Boys vs. Girls vs. Aaron Carter

Nonfiction by Hannah Rego

The world began when two girls toddled across the street behind their mom, and Megan and Allison and I picked up handfuls of pebbles in my new forked driveway. The world began when Kathryn, in her purple shorts, ran across the street with her arms out like the wings of a plane or a starling to hide and seek me in my new imperfect baseball diamond. We called it the triangle yard.

The yard was the triangle between our three surnamedhomes, our trio of pre-Catholic-school days. We ran to Chris and Megan’s for fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies we wrongly thought were made from scratch. We played Wiffle ball all summer until the sun set on being four or six or seven years old and entirely free. The world began when we split up into teams. Boys’ team, girls’ team—a division that felt like evening out the body count rather than deciding who we had to be.

The world ended when the twins down the block, who were in town from Florida, laughed at me for taking off my shirt to join them in a game of H-O-R-S-E. The world ended when Chris asked me whether I knew what the white stuff was called, and I impressed him with a whispered sperm. The world stopped being the world when the twins joked about condoms while they shot shotguns at each other on a green TV, and my dad yelled at them because I was in the room.

When the world was the world, it was made of basements and swing sets and berries I pulled from bushes to smash against a marble brick I’d found in my backyard. Every honeysuckle was a portal to a new world, and every world was mine. I was the dragon and I was the princess and I was the magician without a name. I was Charizard unless my brother was already Charizard. I was a boy unless I wasn’t.

Each day we’d pick teams. Before the twins appeared, my brother and Chris decided who, that day, would join them. We all wanted to be boys—we all wanted to feel older. There was no real ranking otherwise, but Kathryn and I were so much the best of friends that she seemed younger than she was. It was really like this: Chris—Max/Kathryn—Megan—Me—Allison. If I’d been the oldest, how long could I have held up the world?

I wore overalls almost every day, not for the look but because I liked the extra material between my legs. I didn’t know dick, I didn’t know packing, I didn’t know sex or what it stood for, or that I’d learn at a sleepover in first grade what all of it meant, or that I’d obsess about it too early, all the time, or that during the sex-ed class in middle school I’d raise my hand eagerly, star student always, and shout all the slang terms for penis as if I were earning extra credit, which would be embarrassing for everyone else before it would be embarrassing for me, or that I would learn I had been masturbating since before I could speak, that that’s what it was, or that I’d start praying I’d never do it again, and then I’d do it again, and then I’d pray for forgiveness. I knew only myself and the thick denim seams.

One week Megan was a boy the whole time. She acted scrappier and scowled more. She crossed her arms and said let’s play kickball until we were tired of kicking, and Max and Chris retreated in secret to tape a no-girls-allowed sign to a closed door. When the boys left us, and we picked our own games, we scavenged for magic food, harvesting orange seeds from within divided tan pods until we looked as if we’d spent the whole day eating Cheetos. We made Goldfish our communion and played church. We swung and sang. We made music videos without recording them; we had no VH1, no MTV, and didn’t know we needed a camera. Someone should have had a camera, or maybe a wire. Someone should have been collecting evidence.

Only the girls wanted to play house. We played as teenagers, a life stage that felt impossibly far away. Megan would ask, Do you want to play boyfriend/girlfriend? And I would answer, I’ll be the boyfriend! As soon as it was decided, the game ended. We knew what couples were but not what couples did.

Before school was real school, every day felt the same. Every hour was a lifetime I decided for myself. Before books weren’t just Seuss I’d memorized, before Megan wore shoes to cross the street, before I knew that one thousand didn’t come straight after one hundred, every memory is warm. Every day isn’t just sunny but glowing and contained like the candle-light-shaped night-light in my bathroom with impossibly-patterned tiles. I’d follow their snake patterns while brushing my teeth alongside my brother, and then we’d spit in our twin sinks.

Every day was limitless. Every activity occurred on a whim. But everyone got older before I did—everyone got older all the time, and I would cry and cry that I never wanted to. The days became more organized. Chris had things to teach us.

