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When I was in seventh grade we began to play a game at sleepovers called the Desert. Any number of girls sat in a circle, and one girl agreed to sit in the cent with a sleeping bag over her like a cocoon. The game hinged on the girl in the centre agreeing to follow the rules, no matter what. The Girl with Divorced Parents taught us the game after her older sister had let her play during one of her own sleepovers. The Girl with Divorced Parents had purportedly been in the centre and had followed all the instructions until the end.
“This time I will be the Leader,” the Girl with Divorced Parents said.
I was extremely stubborn and therefore wasn’t particularly good at playing games where I had to succumb to peer pressure disguised as rules. Last year at the Twins’ birthday party we were playing kind of a seven-minutes-in-heaven-spin-the-bottle hybrid and I ended up in a bathroom with a Beautiful Freckled Boy. We were told the door would remain blocked until we made out. I had a crush on him, but instead of taking the opportunity to kiss him, I convinced him that this kind of forced intimacy was absurd.
I said, “We should climb out the window.”
It was ground level but directly over a bush. Still, I much preferred the anticipated scratches to being told who to kiss, even when it was someone I desperately wanted to kiss.
The two of us came back inside to find a room of twelve-year-olds smashed against the bathroom door making kissing noises and catcalling us. They were utterly disappointed to see us standing in the hallway alongside them. We had ruined their fun. They were no longer witnessing the longest make-out session in sixth-grade history.
People did not like the way I torpedoed their games
I did not volunteer to be in the middle of the Desert Game, even though, in a way, my stubbornness was tamped down by the fear of disappointing the other girls. The girl who agreed would basically ensure that we played the game, whereas if no one agreed, there was no game.
I did not trust the Girl with Divorced Parents, whose eagerness made me nervous.
Finally we convinced a Timid Girl to go into the centre with a sleeping bag over her head, and the game began.
“You’re in a desert, do you feel how hot it is?” the Leader said.
“You know if you get too hot you’re going to die. What do you take off to stay cool?”
“My socks,” Timid said. She wasn’t nervous yet. Not more than normal.
“Take them off,” the Leader said.
“Done,” Timid said.
“Good, now pass them out.”
The Timid Girl pushed her light blue and pink dotted socks from the bottom of the sleeping bag. The Leader reached out and snatched them up. She placed them beside her in the circle.
The sleeping bag was dark blue, the kind really used for camping. It was heavy and warm. I had smelled the mustiness, even from the outside when I’d been helping to arrange it over the Timid Girl’s head.
The game progressed with the Leader instructing the Girl in the Centre identically each time. “You are in a desert and are going to die of overheating. What do you take off? Pass it out.”
Danger escalated. There was no variation except the articles of clothing left.
Sitting on the outside of the circle was safe. Outside of the desert we were in a sunroom of sorts with a couch and chairs and a rug and two walls of glass doors and windows. The house was large but nothing fancy. I hadn’t been in the Leader’s house before, but she was whip smart and exuded a kind of coolness that made me want to just be her friend.
I was deeply relieved that I had not agreed to go inside the desert. I would not have agreed to go as far as the Timid Girl, who had now passed out her pink and blue socks, her French cuffed jeans, her white tee shirt and, as a Hail Mary, her hair scrunchie. It was cheating, but the Leader let it go. The inevitable was only a matter of time.
“Is the game over?” the Timid Girl asked.
“No,” said the Leader. “You agreed to play until the end. That’s what I did with my sister.”
I could imagine the pressure the Leader would have felt with a group of older girls sitting around her. She could stay, but only on their terms.
“Okay,” the Timid Girl squeaked. “It’s actually getting pretty hard to breathe in here.”
The Leader said, “You’re in the desert. You’re overcome with heat. You’re going to die soon unless you get some relief. What do you take off?”
“Yes,” the Leader said.
There was some wrestling and then the Timid Girl said, “My bra.”
“You have to pass it out,” the Leader said.
“I’ll just keep it at my feet,” my Deserted Friend said.
“You have to pass it out.”
Her hand emerged from the bottom of the sleeping bag with a little white training bra laced haphazardly through her fingers. One of the Twins reached out and snatched it away and put it in the pile. On the outside of the circle we needed to show we were all in this together. No one wanted to be accused of ruining the game. No one wanted to be inside the sleeping bag as some kind of penitence.
