The Nowhere Girls
Population: 17,549. Elevation: 578 feet above sea level.
Twenty miles east of Eugene and the University of Oregon. One hundred thirty miles southeast of Portland. Halfway between a farm town and a suburb. Home of the Spartans (Go Spartans!).
Home of so many girls. Home of so many almost-women, waiting for their skin to fit.
* * *
The U-Haul truck opens its sliding door for the first time since Adeline, Kentucky, unleashing the stale air from the small southern town that used to be Grace Salter’s home, back when her mother was still a dutiful Baptist church leader (though not technically a “pastor,” because as a woman in a church belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention, she could not technically claim the official title, nor its significantly higher pay grade, even with her PhD in Ministry and more than a decade of service). Everything in Grace’s life changed when Mom fell off that horse and bumped her head and suffered
the concussion and subsequent spiritual experience that, according to Mom’s version of events, freed her mind and helped her hear the true voice of the Lord and, according to Grace’s version of events, got them booted out of Adeline and ruined their lives.
Couches, beds, and dressers are in their approximate positions in the new house. Grace’s mother starts unpacking the kitchen. Dad searches on his phone for pizza delivery. Grace climbs steep, creaking stairs to the room she has never seen before today, the room Mom and Dad only saw in photos their real estate agent sent them, the room she knows is meant to be hers because of the yellow wall paint and purple flower decals.
She sits on the stained twin mattress she’s had since she was three and wants nothing more than to curl up and fall asleep, but she doesn’t know where her sheets are. After five days of nonstop driving, fast food, and sharing motel rooms with her parents, she wants to shut the door and not come out for a long time, and she certainly doesn’t want to sit on boxes of dishes while eating pizza off a paper towel.
She lies on her bed and looks at the bare ceiling. She studies a water-damaged corner. It is early September, still technically summer, but this is Oregon, known for its year-round wetness, something Grace learned during her disappointing Web searches. She wonders if she should try to find a bucket to put on the floor in anticipation of a leak. “Be prepared.” Isn’t that the Boy Scout motto? She wouldn’t know; she had been a Girl Scout. Her troop learned how to do things like knit and make marzipan.
Grace turns her head to look out the window, but her eyes catch texture beneath the peeling white lip of the frame. Carved words,
like a prisoner’s inside a cell, through layers of peeling yellow, then blue, then white, the fresh words sliced through decades of paint:
Kill me now.
I’m already dead.
Grace’s breath catches in her throat as she stares at the words, as she reads the pain of a stranger who must have lived and breathed and slept in this room. Was their bed in this very same place? Did their body already carve out this position in space where Grace’s body lies now?
How intimate these tiny words are. How alone a person must feel to cry out to someone they can’t even see.
* * *
Across town, Erin DeLillo is watching Season Five, Episode Eleven, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The title of this episode is “Hero Worship.” It’s about a traumatized, orphaned boy who becomes emotionally attached to Lieutenant Commander Data, an android. The boy admires Data’s superior intelligence and speed, but perhaps even more, he wishes he shared Data’s lack of ability to experience human emotions. If the boy were an android, he wouldn’t be so sad and lonely. If he were an android, he wouldn’t feel responsible for the careless mistake that tore his ship apart and killed his parents.
Data is an android who wants to be human. He is watching them from the outside. Like Data, Erin is often confounded by the behavior of humans.
But unlike Data, Erin is more than capable of feeling. She feels too
much. She is a raw nerve and the world is always trying to touch her.
Mom says, “It’s a beautiful day! You should be outside!” She speaks in exclamation points. But Erin’s skin is almost as pale as Data’s and she burns easily. She doesn’t like being hot or sweaty, or any other discomfort that reminds her she lives in her imperfectly human body, which is why she takes a minimum of two baths a day (but definitely not showers—they feel too stabby on her skin). Her mother knows this about Erin, and yet she keeps saying things she thinks normal moms of normal kids are supposed to say, as if Erin is capable of being a normal kid, as if that is something she would even aspire to be. Mostly, what Erin aspires to be is more like Data.
If they lived by the ocean, Erin might not have the same reluctance to go outside. She might even be willing to subject her skin to the stickiness of sunscreen if it meant she could spend the day turning over rocks and cataloging her findings, mostly invertebrates like mollusks, cnidarians, and polychaete worms, which, in Erin’s opinion, are all highly underappreciated creatures. At their old house near Alki Beach in West Seattle, she could walk out her front door and spend entire days searching for various life-forms. But that was when they still lived in Seattle, before the events that led to Erin’s decision that trying to be “normal” was way more trouble than it was worth, a decision her mother still refuses to accept.
