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Recommendations from a Former Poor Girl

by Kristin Keane

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About Kristin Keane

Kristin Keane lives in the Bay Area where she teaches at the University of San Francisco. A Vermont Studio Center writing resident and LitCamp juror, her fiction has been shortlisted for a Glimmer Train prize in fiction and has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly and Hawk and Handsaw. She is the online curator of The Question Everything Project.

 

1. First you need to make sure none of the other girls knows it. This will require developing very technical skills. You will have to learn to fashion things to look the way they’re not, to forge things out of leftovers, to be resourceful. Like for instance straightening out the mouths of zippers when they become misaligned, small ragged teeth grating against one another. You might pinch your fingers a bit, so get used to that. As a matter of fact, get used to pain in general. Get used to stuffing yourself into clothing too small for your growing parts—soft pockets of fat emerging out the sides of busted seams, the fabric pulled so taut it lightens as you pour out the same way a cupcake spills over the top of its thin oily liner. Your shoes will never fit, so learn how to clip your nails down as far as they will go and curl them under the way that ballerinas do. You of course will never be that graceful or beautiful, but you can at least practice. The good news is that eventually they will develop so many calluses, you will hardly feel a thing.

2. Stop needing things. This one is complicated but important, because jealousy will eat you alive. You can covet your own things because that’s all you’ve got (by now you will have discovered that toothbrushes and bleach can keep just about anything looking new), but stickers, Barbies, bracelets; and later, sandals, makeup, and blue jeans? Forget about all that. The sparkles on other girl’s wrists glinting against the fine ropes of tetherballs and gold barrettes wheeling around steel monkey bars are shimmering, colorful, new. You will think this makes them better than you, but if you know what’s good for you you’ll realize those objects are really just plastic made-up trickery.
Keep telling yourself this over and over many times a day.

3. Make lots of friends. These should be imaginary of course, since you don’t do well with others. But here’s the rub and the advantage of that: they might not be real, but they can be any way you’d like them to be, which can be a whole lot better than actual people. Educate yourself in the fine art of pretending, because with them, you can get the things you really long for: hot afternoons in glassy swimming pools, piano and French lessons after school, fingers of Disneyland cotton-candy. Find a secret place to do this in though, because if anyone catches you talking to yourself they will think you’re crazy, which you are not. Learn this early: lunacy and loneliness are very different things.

4. Outsmart boys. At first you’ll seem novel, alluring, different. Cherish these moments because they do not last. They’ll want to take things from you because they assume you’re unloved, desperate, needy. But that’s only because they haven’t realized yet that you’re tougher, stronger, and more calculating than they are and you’ve already figured out how this world works—things they won’t know until they’re men. That’s the thing about always having less—sometimes it can make you smarter, and you love it for that. Use this to your advantage.

5. Learn to eat alone. You can’t do this with anyone else because you’re an animal. You eat too fast, tearing away the wrappers of Snicker’s bars, devouring plastic bags of Cheetos, crumpling up the packaging before you smash the insides into your hungry mouth. But crumbs, seasoning and the dripping soft parts of fruit? Those will spread all over your face and give you away every time. You might study others and try to do it their way, but it will never come naturally for you.

6. Get fast. When you see yourself in another girl, how her scraggly hair has been combed through with her fingers, how her nails have been worried to the nubs, how she seems to be sizing things up, figuring things out, shifting things around—turn away and run as fast as you can. Because if you give her even a moment to look back at you, you will be found out, and this like most everything else, will have to be done alone, in secret.