By Katie Ward
When the time came each spring to measure our waists and hips for uniforms, we did week-long grapefruit fasts and sucked in our stomachs as far as they would go. We liked our tops too tight and our skirts too short, the exposed flesh of our upper thighs a point of ongoing contention at PTA meetings. All summer, we ran laps around the track with our chests pressed out, ponytails bouncing, showing off for the varsity football practice. We lined our eyes and lips, padded our bras, braided our hair, grew it waist-long—always at least waist-long and oiled with jojoba, a gesture to our youth and fertility. Coach tried to keep our choreography PG, but there was only so much she could do to contain us. We were children in the bodies of women. We had hips and breasts and hair growing between our legs and beneath our arms, growing faster than we could shave or pluck or wax. We were greasy-faced and wanted things more than we ever had before. Some of us, the lucky ones, had boyfriends who took their clothes off in the backseats of parents’ SUVs. The rest of us listened fervently to their stories, accepted them despite their embellishment, fantasized about them later in the darkness of our childhood bedrooms.
At a sleepover in July, we dared the host to pull up porn on her older brother’s computer. We gathered round, faces illuminated from below by the screen, volume on silent so we didn’t wake the parents. In the video we chose, a man with a comically large penis fucked a woman with the flattest stomach we’d ever seen. He held her by her throat and gritted his teeth, spat a thick glob of saliva onto her face. It caught in her false eyelashes and lingered there—her hands were tied behind her back, so she couldn’t reach up to wipe it away. She blinked in a futile attempt to dislodge it, then he flipped her over and slapped her hard from behind, leaving a bright red imprint on the side of her thigh. She moaned loudly at this. She seemed to enjoy it. We giggled with our hands over our mouths, wide-eyed with shock and exhilaration. As we watched, we felt warmth descending to the lower halves of our bodies. We imagined ourselves as the woman getting fucked. We imagined our stomachs as flat as hers, our orgasms as loud and extravagant. At home the next day, several of us shut the doors to our rooms and stood naked in front of our mirrors, considering. We smacked ourselves hard on our thighs to see if our skin reddened the same way the woman’s did, to see if it hurt.
Summer passed, languid and restless. We tolerated week-long trips with our families to the shore, crammed in the backseats of minivans. We rode bicycles to the gas station across town for cigarettes, sat in the sun and doused our scalps with cold lemon juice. We found our lives unbearably suburban. Too small for us. Soon, August came and went, so quickly we almost missed it. Fall tryouts took place on the Sunday before school started. We complained over text to one another, but secretly we loved them—we fed off the palpable anxiety of the new freshmen, tryout numbers pinned to their oversized t-shirts. We basked in their eagerness, their intent observation. We demonstrated our stunts and tumbles and dances; we demonstrated our self-assurance and the fluidity of our buttery, tanned limbs, our effortless closeness to one another. During water break, the new freshmen clung to the walls of the gymnasium while we gathered on the mats in a tight circle, laughing and leaning our heads on each other’s bony shoulders. We promised them this, wordlessly, if they made the team: they could look like us. They could move like us. One day, maybe, they could be us.
The new girl, Caroline, arrived late. We noticed her out of the corners of our eyes as we led warm-ups—she dropped her backpack casually by the wall, spoke with Coach for a minute or two before jogging over to the mat and taking a spot toward the back. Caroline was not a freshman. This was obvious: we communicated it to each other with wary glances. She had colorless acne scars and small, white teeth. A perky, round ass that peeked out of the bottom of cotton shorts. Her hair was blonde and wispy, tied back into a bun. No braces, no fear. She must have been a sophomore transfer.
It was our job to teach the dance session—three eight-counts, a series of coordinated motions and rolls and thrusts, movements which needed to be both rigid and soft in equal measure. Timing was vital. One missed beat would ruin the strange magic of bodies moving in tandem, the illusion that we were one cohesive entity. Imagine you are a swarm of gnats, we said to the new tryouts, imagine you are a hive of bees. You share one communal knowledge, one communal purpose. There is higher truth to be found in these three eight-counts, we said. Your body does not belong to you. It belongs to the whole. It moves with the whole.
