The X-rays showed glowing orbs like my anklebones held ghosts. I was ten, and thought, Maybe I’m haunted. From that day on, in a sense, I was: haunted by hollow plastic twins, translucent white things that stood up, waiting, when I peeled them off to shower. I got leg braces, just in time for middle school.
Needing braces was another vague “leg problem” I’d accrued since birth: dislocated hips, fractured growth plates, bone spurs, arthritic ankles that ached when it rained. My doctor joked my legs were little eighty-year-old ladies. He strapped the braces on and asked me to walk across the carpet. If I wore these—all day and all night, he said—I’d stop tiptoeing, my calves would stretch out, and, with time, they’d strengthen.
I tried walking, but it felt awkward, so heavy, like I’d traded feet for bricks. I shuffled forward and the doctor startled me with a vast, booming laugh. I froze—embarrassed about my blushing cheeks, confused about what I was supposed to do. So I did what any kid would: I smiled, pretending to be in on the joke, glancing around to make sure no one else was laughing.
The doctor steadied me with a hand on my shoulder and smiled. He pulled back my leg, proving I could still bend my knees. He said walking wouldn’t be any harder now, though I’d soon learn that was only the case on flat ground. I’d have to head down stairs backwards, and hop or hobble up hills.
The summer before sixth grade I picked leg braces with bright lilac Velcro, thinking they were pretty, that they matched my favorite shirt. I grew up in a wild, loyal pack of neighborhood girls and we’d often talk about what was pretty, what looked good. We performed dance recitals and photo shoots with the gravity of Anna Wintour. We hung around in seventies-era prom dresses and our moms’ gauzy white lingerie. Ours was a bond built from entire lives of inside jokes and cackling laughter, from whole summers left without parents, left to roam the neighborhood alone. We stayed in the streets until dark, circling our houses on bikes, blades, or boards. We hunted for burnt-out cars deep in the woods. We stared into windows and said we were spies. After the fitting, I still biked, danced, modeled, and swam. If my ankles hurt, I sat on the grass and chewed chalky grape Tylenol. I kept up.
Weekend afternoons we’d pile into a mini-van, the automatic side-door closing with a click. Our skin greasy with sun block, bathing suits wet under tank tops and shorts. “Where to, ladies?” my neighbor’s mom would ask, though she knew the drill. We were headed to Friendly’s, but before ice cream, we had “drive-bys” to do. We checked in on the boys we loved. We were creepers, extraordinaire.
My older sister sat in the way back of the van, her tawny hair in a high messy bun. She giggled and said, “Let’s drive-by Dewey Street and if we’re lucky catch David diving into his in-ground pool.” We’d ooh and ah and laugh and sing along with the radio: What a girl wants. Want a girl needs.
“After that, Eastborn Ave.,” Ella said, nine, but already loyal to Mike Bolek, a nice, chubby boy she planned on giving a metal ring she found in a cereal box. I went along, giddy and peering through the tinted windows, though I had no crush of my own just yet.
That summer my favorite sundae was cookies ‘n cream with marshmallow sauce and gummy bears. Walking up my neighbor’s steep driveway, red gummies floating in the melting cream, I couldn’t help but lag behind. It was hard enough to eat while walking, never mind uphill in leg braces. Sugar high buzzing my mind, I announced my new nickname was Stumpy. They giggled and probably rolled their eyes; we were always rolling our eyes, as if we’d just learned how. The braces were sort of funny, no big deal, merely inconvenient plastic things that chafed if I forgot to wear knee socks. I didn’t have to worry about wearing them in front of my neighbors because they knew me. They could never—like I so deeply feared—conflate the plastic gripping my calves with a mental disability. The only other kids at school in leg braces were mentally challenged. The only pop-culture reference was the sweet but slow Forrest Gump.
It turns out preempting cruelty by calling myself Stumpy wasn’t enough. I didn’t catch who said it, but eventually, the joke happened. One sun-drenched day, a soccer ball bouncing off a tree trunk, I heard: “Run, Forrest, run.” I ran all right. Not toward the ball, but home. That hurt, exposed feeling lingered. It turned the braces from inconvenient to shameful. Thank god, I thought: the new middle school was all on one floor, and so over-air-conditioned no one ever wore shorts. It was 1999, and bell-bottoms came back in fashion just to hide my braces.
Fifth grade was history and I’d mastered the difference between liking bikes and liking boys. I’d learned more about “pretty.” That I was, pretty enough, with long, shiny black hair. I’d learned the benefits to hiding more than my braces, too. I could wear my sister’s shirts to our school, and later, with a baggy hoodie on to cover up, tell her I’d never borrow something without asking. I spent a week building a model of an ancient Mesopotamian irrigation system, only to abandon it when the clay refused to harden and the canals all leaked. I told the teacher my cat sat on it. I told her his black hairs matted into the clay, looking like a bad crop of wheat that grew in dead. It was such a believable delivery, she let me write an essay instead.
In sixth grade I learned the merits of watermelon lip-gloss and cheap black eyeliner that wore off by the time I got home. My face with no trace of the makeup I wasn’t allowed to wear. Sixth grade I’d begun collecting friends, and hobbies, outside our idyllic neighborhood sphere. I played the saxophone and traveled to schools across town, honking my solo rendition of “We Will Rock You” behind John Lennon sunglasses and a tie-dyed t-shirt. Sixth grade I learned middle school band kids weren’t just geeks but twisted little perverts. Really, if parents knew the constant talk of getting reeds wet and who was best at blowing, of tapping, of honking and spit takes, of fingering and tonguing, of sax offenders, sax machines—well, they would have thought twice before pushing their precious young things into the music program.
