by Phoebe Kranefuss
The girls stand in a circle. They’re stretching—not their legs, really, but their voices, their boundaries, their proximity to people who aren’t their parents.
“Is there anyone you don’t like on the team?” Bailey asks. She’s skinny, but not knobby.
“What?” Caroline asks.
“You can tell me,” Bailey says.
Caroline doesn’t like Jenna, who’s standing three girls away from her, one hand on Emmy’s shoulder, the other on her hip, left leg swinging back and forth. Jenna’s a huge bitch. That’s a word Caroline is trying on for size, not out loud, not even under her breath, but scrawled in careful cursive in her journal: bitch, bitch, bitch, she writes, because she can. But she’s not going to tell Bailey that. Bailey would turn around and tell Jenna that Caroline doesn’t like her, and Caroline knows the other girls would turn on her and towards Jenna, because Jenna has a hot tub and a popcorn machine. Caroline just has a screaming baby brother. Well, a screaming baby half brother, not that anyone asked.
“I like everyone on the team,” Caroline says.
“Right,” Bailey says, drawing it out and rolling her eyes. For a second Caroline considers making up an enemy: it would be easy to throw Bridget under the buss, because she looks like a baby and cries whenever they lose a game, but she decides against it. Too mean.
“Girls,” their coach calls. “Let’s get going.” They start their warmup, running laps around the field, Bailey in the lead, all legs and arms and soccer shorts floating in the wind like clouds.
It’s Caroline’s Bat Mitzvah this weekend. She’s been practicing her torah portion after school with an old lady named Shirley who starts every lesson lecturing Caroline on the benefits of local honey. As if Caroline does the grocery shopping.
“I’ll tell my mom about it,” Caroline says the first and second time Shirley brings up the honey. But Shirley doesn’t seem to get the point, because she brings it up again the next time, so Caroline just nods and asks Shirley if she has any grandchildren.
“How old do you think I am?” Shirley asks.
Caroline shrugs, and they get back to the torah.
She invited her whole class and her whole soccer team to the party. Her mom says they better come to the service, too, but Caroline doesn’t care either way. She’s mostly excited to wear a dress that ties at the neck. When Caroline lies in bed, she likes to think about Spencer in her class coming up behind her and untying the dress so that it falls, pooling at her ankles, leaving him speechless and blushing at the site of her boobs, which in reality aren’t really boobs yet, but in the fantasy they’re round and perky, like two half grapefruits.
Caroline hasn’t started wearing a bra yet. She hates how her nipples poke out of the thin cotton t-shirts her mom buys, so she wears sweatshirts even on hot days.
“Caroline always wears a sweater,” Spencer says when their Language Arts teacher Mr. A asks if Caroline is overheating.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Caroline says. “Freezing, actually,” which is partially true now that Spencer has noticed her. His noticing sends shivers down her spine and between her legs. She didn't know her pattern of sweatshirt wearing was something that other people had made note of. Sometimes she forgot that she was visible to others. Not because she wanted to disappear or anything like that. Caroline didn’t hate herself. She just forgot she had a physical body that other people could see: if she couldn’t see her entire body, which she couldn't, because her eyes were part of herself, then how could anyone else? It was a babyish thing to think, she knew.
The girls finish four laps of the soccer field’s perimeter. Perimeter is a math concept that Caroline had mastered a long time ago, but Jenna must have been held back or something, because she has no idea what it means.
“You know, like the outside of a shape,” Caroline says.
“You don’t have to be such a snob,” Jenna says. This is why Caroline doesn’t like Jenna. But maybe Caroline is being a snob. Is it snobbish to use words from school in everyday life?
“Whatever,” Caroline says, rolling her eyes. She makes a mental note to pretend she doesn’t know what a perimeter is unless she’s in math class. Coach throws some balls at them and they start their drills.
“There will be boys at your mitzvah, right?” Bailey asks Caroline as they dribble in parallel.
“No duh,” Caroline says.
“Phew,” Bailey says. “I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to have them.”
