Older girls, like babysitters or a friend's sister in high school, were pedestaled beings with perfect jean jackets. They were white girls, mostly. Close-talkers with side-swept bangs who never appeared too wowed by anything because they had yet to, and might never, encounter what it means to be denied. I coveted their casual nature, believing their incuriosity was a sign of self-possession, of not harboring some secret longing to be seen. Seen not in comparison, or as "other," or through the bewildering construction of compliments that seemed to only further other.
What I always noticed first was their hands. These older girls had chipped nails like shrinking enamel continents on each finger, in colors like baby blue or black. They wore big sweaters, which they'd pull over their hands, ripping open holes like harnesses for their thumbs. On those thick digits I'd spot their silver thumb rings that seemed fastened on, the way flange nuts thread onto screws.
Even their bad skin conveyed a type of beauty that desperately drew me in because it wasn't beauty alone. It was notional. What I perceived as built-in — how do I best express this? — unhindered-ness? Like ripping and ruining one's clothes at one's pleasure. Drawing with a ballpoint pen on the rubber sidewall of one's Converse — a truly satisfying motion, actually. It was things done just because. It was uninterest. Inconceivable amounts of it. How exquisite I thought it would be to not care.
These older girls were impulsive. They dyed their hair on a Monday night. As I remember, a good number of them wanted to become marine biologists. Their copies of Sarah McLachlan CDs or Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope were well loved and scratched, skipping in unison to the grinding bump bump bump on "I Get Lonely." I was, back then, a decade or so away from clocking my brownness and taking notice of its veiled prominence in my life. I was still a great deal away from scrutinizing my weird, even toxic, relationship to these girls' exclusionary appeal. To their ubiquity. To their immunity. I was coaxed from my stewed, and crummy, and invisible-to-me feeling of inferiority.
I was coaxed from my stewed, and crummy, and invisible-to-me feeling of inferiority.
So, I praised these girls for the faintest reasons. I held that their overall manner was epitomized by how impossibly cool they looked when doing plain things like pulling something, anything — it didn't matter what — from their back pockets, or casually hoisting their butts onto a kitchen counter mid-conversation. Their thighs didn't seem to pancake like mine when I'd sit down; their knees weren't shapeless either. I call mine potatoes-knees. Inherited from the women on my mother's side, they're spud-cut and a little lumpy. Inelegant.
In winter, these older girls carried out the tiring ritual of unscrambling themselves from their layers with remarkable grace. Nimbly delivering their long necks from circuits of wool scarves was, as ever, a sight to behold. Like when an off-duty ballet dancer steps on the subway and everyone's head turns — she influences us to readjust our postures and perhaps reconsider our whole lives. Just like that, these older girls preoccupied me.
They were the prospect of 14. That summit age I arbitrarily picked, resolving it stood for what I now believe might be a vacant pursuit: some cooked-up idea of having made it without divining what this unspeakable "it" marks or means. Or more humiliatingly, what it proves. When I turned 14, my 16th birthday newly assumed 14's folklore. Then 18. Followed by 24. And so on, and so on. Recently, I've heaped extra faith into 33's double springs, conceiving in its future roundness the calm of an absorbed, less wobbly world where I've developed a better sense of humor and experience with less acuity, the whiplash of life's ups and downs. Come 33, I'll certainly valorize 36. I'll reason it'll supply me with securities I have yet to fathom and eccentricities that permit me to slip out of my sensible mind. That I believe some big, whopping sign might one day parachute down and alert me to my arrival, is, I realize, foolish. Yet here I am at 29, liberally investing notions of sureness into tomorrow's birthdays just as I did with those older girls.
Thing is, those older girls were onto something. I'm sure of it. They collected boyfriends in neighboring schools as if expanding the real estate of their allure. Those older girls were wise to the curve and clout of their bodies in ways I'm still not, netting attention early in life when life was still framed by hallways and lockers and authorized by bells and permission slips. They realized the one component critical for eternalizing yourself as myth, no matter what later letdowns or cruelties might come with adulthood: to never smile in photos unless it was the annual class picture. Pouting and appearing generally disentranced to the flash of disposable cameras was standard practice, but come picture day, their smiles were athletically sincere. All at once obliging. I still remember most of their names — both first and last — which pleat my memory with singsong.
I still remember most of their names — both first and last — which pleat my memory with singsong.
It was as if I were standing in some figurative doorway with my head resting against the frame, watching these older girls get ready to go out: consider which dangly earrings to wear, how to part their hair and do their makeup. Because observing any woman smudge shiny powder down her brow bone to her cheekbone, or flutter-blink her lashes between strokes of mascara, or delicately part her lips when lining her eyes — those rapidly precise, tidy-messy, and pored-over motions — feels closest to catching a glimpse of her acquiring the world with quiet enormity from that faraway planet: her mirror.
Though I'll never know if I was ever perceived as an Older Girl and by whom, my memory of those years, of what was appealing about those white girls, is less and less absorbing. Less silvery, and nearly impossible to conjure. I was so young and so spellbound by movie beauty and so vulnerable to magazines. To the way magazine girls with freckles had figured it out: beauty that was somehow boyish, I reasoned, and contained character. After all, who needed makeup when you had freckles? I was in awe of skin that wasn't mine, blonde hair that would never be mine, friendships among older girls that I would have to wait to experience. It's taken me a while to reshape many of these notions because I was then and still am a late-to-bloom girl — the one who for years wore a sports bra as her everyday bra and would wait for the bus practicing my Liv Tyler pout, badly wishing for even a shred of courteous Liv Tyler cool.
During my first session, five or six years ago, my therapist lightly amended a declaration I was making with the words for now. The revelation was immediate. A tonic. Like when clouds part outside, and inside, fresh beams of light reinstate the day — those six letters marked a huge shift. Because as girls, we held on tight to Forever. It was compulsory: the most critical, tender quota. For now, however, is a far more rational unit of measurement, and perhaps one we should encourage much earlier in life because it doesn't require the insurance of a necklace or a bracelet or any token really. It connotes nuance and the balm of receptivity. It has little to do with girlhood's insistence on wide-eyed hopes for the future, or feeling like an easy mark, or, in my case, ceding so much power to those older white girls. What for now proposes instead is the give and grace of compassion.
Durga Chew-Bose is a writer living in Brooklyn. This piece is excerpted from a longer essay.