Clever girl

A Short Story

By Musih Tedji Xaviere
© Orianne Lopes

My suitcase, an old Camry with squeaky seats, a lonely stretch of road, a man with yellowing teeth.

“Where to?” his voice carries a gravely timbre that men often use to intimidate girls their daughters’ ages.

“The paper house for boys,” I say.

“But why?”

“I am clever.”

“My son could use a wife.”

“Grandma says I’m clever.” I look away from his disapproving face in the rear-view mirror and pretend to be fascinated by the view from the moving car window, an infinite spread of pine trees at the base of a mountain. Yesterday, grandma made me sit on her lap in that hideous recliner she insists on keeping and said to me, “You are a clever girl. This town is too ordinary for you. There’s a place south of here, run by a Mr. Chu. It’s a paper house for boys. Odd girls like you may be welcomed there. Let them see what your brain can do, Chima.”

A crooked signpost with the letters P.H.B, a barbed wire fence, a tall blue house sitting in the middle of vast fertile land with no friends to play with, a man with dark oily skin like mine and stiff shoulders like a headmaster. His mustache is shaped like a heart, a hysterical sight. Two boys, one tall with haughty strides and another, round and pimply with a slight limp flank the man on the steps of the blue house.

Grandma said to keep my spine straight, to not wither, but before these men I feel small, both in rank and in size—size that refuses to catch up to my age. Sometimes, I pray to the mirror to replace these protruding limbs with an acceptable version of a sixteen-year-old.

“You’re late, girl,” the man’s voice is overwrought, like he’s holding back strong emotion. His words are enunciated with precision. I can’t tell if he wants to punish me or banish me.

“Girls are always late,” the haughty boy mumbles behind his hand, and exchange a cryptic look with his friend that is supposed to be lost to my little-girl-brain. What they don’t know is that I was born with an unusual brain—adult and child in one, grandma often says in her wisdom. I don’t know if she means it as praise or curse.

Seven days, seven nights, none of the boys have challenged my presence here, in a place where I don’t belong. I walk into a room, score an A-plus in a quiz, join the football team, testosterone-filled bodies part like hair to make way for me. Whispers soar and tumble, nothing my brain can grasp. Maybe the boys are like their headmaster, a man skilled in keeping the seams firmly sewn around his discomfort with the evolving norms of the world, of girls invading spaces meant for men. Grandma says that people these days are under immense pressure to stay on the clean pages of history.

A bell rings in a distance. A cold shower. Lumpy breakfast—a sort of mashed starch with protein. Lessons. Break. More lessons. The whispers are dead. They died when I scored the last-minute-goal that enabled my school win the national soccer trophy. Awe, intimidation, curiosity; the boys go through these emotions like clothes. They can dismiss a girl-with-brains out of spite but they cannot fail to notice a smart girl who can also kick a ball. Finally they tire of the effort it takes to make sense of me and accept me. Now I am one of them, one-of-the-boys.

The nerd from secondary school is no more. I don’t have to plaster myself to the walls anymore. I have proven myself to the lads. The transition from girl to boy is painless because in some ways I look like them, a female in male flesh, free of the natural burdens bestowed on women. I have since stopped praying to the mirror for a girl’s body. I like being a part of this gender.

Belonging to this clique has two major requirements; never complain about your discomfort, never talk about your feelings. These are things that girls do, silly weepy emotional creatures that they are. Being one of the boys only works if I let my ego and imaginary testosterone rule my actions and words. A soccer ball rams into my chest in the field, I grit my teeth and pretend like it does not hurt. I cannot let them see my weakness. I cannot remind them that I used to be a giggly girl.

This morning the girl in me is tired. Tired of pretending. Tired of being a waterfall that never flows. I lose myself to tears in the middle of a football game, the ugly expression of grief that leaks from my eyes and nose distorts my face. This need to relieve myself of something I cannot name started a week ago and I’ve been wrapping bandages around it. Yesterday an alien invaded my body and started leaking out of my vagina. I’ve tried washing away the embarrassment, the sticky red shame that won’t stop spurting from between my thighs. Grandma has hinted that the blood flow happens monthly to every girl but I had hoped that my boyishness would spare me from it.

“You are such a girl these days,” the haughty boy, the captain of the football team, and my buddy, accuse me two days later.

“I am a girl!” I yell, riding a wave of rage that won’t leave me. “I have feelings and unlike you I feel comfortable expressing them. My body is like the sky, constantly changing colors and pouring even when the earth does not want to be wet. I cry for no reason sometimes, but that does not make me weak, or less clever, or less deserving of this place and your respect. Your lack of empathy does not make you superior or better, it just means that we are different.”

Musih Tedji Xaviere is a Cameroonian writer and gender activist. She is the author of Fabiola, and a Moth Storyteller. She writes young adult fiction, on subjects ranging from love to horror. She enjoys traveling and can get geeky about books and music.

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