“We’re having a DJ and a tattoo booth, too.”
“Real tattoos?” Jenna said.
“Airbrush, which is actually a lot cooler,” Caroline says.
“I bet Caroline will get a tattoo of a perimeter,” Jenna says, snickering.
The other girls laugh, and Caroline wants to explain to them why that doesn’t even make sense, but instead she rolls her eyes. She hadn’t wanted to invite Jenna, but her mom said she couldn’t invite only some of her teammates. It was all or nothing. It was important to learn how to be inclusive, and she was becoming a woman, and women had to stick together, now more than ever, blah blah blah. “Well maybe I don’t want to be a woman,” Caroline had said, and her mom had chuckled a foreign kind of chuckle, and said “oh, baby girl,” which she hadn’t said to Caroline in a very long time, and Caroline had noticed that her mom was looking a little ragged around the edges, and she said, “if you’re the expert on being a woman then why don’t you dye your nasty gray hair?” and her mom had sucked in a big breath of air and looked like she was about to cry. Then she’d asked Caroline what she’d done with her little girl, and sent her to her room, which was just as well, because Caroline had just gotten a Razr which was charging on her bedside table, and she wanted to practice texting on it.
Caroline flies through her torah portion. Rabbi Freidman tells her to slow down, but she doesn’t listen to him, because her speed is intentional. Spencer is in the second row and she doesn’t want him to get bored of her up there, babbling in Hebrew. Spencer isn’t even Jewish.
After she finishes her haftarah, Rabbi Freidman invites her parents up to the bimah. They stand on either side of her, and take turns sharing their blessings for her. She tries really hard to pay attention, especially to her dad, because he seems so shaky up there, and she feels kind of bad for him. Would he give a blessing to her baby stepbrother one day? His new wife isn’t Jewish, so her stepbrother probably won’t have a bar mitzvah, but you never know.
“Stacy and Benny and I are so proud of you,” he says, and she hates him for that: making this day about his new wife and their new baby when it was one thing that was really supposed to be about her.
“My wish for you is that you never let go of your boundless curiosity,” her mom says. She spends the rest of her mom’s blessing zoning out, more curious about Spencer’s lips than anything her mom has to say.
“I’m so proud of you,” her mom says after, as they eat mini bagels smeared in lox cream cheese.
“I thought we were having real lox, not lox cream cheese,” Caroline says.
“We’re—well—Caro, we’re not made of money. We can have lox tomorrow, though. Just the two of us.”
“I have plans,” Caroline says, even though she doesn’t, and even if she did, she’d have no way of getting to them. Her mom’s face falls, and for a second she feels bad. Lox with her mom actually sounds nice. They could rewatch Gilmore Girls from the beginning and giggle and dig their hands into popcorn until their fingers were coated in a buttery film. Her mom might even let her try a sip of wine. Caroline liked to sip wine mostly to wrinkle her nose in disgust and make her mom laugh.
“I’ve put a lot into this day, Caroline. Just try to be nice. For today, ok?” her mom says.
Caroline doesn’t think. “It’s not like I was the one who decided to be Jewish,” she says, rolling her eyes. Her mom takes a deep breath, and Caroline wonders why her words keep coming out so cruel when she doesn’t mean for them to. Maybe it’s her mom’s fault. If her mom wasn’t so clingy, then Caroline wouldn’t have to be rude to her. It was a theory she was trying on for size, but one that she didn’t quite believe.
Caroline feels a tap on her shoulder. It’s Bailey. “Nice job!” she says.
“Yeah,” Spencer says.
“Oh, thanks—I mean, do you guys know each other?”
“Doy,” Bailey says. “Our sisters both go to Everglade high school? So like, we have a lot in common.”
“Plus neither of us is Jewish,” Spencer says.
“Oh, right. Obviously,” Caroline says. She hadn’t known Spencer had an older sister. How did Bailey get to the important information so quickly?
