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Paper Cut

by Mary Pastorello

The group of rowdy girls filed onto the yellow bus. Miriam was one of the first, and slid onto an olive green vinyl seat mid-way down the row of seats to her right. As other girls followed on, she quickly hoisted her duffel bag up next to her, claiming the place where another girl might otherwise sit, and leaned into the corner of her seat. Nestling her head against a window partially opened by possibly the driver or a previous rider, Miriam inhaled deeply the sweet, warm air of a New England September day and waited as the other girls boarded and claimed their own seats.

Miriam was grateful for the bag next to her and tenderly laid her right arm across it, as if in thanks for the barrier it quietly and naturally afforded her. With the bag on the remaining half of her seat there was no room for another girl to sit, even if one had wanted to. Her shoulders relaxed as her body realized that it would not have to feign indifference as each and every girl sauntered by her, plopping onto other seats in twos, sometimes threes, chatting and laughing.

Eventually, the bus filled with the other members of her field hockey team and when the coach had completed the roll call of players’ names, the bus slowly heaved and groaned its way out of the parking lot of Miriam’s school to begin its hour-long trip down country roads toward another school’s field.

An excited energy pulsated throughout the bus, as it did before every away game. The fact that the team had won less than half of its games had not dampened the players’ spirits. The girls collectively understood that these bus trips afforded them a few blessed hours away from whatever expository writing or Latin assignments waited patiently and menacingly in their backpacks for them after the game, and that was reason enough to feel festive. As the bus moved along, the girls talked loudly and laughed freely. Every once in a while, an excited scream peppered the air as the players shared stories about teachers, or parties, or boys they liked.

Miriam was no exception. She was grateful to have a break from the stresses of school work. From her seat by the window, she could hear bits and pieces of many of the conversations

swirling around her and let the cadence of the girls’ conversations distract her from worrying about an upcoming Greek test she was, once again, wholly unprepared for.

Miriam followed along with the conversations near her, to the extent she could. Every once in a while, she would lean over her bag toward the aisle to ask a question, which often went unanswered by the group. And though she knew her contributions were neither required nor appreciated, she continued to insert herself. When a question was not answered Miriam simply waited for an opportunity to throw out an exaggerated, “Whaaat?” or “No way!?”

Had she not, she would not have been a part of any conversation at all.

Miriam had learned over the years that anything was better than being invisible. Long before this bus trip, she had realized that forcing her inclusion, even if superficial, was a far less painful position to be in than to sit quietly and alone, openly ignored and on the outside of the interconnected lives of her peers. Never excluded, but never actually included, unless she made the effort.

By having mastered the fine art of making it seem as though she was perfectly comfortable in her ability to speak up and make herself relevant, she had found a sort of sweet spot, she felt, in the role of the confident girl who was equally friendly with everyone. If she made enough noise—If she appeared open, relaxed, and nonchalantly engaged—Miriam figured she could hide in the distraction of the hectic cacophony of the lives of all of the other teenage girls.

It was a difficult and exhausting dance at times, though: the constant attempt at feigned indifference, mixed with an aching dose of forced self-confidence. As practiced as Miriam was at this one-sided banter, it was still hard for her. And every once in a while, she needed to lean back in her seat by the window and with steady, focused breaths remind herself that she needed to keep up her energy in order to come across as interested and that it was better to look like she was being included, even when she wasn’t.

She needed to make it seem as though she was not everything she already believed she was, so that nobody else should know.

The bus soon merged onto a busier road and several girls around her closed their windows against the louder, faster moving air. With the windows now closed, Miriam could make out more clearly some of the conversations near her. Just across the aisle, she tracked the details shared by one classmate with the team’s captain about an upcoming party at the house of a senior from a neighboring boys’ school. Miriam watched with quiet envy as a girl next to the

two jumped up and leaned over her seat to let two other girls know about the party. Soon after, a third girl behind Miriam essentially invited herself to the party, casually and comfortably laughing.

Studying the exchange, Miriam understood that this would not be a time for her to interject. She had never been to these girls’ houses, despite having been in school with them, having played on teams with them, and having been in orchestra with them for several years. It would have been folly for her to involve herself in a conversation about a party that she was not meant to attend.

Instead, Miriam pretended not to hear and looked down at part of one white thigh that peeked out from her field hockey skirt, noticing how bluish purple her skin seemed against the green of her seat. She began to slowly trace several moles on her leg that had always repulsed her, reflexively losing herself in silent prayer. Miriam prayed that each group of girls around her might continue to believe that Miriam wasn’t part of their friend group because she was part of some other group of friends.

