Your five-year-old daughter looks up at you with wet eyes and says, “I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.” Your stomach falls down an elevator shaft, and suddenly you are 11.
You are 11, and the girl who was your best friend meets you in the alley to walk to school together. “Don’t ever do your hair like that again,” she stabs at you as she walks ahead. The whole way to school you slowly untwirl the coils and braids you woke up extra early to put in. You are stunned and now your hair really does look ridiculous, with a mind of its own since you’ve forced it into and out of plaits. The whole day is spent trying to hide your shameful hair.
One day, you go to sit down with the girls who were your friends and the entire group gets up and moves to a new table, leaving you alone to stare at your lunch. But you did your hair right. Right?
The 11-year-olds are progressing, recruiting some of the older girls. They start following you home from school every day, hurling insults but never getting close enough to push you over. They say things like, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” And when you don’t look, they throw gravel at your back. Sometimes a stick. But you don’t turn around and you don’t run, either. Somehow, you know to keep your eyes down, your steps measured, your mouth shut.
You start getting stomach pains so you don’t have to go to school. It goes on so long, you are taken to the doctor. The doctor examines you, looks at your mother and says, “There’s nothing wrong with her.” And you almost cry because: (1) You have been found out, and (2) This is the nicest thing anyone has said to you in a while.
The 11-year-old girls must be bored, because they call your house. As you twist the long rotary phone cord over and over your wrist, they take turns hissing into the receiver:
“Pussy, come back to school.”
And now you must, as your stomach is fine.
“Who was that?”
“Nobody, just some friends.”
One day, rather than insults and gravel, the girls throw pieces of bread at you. “Chicken legs!” they call out, in a way to make you know this is a bad thing. “Hey, chicken legs, have some chicken food!” they shout, making bok-bok-bok noises and laughing. You think: (1) Chickens don’t eat bread, do they? (2) Wow, this took some forethought, and (3) Why is even the shape of my body wrong, a personal affront, something I am supposed to control somehow?
And then you look at your daughter’s damp blue eyes, little pools now, needing to say something. Social media tells you the 11-year-old girls are now also grown, with their own daughters. What do they say to their little girls? The right things, most likely. Some wisdom you don’t have access to. Here you are, failing again.
You cannot say, “She still wants to be your friend.” You cannot say, “Everything will be okay.” You want to say: (1) Harden your heart into stone, or (2) Practice staring into the middle distance. Be still, so still and so quiet, so as not to be detected. Or, (3) Start making art so you can have an endless conversation with yourself.
You bend your chicken legs at the knees, hoist up your tiny daughter. You press her chest to your own stone heart, and say nothing.
Heidi Nieling was raised on the Mississippi River banks of Wisconsin. After receiving her BFA, she transferred to southern Minnesota where she lives with her husband and two six-year olds. Heidi currently works as the chief cook, custodian, activities manager, and Band-Aid applyer of her household. She is also a crochet designer and fiber artist who sneaks in writing when she can. Heidi can be found on Instagram @heidi_nieling
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson