She was really beautiful. She was the coolest girl ever. She always knew what to say, and she said it casually, like she barely had to think first. I wanted to be just like her. I was 13, she was 15, and she was perfect to me.
My parents were very supportive. They thought I was smart and pretty and capable. And that is so important, like the concrete they pour into the husk of the foundation of a house when it’s just planks and sticks in the dirt. But the shape of the building, the furniture inside—I think that comes from other girls. That’s how you learn how to be a girl, after all, from the other ones around you.
I learned later than most that I had to be thinner than I’d at first assumed. I mean, I didn’t have to have to, but it would probably be better. You know, for life. I learned later than most that my face was not as pretty as it should be, and that I should worry about that. I think somewhere along the line, most of us learn these lessons. For some of us, they feel like tattoos on our faces, and we see them every time we look in the mirror, and we can feel everyone else registering our flaws every time we interact. I was lucky, though, and one of the reasons was this girl.
She was tall and commanding, with broad shoulders. She had glossy hair that fell in a wash like a chocolate waterfall down her back. She had a regal face, with steady cheekbones and a noble chin. But it wasn’t so much the proportions of her features or the dimensions of her body that made her fantastic. It was the fact that she was very good at being exactly herself. And not like some cliché in a song by a very young male popstar about how “girl, you are so beautiful without your makeup just because you’re you!”
No. She was badass. She wore Carhartt pants — those were her favorite, and she got them at the Army and Navy surplus store, and she liked them because they were the toughest pants. She wore work boots and plain T-shirts, long-sleeved or short-sleeved. She kept her hair in a braid or a ponytail. She was great at sewing, and math, and she played several instruments and had perfect pitch and a low, resonant singing voice. She was a really good cook. She wanted to be a farmer when she grew up. She wanted to drive a beat-up F150 pickup truck, a white one. She was funny and also laughed generously. She had crushes on boys for a long time, from afar, but didn’t approach them very often. She wore totally unsexy lingerie, the kind that comes in a pack and you get it at Walmart, and it’s always white or gray and cotton and the underwear comes up really high. She was strong instead of lithe. She was solid and graceful. She had a slight Southern drawl, and she said “y’all” a lot.
To me, she was stunning. She didn’t see herself as beautiful, but she didn’t seem to care very much. She prided herself on being good with her hands. She appreciated her own toughness.
Me, I’m not tough. Not even close. I get a blister on my toe, and I feel like I can’t focus on anything else. I am terrible at powering through. On long hikes during the nature adventure summer camp my mom thought would be a fabulous idea, I used to imagine that I was floating above the group on a flying bed. A flying bed with a built-in snack bar, its own AC unit, and curtains for privacy and bug prevention. I think that image saved me.
Actually, I wasn’t a whole lot like the girl I used to worship in any way. I was an incorrigible boy-chaser, for one. I never cared to learn to sew and cooking didn’t interest me even a little. I wanted to stay inside, instead of working the land, which always sounded like it involved a lot of raking things and sawing things and bug bites. The Carhartt pants I bought in my friend’s honor were always too big on me, and so stiff they could practically stand up on their own. My work boots gave my toes blisters, and the blisters hurt a lot, and I just wanted to sit down and cry and write poetry or something.
I really wanted to be like her, though. And I really tried to. I started talking like her. She swore a lot, so I did, too. My parents were confused and annoyed. Where did that come from? “Why the fuck does it even matter?” I said. And then I got in trouble. “the fuck” seemed like the perfect addition to any sentence. Those two swift, punchy words felt like they completed the English language. I still miss them sometimes, now that I have learned again not to punctuate with them.
I miss her sometimes, too, even now.
We drifted apart a long time ago, when I was maybe 16, and it’s been 10 years or so since we were close. I hear she’s a farmer, for real. And she sings and plays in a band with her handsome, musical husband. They both speak several languages.
I am not a farmer. I live in NYC. I have long since dropped my Carhartts off at the Salvation Army. Maybe I mostly failed in my effort to be like the girl I most admired as a young teenager, but I’m really grateful for her. I think the fact that she was the girl I wanted to be was good for me. I learned a lot about being a girl from her, and she taught me that the important stuff had nothing to do with sex appeal or weight or even popularity. I am grateful now, for her appearance. For my ability to recognize it for what it was: beautiful.
She loved to write, and she was good at it. Much better than I was. We used to write stories about the farms we’d live on, eventually, with our matching husbands and our matching pickup trucks. I don’t know that I believed in the farm part, even then, but I believed in the writing. And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed at all. Badass girls write. Beautiful girls write. Girls I want to be like write. Maybe that was the best lesson of all.