Pushcart 2012: Celeste Ng, “Girls, At Play” from Bellevue Literary Review Fall 2010

No talking other than hello. Don’t tell anyone if you hate it, if his tongue feels like a dead fish in your mouth, if his hands leave snail-trails of sweat down your sides. No talking with the boys outside of the game. No talking about it afterwards, no laughing, no anything, even if it’s just the three of us. Pretend it never happened. Rub the dent on your arm, the red welt where the bracelet snapped and split, until it goes away.

Story available online at Bellevue Literary Review

When I was about 11, I visited family in New York during the World’s Fair and brought home a tiny diorama as a souvenir for my brother: it was wonderful, a little wooden box with a photo – in color! – of the Statue of Liberty in the background and a landscape of trees and boulders and grass in the foreground, all protected by a pane of glass that slipped in as the lid. At that time I had no idea of the value of things, and was amazed this treasure was within my quarter-a-week-allowance budget. My brother taught me the value of critique when he sneered, “It’s just a postcard in a picture frame.”

That’s how it is with this story. I was, corny as it sounds, enrapt, amazed that words could capture this tale of pubescent passage so perfectly. I was happy to recognize the collective “we” voice (I’m finally getting it). I ached for Grace, remembered being her in many ways, cheered for Angie, Carol and Mandy when they went right, wept for them when they, for the second time, threw away their childhood and lost their Grace. I loved this story.

And now I’m just waiting for someone to come along and tell me the voice is gimmicky and there are some events that don’t quite seem inevitable and the name Grace is overused, forced into sentences blatantly designed for that name, that without the name Grace, the whole story falls apart.

Hey: Without a white whale, Moby-Dick is just a long, boring novel about blubber and harpoons.

This is a gorgeous story, creating a world that’s horrifying and real. A trio of eighth graders, Angie, Carol, and Mandy, wear jelly bracelets on their wrists in various colors indicating which sexual acts they’ll perform. At recess, they stand by the flagpole (what a perfect place to stand) and boys come over and snap off a bracelet. The girl so chosen goes with the boy to the bleachers and makes good on the bracelet’s promise, which can be anything from a kiss to intercourse. There are rules, listed in the quote above. That’s the game they play.

This is how we are when Grace moves to town.

You’ll notice two things right off the bat: the “Stranger Comes To Town” standard-plot, and the importance of using the name Grace, as opposed to, oh, Sandra or Francine or even Mary. “Grace” is one of those words with so many meanings, such evocative power, it’s almost a novel in itself.

“Grace,” we repeat. “Grace.” Awe like the sound of it, the round single syllable, like a polished metal bead. A simple name, a sweet name. A name not yet corrupted into a diminutive. We wonder, for a moment, if with Grace we can be Angela, Caroline, Amanda.

Yes, they can. Grace is a year younger, and, let’s face it, lame. She wears oversized t-shirts bearing ecological cartoons. Her dad’s in the military, so she’s never lived in one place more than six months; her mom’s dead, and it’s pretty apparent her dad pays little attention to Grace, because she’s a very odd duck.

But these three girls gravitate to her. That’s a little strange, actually. She’s the kind of girl who would end up being the target of some serious bullying in most stories. But here, they grab onto her like a life raft. They let her pull them back from the flagpole into the lifeboat of childhood again.

Weeks pass and we don’t go near the flagpole. At recess we see the boys out of the corner of our eyes. Some of them move on to other things, football, kick,ball, skateboarding. But some keep on, as out of habit, moving towards the flagpole like a fog and then dissipating, disappointed. After a while we forget to even watch them. We’re busy, with Grace, because she hardly knows anything at all.

The girls go to Grace’s house and play Monopoly and Candyland and Funny Bone. They teach her about the best seats in movie theatres and cherry Cokes and eyelash wishes, “the most sacred of wishes, a tiny curl bearing your most secret hopes.” Grace asks if she can wish for the same thing twice, and the trio is amazed, because they have such an endless list of things to wish for, they never considered running out: “We are awed to be in the presence of someone who wants so little”

Things change, of course. It’s a story, and in a story, things change, and in life, things change. Twelve-year-old girls, even lame ones, grow up. She wants to go see an R-rated movie, and they show her how to sneak in. They’re playing dress-up with Grace’s old Halloween costumes, and she puts on their clothes, a lace top and denim miniskirt and platform shoes. It’s probably as strange a getup for her as the witch’s hat is for them. She dresses differently after that. And she starts wearing make-up, except it isn’t real make-up, it’s watercolor paint because she doesn’t have make-up (I used colored pencils and Magic Markers, with equally disastrous results). The girls teach her how to shoplift a small stash of cosmetics.

Sometimes we look at her, at this new creature with darkened eyes and sleek clothing, who keeps her head up in the hallways, who sees people look at her and bats her eyes and smiles. At first she looks like a stranger. But there’s something familiar about her….She’s still Grace, we remind ourselves. We cling to the simple things, the Candyland, to milkshakes, to eyelash wishes. She’s still our Grace.

Grace hears about the game from another classmate, and asks the girls about it. They won’t tell her. She snubs them for eight days (and I’d love to speculate on why eight days – the day after God rested after creation, bris bat, luck, something, but that would probably be over-reading), then shows up, worried she’s dying: that staple coming-of-age scene, another clueless girl’s first period. I have a problem with this, because no matter how sheltered she is, she’s got to have seen ads and products and heard conversations, and didn’t she ever attend a health class? I also find it unnecessary to the story. I’m sure it’s something to do with innocence, but it would be enough, I think, for her to need the girls’ help with her first period, without the dubious element of shock, to serve as fulcrum for what happens next:

She still wants to know about the game. Now more than ever.

We know, now, that we can keep nothing from her, that we will have to teach her everything we know. The girl in front of us doesn’t even look like our Grace anymore….She looks just like us except fo her bare wrist. We want to slap her, to tell her she’s ungrateful.

They teach her the game. It’s a brutal scene equivalent to rape, and that’s even before they leave her standing alone at the flagpole, her wrists decorated with bracelets of all colors, the boys “lean and hungry” after “a long, lonely winter.”

So go ahead, tell me all the flaws. It’s still a gorgeous story, a perfect read even as I was ticking off flaws in my head, because it generated a power and a beauty of language and depth of empathy that drew me along, much as the power between boys and girls, between the safety and fun of childhood and the allure of adulthood, between the game and Grace. It’s a lot more than a postcard in box. It’s a diorama.

2 responses to “Pushcart 2012: Celeste Ng, “Girls, At Play” from Bellevue Literary Review Fall 2010

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2012: Finis « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Laura Kasischke, “The Barge” from Florida Review, Summer 2011 | A Just Recompense

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