By Reneé Bibby
Rousey is growing a beard. Her sister grew boobs. Rousey is growing a beard. She first noticed it two weeks into the school year, looking in the mirror and debating a face wash. Bristles of darker hair sparsely distributed across her jaw line and chin. She tugged at them with her fingernails. They didn’t pull out. She admired the way they pushed out longer than the other soft fur of her face. They’d shown gumption, appearing like that, resisting her casual efforts to remove them. She decided to let them stay. See where it might go.
It occurs to her that if something like this has been inside of her all this time that there may be other things. Other surprises. Unknown strengths waiting to emerge. Not actual super hero powers. Ordinary powers, but more than. Better.
All that face gazing didn’t even make her late for breakfast. And breakfast is important— she sees that now. Food will fuel all that is growing inside her. Hoa has already put Rousey’s breakfast plate together. Hoa is technically the housekeeper, but she is basically what keeps the family going. Today it’s just slide ride into her chair and start eating.
At the table, her sister, who has spent her life inside an iPhone, chooses this day to look up at Rousey and say, “Eew, what is going on with your face?”
“For real, you have fur growing on your face.”
“It’s a beard.” Rousey punches her sister on the arm.
“Ever heard of tweezers?” Rousey’s sister backhands her on the forehead. Didn’t even drop her iPhone to do it.
“Yeah, right,” Rousey swings a leg under the table and gets her sister in the calf. “I don’t want to end up with chola eyebrows, like you.”
Rousey’s sister puts down the iPhone and puts Rousey in a headlock. Rousey thumps her in the ribs.
“Girls,” Hoa admonishes.
“Cut it out.” Their dad looks up from his tablet. That is not usually enough to make them stop, but today he also adds, “Rousey, what’s going on with your face?”
Released from the headlock Rousey tells them all, “It’s my beard.”
Her sister laughs, “You can’t call face pubes a beard.”
“Leave me alone!”
Her dad asks her sister, “Why can’t you help her with this stuff?”
“It’s not my job to fix this freak,” at the same time Rousey yells, “She’s not the boss of me.”
Their father covers his eyes. “Jesus. I dunno what the hell—your mother—”
“Don’t you bring her up!” Rousey warns.
Even her sister tsks in distaste and picks up her phone again. Hoa flutters forward waving a hand, dispelling the evocation.
At lunch, she meets up with her only friend Oscar. “Hey, check it out.” She juts out her chin for him to look. He leans in very close and leans back out.
“Ooh, on fleek, girl,” he yells. “I’m totes jelly beans.”
She knew he would be jealous. His four older brothers call him “sister” and a show of manliness like this would certainly help his cause.
He turns her face one way then the other exclaiming over and over.
The other kids who also sit outside of the lunch hall on the grassy hill notice the commotion. On the hill, Oscar and Rousey have the territory under the cottonwood. Another group of all girls sit by the oleander. And a third group of boys play hacky-sack as if lunch was something they didn’t need, anyways. Groups don’t cross over into each other’s spots, but Oscar is loud, and eventually Oleander Group ambles closer. Oscar exclaims to them, “Doesn’t her beard look like gold against her skin? It’s, like, jewelry.”
Rousey knows each girl’s name. She’s been in class with them since sixth grade, but wouldn’t bank on them knowing hers. She’s been a ghost. Just a girl even the other losers look through. Mousey Rousey.
“Is that … face hair?” Melissa asks.
“Hell yeah it is,” Oscar affirms.
“Is it real?”
“Yeah, feel it!” Oscar orders. And Rousey holds her chin out for a few of the braver girls to run their fingers across her jaw. Their fingers are soft and quick like a breath across the face. The girls giggle.
“So, are you turning into a boy?” Olivia asks.
Rousey contemplates the idea. Decides, “No, I’m just taking the best of the boy stuff.”
“Their face hair?”
“Yeah, a beard will keep my face warm. And protect me from sunburns.”
“What happens when you grow boobs?” Sascha says.
“Duh. I’ll have boobs and a beard.”
“That’ll be so … interesting?” Olivia says.
“Yeah, I mean, nobody else at school will look like me. Or maybe even in the world.”
“What about bearded ladies at the circus?” Olivia says.
“Those weren’t really women. They were just men pretending to be women.” Rousey says.
“Ooh, so do you think in, like, olden times you would have been considered a witch? Or, maybe a shaman for Native Americans.” Caroline asks.
They murmur about this. They’ve never met a shaman before.
Rousey tells them, “I think I’m going to P.E. today.”
“No way,” Oscar yells. “We haven’t gone all year.”
“I’m going, but I’m not playing.” Caroline says. “It’s dodge ball.”
“Those balls are gross.” Olivia says.
“They hurt,” Sascha says.
“Yeah, I’m going. And, I’m not going to be the first person out.”
“No way,” Oscar yells.
“You going to hit Jacob Calgary in the face?”
Jacob Calgary is tall, blonde, and moves like a jaguar. There’s no way she’s hitting him in the face. Even if he was the first to call the kids who eat outside on the hill The Turd Herd.
“No,” Rousey says. “I’m not going to hit anyone. I’m just not going to get out. That’s why it’s called dodge ball.”
“That plan is not going to work.” Oscar says. “At some point even if you dodge all the balls it would just be you and one person at the end trying to get you out.”
She considers. “Fine. I’ll hit Derek Loope.”
And she does. She plonks him right in the face with a half-deflated red ball.
He stares at her in wonderment. He gets hit twice more before Lydia, an eighth grader on his own team, yells at him to get off the freaking court.
Her father clears his throat eight times. Says, “They emailed me your mid-semester grades. Your teachers say—your teachers say… that you are doing well. You’re finally turning in all your homework and doing well on quizzes. They said if you keep it up you might actually be able to bring up your grades and pass your classes.”
“Yep,” she agrees.
“Honey,” Her dad is bright red. “Did you want … this thing with your, uh, beard?”
She isn’t sure exactly what he was getting at and the only choice she has is to wait it out. She’d sensed this conversation coming. Her dad popping in to her bedroom for “goodnight, love,” and then lingering before she dismissed him, “goodnight, dad.” Putting his tablet down in the morning, picking it back up, turning down the TV, clearing his throat. But he hadn’t managed to get it out without Hoa as back up. So there is Hoa, actually sitting still at the table with them, instead of bustling around the kitchen.
Her dad continues to clear his throat. He’s alarmingly red-faced. “Dad, don’t have a stroke.”
“Right. Okay, I just want to say—ask—did you want—maybe…a doctor … or …”
“Yeah, I mean, if you wanted this … thing cleared up.”
“Oh, dad.” She puts a hand on his arm. He knows so little about what it’s like to be a girl. “I’m good.”
“You know that if you ever need anything you can talk to me, right? Or, Hoa.” And Hoa bobs her head in a deep nod.
More throat clearing, and a look between the two of them. There’s only one way out of this, and if she doesn’t make it sound sincere he might keel over, “If something ever comes up, I’ll totally come to you. Probably Hoa first, but then you too, okay?”
He kind of laughs. “Okay. Good, good, good. Well, I’m glad you’re doing well. At school. I knew you always had it in you. You know. Maybe we should all go out soon? For dinner, at the pizza place like we used to? Hoa, you should come, too.”
Hoa flaps her hand at Rousey’s dad in a way that suggests he’s being ridiculous.
“Yes! Hoa, you have to come, please!” She drags out the word please very long. Hoa slaps the table, closing out her sitting-down duties, and is up and starting on the kitchen cleaning. Rousey follows Hoa and leans into her, so that Hoa has to work around Rousey to clean all the counters she’s already cleaned. “Come to pizza! Come to pizza! Come to pizza!”
Hoa grumbles. “I’m busy. Cleaning up after you girls.” Then she sighs very deeply. Which means yes.
Her beard is short, but full, almost all across her jaw. At school, as her beard grows, so grows her friend ranks. A girl on each side and even more following behind every time she walks down the hall. Rousey is the bubble gum at the center of a Blow Pop.
United now by her shamanism, the kids on the hill are not the Turd Herd anymore. They sit inside the lunchroom. At a table. They don’t scurry along the edge of hallways or use the bathrooms during class because the coast will be clear. Sure, there are whispers and laughs as they walk past. But they walk instead of slinking. That’s new.
And Derek Loope stares at her during math. Lots of kids stare, but they do it quickly and if she looks back, they look away. But not him. He rumbles about the halls and basically stops in his tracks if she’s coming his way. Since the second grade, she’s been watching the way he flips his hair, twirls his pens, writes awkwardly left handed. And now Derek Loope looks at her.
She’s thrilled when two girls come up to her at the end of lunch. They’re average girls. Brown hair, skinny, plain, and part of Derek’s circle. They pass her a note in a moment when her new friends are distracted dumping their own lunch trays.
The note says:
Will you meet Derek L under the bleachers at fourth period?
