Pigtails Girl

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Pigtails Girl by Alex Berman - Photo by Alex Garrow

Pigtails Girl sits down to lunch. She has noticed her friends whispering behind her back while she waits on the lunch line. Or maybe these are only her thoughts hurricaning inside her head. She tightens her pigtails to make them stop, the pain of her receding hairline replacing that of seeing her friends drift from her. She reminds herself of her perfection. Her awards and good grades. Her popularity. Her mom’s encouragement. She is golden, and she isn’t allowed to be anything but. Pigtails Girl is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak and empty world. Pigtails Girl is the apple of her mother’s eye. Her teacher’s pet. Her father’s champ. Her friends’ confidante. She sang a song about the rain and everybody clapped. She is enchantingmanicsupernaturaldreamstargirl.

She feels a tap on her shoulder. A friend wants to ENGAGE IN CONVERSATION™. She turns and smiles, because when she was little her mother told her that if you made stupid faces they would stick. Isabelle invites Pigtails Girl “to a sleepover tonight? Like, with just the four of us?”

Pigtails Girl accepts and says “that sounds like sooo much fun!” Isabelle looks at their friends and exchanges a secret smile. Pigtails Girl’s hands inch up to her head.

“We were thinking…” says Ivy from across the table, her tongue flashing across her lips in a way that Seventeen would call “sexy and enticing.” She’s been practicing flirting and has developed a bit of a habit. She continues, looking over her right shoulder and biting her lip, “that we could give you a makeover!”

Pigtails Girl smiles, considering her response. “Um, sure!”

Pigtails Girl remembers her last makeover. She was 10. She had just won her first of many academic awards. She stood on the stage, lights blinding her view of the audience. Everyone clapped. She should have been overjoyed, but she couldn’t focus. She thought about her grandmother, and if she was okay, because she had heart problems and Pigtails Girl didn’t want her to die and she hoped she would get a good grade on that recent math test because she needed to keep her average up did her hair look stupid? It did, didn’t it. The voices had always been there. Pigtails Girl has been told that everybody has voices, but most people’s seemed to stop when you told them to. Hers never did. They made her feet tap and her chest ache, and they made her feel like she was always plugged in to an electric chair, always ON, constantly shaking from the electricity. She wanted to claw her hair out of her scalp. She wanted to find the plug and rip it out of her chest. She wanted to squeeze her head still until she just. Stopped. Thinking. She hoarded rubber bands and hair ties and bows and ribbons and barbed wire—anything to tie back the monster that lived in her. She could feel its poison leaching through her veins, spreading and building. And so she tied off the passages, squeezing her thoughts like so many tender biceps awaiting shots, until her lips turned blue.

She wears pigtails to indicate her youth and naïveté.

She wears pigtails to represent her bright spirit.

She wears pigtails because if she doesn’t tie up her loose threads, she might explode: guts spewing out of her like Satan’s confetti (SURPRISE! Pigtails Girl does NOT have her life together!).

She wears pigtails because she wore pigtails yesterday and Pigtails Girl is resistant to change.

And the people who surrounded her bought it hook, line, and sinker. They needed her beautiful aura, her infectious positivity. They wanted so badly to believe in a perfect girl. An angel. She wrapped them in hair ties and fed them her lies, because maybe someday she would believe too. She’s still waiting.

Pigtails Girl packs a bag and walks to Isabelle’s. She practices smiling in the mirror in the elevator. She is enchantingmanicsupernaturaldreamstargirl.

She knocks on Isabelle’s door and hears six feet pounding down the hall. A teenage stampede. They open the door and envelop her. Their voices surround her in a cacophony of elongated vowels.

She smiles and laughs and returns their wild calls. Their rituals are foreign and yet so familiar. She has read about these creatures, observed them in their natural habitat. She has laughed with them and told secrets especially fabricated for sharing across dark rooms. But she is not one of them.

After greeting each other like long lost siblings, they begin FUN SLEEPOVER ACTIVITIES™. Pigtails Girl engages in nail painting, makeup application, and kiss marry kill (kiss Lucas, marry Theo, and kill Tyler A). She giggles and gossips and plays her part. The other girls have problems and Pigtails Girl swoops in and fixes them like the perfect friend she is. She assures Ivy that she totally looks hot, and reminds Simona that her mom can’t be mad forever, and promises Isabelle that she will help with her Bio lab.

Finally, it is her turn to be saved by the fabulous three. They erase her face and draw her a new one. Her eyes are even more sparkling, her cheeks even more rosy. She is even more perfect, even more golden. She looks in the mirror and sees a reflection of who she should be. She makes a mental note to buy highlighter.

They sit back down and burrow into their sleeping bags, careful not to smudge their freshly polished nails.

“Can we watch the movie now?” asks Ivy.

“In a minute,” says Isabelle. She turns towards Pigtails Girl. “How about we take out your pigtails?” Pigtails Girl freezes, her hands flying to her scalp. Isabelle removes a curling iron from her makeup bag. “Your hair would look so good in curls.”

“Or flat ironed!” Suggests Simona.

“Or you could cut it all off like that Parkland girl!”

“No!” Pigtails Girl says, her hands clutching at her pigtails. She tries to crawl away from them but her legs are trapped in her sleeping bag. She is suffocating at the hands of these beauty tyrants.

