April 20, 2017 | Feature
A Half-Formed Thing
Snippets from 19 years
- I do not know what I look like. Newly released from biology book diagrams, where do my legs fit? How wide do they spread? My fingernails are probably the translucent shell-pink that doesn’t show up on ultrasounds. My grandmother looks at my skinny limbs, round body, and white tuft of hair and calls me “Little Chicken.”
- A picture of me in an unknown garden. Brow furrowed, ensconced in pink fleece, ruffled hood framing my frustrated face. I look like a murderous daisy.
- I hold hands with a girl with walnut-brown hair. Her bangs are uneven, as are mine, though I have not yet learned that the mirror is a place for picking out flaws. In fifth grade, I will write an essay about her. She is my first best friend.
- It is Friday afternoon at Jewish preschool. I dip soft challah into grape juice. We all wear kippot (girls too), and mine is the same shade as the juice. Later that night, I will repeat this dipping at my kitchen table and wonder how my mother doesn’t burn her fingers as she lights the candles.
- It is the annual Winter Sing-Along;my first. I have had the flu for two weeks and missed every rehearsal. On stage, I look left and right; watch the movement of the other kindergartener’s lips. I do not know what to do with my own. My parents catch this on tape.
- My teacher makes gingerbread for the class. It is not shaped like a man; it is thick cake, eaten with a fork. It is an old-fashioned recipe, designed to teach us about life in the 13 Colonies. The other kids comment and complain, but I like it better this way. I do not have to eat the head of something I’ve only just painted eyes on.
- Every week, I participate in a spelling bee. I always get full points, I always get the “bonus list” for next time. My friends usually do not. The words are supposed to be harder on the “bonus list,” but secretly I don’t think they are by much. I still feel odd, separate. One week, I deliberately misspell “much,” I use a “t.” This week, my friends all get the “bonus list” and I do not. I think my teacher knows what I did, and I feel like a liar.
- I sit in synagogue, wearing a black dress. A doctor stands at the front, talking about how she used to be a rabbi until she met a remarkable woman. My family sits in a line in the front row, all facing forward. Lilies cascade over a wooden box. My grandmother is inside it. Later, I see my uncle sob. I am younger, and a girl, yet I decide I will not cry.
- I have become scared of everything. The berries in my neighbor’s yard are poisonous. The squirrels nesting in the tree across the street have rabies. My parents will die in a terrible car crash if I step on sidewalk cracks. My smiles do not reach my eyes.
- My best friend (one I made in shortly before my first Winter Sing-Along) and I play “Static Wars” with her twin brother and his friends. We take off our shoes and skid on stockinged feet across her thick basement carpet, arms outstretched, trying to shock each other. Sometimes we use stuffed animals as conductors. The boys use batteries. I am the best. My best friend’s babysitter, with her red hair and her long patchwork skirts, tells me some people have powers. She describes a time she opened a drawer and levitated a spoon with her mind. I believe I am magic.
- I get a bad haircut. I look like a soccer mom, and I am about to start middle school. I have just gotten my second round of braces. I do not look in the mirror much that summer.
- Sometimes after school, my friends and I walk to the bakery down the street. We buy a full loaf of bread, sometimes cinnamon raisin, sometimes white, sometimes chocolate babka. Trudging through the snow on the way home, we stick our fingers into the bag and rip off pieces to eat. There are five of us and few leftovers.
- It is the school musical. Dozens of middle schoolers are packed into the gym. The eighth-grade boys flooded the locker room yesterday, and the floors are still damp. Word travels that a boy I know is going to kiss me after the show. I wonder what to do with my retainer. Later, his dad pulls him away before I can find out.
- I walk into high school for the first time and feel small. I am glad to carry my backpack around with me; its extra heft makes me feel more like I belong. The other girls boast the glowing tans of a summer spent beachside and mascara not taken from their mother’s dresser. My eyelashes blend into my ghostly skin. I feel like a child.
- I sit at a chemistry lab bench, poking brittle litmus paper into vials and watching it change color. The boys in my lab group wonder if our teacher can cook meth. Probably, they decide. I smirk with recognition; I too have been watching Breaking Bad with my parents on Friday nights.
- I work at a bakery all summer. It is different from the one my middle-school friends and I used to frequent. One day, I drop a cake and slice my finger cutting ciabatta. It doesn’t stop bleeding for two days, and I have to wrap my finger in paper towels fastened with a baker’s hockey tape so I don’t scare the customers. I still have a scar.
- I spend two weeks in Iowa City. Finally, I am with my people. We write short stories, ride in buses through cornfields, and go bowling in an alley that is 13 Colonies themed. I meet some of my best friends there and learn that cereal is an acceptable finish to every meal. I weave together some of the best sentences of my life, and a friend from Colorado tells me I make her feel brave.
- I cut off all my hair before prom and wrap myself in skeins of pink tulle. One friend wears a tux with a blue floral tie, and I realize that she is the only person I want to slow dance with all night. In the early hours of the morning, we get drunk off punch made by a boy headed to Princeton, and I watch her cheeks flush and sweat bead at her temples. She also cut her hair this year. I wonder if she liked mine better long.
- I am sitting in my pajamas in a dark dorm room, my laptop perched on my stomach. It is 10:47 p.m. The fan blowing in my face hasn’t yet dried my hair. Instrumental Irish music flows through my headphones, a remnant of this evening’s study abroad research. My first year at college is almost over. I do not know what comes next.
Note: The title is taken from Eimear McBride’s 2013 novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. I haven’t actually read the book, but the title describes how I feel much of the time. So I stole it.