Concert band was boring, so I was thrilled when the teacher started a “real band” after school. To teach us “real” music: rock, jazz. The only kids who signed up were a few boys, two impossibly tall ones from eighth grade, and me. We stayed late once a week to practice and always seemed to arrive before the teacher. He probably reeked of cigarettes, but I was so new to lying I believed he had bus duty.
When we were alone, we’d chase each other with timpani mallets tight in our fists, threatening exaggerated beatings. I’d corner the other sax player behind the xylophone, telling him I was gonna paint his nails pink. He’d swear through his teeth that he’d kill me, bash my skull in. Behind the safety of his drum set, the drummer would laugh too loudly and then let me color his blond hair in with highlighters. Bright greasy streaks that must’ve drove his mom mad. I learned he liked how I’d lean over him, how I’d say: “Hold your damn head still.” Not that I knew what to do with his interest, but in those moments I forgot about the plastic hiding under my jeans. I felt in charge and carefree.
It was one of the eighth graders, the trombonist, who made after school band entirely worthwhile. Eventually I’d fallen so hard I’d concoct any excuse to mention him to my friends: “Did you hear Dean Reese goes to Abby’s church?” “Did you know Dean Reese is a goalie?” I loved feeling “Dean Reese” flutter past my teeth.
Dean Reese taught me the thrill of hearing a boy approach before you turned to see him. Even the other guys shifted in their chairs when he arrived. Dean Reese always stood behind me as we played, his arm rushing past my head in brass blurs. Dean Reese as tall as his instrument was long. Dean Reese, spiked dirty-blond hair and ripped jeans. Dean Reese loved me. I knew it. He’d flick orthodontic rubber bands into my hair and leave notes in my saxophone case. He even asked my sister about me a few times, knowledge I had to pull from her like baby teeth. I couldn’t tell if she was jealous or protecting me from shooting out of my league.
The band had our first gig at a local semi-pro hockey game. We stood outside the arena as fans filtered in, playing our set of “Shorties,” minute-long riffs of “Louie, Louie,” “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” “Wipeout,” and “Soul Man.”
During the game Dean and I sat a few rows behind the rest of the guys. Those empty seats enough to make us feel all alone. Enough to make it feel like my first real date. Maybe we strained to talk about hockey. Maybe we talked about the other guys in the band, the only people we knew in common besides my sister. Who knows. At one point, Dean dropped his hand into my lap, an unspoken start to the Nervous Game. Nervous meant the boy would draw his hand toward your crotch until you erupted in a fit of giggles and admitted that, yes, okay, you were nervous. Nervous was an excuse to touch each other. A chance to be bold, vehemently not nervous.
“Are you nervous?” Dean said, moving the wrong way down my thigh. Sometimes if boys themselves were nervous, they’d ironically head in the opposite direction. I rolled my eyes and smiled, lips shining with sweet, sticky gloss. Nervous wasn’t the word. Impatient, more like it. He traced the inside seam of my jeans and I was too blissed out to notice when he reached my knee. Dean followed the seam for a second more then flinched and looked at me. Confusion spread across his face in time with mine.
“What’s that?” he said, and knocked on my leg. Two sharp plastic raps.
I mumbled something about needing a cast, but I stuttered and stopped myself mid-sentence. I could tell he didn’t believe me. Why would he, when I was acting so shady? He seemed weirded out and eventually left to buy himself some popcorn.
Later I’d rewrite the incident in my head and think to say I’d broken my leg, no, fractured it. I wished I had fake-flinched in pain. All night I obsessed over what would’ve happened if I’d just moved my leg. If I’d pretended to be nervous. If I hadn’t been so stupidly paralyzed by his touch. I only stopped rewriting the scene when I realized Dean Reese might tell people. Then I couldn’t sleep because I worried that after all those months of avoiding shorts and skirts, all those months of hiding, and the love of my decade-long life, Dean Reese, might giveaway my secret.
The next week, Dean couldn’t have forgotten, but he seemed to. At least, his jokes never made their way back to the sixth grade, despite—or perhaps because of—my eighth grade sister and neighborhood spies.
Soon after what I’d hoped was our date, Dean held a drumstick high over his head, far from my reach. As I swatted for it, he told me I was the cutest little thing, and then said the words I’d never forget: “I’m going to ask your dad if I can babysit you.” I froze, ashamed and confused, but I recovered how I’d taught myself to, with a smile. Smiling, the first step in my misguided brand of optimistic denial. Instead of accepting this for the rejection it was, I was now convinced Dean Reese meant he wanted to be alone in my house, alone in my house with me.
A few friends at school went along with my delusion. I even slept over Abby’s one Saturday, going to church with her family to catch a glimpse of Dean Reese. But my neighbors, brutally honest girls they were, rolled their eyes and swore this was not what he’d intended. “He wants to be your babysitter, not your boyfriend,” they’d say. “He’s too old for you.”
Soon enough I knew deluded optimism wouldn’t fix my problems. Soon enough I recognized kindness in an older boy’s silence. I grew thankful and proud of the lifelong bond from our old neighborhood, and realized the girls hadn’t intentionally hurt me. I stopped caring who saw my braces, or later the bulky air casts, and then plaster, though I never broke a bone. Who cares that I had to wear heinous Payless sneakers two sizes too big, to fit whatever bone-correcting contraption was in fashion for me. Soon enough I stopped tiptoeing around the house. Stopped tiptoeing around what I thought and wanted, too.
Nichole LeFebvre won The L Magazine's Literary Upstart competition and was published in their 2013 Summer Fiction Issue. Her writing has also appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Necessary Fiction, and Bustle.com. She grew up in Western Massachusetts, lives in Brooklyn, and lives online @nickylefe.