The freshmen listened carefully, nodding to signal that they understood. Caroline watched from her back row window, arms crossed. We stood in a line, spaced evenly, demonstrated the dance full speed, then slowed it down. After a while, we stopped dancing. We turned around to observe. The freshman jerked their bodies back and forth, counting through gritted teeth, watching one another out of the corners of their eyes. Five more minutes to practice, then they’d dance for Coach, and she’d scribble ominously onto her little notepad, eyes hopping from number to number, face to face. We saw them grow more desperate as the time ticked down. We saw Caroline in the back row, chewing on a hangnail, bobbing her head to the eight-counts. She didn’t practice at all. We made faces to one another, as if to say, What is she doing here? Soon, Coach lined them up and queued the music, flipped the page on her notepad. We counted under our breaths as the freshmen flailed, as Caroline hit each motion, sharp and controlled, right on cue. The worst part, we all agreed, was that she didn’t even seem to be trying. Her body moved like it knew something ours did not.
This wouldn’t do, we decided, this girl could not be one of us. Surely, we whispered in the bathroom, Coach could see it? She tapped furiously at her phone during breaks, didn't even try to join in group conversation. She smacked Juicy Fruit between her molars, jutted out a hip when three of the lacrosse boys walked by, lingering in the doorway. But when her turn came to tumble, she cocked her head back and took off across the floor, completing her pass without the smallest stumble or hesitation. We watched her with our arms crossed, glowering. At the end of the day, Coach said she’d post the list by the next afternoon. We hugged each other tightly goodbye, kissed sweaty cheeks, interlocked elbows, piled into our carpools. We dissected each of the new tryouts in our group text the whole way home. We forged an unspoken agreement: Caroline was not even worth mentioning.
The list was taped to the painted cinderblock wall of the hallway, just outside the upstairs gym. We agreed we’d wait and only look at it together, the way we did it every year. This was a formality, we all knew: none of us would get cut. Impossible. In fact, it was hard to imagine the team existing long after we graduated and left the school behind—it would lose its very soul, its shape, its definition. We didn’t like to imagine graduation, didn’t even like to talk about it. Perhaps, we thought, if we ignored the idea, it might go away on its own. That Monday, we stood with our backs to the list, tightly grasping each other’s hands, twirling our hair around our fingers in anticipation. We pressed closer together when the football boys passed us in a line, heading to the field for warmups, the sweet-sour smell of body odor rising from their bare arms, heat sloughing off of their bodies. We noticed strange, incidental details: a small patch of razor burn just below a sharp jawline, a peek of taut skin exposed above the waistline of a pair of athletic shorts. Our paces quickened. We straightened our spines, wondered privately which of our details would be noticed in passing, hoped for the appealing ones. We counted down from three, squealing nervously, then turned around. We read each of our names one by one, jumping on top of each other in celebration, until we got to the end. Two of the ten freshmen tryouts had made it, the two we’d already agreed were the least objectionable. The last name printed on the paper was Caroline’s.
It was alright, alright, we told each other, arms still linked in a chain. She was new to the team, new to the school. What was most important, we said, is that we are together. Nobody could change that, we swore: never, never, never. A current of feeling passed through us then, around and around the circle, kept alive by our contact.
Caroline appeared, as if summoned, at the end of the hallway. She carried her backpack by a single strap, the sleeve of her shirt hanging loosely from the other shoulder, revealing the delicate lace of a hot pink push-up bra. Her face was bare and her hair was loose and curly, the ends fried with bleach, giving the overall effect of having just rolled out of bed. She was talking to two senior boys, both on the basketball team, each at least a foot taller than her. The bent down when she spoke, threw their heads back laughing, enraptured. She gave them each a quick hug goodbye, sauntered toward us, checked the list.
“Congratulations,” we said in chorus, aiming for a tone of chilly professionalism.
“Thanks!” she replied with a tight smile. “Guess I’ll see you at practice.”
