Most of the middle school girls I knew were mean
because they had to be, because they had older brothers
and their Catholic mothers refused to buy them bras
even though they needed them, and they were embarrassed
by their grandparents who lived there, too. They were mean
because their fathers favored their brothers, or else their stepfathers
snuck obvious peeks at their friends changing into pajamas
during sleepovers. Most of the middle school girls I knew
had mothers who worked as bartenders, or waitresses,
or third shift at the Tyson factory, where they spent their nights
inspecting an endless conveyor of chicken thighs, pale as ghosts.
At lunch, they ate thin sandwiches on white bread.
Most of the middle school girls I knew spent hours watching,
in houses where the television was an extra sibling to attend to,
where you got up to turn down the volume for dinner.
We watched the middle school boys practice violence and sports,
watched the neighborhood children for less than minimum wage,
watched everyone to see who was looking, and when, and why.
Most of the middle school girls I knew lied about their periods,
insisting they’d got theirs, or else filching tampons and telling no-one.
They were tough– they’d been drunk and in fights–
they wore their hair pulled back tight so nobody could pull it,
shoplifted candy and lip gloss from the dollar store,
shared deep and knowing stares of hatred with security guards.
We each took turns with the stolen gloss’s syrupy wand
in the very back seat of the school bus before kissing the same boy,
confident and blonde as a lion. His goal was to rank us.
Most of the middle school girls I knew skipped their homework,
but I did mine, little suck-up, and when my teacher still didn’t like me,
I cried. But most of the middle school boys I knew copied mine–
it was how I got popular– so I practiced my petty defiance and
shared cigarettes pilfered from the littered purses of the mothers
of most of the middle school girls I knew, who smoked
Camels or Newports at night at the kitchen table or on the back porch,
when us girls slunk home to find a worried mother waiting,
one flannel-clad arm folded into the crook of the other,
bags under her eyes and thick ankles, pondering which checks
to float that month, her cigarette cherry glowing beacon-red
with each inhalation of the inky, buzzing night.