Rousey doesn’t know what happens under the bleachers, but she’s always wondered. The bleachers are eighth grader territory. Above the bleachers are the cool 8th graders, and below the bleachers is the territory of hip eighth graders. The ones who wear t-shirts with bacon jokes or mustaches. Who get good grades but aren’t into cheesy activities like cheerleading or football.
Of course she’s going.
She gets there early to scope the place out. Cigarette butts litter the dirt. She is not going to take up smoking even if that’s what it takes to get invited back down here.
Derek comes up behind her. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she says.
“What class are you missing?”
He leans against one of the poles. She leans against one, too.
“Your hair looks nice.” But even as he says it, his eyes are on her beard. It’s like his eyes are fingers and he’s digging in. Not just looking, but combing through. It’s weird, to be felt up without being touched. She wants to step away, just a foot left into the shadows of the bleacher seats. But even a month before she would have never been brave enough to come down into eighth grade territory. She tosses her ponytail and says, “Thanks.”
“You want to make out?”
“Sure,” she says.
He moves closer. He is breathing hard. She stands straight, not sure if she should do something, too. He puts his hand on her hip, so she puts a hand on his. He closes his eyes. She closes hers. His breath blows across her face in a firm way she likes. If it was just this: his hand on her hip, breathing hard, it would be about the best thing she could imagine. But what would be the point of sneaking under the bleachers to do this? Surely, there’s more to it. She squeezes her eyes tight and waits for the next cue.
He shoves her away. Jolts her eyes open. “I can’t do it. It’s too gross.”
“It’s—it’s—you look like a boy.” He has his hand over his mouth like he might throw up.
The other day she felt the bumps of breast on her chest. Her hair is long and golden.
Yesterday, her sister showed her how to put on mascara. She’s a girl who gets to be a boy, too. Wasn’t that her appeal? Confused she asks, “Then, don’t you kind of want of kiss a boy?”
“No way, you fucking freak,” he is far away, but spittle flies from his mouth and lands on her. She knows objectively it’s just spit, but the droplets feel like hot wax across her face. She has to blink really fast.
“Why did you—why did you ask me here?”
“It was just a dare. Someone…”
But his eyes on her face. The look of awe during dodge ball. “No, but you—”
“You’re disgusting. Nobody will ever want to kiss you. Who will ever want to have sex with you? Someone would have to be a freak, like you.”
She feels like a stepped-on grape. She didn’t know it was possible to feel this way. Like all of her insides spilled out into the cigarette dust.
But, how is it that he’s the one crying? His eyes, bright with tears, still search her face.
“You’re a liar,” she insists to him. “And I never wanted to kiss you, anyway.”
She runs away.
She runs to the janitor closet. The place where she used to hang out when she skipped P.E. She knows that the cinderblock slop sink is the perfect size to fit in.
She’s crying, which is fine. Everybody cries.
Her mom never liked crying. “All you do is cry. Such a sensitive child.” Never mind that Rousey didn’t make a sound that night when their mom, tugging her sister along, woke Rousey. Took them from their warm beds into the really cold car. Never mind she half-slept quiet as a turtle in the back seat as the night changed to morning. She didn’t start crying until they got into the motel room—mom forgot to bring Bunny. Mom forgot a lot of things; there were no suitcases, just them in pajamas. But, to leave Bunny?
Her mom, so bleary—her moist red eyes and lipstick smeared beyond the lips—said, “Don’t make me regret brining you. It’s just a toy.”
No clothes or shoes or socks or anything, but mom had all her jewelry, the big bangles of silver and looping chains of pearls, but not Bunny. Dear sweet Bunny. No, Rousey shouldn’t be so attached to something. Rousey needed to grow up for god’s sake.
Just the three of them in that small room—no school, no change of clothes, just the constant TV and sometimes the utter quiet of mom sleeping—and if they so much as sniffled? Into the bathroom, sit in the white tub! Until they were done feeling sorry for themselves. Until they could come out and act like grownups. They could come out and watch TV with the other grownups.
Both Rousey and her sister had to go to the tub, more than once. They choked hard sobs into their cupped hands, stifling the noise, and used the rough white towels to wipe their faces.
Coming back out, red-eyed but not crying. The other sister tucked under mom’s arm on the wide queen bed, looking nothing like a grownup. Looking like the little wet lamb they’d seen born fresh at the petting zoo.
But by night the dark easing into the room it could feel special. Pizza every day, delivered right up to their motel door like it was their house and then it felt fun. An adventure. Eating the pizza on the bed.