Caroline and Julia get in line for the buffet between Caroline’s cousin Magda and Rabbi Friedman’s son Noah. She helps herself to a heaping spoonful of macaroni and cheese. All the kids are taking extra napkins and writing notes, folding them into limp airplanes and tossing them in the general direction of their crushes. Caroline hopes Spencer will send her one. She knows she looks good. Probably the best she’s ever looked. From the side, her chest sticks out a little. It’s because she stuffed socks into the top of her dress.
“Mazel,” says Julia.
“Thanks, girl,” says Caroline.
“You look like a sexy beast,” says Julia.
“Yeah, I think my boobs grew,” says Caroline.
“No duh,” says Julia. “They’re huge. Almost as big as, like, mine.”
“I probably need to get a bra pretty soon.”
“Like yesterday,” Julia says. Julia has been wearing a bra since third grade.
“Do you think Spencer noticed?”
“He’s literally staring,” Julia says. Caroline looks to Spencer, who is sucking on a breadstick and tapping his free hand on the table. “You should go talk to him.”
They devise a plan: Caroline will get in line for an airbrush tattoo, and Julia will go ask Spencer if he’s gotten a tattoo yet. Spencer will say no, because the tattoo guy just set up his booth, then he’ll get in line behind Caroline. She’ll ask what he’s getting, and then they’ll lock eyes and decide to get matching hearts or something. Each other’s names.
“This is perfect,” Julia says. “Foolproof.”
“Right?” Caroline says. “I’m so nervous. Can you feel my heart?” Julia places her hand on Caroline’s chest.
“Not really. Your boobs are too big, I think.”
“Yeah, I was worried about that.” They shake hands twice and tap each other on the noses. They’ve been doing it since second grade.
“It’s go time,” Julia whisper-yells, and she walks over to Spencer. Caroline lingers for a second, so as not to seem too obvious, then makes her way past the dance floor, weaving through a group of kids from her class attempting the cha cha slide.
“Want a tattoo?” asks the tattoo guy.
“I’m waiting for someone,” she says.
“I’ve been waiting for someone for years,” he says, casting his eyes toward the ceiling and sighing. Caroline ignores him. She’s too focused on Spencer, who’s getting up from his chair and making his way toward her, Julia in tow. They’ll lock eyes. He’ll tell her he’s liked her all along, that her torah portion wasn’t boring at all, that she’s a really good singer and should definitely try out for choir, and that he’ll go to all her concerts, and would she like to kiss, right there on the dance floor in front of her parents and grandparents and the rabbi and her former babysitter who’s flirting with her dad’s friend from college?
She’s practically quaking in the one-inch block heels her mom let her wear for this occasion. “But don’t get any ideas,” her mom had said when she bought them for Caroline. “If I see you trying to wear these to school I’ll—just, no heels at school, ok?” Caroline had jumped up and down and hugged her mom, and her mom had looked stricken. “Wow,” she’d said. “I guess I should buy you shoes more often.” Caroline had a blister from the shoes, but it was worth it.
Spencer walks confidently. His lips look so kissable. She glances toward his crotch, to see if maybe he has a boner. Can boys have boners when they’re walking? She wonders what boners feel like: she knows they're hard, but banana hard, or baseball bat hard? She’ll probably find out tonight.
He’s getting closer. There’s a glowstick around his neck, and it lights up his face from below. Her armpits are getting sticky. She looks down at her legs, which she shaved for the first time that morning. Her knees are dry. Hopefully he doesn’t notice. They’ll probably start dating and keep dating throughout high school, which would be perfect, because you could go off campus for lunch in high school, so they could skip lunch entirely and just make out on a bench somewhere, and they’d go to prom together probably, and maybe Julia could even date his best friend Andrew, who was definitely not as hot as Spencer, but Julia had a lot of pimples, not that Caroline would say that to her face, so that would probably work out perfectly actually, and maybe they’d even go to college together. All four of them.
“Hey Caroline,” he says. He smells sweaty, like he just came in from a game of kickball at recess.
