NONFICTION June 2, 2023

Girlhood Pentaptych

The first sentence of “Girlhood Pentaptych” was previously published in slightly altered form as “Forest Lawn” in the fall 2022 issue of The Citron Review.

I. Forest Lawn

I don’t know why we hung out in the cemetery, tank tops dusting mausoleum walls in the sleepy heat, except that maybe while eating Twizzlers and discussing our code-name system for boys—from attractive (Swans) to not attractive (Crumpets) and various in between (e.g., Monets: only attractive from afar)—we thought angels would come for us, stepping quiet-footed through the grass to sweep us up to a heaven without mirrors. Years later, I’d find photos from one of those afternoons, and our faces would be sunlit smirks. Scrawny bodies slouched, a headstone behind each of us like thrones. 

II. Seven Minutes in Heaven

When Tommy H. spun the bottle, it landed on me, so I followed him into the closet, into dark so thick nothing changed when I blinked, which is what I’d always feared of death. Tommy banged his fist on the door in a lewd rhythm and moaned to muffled laughter from our friends, but he didn’t try to touch me, didn’t whisper, Don’t you want to, didn’t come close with his damp boy-breath, and I couldn’t tell whether he was sparing me or teasing me, whether he was as unsure as I was or just thought me ugly. 


At Stephanie’s house after school, we’d watch TRL, Nelly Furtado’s and Britney’s bronzed midriffs writhing in dewy jungles or empty, white rooms. We’d talk about rumors—that Mr. Ableson had had a hard-on in class when Anna raised her hand, that Andrew B. had called Nina a Butterface at the mall, that Tara only ate white foods—until it was time for me to go. Back home, in my room, I’d lift my shirt in front of the mirror and touch my ribs. Strum the bones of my cage splayed under my skin like umbrella spokes, like baby teeth ready to push through. I’d wonder who’d been lounging on some other couch that afternoon, talking about me. 

IV. Self-Defense

After Ashley was assaulted behind the Burger King on Elmwood, our school arranged a self-defense class for the girls. We lined up in the gym like nervous birds on a wire. Eyes, throat, groin! the instructor yelled. As our shoes squeaked on shiny, yellow hardwood, I wanted to give up. In real life, my spindly limbs would never outmaneuver anyone. But, later, when we practiced our new moves in Anna’s room, grabbing and wrestling, it was the most fun we’d had in a while. Heaving breaths, rug-burned, pink fingermarks blooming across our skin like petals. 

V. 280 Empire Service

On the train to visit my older sister, I picked a window seat. I was tickling the edge of adulthood: a seven-hour trip by myself, moving freely through the wide world alone. Every detail leapt, outsized. The navy nub of the Amtrak cushions, my backpack crowding my feet, the damp countryside trundling by. I imagined everyone on the train was secretly in love with me—What an intriguing girl, there’s something about her—and I was in love with them, too. Later, after a college boy spoke to me in the dining car, wrote his email address on his ticket stub and slid it over the table, I caught my reflection in the window and, for a second, didn’t recognize myself. I tried to see what everyone else saw, but by then it was my own face again, too familiar to judge. Smirking, uncertain, wary of the world but consumed by it. 

K.S. Dyal is the author and illustrator of the novella It Felt Like Everything (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, CutBank, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She writes from Washington, D.C.