Our mothers drive an hour south to Nashville so we can go to the department store and try on training bras. In fourth grade, we’re the only ones left who don’t have them, and when mom suggests the trip, it’s all I can do to wait until Saturday, to be surrounded by racks of pretty things.
My best friend Joanie and I take off our shirts. In the cramped dressing room, we lean over. She shows me how they look bigger hanging down. They multiply in front of and behind us.
At home, I admire the centering of a tiny satin bow, of a pink embroidered rose. I admire my lace-adorned flat chest above my round belly.
On Monday, Joanie and I meet on the bleachers, laughing in a blush about the new lines underneath our white uniform blouses. The boys notice, too. It goes on this way all week, the novelty of the new accessory. The innocence. It is a new layer to playing dress-up, to telling a secret, to keeping one poorly.
The following Monday I decide not to wear the training bra. It sometimes bunches up when I slouch, and the elastic rubs under my armpit until it’s bright red. Besides, the allure of the rose and the bow have subsided, and Joanie and I have a plan to dig for glass on the playground at recess, hoping to add to the coffee tins of bottle shards we pass back and forth, alternating the responsibility of hiding them from our parents.
As I walk downstairs, I hear my brothers’ spoons clacking on the ceramic cereal bowls and the morning news playing in the living room. Through a door in the hallway, I catch a glimpse of my father, standing at his tie closet. I start to pass him, but he stops whistling and grabs tight to my shoulder. In a second he has yanked me into my parents’ room. The door closes. The sounds of the morning are muffled.
I cower like an animal on the opposite side of the four-post bed, my mother’s side. Straight upstairs, he says, and put that bra on. He’s gritting his teeth. I can’t understand how he knows about the bra. Your little brown nipples show right through your shirt, he says through his clenched jaw, an anger usually reserved for my brothers. My face is warm, then warmer. I know it is flush-red when the tears come. I want to have never gone to Nashville, never looked into those mirrors. I want to unsee the way my father looks at me.
When I leave the bedroom, I stay close to the hallway’s stone wall. Back upstairs, I take my time. I look at the tangled elastic and stitching of the bra, the X-patterned front of it. I pick it up, feel its weight between my fingertips. I hate it. I unbutton my uniform, pull a binding across one shoulder, then the next, contort one shoulder toward my ear and around to my back to make the tight straps reach. I fold both arms behind my back so they will meet to fasten the eye-hooks. It can feel the weight of the thing. It’s heavier now.
After school, before my parents are home from work, I find a lighter in my father’s top drawer, where he hides his cigarettes. I take the coffee tin from my backpack and open the sliding glass door to the porch. I sit with my legs wide and arrange the slivers of glass between them, mostly green and clear, some brown, fewer blue. I watch for the way they catch the sunlight. I reach under my blouse, undo the elastic, pull the bra through my sleeves, and tear the tiny pink rose from between the triangles of fabric. I set the rose on one of the larger pieces of glass, slip the lighter from my pocket, and watch the tiny flower blacken and dissolve. A bit of ash drifts onto my plaid skirt.
I don’t linger long. I don’t want to be seen. Upstairs, I tuck the tin of glass behind old towels on the high shelf of my closet.
Before bed, I undress and shower. I put the bra back on, then my nightgown. As I fall asleep I can hear the jingle of the silverware when my parents open the kitchen drawers.
Emily Schulten is the author of Rest in Black Haw. Her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, and Barrow Street, among others. She is a professor of English and creative writing at Florida Keys Community College.