(Also, this is about how boys treat girls.)
(Okay, it’s about how people treat girls.)
(Fine. It’s about being a girl.)
In the context of my high school narrative, Delilah is like this constant, uncomfortable mirror, held up to the person I was at fifteen. Mostly, a mirror that illustrates the numerous and fundamental ways that Sophomore-me was nothing like Sophomore-Delilah.
Hell, even at eighteen—and in my own scientific opinion, vastly improved—I’m still nothing like her.
The thing about Delilah is, she’s frightened of very few things.
The thing about Delilah is, she will always, always tell you what she thinks.
The thing about Delilah is, she engages in very little second-guessing or social decoding or self-doubt. There is essentially no such thing as a filter.
In this sense, she and Cobalt are pretty much kindred spirits. They’re loud and outrageous and opinionated. They’re not in the business of making friends, but until someone actively antagonizes them, they’re perfectly willing to be friendly with just about everybody.
The fact of the matter is, you either like them or you don’t, and if you don’t, then whatever. They’ll survive.
“Your socks don’t match,” said Cobalt.
We were standing in the locker room, waiting for Little Sister Yovanoff to finish lacing up her cross-trainers. I examined my socks. One was purple and one was brown, but they had looked the same under the hall light at six o’clock in the morning.
“God damn it.”
Cobalt smiled slyly, looking at me sideways. “Are you embarrassed?”
I shrugged, shook my head.
“I don’t know, I guess there’s worse things in the world than mismatched socks. I mean, I’d feel pretty stupid if this determined my whole day.”
“Good,” she said, nodding with a satisfied expression. “Everyone else around here worries so $%&@ing much about what people think.”
I didn’t say anything. Because actually, I kind of do too.
Cobalt talks a lot about how she doesn’t care. Boys make suggestive comments and stare at her chest and she just acts like a runway model or a rockstar, invincible, basking in it. When Jackal calls her a slut and a dirty hootchie and a number of other equally articulate things, Cobalt tips her head back and laughs. She howls and hugs her sides, gleeful, delighted. She and Delilah have not been making themselves popular. This seems to be an occupational hazard of not caring what people think.
The thing about Jackal is, she isn’t nice. I know that in the context of what comes next, this probably goes without saying, but I want to say it anyway. Jackal isn’t nice, but she isn’t alone in her treatment of Cobalt, either. She’s just marginally more aggressive.
I want to point out that while this whole encounter takes place well before the concept of slut-shaming entered the public vocabulary, slut-shaming still totally exists. There’s this ugly, pervasive attitude that the absolute worst thing a girl can be is sexual, or even perceived as sexual. And I’m not even going to say that teenage-Brenna isn’t guilty of buying into it, because I think my own bias is pretty apparent in the excerpt I just shared.
Even though eighteen-year-old me never would have told you that Cobalt was dirty or bad or deserved to be punished, I’m still bothered by her obvious sense of freedom. I still feel anxious, like she’s breaking the rules of girlhood. (Hey, remember when I said that once I started getting into senior year, we were going to be coming up against some substantially more difficult topics? This is one of those times.)
Cobalt is, in most ways, a really lovely person. She isn’t catty or mean. She never says things with the intention of making other people feel bad about themselves, and when she makes suggestive comments and talks openly about attraction or bodies or sex, she’s really just acting the way that the boys act all the time.
On an analytical level, I know this. I know that if I condemn or judge her for it, that’s a huge double standard, and it still just makes me really uncomfortable. Honestly, the only real difference between me and all the self-righteous, vocal girls who hate her is that her behavior makes me uncomfortable, not angry.
And also that I’m not a total asshole about it. Which I guess is actually a pretty big difference.
So, Jackal is a year younger than me, and mean. She dates a tall, thug-y boy named Twitch, who lives up by me and is physically attached to Jackal 80% of the time and has been known to beat up sophomores for basically nothing and occasionally likes to bother Wit and call him a lot of really offensive euphemisms for gay. A prince among men, is what I’m saying.
The way it starts is, Jackal has been consistently harassing Cobalt for about two weeks. Over what, exactly? I have no idea. Neither does Cobalt. Possibly, neither does Jackal.
I’m standing in the hallway with Cobalt, Delilah, and Little Sister Yovanoff, waiting for the bell and suddenly, Cobalt pitches forward, banging into my shoulder. I put out my hand to steady her, and when I look up, Jackal is stalking away, accompanied by Twitch.
