View this article in Spanish | bilingual

The Schoolyard

That Monday, her classmates were playing dodgeball again. She watched them from the step, hoping that they would formally invite her, so that she could say no until they insisted, like her mother did on visits: “Would you like a little more cake? Oh no, no, no, thank you so much. Come on, a little more. Well, if you insist, maybe a small slice.” The girl enjoyed this kind of rhetoric, but the other schoolgirls didn’t appreciate its finer points. In the schoolyard everything was done crassly, as if the nuns’ teachings didn’t apply during recess. The inconsistency bothered her. If God wanted them to be discreet, how could she call attention to herself so that one of the team captains would pick her? She couldn’t figure it out. They should choose her, like God chose the Virgin Mary. Self-promotion would almost certainly entail committing some kind of sin. Her previous existence was much simpler. In the swing and sandpit area, they didn’t think about these problems. Over there she could do as she pleased, alone, without having to worry about etiquette.  Every so often someone would kick her while doing a somersault over the bar; well, she would kick somebody else later. The playground was always packed. The slide, the bridge, the seesaws, and the spinner made boredom impossible. Unfortunately that space was no longer hers, and ever since her schoolmates had embraced sports, she had been displaced.  Boredwith herself, she embarked on the climb up to the high school in search of her sister.  When she reached the gym, she passed by Marta, the new student in class B. No one had introduced them formally, but new girls always stand out, this one especially.  Marta was still as  solitary as on the first day. What school was she from? How did she spend her afternoons? Did she live in the neighborhood or much farther away? Before she reached the upper school, the teachers called the girls to line up.  Retracing her steps, she  passed Marta, still standing by the gym; the new girl followed, as if she’d been waiting for her.

The next day, Marta was waiting in the hallway so they could go down together. The old girl had been wanting to ask for a while why Marta didn’t shorten her uniform skirt like the other girls, who were already wearing theirs above their knees. It looked as though Marta had just bought it. When the girls started middle school, the skirt replaced the smock that the little girls wore. The fabric was still the same: an elaborate gray, white, and black grid, bordered by thin but equally regular navy-blue squares, worn with tights and a v-neck sweater. Marta must not have considered skirt lengths until that moment.

&Well, think about it. The other girls roll up the waistband so the skirt’s shorter. Sometimes so short you can see their underwear. Haven’t you noticed?”

Yeah. What do you do?” the new girl asked.

“Me? Nothing. It was my sister’s skirt and my mom already fixed it for her. See how this material is different from yours? Where did you buy it?”

“I don’t know.”

“They sell them at El Corte Inglés, but I like mine better.”

In her opinion, the older fabric was more elegant, because it had lost the stiffness that prevented the pleats from lying flat. She liked it that way. Marta agreed, monosyllabically. The veteran then recognized the awkwardness of the conversation; surely Marta couldn’t care less about matters of style. They changed topics, and chatted during the whole break. The old student enlightened the new one on her past entertainment in the sandpit, where she built tunnels under artificial mountains like an expert engineer. The hardest part was transporting water from the sinks to set the bridges. The most effective method, handed down for generations, consisted of holding the water in your cheeks. But you had to make sure to close your throat, because otherwise, when spitting into the hole in the mud, the water went down your throat and you ended up choking. She also recalled the swings, the euphoria and fear that first day that she hung upside down from the bridge, interlocking her feet in the iron rungs.

“Over there, where we line up?” Marta asked.

“Yeah. If you want, after school, when no one’s there, we can go. If the little girls aren’t there, the teachers don’t say anything.”

Both of them had outgrown the playground equipment, and even if they’d managed to hang from the rungs, they wouldn’t have had space to swing back and forth. In any case, Marta didn’t appear at the end of the day, and so as not to go down to the swings by herself, the old girl stayed at the entrance, jumping rope, until her sister picked her up.

On Wednesday the same scene repeated itself: the new girl was waiting for her in the middle of the hallway.  The old girl decided not to mention how she’d stood her up. 

“What do you think about the skirt?” she asked Marta.

“I talked to my mom. She said no, but I can roll it up, like you told me. Not today. Tomorrow. My mom got really mad. Especially at my brother, like something was his fault.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother. I have a brother and a sister.”

“My brother’s older than us. He studies a lot and my mom is always scolding him.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s stupid. She doesn’t understand him,” Marta said, and for a moment it looked like her mind went blank or had flown out through her ear, abandoning her there, between the classrooms and the schoolyard, leaving her staring into the space under the stairs. “My mother doesn’t understand anything. My brother’s really shy and if you knew him, you would see how good and affectionate he is. My mother won’t leave him alone. He almost never goes out, because every time he sets foot outside the house my mother loses it, even if he just goes to get a loaf of bread. Sometimes I think she’s crazy.”

“What’s your brother’s name?”

“Pedro.”

She imagined him with dark hair. Maybe because the only Pedro she knew had dark, curly hair. Marta wore her hair up in a ponytail. It was the same light brown shade as hers, but slightly darker, and definitely greasier. She wondered if Marta realized or if she didn’t wash her hair on purpose. She couldn’t ask that yet, they weren’t “close,” and it wasn’t the same as the uniform, or the mother. So sad about the mother. Poor thing, what must her mother be like for her daughter to say those things? Probably she didn’t teach her how to bathe properly and that’s why her hair was dirty.

“Hey! I’m telling you about my brother,” Marta said, chewing the syllables with resentment.

“OK, Marta, I don’t know him.”