One Halloween Chris wanted us to run a haunted house. We turned a chest into a coffin for me to spring from, vampire-fangs-first. We hung cobwebs. We practiced pacing and screaming. We charged everyone in the neighborhood a quarter, and with our two-figure profit Chris said we could finally start a band. In his basement Chris choreographed our bodies with moves borrowed from boy bands, but I mostly sat out. I’d only heard the soft grunge and Americana and public radio indie my parents played—NSYNC was an idea, not a sound.

Chris wanted to build a clubhouse out of scrap wood. Chris still wanted to play kickball, sometimes. On the last day of summer Chris told us to go into the garage, and Chris lined us up across from each other—his sister and my brother; Chris and me—and Chris told us to pull down our pants at the same time and Chris told us on his count of one-two-three to touch each other at the same time, and the garage felt electric— not like the storm but like when what Mom called a transformer blew up above our car during the storm and we both felt it in our hands—and Chris faced the tiny windows in the garage door and Chris said there were people walking down the street and Chris said hide and I scrambled to redo my overall straps and Chris was gone and I don’t know how the day ended but Chris said he wanted to plan more, and Chris called us into a fort of stacked bags of raked leaves to say we’ll do it again soon, and Chris kept a Playboy in a play-fridge in my house, and no grown-up ever got play-hungry enough to ask us how it got there.

Some days we hurled Beanie Babies at one another in Chris and Megan’s basement. Some days I dared myself to eat a week-old piece of popcorn chicken in a basement full of cave crickets. Some days I lay on the couch staring toward but not quite out the window because the heat from outside made me more comfortable, and I was trying not to need the basic functions of my body because I knew using the bathroom would hurt, it always hurt, and I knew it always hurt because I wouldn’t do it, and I knew I wouldn’t do it because I was afraid to do it, and I knew my mom didn’t know it was psychological—a word I didn’t know but felt the weight of—and when the doctor told my mom as if I wasn’t sitting on the paper next to him that she needs to eat a banana a day I blinked and started hiding unpeeled bananas in the bottoms of trash cans and shitting my pants all year in the pool or at preschool or running up a hill, and so I watched the dust swirl in the light instead of helping with the garden.

Outside there was still enough magic to bind us together. The world was still the world, and still we sat on hotter days in Megan’s basement at vintage school desks, playing at school more than attending it. Kathryn played the teacher, pointing at nothing on a chalkboard. We played capture the flag with bandanas we hid in our yards. We caught lightning bugs and kept them in jars, or Chris crushed them into darkness with a baseball bat. We caught caterpillars and raced them up our arms. We threw fallen apples from my front yard as hard as we could at the oaks and watched them explode. Everyone rode bikes but me. I was afraid, already, of falling. I was afraid of scraped knees.

Once, Megan and I entered her basement alone, and I’ll never know why—we never huddled up by ourselves, not even to share jokes or secrets—but in her basement, that day, all the Beanie Babies were put away, all the doors were closed, and all the lights were off except the dull yellow sunlight from the barely-above-ground window. Megan looked me in the eyes and asked, Will you be Aaron Carter for me? Of course. I felt how the wind feels before it pulls down the rain. Yes,I said. And that day we both knew what to do. She lay down on the couch, and I, perfectly dressed in my overalls, climbed on top of her and leaned down. We put the backs of our hands, thumbs down, to our mouths and pressed our palms together, so that we were not kissing but were, through our hands, kissing, so that we were coupled, so that we were coupled without giving up anything.

Hannah Rego is a writer from Louisville, KY. They have attended residencies and workshops through Spalding University’s Low-Res MFA, SAFTA, Winter Tangerine, and the June Jordan Teaching Corp at Columbia University. They are associate poetry editor at Rabbit Catastrophe Review and a founding editor of ctrl+v, a journal of collage. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, BOMB Magazine, The Arkansas International, Underblong, Glass, and elsewhere. They live in Brooklyn.