“She just pushed me,” Cobalt says, in a slow, wondering voice, the way a person might say That ’97 Honda just turned into a pony.
The whole incident is just stupid. It’s the kind of pointless scuffling that happens from time to time, juvenile, but ignorable. Except, Delilah is not really the type to ignore anything.
“Hooker,” she calls after Jackal in a light, sing-song voice.
And Jackal spins around, dragging Twitch back to us. “You say something to me, bitch?”
She says this with her nose less than two inches from Cobalt’s, and even though I know—unequivocally know that I have to not—I begin to laugh.
I can’t help it. It’s this awful, jittering sound, and I’m covering my mouth with both hands like a cartoon character, trying to stay quiet, but the laugh keeps squeaking out anyway.
Cobalt is less affected. In fact, she seems entirely bored by the situation. “No,” she says, looking up at Jackal. “No, I didn’t say anything.”
“That’s what I thought, bitch.”
Cobalt smiles then—the slyest, sweetest smile—waving her hand at Delilah. “I didn’t say anything. But she did. She called you a hooker.”
Jackal rounds on Delilah, her expression emphasizing the way that people are really scary looking when they pluck their eyebrows very thin and then draw them back on. “Did you say something to me, you $%&@ing bitch?”
Delilah nods. Slowly. Earnestly. “Yeah. I called you a hooker.”
Jackal was opening and closing her mouth. Her eyes were big and shining. I felt bad, suddenly, even though she’d started it and even though she says horrible things about Cobalt all the time. She was still leaning forward, but like she was off-balance, breathing too fast. She turned and looked at me, started to say something, but I still had both hands over my mouth, giggling into my palms. She stared hard, then swept on to Little Sister. But Little Sister is in her grade and has always been perfectly civil to her. Jackal just sucked in her breath and then let it out in a strange, huffing sigh, shaking her head. The two-minute bell rang and I waited to see what was going to happen next.
Jackal turns back to Delilah. “If you’ve got something to say to me, then you better $%&@ing be able to say it to my face, instead of waiting ’til my back is turned. If you’ve got something so important to say, how come you can’t say it to my face?”
Delilah considers this. Her expression is bright and attentive, but her shoulders are hard. “How could I?” she says. “You were walking away.”
“I should kick your skinny ass,” Jackal says, and she even sounds like she means it.
I start seriously trying to anticipate what happens next. Jackal gets in fights. She’s meaner and more impulsive than Delilah or Cobalt, but she’s also slender and off-balance, wearing high-heeled boots, and I know in a placid, objective way that thanks to soccer, Little Sister and I are both much stronger. I don’t want to get suspended, but I don’t want Delilah to get hurt. I decide that I’m reasonably sure I could pull them apart, which comforts me.
However, Delilah doesn’t do anything rash or unwise. Instead, she says, with absolute sincerity, “Why are you so mean to us? All the time, you’re mean to us. What did me and Cobalt ever do to you?”
“Yeah,” Cobalt says, coming up next to Delilah. “Don’t you have anything better to do than terrorize people who never did one thing to hurt you? Don’t you have anything better to do?”
And at first, I’m tremendously relieved. I think, Oh, we’re going to have a civil discussion. This is awesome. This is how we solve interpersonal problems like grown-ups.
But the problem is not solved in the style of grown-ups, because Jackal doesn’t answer, and because Cobalt and Delilah immediately start laughing hysterically.
“You don’t, do you?” Cobalt says between gasps. “You really don’t have anything better to do.”
Jackal doesn’t answer. After a long, uncomfortable silence, she just turns and walks away, still hand-in-hand with Twitch, the heels of her boots clicking hard on the floor.
I have this mute, elated moment where I understand that the whole fiasco is over and I can melt and hyperventilate and have a little heart attack and then go to ceramics class.
“Hooker!” shouts Delilah, with great conviction.
And I kind of want to grab her and slap my hand over her mouth.
This time though, Twitch is the one who comes storming back to us, dragging Jackal behind him. She looks limp and sort of miserable, but he is absolutely raging.
He stops right in front of Delilah. “Watch—your—mouth.”
The toes of his shoes are actually touching hers, but she doesn’t move, just stands with her hands tucked cutely in the pockets of her sweater, looking up at him. She’s smiling, but it’s this strange, scary smile that reminds me uncannily of Jane, and I’m fascinated by the way they pretty much only look alike when they’re angry.