The problem with humans is they’re too enamored with themselves, and with mammals in general. As if big brains and live birth are necessarily signs of superiority. As if the hairy, air-breathing world is the only one that matters. There is a whole universe underwater to be explored. There are engineers building ships that can travel miles
beneath the surface. One day, Erin aims to design and drive one of those ships, armed with PhDs in both marine biology and engineering. She will find creatures that have never been found, will catalog them and give them names, will help tell the story of how each being came to be, where it fits within life’s perfectly orchestrated web.
Erin is, unapologetically, a science geek. She knows this is an Asperger’s stereotype, as are many other things about her—the difficulties expressing emotion, the social awkwardness, the sometimes inappropriate behavior. But what can she do? These are parts of who she is. It’s everyone else who decided to make them a stereotype.
One thing Erin knows for sure is that no matter what you do, people will find a way to put you in a box. It’s how we’re programmed. Our default is laziness. We categorize things to make them easier to understand.
That’s what makes science so satisfying. It is complicated and massive, but it is also so tidy, so organized. What Erin loves most about science is the order, the logic, the way every bit of information fits into a system, even if we can’t see it yet. She has faith in that system the way some people have faith in God. Evolution and taxonomy are comforting. They are stable and right.
But there’s the pesky problem of chance, which never ceases to trouble Erin, and which she has made it her life’s goal to figure out. The whole reason there are humans, the whole reason there’s anything more than the very first single-celled organism, is because of mutation, because of something unpredictable, surprising, and unplanned—the exact kind of thing Erin hates. It’s what makes
chemists and physicists and mathematicians look down on biologists as inferior scientists. Too much relies on powers outside our control, outside the laws of reason and logic and predictability. It’s what makes biology a science of stories, not equations.
The thing about evolution that Erin needs to get to the bottom of is how sometimes it’s this unexpected and unplanned thing that is the most necessary. Freak accidents are what make evolution possible, what made one fish start breathing air, what made his progenies’ flippers turn into feet. So often, the key to survival is mutation, change, and most of the time that change is nothing more than an accident.
Sometimes it’s the freaks of nature who end up being the strongest.
* * *
In the small but steadily growing Mexican part of town, there is one extended family consisting of five adults, two teenagers, seven children under the age of fourteen, and one wilted matriarch with quickly advancing dementia and questionable citizenship status. This does not include the additional cousins, second cousins, and cousins-once-removed scattered across Prescott and several surrounding towns. Rosina Suarez is the only child to a single mother, a widow whose husband died only five months after they were married, six months before baby Rosina was born. Instead of a father, Rosina has an extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins who move in and out of her house as if it were their own. Her mother’s two sisters-in-law, who live in the identical townhouse apartments to the left and right of Rosina’s, have been blessed with living husbands and large families. Their children do not complain or talk back or wear dark clothing, do not paint their faces with
unflattering makeup or shave the sides of their heads or listen to loud music from the 1990s that consists mostly of girls’ screaming.
Rosina’s family is from the mountains of Oaxaca, with deep indigenous Zapotec roots, with short, sturdy bodies and smooth dark brown skin, round faces and flat noses. Rosina’s father was a mestizo from Mexico City, more European than Indio, and Rosina is tall and thin like him, towering over her family, an alien among them in so many ways.
As the eldest and only daughter, Rosina’s mother has inherited the duty to house and look after her grandmother, who has a tendency to wander off when no one’s looking. And because Rosina is her family’s eldest daughter, it is also her duty to look after the entire brood of cousins, in addition to her regular shifts at her uncle José’s restaurant, La Cocina, the best Mexican restaurant in Prescott (some would say the entire extended Eugene metropolitan area), and the center of the family’s economy. Rosina spends the two and a half hours between the end of school and the start of her shift at the restaurant at her other uncle’s house watching her seven young cousins while Abuelita somehow takes a nap on a chair in the corner despite the screaming horde of children, and Rosina’s eldest cousin, Erwin, who is a senior at Prescott High and, in Rosina’s opinion, the biggest waste of breath in the state of Oregon, sits around playing video games and popping his zits, with periodic trips to the bathroom, which Rosina suspects are masturbation breaks. Rosina’s second-oldest cousin is a boring girl with no interests who is almost thirteen and perfectly qualified to take her place as primary babysitter. But Rosina is, and always will be, the oldest girl, and it is, and always will be, her responsibility to be her mother’s assistant and take care of the family.