The party conversation soon gave way to another about a good looking, young math teacher newly hired to the school and Miriam resumed her intermittent interactions, strategically calculated for impact and appropriateness. The conversation stopped abruptly when a girl from the back of the bus, one of the best players on the team, knelt on her seat and yelled forward toward the group of girls that surrounded Miriam, “Peyyyyyton! French braid my hair for the game?”

Miriam watched from her corner seat as Peyton, the team’s goalie, looked toward the front of the bus to make sure neither the coach nor driver was looking and then deftly hopped from aisle seat to aisle seat until she had positioned herself in the last row of the bus. As Peyton had moved toward the back of the bus, Miriam mulled over the casual confidence the “ask” for a braid had required, repeating the intonation and word syntax over in her mind, pocketing away its lessons for her own eventual use someday.

But Miriam knew she’d never really be in a position to ask such a question, no matter how rehearsed and perfected. She exhaled deeply. Both braider and braidee were beautiful. It was as simple as that. Miriam accepted that it was beauty that provided these girls with the privilege of knowing that they would not be rejected. Both girls—lean, blond, tan, and toned—were graced with delicate features and wide, easy smiles. Because of this, Miriam understood, they had friends, they dated, and they went, Miriam knew, to each other’s houses on weekends.

Miriam’s longing to be like them—or, better, to be seen by others as they were seen—burned inside her. Without realizing, Miriam started again to trace the freckles on her pale thigh.

Miriam watched from the safety of her seat as girl after girl discreetly made their way back to Peyton for a quick French braid for the game. As she studied the braiding session, Miriam’s mouth clenched tightly. She cocked her head to one side and ran her tongue quickly back and forth against the inside of her upper molars. Miriam tried to imagine herself doing the same:casually joining the line for a team braid.

Having no sisters, and never having had any close friends, Miriam had always desperately wanted, but had never had, her hair in French braids, and was convinced that the hairstyle might help to make her plain, round face more attractive. With a sudden sense of urgency, it dawned on Miriam that this was her first and maybe only chance to finally have one. With a deep breath, Miriam boldly decided she would take the chance. She would ask for a braid.

Just as she had made her decision, Miriam panicked to see that the line had thinned out for hair braiding. Fearing that the braiding session might soon end, Miriam worked on mustering the courage needed to ask if Peyton might do a “quick braid” for her as well. Only after she had practiced in her head several different ways of asking for a braid did Miriam finally stand up from her seat and, slightly light-headed, carefully make her way back to the braiding station, making sure to unclench her sweaty fists along the way. Leaving the safety of her trusted duffle bag, Miriam crouch-walked down the aisle toward the back of the bus, careful that neither the coach nor the driver would notice her either.

Close enough now to Peyton, Miriam slid into a nearby open seat, positioning herself to make her request. Twice, Miriam inhaled deeply, and blurted out a casual, “Hey can you do my hair, too?” But twice another girl had asked louder and had, while asking, slid herself onto the seat in front of Peyton for Peyton to lean over to braid that girl’s hair.

Miriam was fairly certain that Peyton had heard her but convinced herself that it was reasonably possible that the commotion and excitement of the impromptu hair session had drowned out her question and so she waited, patiently.

When the last girl had finally had her hair braided, Miriam let the girl stand up and move back to her seat. For an impossibly long moment Miriam waited for Peyton, who had undoubtedly seen Miriam move to the seat closest to the braiding seat, to turn to her to invite her for her own braid. Instead, Miriam saw Peyton insert herself awkwardly into a conversation

across the aisle. Miriam now found herself in the devastatingly uncomfortable space of having asked a question, twice, that she knew had been heard but ignored.

Pushing past the indignity of the moment, and in her tried-and-true method of aggressively asserting herself as a means to vanquish her invisibility, Miriam heaved herself up from her seat, trying on for size the open, carefree confidence of each of the girls who had gone before her. She slid herself into the now open braidee seat, turning back to face Peyton as she did, and threw out a loud, “Can I get a braid, too?”

This time, her question, too loud, too brusque, hung, crisp and clear, suspended between the two girls.

As soon as Miriam had spoken the words, unanswered, she regretted having made the request. Peyton’s stunned expression was all the answer Miriam needed.

Miriam immediately yearned to take her question back and to retreat to the safety of her seat and trusty duffel bag toward the front of the bus.

After what felt like an eternity, Peyton smiled, and for a moment Miriam thought maybe she had gotten it wrong, that maybe she had seamlessly inserted herself into the pre-game ritual that everyone else had enjoyed.