“Hey Spence,” she says, testing out the nickname. It’s her party, and she feels confident. She feels her face go red, and hopes he doesn’t notice. She’s suddenly conscious of her breathing, in and out, as if her lungs will freeze up if she stops thinking about them.
“So, do you have any tattoos?” she asks.
“No,” he says. “I’m a kid.”
“You’re so funny,” she says, and she laughs, a forced grunt of a sound that comes out more mannish than intended. “Do you know what you’re getting?” she asks.
“Nah,” he says. She waits for him to suggest they get something matching.
“Cool, cool,” she says. “Thanks for coming, by the way. I know the torah stuff is super boring or whatever.”
“Oh,” he says. “My mom said I had to go to the church thing if I wanted to go to the party.”
Caroline wants to tell him that it’s called a synagogue, not a church, but instead she laughs that forced laugh again, and clutches her hands to each other. “Yeah, Jews are really boring, right?” she says.
He shrugs. “Wait, aren’t you Jewish?”
“Yeah—well, half, but like, yeah. It’s a joke,” she says.
She regrets it: it’s not that she wants to run to her mom who once scolded her for asking why Jews were “super duper cheap” and apologize for what she said, to cry, to give her a hug, to tell her that she doesn’t mean to be such a raging bitch, that the words that come out of her have this ugly tinge to them that she doesn’t intend, but she seems to have forgotten how to say “I love you” and “thank you” and she hates how her stomach juts out a little bit and she thinks she should probably swear off macaroni and cheese and no boys like her and if Spencer doesn’t kiss her right now in front of the tattoo artist guy and everyone else then Caroline is going to scream. It’s not that she wants all that. But she wants to know she has the option. They stand there.
“I was looking for you!” Bailey says, touching Spencer on the wrist. A light, sensual touch. Why hadn’t Caroline thought of that?
“Hey,” Spencer says, his face light and airy in a way it wasn’t with Caroline.
“Do you want to get turtle tattoos together?” she asks him.
“Turtles are sick,” he says, nodding vigorously. Bailey squeals.
“You want anything?” the tattoo guy says to Caroline. “Or are you still waiting for someone?”
Caroline reddens even more, if that was possible. “I’ll just get—I’ll do a turtle, too, I guess,” she says. Spencer and Bailey exchange glances, then burst into giggles, and Caroline feels tears pushing up against the backs of her eyes, but she’s wearing mascara and plus it’s her own bat mitzvah and she’s a woman now, so she sits on the pink vinyl stool she’d chosen some months earlier from a line up of eight different colored stools, and she lets the tattoo guy airbrush a turtle onto her arm, and his breath smells like cigarette smoke and something spicy that she doesn’t recognize, and she can’t even really see the turtle because it’s practically on the top of her shoulder, which wasn’t even what she wanted.
“Thanks,” she says when he’s done.
“Yup,” he says. “Next.”
Caroline flees, trotting off as best as she can in her block heels, toward the bathroom and into a stall. She doesn’t really have to pee, but she needs a second alone.
“Caroline!” her mom says. “You’re going to twist an ankle!”
“Shut up,” she says. “These heels aren’t even that high. And anyway, who made you the high heels gestapo?” She lifts her hand to her forehead, and before she realizes what she’s doing, she’s saluting her mom, heil Hitler style, and she knows it’s wrong—not just wrong, but embarrassing, the kind of thing she’ll think about for the rest of her life, that someone will bring up at her wedding, even, and she regrets it, but it’s done, it’s done, she’s heiled her mom at her own Bat Mitzvah, and Rabbi Freidman is watching, chewing macaroni and cheese in a rhythmic, horizontal chew, kind of like a llama, and at this point she might as well commit, so she makes eye contact with Rabbi Freidman and says “Heil, mein Führer!" and the DJ is playing the cha cha slide again and suddenly she absolutely does want to disappear, like in a kill herself kind of way. Rabbi Freidman takes another bite of his mac ‘n cheese. Her mom’s mouth is open, like a cartoon fish. Her dad is feeding baby Benny a few tables away, unaware that his only daughter is heiling Hitler in his general vicinity.