“Calm down!” laughs Isabelle. “I was just joking.”

“I don’t want to take out my pigtails.” Says Pigtails Girl, angling her head away from the others. The girls lie, relaxed, across the carpet, their expressions emanating distaste.

“It’s just that you’ve had those pigtails for so long!” says Simona.

“No, yeah, I know,” says Pigtails Girl, laughing off her outburst. “It’s fine.” The girls continue to stare. “Do you guys want to start the movie?”

“Sure!” says Simona, always eager to de-escalate conflict. Isabelle turns on the TV. They watch Mean Girls. Pigtails Girl finds this ironic. She laughs and almost means it. She tries to empathize with Cady Heron, but can’t, because no matter how special Cady thinks she is, Cady is a Normal Girl. Pigtails Girl isn’t special either. But she certainly isn’t Normal.

Finally, they turn out the lights. Pigtails Girl strains to hear what her friends are whispering about, but can’t. Eventually, she falls asleep to their murmuring voices.

Pigtails Girl wakes up to the sound of scissors slicing through the air above her head. She screams, and then relaxes, realizing it is only Isabelle. “What are you doing?” Isabelle giggles behind Pigtails Girl, who turns to see Isabelle’s greedy hands clutching her severed pigtails.

In Pigtails Girl’s imagination, the elastics snap and the monster comes out screaming, erupting from Pigtails Girl’s throat like a geyser.

At first there is an empty wail. Then a torrent of fiery hail of biblical proportions. Rage spews from Pigtails Girl’s pores. It festers and boils on the faces of her “friends,” leaving angry sores the size of betrayal. Her lips return to a healthy red as the blood flows back to her. Her skin begins to split at the seams as she dives for her pigtails, dropped from Isabelle’s hands in surprise. She cradles them to her chest, and cries until she is just an empty skin sack.

In real life, Pigtails Girl walks home without a word.

So. Pigtails Girl is just Girl now. And Girl has nothing to hide. The monster has been released. So she ties it up on a leash and drags it around town with her. She picks up its bruised and bloodied body and shoves it in the faces of passersby. They look away, disgusted. She cries, “Look! Look at my sorrow! Look at my pain! Look at it, you cowards!” She wanders this way and that, unused to the feeling of thoughts moving freely, and that of tears rolling down her face. They taste salty. She didn’t think they would taste this way.

Girl cuts off the rest of her hair while her mom is still at work. She uses a razor to shave it down until she is bald. She doesn’t recognize herself. She gets a razor cut and is surprised to see fresh, red, healthy, blood dripping down her forehead. She had expected a molten black sludge. It descends the contours of her face in a slow trickle. It reaches her red lips and she tastes it. It tastes sweet. It doesn’t taste like poison.

She turns to the monster. Its fur is shaggy and matted and covered in debris from her explosion. Its eyes are two black marbles sparkling from behind the layers of gore. She heaves it into the bathtub. It is surprisingly light. She grabs a pair of nail scissors and attempts to slice its fur, but they shatter on impact. She tries kitchen scissors, fabric scissors, gardening shears, and a knife. They all break. At a loss, she grabs a thin strand of her shorn hair and drags it across the monster’s back like a wire clay cutter. A sheath of fur sloughs off and lands softly on the floor of the bathtub. With it comes curdled rain, spoiled hail, and rancid lightning. She cuts away rotted sunshine and sour joy and thousands of moldy hair ties. She washes away the carnage until the only thing left is the eyes. She puts these in her pockets for safe keeping.

Girl’s mother comes home and finds Girl sitting on the couch. Girl’s mom doesn’t say anything. She just puts her arms around Girl and Girl cries all the tears she didn’t know she had. Girl knows there will be questions later, but right now she floods the house. The couch floats up and becomes an island. Just a girl and her mom. They are stranded, but Girl doesn’t care. She knows that eventually everything floats back to shore.

For the rest of the weekend, Mom and Girl spend their time remembering what things were like when Girl was imperfect. When Girl was still just Girl like she is now. Mom asks Girl why she shaved her head, and Girl says it’s because she doesn’t want to be perfect. Mom says she doesn’t have to be. Girl tells Mom about the voices in her head. She tells her about the electricity that surges through her veins and about how she has exploded and how she is okay now. Mom tells Girl that it is probably not over and that probably, it never will be. Mom tells Girl to let the electricity flow through her instead of insulating it and stopping it up. Then maybe she won’t have to explode again.

“But what if I do?” says Girl. She is so scared.

Mom says it will be alright. She’ll help pick up the pieces.

The voices still follow Girl on her walk to school. It is obvious to most passersby that Girl isn’t right in the head. She wears a bandage on her scalp. Passersby can imagine that this is where the crazy she’d been hiding all along finally crept out. They can’t see the scar that spans her stomach, or the lacerations on her throat from where crackling bile poured. Girl clutches the monster eyes and reminds herself of how she got them.

This piece was originally published in Writopia Lab in their mental health anthology,Turning the Page.
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Alex Berman was born and raised in Manhattan and is currently a sophomore at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. When not out running (preferably in the rain), Alex can usually be found drawing, writing, or reading with a cup of tea and a cuddly kitten. Alex is also an aspiring novelist and a corduroy-pants enthusiast.
Accompanying photo by Alex Garrow