Now, so many years removed, it’s hard to understand why Caroline posed such a threat. It’s hard to remember what our togetherness felt like, its constant, rumbling intensity. Back then, we were not only friends—that word feels too pedestrian, too reductive. We belonged to one another. We sobbed into each other’s shoulders over boys who did not like us, boys who did not like us enough, boys who never liked us to begin with. We held back curtains of thick hair and rubbed shoulders in the basement half-baths of house parties, drunk and doting, playing mother. We were not afraid of one another’s bodies, the way everyone else seemed to be afraid of our bodies then—we helped retrieve stubborn tampons in public bathroom stalls. We changed for practice without any thought of privacy, compared the shapes and colors of our nipples in the mirror. We practiced kissing in each other’s bedrooms, never spoke of it afterwards. The freshmen were no bother: we could shape them in our image like clay, absorb them into us like an amoeba. Caroline was different. Caroline was menacingly distinct.
In those first few weeks of the school year, she established herself quickly as a thorn in our sides. At practice, she hurled her lithe body with ease into tumbling passes that crossed the length of the floor. She was smaller than the smallest of us, her collarbones thin and pronounced against the straps of her size XS tank tops. Right away, Coach declared that she’d be point flyer in the homecoming pyramid, that we’d all be arranged in various positions beneath her. Her sneakers left gritty imprints in our palms when we lifted, her knuckles ground into the meat of our shoulders. Her proportional body—so slender at the waist we wondered if she’d gotten ribs removed—looked perfect up there, too perfect: none of us could argue with Coach’s decision.
The freshmen were quickly neutralized with offers of gin-filled water bottles from our parents’ liquor cabinets, rides to the weekly bonfires hosted by the older burnouts ten miles outside of town, hazing on the football field at midnight. Caroline, though invited, did not attend. Across the rooms at parties, we watched as Caroline batted her eyelashes at boy after nameless boy, boys whose names we’d scribbled in the margins of calculus notebooks, boys whose names we’d considered, hopefully, next to ours. She was always showing up alone or with one of them, not like all the other girls, who traveled in protective clusters, who held onto each other as they moved through narrow hallways so nobody got lost. We arrived glossed and perfumed and overdressed—Caroline wore extra-large sweatshirts and denim cutoffs, pink plastic flip flops that displayed a mess of chipped toenail polish. Still, boys eagerly crowded her into corners, paid us no mind. Whore, we whispered to each other behind cupped hands as she followed them into guest bedrooms, giggling wickedly.
Fucking whore, one of the men in the next video said, grinning and squeezing the cheeks of another flat-stomached woman, kneeling before him, naked and submissive. The woman beamed upward, mascara pooling beneath her eyes. We were piled on the couch, the laptop balanced on a row of our knobby knees. It was an afternoon like any other, our school uniforms in states of disarray, our homework forgotten in our backpacks. How long is fucking supposed to last? one of us asked, considering the forty-eight-minute timestamp on the video. As long as the guy can go, another answered. We joked about the strange, convoluted sex positions, designed to ensure every angle of the woman’s body was exposed. We joked about the bad acting, the illogical scenarios that prompted sex: ordering pizza you can’t afford, masturbating on public transportation, wanting to fuck your stepdad. We tried to imagine the woman on the screen doing anything at all aside from fucking: stopping by the bank to cash a check, waiting in line at the DMV, stuck in traffic on the highway. But all of these images seemed just as implausible as the storylines in the videos. We wondered aloud about her life. We wondered if she could be a real, actual person. We shut off the video just as she was throwing her head back in ecstasy, and concluded that it seemed unlikely. Later, in our beds, we fell asleep with our hands between our legs, wishing we could be the porn star, just for a day. In the morning, in more reasonable states of mind, we all agreed that she deserved a certain degree of disrespect. After all, she had earned it.
