Boys Will Be Boys & Girls Girls, They Said
Down south, like the banner of a borderless nation, the circle bleached in the backpocket of jeans gives away manhood’s pledges. You can buy smokes at sixteen if you can’t steal them from parents or bum them. I find my coworker’s stashed forgotten on the topedge of the ladies’-room mirror for between-break breaks. Her name is Gayle. She’s my mom’s age or older, stunted, working stock at the drugstore when the pharmacist puts me on the register, younger & neater.
Around me, the women smoke & the men suck & spit, chipmunk-cheeked & buzzing. From women I learn the many forms of finesse, fine-motor fingers flipping the neat box open, the tinsel-sound of cellophane, the ritual tap of box on palm, flip & flip, the faint swish of one cigarette slid out to scissored fingers, slick-tipped with pale polish. A filthy habit, my mother says, but I can’t agree, not when the trick of the lighter’s toothed wheel makes flame & a glowing coal, a wand for punctuation & gesture as coils of smoke carry words & my grandmother’s breath into the world. As, later, the smoke will carry her away, something finally other than a body.
But that is years off. For now, women breathe fire & men & boys who want to be men however unimaginable that is at 14 or 16—those not-yet-men pack tobacco inside their lower lips against teeth & gums, carry cokecans of warm brown spit from class to class. They sit in Typing salivating for the teacher’s always-cleavage-baring dresses, her dark tan & bottle-blonde & the cleft of her breasts keep them shuffling up to ask for a hall-pass, leaning over her desk. The rest cock their chairs on two legs back, spit hot juice in their cans or stolen cafeteria-cups, sliding them into the desktrays below the typewriters.
Fathers chew & spit while mowing grass, cheeks distended—as long as they keep it out of the house the mothers look the other way, shooting jets of smoke out mouthedges to clear their eyes. A girl, I do not learn to spit, can barely clear my mouth of a bitter taste unless alone, where I don’t have to hide in napkin-manners, girl that I’m trying to be. I’m coached & coaxed to avoid the legacy of swagger, the father-to-daughter burden of longlegs as likely to hobble me with coltish clumsiness as to charm my springing-up weed of a body to grace. I learn instead to pucker my lips around the stem of smoke as if to demonstrate, breath by breath, how I might kiss, what my mouth can soon promise a man.
Jennifer Brown studied creative writing at the University of Maryland and University of Houston. She spent many years teaching college and high-school English, living on the campus of a boarding school, and teaching creative writing in summer programs. In 2018, she won the Linda Flowers Literary Award from the NC Humanities Council; the winning essay appears in North Carolina Literary Review, Summer 2019. Her poems appear in IthacaLit, Muse/A, CCLR, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Stonecrop. She blogs on Medium.com and at Howeverthink.com, and exists on various social media as oneofthejenns.