Also, I’m not laughing anymore.
“Oooh, big man,” Cobalt says, popping her eyes in a wide, gleeful way.
Twitch turns to face her, looking thunderous. “And you shut up, you little [C-word O_O], or I’ll shut you up.”
It’s weird, hearing him say the C-word. It’s funny, because it’s nothing I haven’t heard before, but never in this raw, vicious way and never out of anger. Because the thing is, even though a few of the boys at school seem to have this incontrollable impulse to say it in casual conversation, like it somehow makes them cool, they are unilaterally terrified to say it to girls.
Delilah is totally unfazed. She just smiles up at him like he is not standing nearly on her shoes. “That’s a pretty big threat,” she says—unhurried, thoughtful. “Coming from someone who only just yesterday mastered the art of walking upright.”
He gives her this dumb, furious look somewhere between hurt and apoplectic, and I have an idea that he might actually hit her, even though she’s fifteen, and even though she’s a foot shorter and a girl and harmless-looking in her glasses and her vintage cable-knit cardigan. Because he is that threatened by her.
His hand is actually in the air, floating above her. I’m doing the same frantic risk assessment that I did with Jackal, but the circumstance is all wrong, because Twitch is easily 6’3” and because his face is aneurysm-red and all I can think is that I don’t want Delilah to get hurt. She’s just looking up at him like she absolutely does not care one way or the other.
When the late bell rings, no one even moves. I wait for him to slap her, for things to get much worse.
The situation doesn’t get worse though, because just then, someone small and muscular pushes his way in front of Delilah. It’s one of the more personable junior drug-dealers, looking sweet and unconcerned. He puts both arms around Cobalt’s neck and when he speaks, he sounds friendly and conversational.
“So, what’s going on?”
Twitch glares at both of them. “Back the $%&@ off her, Eerie. I’m gonna kill that $%&@ing bitch.”
Eerie presses his cheek against Cobalt’s and pulls her closer. “No, you ain’t. And you’ve got no reason to talk that way to ladies.”
Shockingly, this declaration seems to appeal to some backwards sense of chivalry in Twitch. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to be the obvious villain in front of someone he actually knows.
Eventually, he and Jackal leave hand-in-hand. Furious and resentful. As they’re walking away, Twitch looks back over his shoulder and yells, “You get away from her, Eerie. Don’t you be touching that $%&@ing ugly-ass bitch.”
Eerie just grins and kisses Cobalt hard on the side of her face, a loud, resonating smack.
“I hate them,” Delilah said. “I hate him.” She took my arm and began to walk down toward the gym with us.
“It’s okay,” I said, patting her shoulder with my free hand. “You know he’s just bitter about being definitive proof of evolution. Next time he bothers you, run and call Discover. They’ll get someone over here to take him in for testing.”
And she laughed, which was really all that I’d been wanting. She leaned her head on my shoulder and squeezed my arm tighter. “He’s just an asshole, right? He just likes to victimize people because it makes him seem big—that’s why he does it.”
“Yeah, that’s why.”
I knew the rest of it, though, even if I wasn’t about to say it—the reason he raised his hand like that, the reason his face got so red.
Because Delilah, with her neat burgundy hair and her sharp smile, her librarian sweater—her way of always knowing exactly what to say—Delilah wasn’t scared of him, wasn’t ready to be victimized. She was grim and brutal, and no matter how close he stood, she wasn’t remotely intimidated. And that was the one part of the whole vicious encounter that he just couldn’t stand, because she wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Have you or your friends ever run up against bullying or harassment? Did you feel like you didn’t know what to do? Or did you just do the first thing that came to mind? Did you do nothing? Something calculating? Mean? Something you wish you had done differently?
Also, anyone who has any thoughts about the unsettling tendency for girls to attack each other in ways that revolve around the having or not-having of sex, please feel free to share in the comments, because these thoughts—I want to hear them.
Also, this pervasive idea that the boy should (will?) save the girl—what is that? Because believe me, Delilah needed very little saving, but it still took Eerie wandering over to defuse the situation, which even now gives me this very frustrated feeling about who is allowed to be In Charge of Things.
And also, I want to believe that none of what I just described in this post ever even happens anymore, but I don’t really think that’s true. So, I want to hear from you guys. About all of it.