I am twelve years old and my naive mind is clouded with expectations. Boys like girls who wear padded bras and cheap tops and tight leggings. They like girls with straight hair and lots of makeup but no braces. (It’s fine if you do have braces, they’ll just complicate the operation. Make sure they don’t get caught on anything). My hair is straightened with heat damage and my face is covered in a variety of powders, courtesy of a friend’s older sister. She and her other older and cooler friends give us instructions on how to act correctly. If a boy taps your shoulder, he will want to kiss you in the overcrowded Catholic school gymnasium. If he isn’t too ugly, you should accept this offer.
These girls tell us how to kiss and move our tongues around in such a way that will earn us a positive review that the not-too-ugly boy will hopefully share with his friends. This is how you become popular with your peers. The boys will add you on Snapchat and text you to ask if you would like to kiss them again the following month at the next dance.
“You don’t have Snapchat?” One of the older sister’s friends asks me, horrified by my hesitant confession. “How will you get a boyfriend if you don’t have Snapchat?”
I think about this question frequently for the next two years until I finally download the app. It ends up doing nothing to increase my chance of getting a boyfriend.
The gymnasium is a cesspool of pubescent hormones. The cross above the makeshift DJ booth feels ironic, but I can’t decide how at my young age. The overhead lights are shut off and neon LEDs illuminate the faces of those I go to school with or know vaguely from the neighborhood. They all look happy to be here. The volume increases, as does the temperature of the space. I see two girls standing by the entrance in nice dresses, presumably picked out by their mothers. My chest aches with pity. They did not get the memo about the unofficial dress code. I pull at the hem of the itchy crop top I’m borrowing from a friend every five minutes. I feel exposed; I am a doe on the first day of hunting season. I wonder how the Archdiocese feels about this type of thing.
I reconsider a particular Sunday school lesson as I watch my friends make out with strangers in the center of the room. Chaperones, who I assume are PTA members and the disappointed parents of a few attendees, shine flashlights into young couples’ faces when they are spotted. I stay safe on the perimeter of the dance floor, shaking my head as unfamiliar and desperate preteen boys dressed in highlighter yellow approach me. I don’t even let them ask the question. They move on to the girl beside me, and then the girl after her until one of us says yes. I feel gross for just being in this room. As penance, I mentally recite three Hail Marys and then one Our Father for good measure.
I am suffocated by sin, unable to leave without a grown-up’s permission. A police officer in the corner, out of place and uninterested, tells me I cannot exit through the back door. No, not even for a breath of fresh air. No, not even to wipe the tears off my face. The bathroom, my only escape, is filled with more tearful young women. This is the romance my friend’s older sister assured me of.
After two hours of what feels like my own personal Hell, I am finally saved by my father in a beat-up SUV. He dutifully drives my friends home and asks them how their own fathers and mothers are doing. An old Taylor Swift CD skips on the fifth track, but neither of us reaches over to stop it. Once the last girl makes it safely to her front door, he finally asks what has been sitting at the tip of his tongue since I slid into the passenger seat.
“Was it everything you hoped it would be?”
I burst into tears and never go again.