Once upon a time, I thought I was a girl.
Once upon a time, I lived in a castle. Well, it wasn’t really a castle. It was a fortress of sorts, though, and it had something like a moat and something like dragons, or that’s the story we told each other at night, whispered from room to room, down halls that stank of antiseptic and that stuff you sprinkle on carpets to soak up bodily fluids. The smell, I think, lent something to it.
The dragons all had hypodermic needles. The dragons all wore scrubs. There were bars on our windows, and we had all been somebody’s princess once, but somebody got disillusioned. Because teenage girls are like that. You try to raise us pretty and proper, but we go out and develop personalities on you, and suddenly nothing fits.
This girl-skin doesn’t fit.
When we went around the circle at group, the litany of why-are-you-here was generally “drugs”, “depression”, “family problems”. Time and again, “family problems”. And we would nod, we would accept that as code for “they wanted a good girl, but they got me instead, and now I am here.”
We are told that there is only one right way to be a girl.
We’re told that, and for some of us, we know from day one that we’re doing it wrong. Too fast too loud too rough too big, shut your mouth, make yourself smaller, let the boys talk, be pretty. If there is only one right way, everything else is wrong, and depression, drugs, family problems? We’re here because we failed. We failed to be what we were supposed to be. We’re wrong, our parents told us. Bad girls. And they locked us away.
Annabel decided one day that she was a dragon.
I pulled my legs up under me on the couch in the dayroom; I’m too small and my feet don’t reach the floor. “How can you be a dragon?” I asked.
Annabel stretched, preened. “I just am,” she said. “I can’t be the thing they tell me I am. I’m something bigger than that. Something big and scary. Something that—that can’t get hurt.” Something that can defend itself. Something that takes down every white knight that comes along.
Aimee was a werewolf. She told me in our shared bathroom one night; two girls shared a bedroom, four girls shared a bathroom. I wished she was my roommate; Rachel didn’t get me, didn’t even read, but Aimee had fading blue stripes in her thick brown hair, and curves, and she didn’t seem to mind me looking, when she caught me. She bared sharp teeth at me when she told me she was a werewolf, but that fierceness dissolved into a laugh, which she followed with an affectionate hip-check. Still. I could see it, Aimee thickly-furred and bloody-fanged. I could see it. I wanted to see it.
(I would trace my bones beneath my skin; I was far too thin when they brought me here, they said, but I just said this is not my body, this is just meat. I would lay flat on my bed and let my fingers dip between my ribs, cup my hip-bones—they protruded like handles, like I’d whittled myself down to be easier to grab, to hold, to pick up, to take away. Take everything away, and then what’s left must be me.
I tried to kill myself when I was twelve and no one asked why. At sixteen, I was even lighter, and in my third well-guarded castle.)
If you’re not a girl or a boy, we reasoned, you must be a monster.
It made perfect sense. Our sexuality was monstrous to those around us. Our appetites. Our refusals.
Clara was a gorgon, turning men to stone; she had her reasons. There were dozens of witches of different varieties, and several other wolves, and gradually more and more dragons. Strong young dragons who fought with our guardians, kept fighting, built up a tolerance to their venoms; when Thorazine lost all effect, they moved to Haldol, and there were dazed monster girls chained in the Quiet Room, writhing, doing their best to work the poisons out of their systems.
(We saw the boys only infrequently. Separate wards. Sometimes through glass. Maybe there were dragons there too, and maybe there were secret girls within their skins, but I never knew.)
1. What makes you a monster?
2. Who made you a monster?
3. Who told you you were a monster?
4. What is a monster?
I was a shapeshifter. I don’t know what kind. There were no fairy tales about me, and no horror movies, nothing that matched, not really. Other girls took categories, labels, right off the shelf; they found the things that fit so easily, and I tried everything on and shook my head every time. Neither wolf nor witch, neither flesh nor feathers. Maybe I was stripping myself down to my bones to see if my bones could tell me what I was.
1. I can’t be a good girl. I can’t really understand what a good girl is. I get excellent grades and I am dedicated but I don’t understand people and I can’t let anyone touch me.
2. I did or he did or they did. I don’t know. I can’t answer the question. I hate that I can’t answer the question, I have to answer every question, if I don’t get 100% they’ll be angry at me but I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
3. My mother. The night before she sent me away again.
4. Me. Me and anyone who doesn’t fit. The people who can’t be their kind of girl. The people who didn’t sit back and take it or who tried to run away.
The dragon girls painted their nails iridescent when they were allowed nail polish. There were codes in the clades. There were secrets. Aimee drew a crescent moon on the inside of my wrist with a stub of black eyeliner that caught and skipped over my skin, it was so dried-out; she doubled back to make sure she got it all, that she’d marked me properly, even though I wasn’t a werewolf like her.
“Monster girls have to stick together,” she said.
I found Rachel’s sketchbook once—page after page of intricate crystalline structures in colored pencils, with a curious depth to them. Something otherworldly.
Some girls were monsters and some girls were aliens and then there was me.
There were so many people I wished I could turn to stone. But I hid. I tried to disappear.
I was trying to be a ghost.
But the thing about being a ghost is that you had to die first, and no one would let me. I tried and tried and every attempt sent me back to a different castle, and none of the castles were home.
But here, for a little while, when we were dragons, when we were harpies and wolves and minotaurs and changelings, it was something like home and we were something like a family, teeth bared in defiance, fighting the array of venoms, fighting for our lives, fighting for our selves. There were days when a dozen of us would go off at once and orderlies would flood the halls, days after of monster girls dazed and stumbling until they stopped being watched quite so hard and could cheek their pills again, and could join us and add to our secret maps and stories.
We took turns.
Monster girls have to stick together.
And Annabel’s parents’ insurance ran out, then Clara’s, and Rachel and Aimee were transferred out, and everyone scattered. They sent me to a boot camp for bad kids because I wasn’t getting any better. It was only a different prison, and a lonelier one, for all that it was open to the air, and I would look up at the full moon from my sleeping bag and I would pray to change.
And I waited, and I waited, and I didn’t die.
But, gradually, I changed. Not the bursting forth of wolf-form, not the unveiling of wings, but something slower, something almost imperceptible. Little by little, I changed.
I still don’t know what I am. But I have scales inked on my bicep now, and the crescent moon at my wrist, and the scattering of stars the witches used to draw are sprinkled where my hip bones no longer protrude. I am not a ghost. I am here. I have learned to recognize my kin in bookstores, on the subway, on the street, all the exquisite monsters who have had to build their selves and their families from rags and tatters, from stories and songs, from dreams and shadows and all of their refusals, all of their insistence. I have learned, whatever I am, how to build a home.
And I tell the girls I meet who aren’t sure they’re girls that there are so many ways to be a girl, so very many, and you can be anything you want, love, and still be a girl.
Or maybe you’re not, and that’s okay too.
We have to stick together, that’s all, I say, and I hold out my hand.