“Look at her,” he snickered, “hey man, look at her.”
The mid-July sun beat down on my bare shoulders, which were rising towards my ears. I stared down at the magazine in my lap, concentrating harder than ever on anything but the two guys a few feet away. Their whispers got louder, and then:
“Look at her. Look at the little whore.”
Tears blurred the words on my lap. I clutched my copy of Bust tighter, pretending to read. I didn’t know if that had drawn their attention, or if it was my tank top and short skirt, or big chest and long hair. Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it. Maybe being a girl between the ages of 11 and death hanging out by myself was enough.
It occurred to me just then that reading alone at a big amusement park wasn’t the best way to blend in. But I was an awkward 13-year-old. I’d brought Bust with me because I couldn’t read it at home. Not after what had happened with my dad.
I’d walked in to him raging around the kitchen, manic and self-righteous in his fury. Bust lay on the kitchen table. I tensed up. I didn’t know what was coming, but it wasn’t going to be good. A small part of my brain flickered angrily, wondering why he was reading my stuff, but I silenced it. Being quiet was my best defense – he’d logic you out of anything until nothing made sense and you weren’t sure who you were or what had passed. He was good at it.
“I found this lying around the house.” He waved the magazine slowly in the air, then plopped it back down. He was big on dramatic effect. I mentally rolled my eyes but my stomach clutched with anxiety, head and gut at war.
“Okay.” I placed one foot over the other.
“And I saw a section,” he inhaled, “Called ‘One-Handed Reads’.”
Ohfuck I thought, jolted. Butwaitbutwait, my brain raced, why are we talking about this?
“I mean, yeah. Um. That’s a part of the magazine.” My voice was flat. The floor could swallow me whole anytime. Anytime.
“I was disgusted. I felt like I was walking in on two people. On someone else’s…’ He breathed out heavily. “I just…yeah.”
That’s kind of the point, my flickering brain whispered. But I kept quiet. I wasn’t winning this one. I wasn’t even sure what game we were playing.
“Um. There’s other stuff in it too? That’s not the only thing…”
He glowered, breathing in and out. I stared at the floor. We were saved by my mom walking in, eyes darting everywhere except us. She opened and shut cabinets, shuffled a pile of clutter, started rummaging in the fridge.
My dad picked up the magazine, plopped it down again. He turned his eyes to her. “Can you believe she’s reading this?”
Mom’s voice was matter-of-fact. She didn’t turn around. “It’s better than Seventeen or some of the other stuff out there.”
Dad sighed. That was my cue to beat it, sidling up to my bedroom as they lapsed into argument.
I never left Bust lying around the house again. I squirreled it away in my messenger bag and read it at bus stops and coffee shops – anywhere I could get away.
I’m not sure why I thought Valleyfair would be a sanctuary. Maybe it was the thrill of being allowed to go off alone, that small amount of independence like a tonic. Maybe it was a general lack of awareness of who might notice me, and why. Maybe too many trips on The Corkscrew had rattled my brains. I’d put money on any of these – my motives for most things at that age were fuzzy, muddled in self-consciousness and impulse.
The guys snickered and pointed. I wouldn’t look at them. I didn’t want to remember what they looked like.
They drifted away eventually: either pretending to read worked, or more likely they lost interest. I waited until they were a safe distance gone left to shove it in my bag – I couldn’t let them know they’d had an effect. But I rarely took Bust out in public again. Articles about women doing things, music reviews, and yes, erotic stories became one more thing confined to my attic bedroom, the perspective introduced by those pages emerging in sporadic, angry bursts until college. Dad would take off. I’d learn to tell trash guys of all stripes to fuck off. My flickering brain burned brighter and brighter.
But I didn’t know that at 13. I did know that the outside world was a painful place to navigate, and home was often worse. I crossed my arms over my chest, staring into nowhere until a girl from the camp group found me.
“We’re going to line up to ride Wild Thing.”
The steel monstrosity loomed green and ominous in the distance, 200 feet of track rising above the trees. I knew it was 200 feet because I’d read about it. The newspaper pitched it as terrifying, death-defying, a dangerous marvel of roller coaster engineering. I ate it up. I was ready. I was also spacing out again.
I got up and followed her, prepping myself for the drop.