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  • To borrow some lines from This American Life, "Before we begin, a quick warning that there's some sexual content in the story. No nasty words and, of course, nothing as graphic as the network news this week, but some mild sexual content that might not be appropriate for some younger [readers]."

    "That's a good look for you."

    "Thank you," she said.

    He meant to be nice, she thought, but his words brought nothing but slight irritation. Why didn't he just say "You look nice"? He didn't know her well enough for a coaching remark.

    Words about looks – hers or those of others – seldom left a mark. They didn't stick. They didn't dent. They barely scratched the surface of her consciousness. Though, she did notice when they were screamingly absent, i.e. when she had gone to extreme effort without note, but that seldom happened, extreme effort. The girl proudly presented a bare face to the world and all-too-frequently unbrushed hair.

    An ex once criticized the way that she looked, the face she presented. An avatar, he called her. He wasn't talking about makeup or hair. Others complained of her independence, her reserve, how much of herself she gave to others (overlooking themselves). Several delivered coaching remarks. Few of those remarks were polite, much less flattering. The men never said "you look nice" or thanked her for anything, which might have been part of the reason they became "ex," but really, they chose the label. She would have stayed.

    The girl bore several labels of her own: darkly funny but nice, distant and stubborn. Some people even called her wicked smart, but the word she heard most was “sexy.” She had received that label from men (and women) regularly and for as long as she could remember. She honestly didn't know what she'd do when it stopped.

    She was probably eight years old the first time she heard it. She was eight the first time she wore a bra, the first time she needed one. The girl wasn’t a prude, and she never would be. She was just eight, a child, and an early developer. Men (and sometimes women) looked at her with sex on their minds. They assumed that she was thinking “sex,” too.

    She wasn't.

    At eight, she was thinking of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, Bluebirds and Barbie dolls. She swapped Strawberry Shortcake pets and stickers with friends. She spent hours dialing into the local radio station and trying to get through the busy signal to dedicate a song even though there was no one to receive it, and she barely knew what song to play.

    "Something from Casey Kasem," she thought at eight.

    At nine, grown men conversed with her chest, slack jawed with dangerous eyes.

    At 10, she started to hide. Her mother refused to let her wear anything remotely tight or revealing, and she started layering big, tent-like tops over big, tent-like tops.

    "You were fat then," her sister later observed.

    "I wasn't," she replied. "I was smaller then, than I am now. I just didn't know how to dress."

    She had great legs, though, under those tents and shorts: Tits and ass plus a great pair of gams. The legs didn't help.

    In junior high, she scrawled names in the margins of notebooks. Crushes. So many crushes. She passed notes. She read books and drew. She kept her head down.

    In high school, she stumbled her way through band; she despised it. She thrived in the art room. She learned to cook, bake and curl her hair on quiet weekday afternoons at home alone. She learned to wear makeup. She learned to walk in heels. Then, she washed her face and pulled back her hair. She tied up her Keds. She didn't need the new skills, not the latter ones; though, she found herself cooking and baking a lot.

    "Have you ever had a guy suck on your titties?" a boy asked outside of the band room.

    Her cheeks burned.

    "What? I'm serious. Have you?"

    She hadn't. She had never been kissed. She went alone to homecoming. She went alone to the prom. Alone. With friends.

    One of the drummers began giving her rides home after practice. He rubbed her shoulders and slipped his hands down the front her shirt.

    "Now you," he said. "Don't you want to touch?"

    She didn't. She started walking again, wary of that part of the school, the band room, the hall, wary of drummers even though she was part of the drumline.

    In off seasons, she worked as an athletic trainer. After school, she wrapped and iced. She went to sporting events. At track meets, one runner sprayed her with water.

    "Wet t-shirt contest!" he'd call with a laugh.

    She hid in the training room and hoped to dry off by lab. He was supposed to take her to a party one Friday night, the runner, the sprayer. She spent hours on the front steps, waiting and watching as day turned to night; he never appeared.

    "My girlfriend, you know," he explained on Monday in bio.

    She didn't know. He had a girlfriend?

    In the spring, she traveled with the baseball team and learned to keep score from her end of the dugout. In the winter, she sat the bench behind the basketball team and gave players water. When they made it to State, she went with them. She was the only girl there. Not even the cheerleaders stayed. Not even the moms.

    "What are you doing?” players called and asked. “Want me to come over?"

    "No," she replied. She didn't.

    Alone in her hotel room, she answered the phone, hoping that maybe the players who claimed to be friends would invite her to play cards, but they never did. Boys just called with lewd suggestions. She spent most of her time watching the coaches' young sons.

    One winter, after weeks of lifeguarding lessons, the girl's instructor sent her into the deep end with three of her classmates, all girls. Then, he sent boys to attack them. When a boy from her Sunday school class grabbed hands full of her chest, she flipped him over her head and pushed him away. She was a strong swimmer. She passed the class.

    In college, she gave up. She gave in. She gave them what they wanted, but that did not make them like her more. They called her a slut. They called her a whore. They accused her of things she'd never done, and her cheeks smoldered in a deep shade of red.

    After college, she gave up on that, too. Mostly. She dated, of course, but relationships seldom worked out. Online profiles resulted in penis pics. Men in real life were almost worse. One man was engaged the entire six months they dated. He disappeared. A year later, he returned to accuse her of trying to sabotage his current relationship. She was bewildered. She didn't know that he'd gotten married. She definitely didn't know he'd gotten married the day after their last conversation.

    By now, the girl knew how to dress, look and act. She knew what it meant to be sexy. She knew how to use it. By now, the girl wasn't a girl. She was a fully-grown woman, but deep down inside, the 8-year-old lived. She still made men (and sometimes women) think of sex; they still assumed she was thinking "sex," too.

    She wasn't.

    Well, sometimes she was, but no more or less than anyone else, not nearly as much as the men thought.

    Sometimes, they were nice about it. Sometimes, they weren't. Sometimes, they were downright mean, and sometimes left bruises. Sometimes, the girl lost friends because they'd assumed things. Sometimes, women accused her of trying to steal a man. Sometimes, they didn't stay long enough to accuse. Sometimes, the girl wondered what it would have been like to grow up flat chested and plain. Sometimes, she dreamt of that.

    Mostly, though, she stopped caring. She stopped worrying about the life she was “supposed to live.” The girl wasn’t angry. She wasn’t hurt. She just didn’t know any other way.

    The girl no longer believed in something like romance. Fairy tales seemed vaguely more plausible, but she believed wholly in the power of love. She loved fiercely. She no longer hoped that someone would look past appearances to see a girl who dreamt of solving mysteries and driving a fast car with a football-playing boyfriend named Ned.

    A good look? A bad one? It didn't matter. She didn't care what label he gave. It was her life to live as she pleased.

    “People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.” - Marilyn Monroe
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