Our guts churned as Kelly Tucker dared us into a game of “Who’s Got the Nerve to Hit Me” on those viscous, smothered-summer nights at the park backboning our neighborhood, our parents encased in the air-conditioned houses, watching Friday-night-family-programming beside our siblings on the couches. But we’d melted out our front doors and swiped our kickstands with our insteps and the yellow streetlight streamed off our exposed shoulder blades as we cut swathes through the swelter, merging, drawn together to the park. We didn’t underdog on the swings, pretending to be children, or climb on top of the soccer goals like the boys would; we weren’t lured by the tobacco fields on the other side of the broken wooden fence the way they’d called to us in the daylight. We met right at the front of the park, visible to anyone who had the guts to join us, anyone who might have the guts to follow our instantaneous desire to actually hit Kelly Tucker in the face when she dared us.
We all wanted to do it, we all disliked her, disliked how mean she was, how unafraid. We disliked the natural bleach-streak in the ponytail she sleeked back to expose her sharply-featured, hawk-like face; we disliked her father whom we feared as she invoked his orders to elbow aside her absence at cotillion, invoked his pride in her for doing boyish things. We feared Kelly Tucker as she pushed us all out of the way on the basketball court, played harder, shot harder, slammed home-runs like a boy, wore gym shorts low like a boy, talked back to the teachers like a boy. She was mean but she was one of us; no one would punch her, no one would slap her, no one would say anything mean to her face. And she knew it.
So she scowled and narrowed her eyes with pleasure and we collected behind her as Kelly Tucker strode away from the park, right down the center of the darkened street, and we were pumping our fists in the air and yell-singing Kelly’s lyrical twist, SLAM, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, LET THE GIRLS BE GIRLS because we weren’t boys, we didn’t want to be boys, we would never have sung LET THE GIRLS BE BOYS. Who wanted to be a boy, all that visible desire poking pleats into their Duck Head shorts, sweaty and slapping tennis balls against the gym wall before school, the endless dirty rhymes they made from each other’s names? Who wanted to be a boy? We were girls, unbent, belligerent, say-it-to-my-fucking-face girls, though under the fluorescence of eighth grade we were soft, secret, clenching our right fists under the demure cover of our yin-yang-ringed left hands, low in our laps beneath the lab tables, hiss-whispering about Kelly Tucker, smelly fucker. But we would meet her at the park when the cicadas shrilled into the thick night quilt, the husks of our guts burning with the things we hadn’t done. She knew that too.
Kristine Langley Mahler lives on the suburban prairie of Nebraska, where she is completing an erasure book on Seventeen's advice to teenage girls, a grant-funded project about immigration/inhabitation on native land through the lens of her French-Canadian ancestors, and a graduate degree in creative nonfiction. Her work received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has appeared/is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Storm Cellar, Split Lip Magazine, (b)OINK, Chautauqua, and elsewhere. Find her online here or here.