“Oh fuck,” her moms says, even though her mom never swears. She looks younger, lighter, and Caroline promises herself she’ll never stop swearing just because she’s a mom one day. That’s a stupid reason to behave yourself.
Caroline stands there. The DJ picks this time to summon the partygoers to the dance floor, but no one goes. Caroline hopes that Spencer heard her, unless he’d think she was an asshole, in which case she hopes he’s off with Bailey somewhere, too distracted by her slutty lips to notice what Caroline has done. Caroline is only allowed to wear lip gloss on special occasions, but she’d forgotten tonight. Bailey wears lip gloss all the time, even to soccer practice.
Caroline’s life unfolds in front of her: she’ll get kicked out of middle school, then she’ll have to get a job as a mechanic or something, and her mom will feed her, sure, but in silent protest to her daughter’s failure. She’ll never go to high school or college and she’ll get pregnant way too young, sixteen or something, which means having sex in just three years which sounds scary and gross, and Julia will go on to get picked for the annual trip to Washington, D.C. that only one student per year gets to go to, and she’ll meet a new best friend at the Lincoln Memorial and her acne will clear up and she’ll forget about Caroline, who will just be the loser Jewish Nazi, and people will say, “oh yeah, wasn’t she that flat chested uggo who wasn’t even allowed to wear lip gloss who heiled Hitler at her bat mitzvah?” and then they’ll cackle and say “I’d forgotten about her!” or “I think she stuffed her bra that night” or “I don’t even think Caroline wears a bra yet” and Caroline won’t even be there to watch them gossip about her from the sidelines.
Her mom pulls Caroline to her, as if in a hug. “Caroline Evaline Birenbaum,” she says, “I love you, and there is nothing you could ever do to make me stop loving you. But Jesus fucking Christ. I am at the end of my rope with you, kid.”
Caroline feels the tears come. A lot of them, too, the uncontrollable kind that involve her vocal chords and make her shoulders shake. The way Benny would cry.
“Family,” Rabbi Freidman says, suddenly upon them both, his hands on their shoulders. “We’re going to take this out to the hallway for a moment.”
“You’re not my dad,” Caroline says.
“Right, he’s actually paying attention to you,” her mom says under her breath.
“You hate Dad for no reason,” Caroline says, a little louder than she means to, even though she hates her dad too, for plenty of good reasons. Great reasons, even. Rabbi Freidman escorts them to the lobby and has them sit down in big orange chairs. There’s a sign for a Halloween parade next week, which is stupid because it’s still September. Caroline wishes her Bat Mitzvah could have been somewhere cool, like a hotel.
“Caroline,” Rabbi Friedman says. “Mom,” he adds, as if Caroline’s mom is his mom, too. Would Caroline rather have Benny or Rabbi Freidman for a brother? Hard to say. “We’re going through a tough time,” he says. He has a speck of mac ‘n cheese on his chin. Caroline thinks about telling him, but decides against it. “The divorce was hard on both of you, and that is perfectly understandable. Divorce is hard. Your family was cracked open.” He pauses to let it sink in, and Caroline hears her mom sniffle. “But we’re not going to take it out on each other. We’re going to take a deep breath together, and we’re going to share the prayer of healing right here in the lobby, on these pumpkin-looking chairs.” He cracks a smile, and Caroiline tries to avoid his eyes. “Mi Shebeirach, Caroline—you remember from Hebrew school, right? And Caroline, you’re not going to make any Nazi gestures ever again.” His voice is low and firm, and Caroline nods in spite of herself.
Rabbi Freidman grabs each of their hands, and they bow together, and they recite the words in Hebrew: mi shebeirach, avoteinu, m’kor hab’racha, l’imoteinu, and Caroline does know the words, and for the first time, she feels a little bit grateful for that, even if she has no idea what in the world they mean.
Phoebe Kranefuss is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at UW-Madison. "Airbrush" is about the self-consciousness of adolescence. This is her first publication.