My mom had suggested I may need a bra just weeks before. She brought me to the store, and I picked out the plainest, smallest, white bra I could find. I was horrified that she had been looking at my body. I was horrified that other people, other than me, had been watching it grow and change. My mother did not make me try on the bra in front of her. When I brought it home I tried it on and tried to feel like a woman. I shoved it in a drawer with my secret stash of mementos from the boy I liked: a popped balloon, a piece of string, a half-eaten box of candy his mouth had been on.
During the Desert Game, I flushed, even sitting clothed on the outer ring. I criticized my barely budding breasts, the scraggly patches of pubic hair that I’d begun to periodically shave off in the hopes that no one would see what was happening. I didn’t want to expose my pouchy little tummy that people kept saying was my baby fat. I knew that fat would never ever go away because the rest of my body was small and muscular. My stomach did not match.
I did not want to ever be in the bag, and I knew that My Deserted Friend must be worried in there. I wanted to assure her that she could trust us, that we were her friends.
Also, I wanted her to succumb. I wanted her to take the next inevitable steps and take off her underwear. I was titillated by the thought of it. My heart pounded as she squirmed around inside the bag, taking off her underwear.
“I’m not passing it out,” she said.
“You have to,” the Leader pushed. “Otherwise, how do we know it’s off?”
“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “I don’t want you seeing my underwear.”
We had thousands of sleepovers where we saw each other’s identical cotton underwear, varying only from white to pastel and back again. Something about it being her dirty underwear made it more private and shameful.
After a week I finally wore my bra to school. I approached my desk and nodded to the boy who sat behind me. He’d once made me laugh in the cafeteria and chocolate milk had squirted out my nose and onto the table. I took my seat and faced the front of the room. We were diagramming sentences when I felt the unfamiliar sensation of air suddenly collecting between my shirt and my back and then the hot sting of my bra snapping against my skin. I spun around, seething anger.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “You don’t need a bra for those mosquito bites.”
He acknowledged and denied what he’d done all at the same time.
Then he looked at the boy across the row from him and shrugged as if to say I was a crazy bitch. I faced the board knowing that the shame I’d feared was warranted. My body was changing, and boys were noticing. They had a right to comment on it, to mock me for it.
“Your underwear,” the Leader prompted again.
From the corner of the bag, a small nub of white cotton emerged, and the Leader did not reach out and snatch it from her. A small act of mercy.
“Now what?” My Deserted Friend said.
“You’re in the desert and there’s no water around,” the Leader said. “You are going to die. It is so, so hot. You have to take something off, what do you take off?”
“There’s nothing,” she said. “Just the sleeping bag.”
“Exactly,” the Leader said.
My heart pounded. I wanted My Deserted Friend to take that sleeping bag off so badly. It was a mix of power, and curiosity, and horror, and thankfulness that it was not me. I wanted her to stand there in her nakedness. I wanted that to be something she wasn’t afraid to do. I wanted it not to be a shameful thing for me to do. I wanted to see her imperfections. I wanted to see if my breasts were the same as hers. I wanted it to be okay to look at another girl’s body head on, and really take it in.
I waited. I did not say anything.
The Deserted Girl refused to take off the sleeping bag. I wondered if the Leader had really been forced to stand in the nude before a circle of girls three years her senior. The Deserted Girl asked for her clothes back. It was a battle of wills.
“You can have them back. Come out and get them.”
The Deserted Girl stifled a sniffle.
I can’t remember how she got her clothes back. I hope I harnessed the indignance and anger I would have felt if I had been the Deserted Girl. I hope I broke down and scolded the other girls. I hope I shoved all the clothes below the sleeping back so that our friend could get dressed. But I can’t remember that, so probably it was someone else, someone who hadn’t been still half- wishing she’d emerge naked. Those other girls seemed more interested in making the Timid girl beg for relief than in her body.
For weeks after that the game spread. Whenever there was a girl in the room who hadn’t already been present for the game, we would put them in the desert. In those later games, the Timid Girl sat on the edge of the circle, pretending, I guess, that she couldn’t remember how it felt to be inside the desert. As the weeks wore on, it was clear to my thirteen-year-old self that I was different than those girls. Not better for not being interested in power, but dirty and shameful. I hadn’t wanted boys to show interest in my body, imply ownership of it, and yet here I was, heart- quickened as each piece of clothing emerged from the bottom of the bag. Every sock, every sweatshirt, every headband held within it the promise of nakedness. Instead of exploring my desires, I clamped down on anything related to the wild unpredictability of sex. My curiosity was dangerous. It made me feel damaged, toxic, other.