A Friday night in October: the homecoming game. We can’t recall now whether it was the beginning or end of the month, but we remember it was cold—Coach wouldn’t let us wear our matching sweatsuits, and the follicles on our bare legs and arms prickled uncomfortably. We curled our hair in the mirrorless bathroom, left hickey-burns on the sides of our necks. We tied bows in our ponytails, ribbon a virginal shade of white. Coach told us to meet an hour before kickoff to practice our chants, our halftime routine, the pyramid we’d blocked and restructured a dozen times by then. The sun was setting as we made our way there, congregating in a tight circle on the track, bouncing on the balls of our feet and huddling like penguins to keep warm. We stretched our splits and wrung out our wrists, antsy and over-caffeinated. We looked around, waiting, but a half an hour passed and Caroline was nowhere to be found. Coach was seething, the freshmen wide-eyed. We shook our heads and frowned, appropriately somber. As the stands filled and the football players took the field for warm-ups, Coach called us into a huddle and told us Caroline was out of the pyramid—we sighed, nodded gravely at this new, unexpected responsibility. We made adjustments and substitutions, ran the routine three times so we’d remember the changes. Coach patted us on the backs and thanked us for being flexible, for putting the team first. We smiled graciously, humbly. When Coach turned her back, we exchanged looks of poorly contained elation.
Caroline appeared finally during the second quarter, emerging from the crowd in the stands, flanked by the two basketball players we’d seen her with before. Her hair was loose and hanging in front of her eyes; her uniform was rolled up, unzipped over a pair of men’s sweatpants. She wore the wrong shoes, no makeup, no ribbon for her ponytail. She laughed, open-mouthed and obnoxious, and leaned into the taller boy’s chest. We held our chins up and crossed our pom-poms behind our backs, our feet shoulder-width apart, poised for action like an army waiting for the order to march. We trained our eyes on the field, tried not to look at her, failed. She jogged over to Coach and began buttoning her skirt, the movement casual and infuriating. We listened and bit our lips as Coach asked her where she’d been, why she hadn’t called, why she felt entitled to let down her teammates during our first major game of the year. We stayed stock still pretending to care about the other team’s field goal as Coach said that she’d been replaced in the pyramid, that she’d have to return her uniform to the office on Monday morning.
Later that night, in someone’s finished basement, we kneeled excitedly on couch cushions and reenacted the confrontation, dissected it from all angles: the way Coach stood solemn with her arms crossed, the way Caroline looked indignant, rolled her eyes, strutted off toward the bleachers. We didn’t need the vodka we’d stolen and smuggled in our duffel bags. The events of the evening were enough to leave us feeling giddy, punch-drunk, sentimental. Before we fell asleep, we held hands and proclaimed our love for one another, the sort of weepy, effusive declarations you might expect in a bar bathroom after midnight. We slept without dreaming, our bodies packed tightly against one another on the pullout couch, and woke late in the morning to the childhood smell of pancakes and burnt bacon wafting from the kitchen upstairs.
We thought it was over then, the whole mess behind us, until Monday, when Caroline did not return her uniform. In the hallways, she kept her head down, avoided us. At practice on Tuesday, we plucked up the courage to ask Coach, but she just shook her head and frowned, then made us run laps. We peeked into the windows of the athletic office after school, snuck in during third lunch and dug through boxes. But the uniform was nowhere to be found. She still has it, we whispered over cafeteria tables, peeling at the soft papery layers of our chewed fingernails. It was a terrible thought—Caroline, masquerading as one of us, flipping her hair and swinging her hips, laughing at nothing funny. It drove us all a little mad. We made our pleading petitions to Coach, but she wouldn’t hear them. She told us to let it go, but of course, we couldn’t. The vision of Caroline in our uniform kept us up at night, nagging and persistent as an itch.