She had not. Miriam perceived something in Peyton’s demeanor had changed, despite the smile. It was a subtle change, an almost imperceptible change, but Miriam, who had spent a teenage lifetime studying others, recognized it immediately. A stiffness registered in Peyton’s demeanor—one that had not been there with the other girls—and Miriam felt the presence of an invisible, rigid wall that had shot up between the two girls, built from the weighty awkwardness that Miriam had created.

Miriam cringed when she saw Peyton’s eyes dart around her looking desperately for a conversation that might require her participation, looking, Miriam was sure, for a reason—any reason—to avoid having to braid Miriam’s hair.

As Peyton scanned, Miriam considered the desperate desire both girls felt to extricate themselves from the exchange, and her mind raced trying to figure out a way for both girls to step away unscathed, even if Miriam knew that the damage had already been done. Miriam came to the dreaded realization that there really was no graceful exit for either.

Both she and Peyton knew full well that Peyton could not say no to Miriam: Peyton had braided all of the other girls’ hair and there was still ample time on the bus ride to do a quick

braid. Miriam had known that Peyton would have to acquiesce when she’d asked for the braid, but only now did it occur to her that the form of a “yes” also mattered.

To retreat back to her seat with no braid was not an option. To do so would have meant that Miriam would have had to openly accept the rejection, the rejection that had loomed above her for so many years—the one that followed Miriam into every classroom, down every hall, on every team, on every bus—ready to attack. The one whose existence Miriam had worked so hard and for so long to deny.

A stoic Miriam reigned in her frantic thoughts and reminded herself that if it was not acknowledged, it did not exist.

She would have her braid.

She would be included.

But as it turned out, Miriam did not have to force the braid. After a beat, and to Miriam’s relief, Peyton demurred with a soft spoken, “Sure.”

With a quick, slight nod, Miriam leaned back against the seat in front of Peyton so that Peyton could do her braid. Miriam closed her eyes and sat very still in anticipation.

A few seconds passed. Then a few more. And more. But still Miriam felt no fingers on her head.

“Sorry, I don’t have any more elastics,” Peyton finally blurted.

Miriam opened her eyes and, pulling a black hair band off of her wrist, countered, “That’s OK, I have one.”

Peyton sighed in acceptance.

Miriam leaned once again against the vinyl seat, readying herself for the braid that would make her like everyone else.

Again, a second, then several, then many passed, and Miriam felt nothing on her head.

Instead, Peyton spoke hesitantly. “Ummm, sorry to ask, but have you washed your hair recently?”

This time it was Peyton’s words that dangled in the air suspended between the two.

Miriam froze, stunned.

Miriam thought about her long brown hair, washed that morning, and wondered if because it wasn’t blond like the other girls’ that maybe it looked dirtier than theirs. Her mind racing, she considered whether it was possible that asking if hair was clean was a typical

question a braider might pose. But while Miriam had waited for her braid, she hadn’t heard Peyton ask anyone else that question. Only her.

All at once, Miriam felt filthy. Did she smell? Is that why Peyton had asked? Her head filled with images of her own wide, pale face, her large pasty freckled thighs, her long, stringy brown hair over bushy eyebrows covering a too narrow nose—all of the parts that together made her her—and was deeply ashamed. Drawing her legs together and her arms close to her core, she drew in a sharp breath in the knowledge that she had finally and actually been seen for what she really was.

Time stood still in the moment that it took for Miriam to recover. She steadied herself, and decided that she could not let Peyton’s question linger. Miriam determined that Peyton’s words simply could not be allowed an existence. It was as easy as that.

Miriam would simply have to destroy them, hide them, vanquish them before their power grew. And so, she ate them. She plucked them from the air and swallowed them, one by one, like sharp, jagged, shards of glass.

Only then, in her most casual, carefree voice did Miriam turn to Peyton, and exclaim, ‘Oh, yes, totally, I washed it this morning.”

Peyton nodded and looked as though she wanted to say something else. Miriam sat back in the seat, facing forward. The words were gone. Miriam had devoured Peyton’s cruel question, erasing it from her universe, ignoring the painful scraping it had caused as the words had moved down the back of her throat. She would have her braid now in exchange.

Miriam braced herself, and hardly breathed, as Peyton swiftly braided her hair. When it was done, the braid felt loose and was slightly crooked. Miriam stood, thanked Peyton quickly, and discreetly made her way to her seat.

The bus ride was now nearing an end, the team almost at the field. The steady din on the bus had grown softer but still pulsed. In her seat, alone, Miriam turned fully to gaze out the window and caught a reflection of her crooked new braid, very much aware that, unlike the other girls, she had paid for hers.

Copyright 2022 by Mary Pastorello