How is Rosina ever going to form a band if she’s busy every afternoon changing diapers and keeping the toddlers from sticking sharp knives in electrical sockets? She should be rocking, she should be screaming into a mic onstage, not singing lullabies to her unappreciative little shit cousins while they smear boogers on her favorite pair of black jeans, which she has to hang outside to dry because the dryer’s broken again, where they’re going to get faded and absorb the smell of so many neighbors’ tortillas frying.
The front door opens. One of the babies squeals with delight at the appearance of his mother, returned from working the lunch shift at the restaurant. “I’m out of here, Tía,” Rosina says, leaping up from the couch and out the door before her aunt can even close it behind her. Rosina steps over the scattered pieces of hand-me-down junk that pass as toys, jumps on her secondhand bike, and gets the hell out of there without noticing the spit-up on her leg and something brown on her shirt that is either smashed banana or baby poop.
* * *
A mile east is a neighborhood without an official name, but which most Prescott residents openly refer to as Trailer Town. It is home to double- and single-wide trailers and small houses tilting off their foundations, yards that have been overgrown for so long, the weeds are as tall as young trees. In one of these trailers, a popular boy is kissing the salty neck of a girl whose neck is used to being kissed. She is not his girlfriend. She is used to not being anybody’s girlfriend.
The little electric fan inside the trailer is on full blast, but the heat of both their bodies inside the metal box is making the girl sleepy and
a little nauseous. She wonders if she had anything she was supposed to do today. She wonders if the boy would notice if she took a little nap. She resigns herself to the answer as she closes her eyes and waits for him to finish. None of these boys ever takes very long.
There was a time when, like so many girls, she was obsessed with princesses, a time when she believed in the power of beauty and grace and sweetness. She believed in princes. She believed in being saved.
She’s not sure she believes in anything now.
* * *
In a very different neighborhood, a very different girl closes her eyes and lets go, feels the boy’s head between her legs, painting pleasure on her body with his tongue, just like she taught him. She smiles, almost laughs with the joy of it, how it takes her by surprise, how it bubbles up and makes her weightless.
She has never questioned her entitlement to this. She has never questioned the power of her body. She has never questioned her right to pleasure.
* * *
There are a handful of hills in Prescott, and Prescott High School student body president, straight-A+ student, pre-pre-med at (fingers crossed!) Stanford University, lives on top of the tallest one. At the moment she is driving last year’s Ford midlist floor model (her father owns the dealership—“Prescott Ford: Most Fords sold in the 541 area code!”) into her family’s three-car garage, after finishing her volunteer shift at the old people’s home (though of course she would never call it that out loud). “Retirement community” is less
offensive, which is important; she doesn’t like offending anyone. She would never in a million years tell anyone how old people actually kind of gross her out, how she has to fight off the inclination to vomit through most of her shift, how afterward she sometimes cries with desperate relief as she steps into the hot shower and washes the smell of them off her, a combination of mothballs and soft food. She picked this particular volunteer opportunity because she knew it would be the most challenging, because she knows this is the key to success—embracing challenge.
In her head, she counts up her volunteer hours. She files this number away with her other favorite numbers: her GPA (4.2), her number of AP classes (ten so far, and counting), and the countdown of school days until graduation (one hundred eighty. Ugh.). She vowed long ago to not end up like her mother, a Prescott native who almost made it out, but who skipped college to marry her high school sweetheart. Sure, her mom ended up rich, but she had a chance at something more. She could have been someone besides the wife of a car salesman and the head of her neighborhood book club. She gave up the opportunity to be someone just as her fingers were about to brush against it, just a second before she could have grabbed it and run and never looked back.
* * *
Two miles west, a girl searches the Internet for easy ways to lose twenty pounds.
* * *
A quarter of a mile east, someone checks for the third time that the bathroom door is locked. They look at themselves in the mirror and
try not to cringe, carefully apply the lipstick they stole from their mother’s purse, stuff toilet paper in the bra they shoplifted from Walmart, cross their eyes so the blur will turn them into somebody else. “I am a girl,” they whisper. “My name is not Adam.”
* * *
On the other side of the highway, a girl has sex with her boyfriend for the second time ever. This time it doesn’t hurt. This time she moves her hips. This time she starts to understand what all the fuss is about.
* * *
In the next town over, two best friends kiss. One says, “You have to promise to never tell.” The other thinks, I want to tell everyone.
* * *
One girl watches TV. Another plays video games. Others work part-time jobs or catch up on their summer reading lists. Some wander aimlessly around the mall in Eugene, hoping to get noticed.
* * *
One girl looks at the sky, imagines riding the clouds to somewhere new. One digs in the earth, imagines an underground tunnel like a freeway.
* * *
In another state, an invisible girl named Lucy Moynihan tries to forget a story that will define her for the rest of her life, a story no one claimed to believe.