A few weeks later, the video appeared in our messages like an answer. Now, if we must think of it at all, we theorize that maybe it was the lack of sleep, the impending college applications, the romantic rejections or accumulating homework or general, unbearable restlessness of our lives that prompted us to do it. None of these justifications fit right, but in a pinch, they’ll do. It was a Saturday night in November, and we were together, smoking weed on a back porch from a cored-out apple, pretending to get high. One of the basketball boys had sent the video to a friend, who sent it to two more, and so it went, an exponential chain reaction. Impossible to stop once it had begun. Soon, the video was playing at full volume on each of our screens, the timing a few seconds off, so the sounds echoed strangely into the night. The footage was grainy, but unmistakable: there was Caroline, kneeling on the waxed floor of the upstairs gym, her back to the camera. In front of her, the shorter of the basketball boys stood with his pants around his ankles, a shock of dark pubic hair interrupting the pale expanse of his stomach and upper thighs. The camera panned down to the taller one’s penis, hard but unremarkable. Caroline was wearing our uniform, the skirt pulled up and bunched around her waist, the top twisted to one side so her left breast was exposed. The video was short, less than a minute. We watched it over and over again, none of us saying a word, our hearts beating quickly in sync, our ears pricked back and alert. We were one whole being then, one animal, for the last true time. The caption below the video was short but succinct: “Cheerleader fcks 2 guys in 1.”
There was no conversation, no debate to be had. We decided in a silent instant. We went inside and opened a hidden browser window on someone’s computer. We made a burner email account, imported all our contacts—every student we knew at school, the teachers, the principal and vice principal and head of the PTA. We uploaded the file and attached it to a blank message, copied the caption of the video into the subject line. We clicked the dropdown, selected “BCC all contacts”. We watched hundreds of email addresses autofill in a second. We took a deep breath, synchronized, and pressed “Send.”
The weeks after are hard for us to remember now: they are blurry, chaotic, obscure. None of us could tell you the exact order of events, even if we tried. There was a perfunctory investigation—a cop from the local station came to the school and gave a talk about the vague, formless dangers of underage sex and the Internet. He stood with his arms crossed behind the desk as the principal interviewed each of us, one at a time, sternly suggesting that the individual who sent the video, once discovered, would face expulsion and potential legal consequences. We each nodded, looked down at our laps, and said we had no idea who did it. This was, in its own way, the truth. It was the only thing anyone in school could talk about those two weeks before Christmas break, the biggest scandal they’d seen in years. In the hallways, they crowded the two basketball players, shook hands and slapped backs, begged for details. The boys shook their heads at the ground, grinned sheepishly. We knew, of course, that one of them had started it. But, we agreed, their involvement was at most tangential, arbitrary. It didn’t occur to us at all to blame them.
By the end of December, the buzz died down and the story was buried by new dramas, reduced to a caricature. Caroline never came back to school. Someone in homeroom told us she’d transferred to the public high school a town over. Another said her parents had sent her to military boot camp. By the end of the school year, Caroline had lived a million lives: she had joined a convent, gone to prison, moved to Finland. She had dropped out of school entirely to sell photographs of her feet online. Wherever she went, we all agreed, it was for the best. The mature thing. No need for further discussion, for guilt or second-guessing. Caroline had put herself in a compromising position. Some nights, once our parents were asleep and our houses had gone quiet, we pulled up the video and watched it, rewinding again and again until we’d memorized every detail. We allowed ourselves a moment or two to imagine it was us, kneeling there half-dressed in our uniforms on the gym floor, just long enough to feel a flutter of shame or want or sickness in our lower stomachs, to feel bile rising in our throats.
The year went on. The season ended; we hung out with new friends. Graduation came despite our protestations, and we squeezed each other tightly in our caps and gowns, swore with our hands on our hearts that we’d keep in touch. We took off in separate directions: we went to state schools and married men who bored us, worked jobs, raised children, bought starter homes and carried Ziploc bags of orange slices to soccer games. Our bodies grew and changed and became solid, our skin sagged and aged and spotted in the sun. We caught up over the phone on occasion, never spoke about the video again. On rare, raw-nerve days, after one too many glasses of wine, we sometimes feel that old pull deep in the pits of our stomachs, like a rope yanked taut. We open our laptops, type out Caroline’s name, scroll and scroll and scroll through endless profiles of strangers. We search for hours. We never find her.
Katie Ward (she/her) is a writer from Northampton, Massachusetts. She graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2019 with a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing, and is a second year prose candidate in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. She is a previous attendee of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and currently works as a Graduate Teaching Associate and Writing Center Tutor at UMass.