By Cathy Ulrich
There was one day at school that one of the girls started on fire. She was eating lunch with her friends, except not eating exactly, but picking at her lunch because she’d been gaining weight recently, the other girls said, and she was going to throw the rest away when the bell rang. She was going to compare her wrist to the others’, to see whose was the thinnest. It was good to be the girl with the thinnest wrist, borrowed bracelets slipping down onto your hands.
One of the other girls was relating a story about something her mother said. The other girls were waiting for the story to end. The girl who was about to burn waited for the story to end, too. She would laugh with the rest of them when the story was done.
The girl who was about to burn jangled her bracelets on her wrist. She had borrowed them from one of the other girls that morning in math class. Your bracelets are so pretty! Can I see them? Don’t you think they go so well with my shirt? That was how it was done. She jangled the bracelets and thought how they seemed tighter on her wrists than they had on the girl they belonged to. She jangled the bracelets and thought about how the math teacher asked her if she had something she wanted to share with the rest of the class, but she didn’t, she never did. When the math teacher turned back to the board, the other girl slipped the bracelets off her own wrists. Here. They’ll look so nice on you.
The girl telling the story about her mother finished abruptly, and they all giggled a little, nervously, none of them wanting to be the girl that doesn’t get the joke, none of them wanting to be the last to laugh. It was hard to be the last girl to laugh, everybody knowing you were too stupid to get the joke, but also it was hard to be the first one, so they all managed to laugh at the same time, exactly, like a flock of twittering birds.
The girl jangling her borrowed bracelets was picking at her food and thinking about her wrists. She hadn’t managed to laugh at the story about the thing the mother said. The other girls were looking at her the way they had looked at Patrice, who had failed in a double suicide attempt with her boyfriend, and came to school with bandages wrapped round her arms, how pathetic it was that she hadn’t even managed to die, when the boyfriend had. The girl jangling the bracelets had sat beside Patrice in the third and fourth grade, and held hands with her in line for recess. Patrice’s hands had been soft and small.
The girl about to burn knew that if she didn’t laugh, one or two of the others would take her into the bathroom and pretend to wash their hands so no one could hear what they said over the running water: You hurt her feelings so bad. Don’t you want to be her friend anymore? Do you have something you want to tell us? But she didn’t have anything to tell, she never had.
She wanted to laugh and she couldn’t, thinking about Patrice’s soft and small hands, thinking about her own wrists, thinking about the math teacher, and the other girls were looking at her, looking, looking, looking. So that when the burning began in the pit of her belly, it could have been mistaken for the beginning of laughter, and she thought: Oh, at last, at last.
Cathy Ulrich tried to fit in when she was in junior high. It was really hard. Her work has appeared in The Jellyfish Review, Cheap Pop, The Citron Review, and others.
Art: “Streaming” by featured artist Erika Glass
Erika Glass is a 21 year old senior at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She will graduate in May with a degree in English and hopes to begin a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in Fall 2016. Erika is a Lancaster native, and typically works with watercolor and pencil in her visual art.