-woman’s spirit pins itself to the ceiling, the thought as whispery & barely-there as a spiderweb: he will rape you here.
but they don’t rent the house, or any other house, because little-girl-becoming-woman finds herself on her mother’s doorstep swallowing the red-hot stone of her anger. the door opens to her & she steps inside, stays awhile. through this, through all of this, little-girl-becoming-woman & her little brother cling to one another like still-warm static sheets from the dryer. they drive home late at night, while poppa is still at work or asleep, & wake up early after he has gone. they move, like shadows, into the night.
poppa meets a woman on the computer & slips easily into her life & out of little-girl-becoming-woman’s. mom & motel-man find a house & they move in together, like a family, & little-girl-becoming-woman thaws at his jokes, his country boy talk, the dead taxidermied animals mounted on the walls. she thinks,a father, finally–yes.
little-girl-becoming-woman spends the summer braless in baggy t-shirts, plaid pajama pants, & a pair of too-big leather gloves, her arms covered in shavings from the logs the family gathers for the wood stove & the oncoming winter. the people in her life usher her into decisions, guilting her with subjective statements about her talents & intelligence. she writes stories, jots phrases, & outlines plots in a blue notebook. she chooses a college, applies. the summer ends & she moves into her dorm room, then she wanders a new city alone. at night she watches the girls across the hallway through the peephole, the endless stream of boys & booze in & out of their room. she is alone, the kind that feels like an empty vacuum punctured by a few pinholes of light where your voice echoes, infinite. this, she thinks, is what outerspace must be like, & she comforts herself with crayons & a care bears coloring book, endless pints of ice cream, & long naps in a bed that can’t seem to keep her warm.
that winter after her exams, route 322 leads her home to the smoky smell of the wood stove. later, she remembers, as mom washed her face before bed, the motel-man lying on the living room floor, coaxing his small black cat named little daughter onto the swell of his belly or into the crook of his arm, his voice quiet & gauzy as he murmured nonsense-talk, oh little she-she, little goobajuwawa, the light fuzzy, tinted-orange, & warm. she remembers home. & then the plot twist came: days later, alone with him in that same living room, this time in the glow of the tv light, the motel-man said, you make me fuckin hungry, & little-girl-becoming-woman learned it wasn’t a joke. she learned that terror can distort a palmful of minutes into long hours, that a mind is capable of splitting from the body encasing it, & that, this time, she had the voice to say no. she spends the night in her bedroom with the door locked, pressing a pillow to her face to keep the weeping sounds from waking the entire city. the motel-man claims insanity, spends weeks in a facility that doesn’t allow razors, belts, shoestrings, or mind-altering substances. he tells his counselor, that blue notebook & the word “seduce,” which he wasn’t sure of so he looked it up–to persuade to disobedience or disloyalty, to lead astray usually by persuasion or false promises, to carry out the physical seduction of, to entice to sexual intercourse, to attract.
little-girl-becoming-woman learns that it was her fault, & no one tells her otherwise–not mom, who blames her, not a basement full of video game-playing boys who don’t say much around bottles of mountain dew, & not poppa, who little-girl-becoming-woman is most afraid to tell. for the second time in her life, little-girl-becoming-woman collapses, shrinks, wilts, little-girl-dissolving quickly, oh so quietly.
then there are parties. the first time little-girl-becoming-nothing gets drunk on twelve-dollar vodka & sprite, she begs her friends not to call her mom–please don’t tell, please don’t, she repeats the slur throughout the night. that summer she returns home & works at the dairy queen. she stays out late smoking cigarettes in her car on long drives to keep her away from home. she creeps, lurks, quiet as a mouse, & learns each creaking spot on the stairs. at the end of the summer, before she goes back to college, the cashier with missing teeth at dairy queen tells her, if you ever feel like losing your virginity, call me.
then there are new friends & new parties, & there are boys. luis, who was the first to dance with her, his knees locked around her legs as he let her body sway, who was half-deaf, his tongue cottony & soft around a handful of hard consonants, whose picture little-nothing hung in her closet when her mother asked her, don’t you worry that a boy that beautiful will find a girl other than you? & then took down when luis stopped speaking to her & refused to help with her math homework anymore. greg, who did not take care of her or take her home when she spent the night throwing up all the booze he’d dared her to drink, & tony, the boy who did & then became her boyfriend, who called her other girls’ names in his sleep & whose tongue was too wet in her mouth & who, after three weeks, called it quits. each night, little-nothing in his bed, her brain lost in the dark & the sound of hard metal grinding on slate stone, her shirt on the floor, his mouth at her breast, crusty stains in his sweatpants the next morning. i don’t want you to remember me as another jerk in your life, he said, but he kissed her & said that’s enough in a way that meant you weren’t ever enough. little-nothing stayed, like a ghost stationed in the apartment, chainsmoking in the kitchen, building a bedsheet fort in his living room, listening to the saddest songs.