I remember the boy and I standing in a trailer in his driveway. He was staring at me, waiting for me to answer his question.
‘Hug,’ I finally said. It was a bad option, but it was the least bad option. Whenever I looked at the boy – his tracksuit, his freckled face, his small mouth – I knew we’d never be friends. For one thing, he spoke meanly to his dog, and this told me everything I needed to know.
The boy made an impatient noise and came towards me. He was bigger than me and he wrapped himself around me so that I staggered backwards. It was strange to be so close to a boy who wasn’t a brother. His body was burly and smothering. Finally he pushed me away. Then we had to go back to the beginning of the game.
He listed my options again – the things I could let him do. Each time, I chose the hug, and each time he grew more annoyed. When once more I took the easy way out, he refused. In one decisive action, he pulled down his pants and undies and began to issue instructions for what I should do next. He seemed happier now that he was in charge.
I knew I should have felt scandalised – that it was wrong to feel unmoved. What I felt, though, was boredom. I tried to pretend I was still interested. The options, after all, were dirtier and weirder now, and the boy was toying with himself, as if coolly demonstrating how some new gadget worked – how you could take it apart, put it back together. But none of it had anything to do with me.
Right behind him, then, his mother appeared. She was leaning against the trailer with her elbows propped up. It was shocking to see an adult suddenly so close, close enough to touch; it was like an animal in a paddock had wandered over to stare at us. Her hazy blond hair seemed to glow against the greyness all around us – the grey stones of the driveway, the grey house, the grey sky of our neighbourhood.
The boy still hadn’t seen his mum. For a moment her eyes met mine, and she looked bored too. I couldn’t tell if she was bored with her son, or bored with me for being so silly as to get into a trailer with her son.
Almost everyone I know has a small story like that, more or less. The story could almost be funny, or it should stay small enough to be funny. The story isn’t really about any loss of innocence but about the realisation that you are beginning to take on different forms to different people. I was seven then and most of the time my body was a means of getting between home and school. But every so often it would reveal itself to me as a kind of tether, binding me to things I didn’t know anything about. Or it became a radio, emitting signals I had no control over. Sometimes, if anyone looked at me for too long, I was scared they could see deeper in, to another of my forms – my wicked form.
My brother had told me he’d once woken up in bed with the feeling that something heavy was pinning him down, crushing his chest, and the word ‘devil’ came into his mind. Eventually the feeling passed and he could move and breathe again. I thought that that must be what had happened to me: somehow, a devil had got in.
I thought it because I had episodes where certain sounds took on a physical shape. The scariest sounds were the sharp ones, like my dad typing at his computer, or a light switch flicking, or shoes clicking on a floor – I felt the edges and weights and movements of these sounds. But sometimes it was the soft sounds too, like a sheet being pulled over a bed, or my mum brushing her hair – these sounds became like whispering. They pressed around my head, getting inside me, and my heart felt sharp inside my chest. I thought the sounds were the devil making itself known. It hadn’t released me yet, like it had released my brother.
I had one other form that I knew of, and whenever it revealed itself I was relieved to find it still there – when I was nothing more than a small furred animal burrowing against my mother.
When we were older and in high school, the boy had a group of lanky, shouting friends. The boy told people that I’d done filthy things with him and would do them with anyone. Now that all of his friends knew, it was as if the boy had multiplied. He was a gaggle of boys that moved around the school chaotically, his many heads bobbing, mouths opening and shutting with laughter. He told and retold the story of what we’d done, and the story got bigger every time, and his selves kept multiplying. Now it was as if the whole school had been there in the trailer too, had watched my face closely to see what option I would take, had watched me choose things I hadn’t chosen.
One day after school, I heard the boy telling the story again, loudly so that I could hear as I walked past. I thought of that scene in the trailer, and how ridiculous it was, and I was suddenly furious that it had been so changed – that, in the telling, I had been changed.
I had stayed quiet all this time. Now I stopped walking, and screamed. I called the boys the worst names I knew. My voice was useless and shrill but they all paused, as if confused, and were quiet for a very tiny moment. Then they laughed and laughed, and began repeating the story over and over at me, and it was like the story was flaring up and rising even higher.
As I walked home, seething, it felt like something was being burned out of me, some quietness. Some belief that I would never say what my real choice was. I still had fear around my anger, deep pools of it, but the anger was clarifying. It felt like allowing myself to hold eye contact with myself, rather than looking away.
What I really thought was: this must be the devil. It mustn’t be me who is feeling this rage. But maybe it didn’t matter who was feeling it. I thought: I can turn this whole thing around. I can make my wicked form work for me.