On the sixth day, after staying up to watch David Letterman, they popped out of bed to see her rumpled sheets on the other bed, still shaped in her body, but no mom. Maybe she’d gone to get bagels? A decent breakfast. Never mind her suitcase was gone. Surely she would be back, remembering that she’d left something very important at the motel.
When that night darkness crept into the room they didn’t feel at all like grown ups. Still, they did their best. Put up the Do Not Disturb sign when they left the room, peered out the door at housekeeping and said their mother was sleeping. To buy food at the vending machines, they scrounged up coins from cushions and counters where their mother had tossed them. They ate pizza crust from the trash, and then they sucked on ice just to pretend they were eating something.
Two weeks later, a few counties over their mother ran out of cash and finally used a credit card. A private detective their dad hired tracked backwards to the motel in Florida. Their dad spent a lot of money on the guy, who was absolutely worth it. But it was Hoa who knew to open the closest where they hid. Where their mother had told them to hide if they heard anyone besides housekeeping at the door, because if some bad men ever found them … “They would eat you two up. Such tasty fucking morsels. You have no idea how the world is out there. What the world is going to do to you.”
Just an empty narrow closet to protect them from bad men. Just the two of them with their arms around each other’s necks.
“Girls,” Hoa sighed.
And they all cried then. Even their dad.
Rousey runs her fingers through her beard. She feels the sensation in her fingertips and she feels the sensation on her face. It’s like being petted and petting something, like being both inside and outside her body at the same time. It’s different than brushing her hair, scratching an itch. A beard is more intense—the rub of stubble beard under her fingertips, the bristles shifting deep in the hair shafts of skin of her face—back and forth: hair, finger, skin, molecules, atoms: a frisson of two sensations reverberating in ascending scales of intensity until she magics herself— transports to calmness. It’s a place she gets to.
A great wide field of grass with a big bowl of sky overhead. It’s a place she’s seen, maybe on TV or in a movie. A place with soft sounds of nature, wind and rustling of grass. Grass moving like waves and the sky agape, forcing her to take big breaths.
She hears the crunch of footsteps and swish of breaking stems ahead of her, and though can’t see them, she feels her sister, her father, Hoa, walking just ahead of her. The shape of them reflects in a flare of light and she knows she is walking with them, forward, and how they will always be there, across a row of grass, close so that she can call to them, move near if she needs comfort. There is the low tone of other people, future peoples that she has yet to meet and she begins to see that as she continues into the broader world that the beard will bring its own type of heartache. Vitriol and harshness. Hate. But it will bring her interesting people, conversations with strangers, love, and so it will bring her great joys, too.
When she glances back, she sees the trail of bent stems of grass and a clouded sky. And there is her mother, a dark scarecrow behind, getting smaller and smaller as she moves. There’s Derek Loope, too, a burned circle in the grass. Something she gets to leave behind.
She rubbed the lamp of her beard and it reminded her: she’s okay. She’s good.
And a boy? Her mother? They will not end her.
She stirs out of the calmness, shifting her butt on the tiles of the sink. She isn’t crying, anymore.
Mrs. Lauren opens the closet door. A light shaft blinds Rousey.
“Rousey,” Mrs. Lauren said. “I thought I heard crying? What—? What are you doing in here? Are you okay?”
Rousey stands up in the slop sink and comes to the door. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? I can call your dad.”
“Tsk, Mrs. Lauren. I’m fine.”
“Well, school’s out. You may have missed the bus…”
“I don’t ride the bus, Mrs. L, I walk home.”
Mrs. Lauren keeps talking as they walk to the front of the school. Rousey can see her sister walking over from the High School to pick her up for pizza night.
Her sister yells, “Hurry up, fart-face, dad wants us home, pronto.”
Rousey steps down the stairs of the school into the perfect beam of sunlight. She yells back, “Don’t rush me, butt-nugget!”
Tonight they will go out and eat as a family—which means Hoa will be there with them. She and her sister will fight, then later they will probably watch Clueless. Their dad will fall asleep on the couch and Hoa will scoop them ice cream and also fall asleep on the couch. Her sister trap Rousey under the blankets and hotbox her farts until Hoa and their dad wake up with all the yelling and they will be sent to bed.
But about to go down the stairs to join her sister, all of that potential is ahead of her and she knows the measure of what is behind her. Right now—it’s like a freaking perfect moment.
Reneé Bibby is the director of The Writers Studio Tucson, where she teaches advanced creative writing workshops. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black & BLUE, Thin Air, Crack The Spine, The Worcester Review and Wildness. www.reneebibby.com
Art by Michelle Johnsen
Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.