“Yeah, but he’s my brother.” And she said it as if instead of “brother” she had wanted to say something else, or as if the three of them were part of the same family. Then, out of the blue, Marta asked if she’d ever had a boyfriend, if she’d done it. She couldn’t have felt more vertigo at that moment if an earthquake had opened an infinite pit beneath her feet. The end-of-recess whistle saved her from fainting, and each one made her way to her line in silence, class B and class C, like soldiers in different regiments. She couldn’t get Marta out of her head for the rest of the day. How did the new girl know? How many girls had done it? Maybe it was a normal thing at her old school, but at María Virgen Pura you didn’t talk about those things directly. You talked about hearsay, like have you seen that Marina Arroyo is getting boobs, or if you really need to do it to get pregnant or if a kiss is enough. She never told anyone. And besides, so much time had gone by that she wasn’t sure. She couldn’t even confirm that she had done it, really done it, and Marta’s curiosity posed a dilemma: on the one hand, the experience made her feel special, but on the other hand, maybe it wasn’t the best kind of “special,” and God and her mother would stop loving her.

At the next recess, Marta asked her to go with her to the bathroom and they shut themselves up in one of the stalls.

“Look, I shortened my skirt.” Marta lifted up her school sweater. “Good?”

They were so close that she had to crouch down to see it. She stayed down a few seconds, keeping still, unable to decide on the smell that came to her in waves; a mixture of lotion and urine, which on Marta’s skin took on the pink density of marshmallow candy.

“Yeah, now you can see your knees.”

“Should I pull it up more?”

“No, if you pull it up any more, it’s like you’re not even wearing it.”

“Good, because I can’t fold it over anymore without it getting really tight up here.”

She took her hand to show her how tightly it fit.

“You see?”

Marta had put the other girl’s hand under the waistband and she was touching her underpants with the tips of her fingers. The skin of Marta’s belly was very soft and under the pressure of the folded fabric, she could feel her stomach gurgling.

“Let’s go down to the yard,” the new girl said.

That day, instead of their usual walk through the fields, they sat on the stands watching the other girls play. The new girl’s satisfaction contrasted with the growing unease of the old one.

“They still might let us play,” she said to Marta.

“I don’t feel like it.”

Her negation was loaded with an extraordinary force, as if pronounced by a giant. Marta leaned back on her elbows, rhythmically lifting her legs. The repetitive movement slid her skirt down her thighs. She glanced sidelong at the downy hair, golden in the midday sunshine. The teachers on recess duty were approaching from the right.

“Let’s walk,” the new girl proposed.

When she stood up she could still feel Marta’s belly against her hand.

“I talked to Pedro about you.”

“Ah,” she replied, bringing her fingertips to her nose.

“Yesterday you didn’t tell me if you’d done it or not.”

Surely Marta was trying to intercept her gaze. She didn’t feel up to the contact and she turned toward the littlest girls, who were screaming around the spinner.

“Yes,” she finally whispered.

“What?”

“Yes, but a long time ago,” when I was little, she thought.

“How old were you?”

“I was three and he was four.”

“And who did you do it with?”

“With my boyfriend from back then, Francisco.” She had never talked about it before. It had been a long time since she mentioned that name, and its three syllables brought her back to a vague scene, a hazy place, which wasn’t part of her experience, but rather a movie or a dream.

“And what was it like?”

“I don’t really remember.”

They approached the swings. On the iron bridge, behind the slide, two girls were hanging upside down, showing their wool leotards and their four little hands sticking out from underneath their inside-out smocks.

“And where did you do it?” the interrogator asked.

“In bed.”

“In whose bed? Yours?”

“No…” and like a spark the image of the room leaped to her mind: the trundle bed to the right, her brother, Álvaro, and Laura standing, about to leave. “It was at his beach house. Francisco was my brother’s best friend and I became friends with his sister, Laura, but we don’t see each other anymore. During that vacation, we wanted to celebrate our honeymoon and we went to bed together.”

“But what happened?”

“That’s what happened: the honeymoon.”

With their backs to the swing set, they walked back toward the sports fields, speeding up their pace.

“Were you naked?”

“Yes,” she said, to give herself airs. She remembered Francisco’s warm body beside her, but not his clothing or its absence. She revisited the softness of the bed and the green lamp on the bedside table.

“And then what?”

“What?”

“What do you mean, what?” the new girl insisted. She wanted to know everything that happened in detail, that’s why they were talking about it. But the old girl didn’t know anything else. That was all, a honeymoon, like grown-ups. She was almost positive about them hugging, the kisses she didn’t remember, but she lied in the face of her opponent’s persistence, and the more she lied she more she sped up her pace, and the new girl had more and more trouble keeping up with her. Finally, Marta asked: “Did you touch each other?” And that was it. She ran away as fast as she could and hid in the gym, where she bit her nails until the end of recess. They never saw Francisco or Laura anymore. One day, after that summer, when the two families got together in Madrid, the kids decided to play boxing matches. She recalled the scene with exquisite clarity: first the boys fought, and the girls, their trainers, gave them last-minute advice like in the Rocky movies. The boys finished the fight practically tied, and in the end they declared Álvaro the winner by only a couple of points. Neither of the girls was particularly interested in fighting, but the boys insisted until finally the beasts were unleashed. After the first taps, the girls forgot all the rules. While one clawed at the other’s face, the other pulled her hair, and the closer they felt their opponent’s breath, the more weapons they found in their own bodies: first their knees and then their teeth, inflicting a deaf and blind pain that allowed each to concentrate only on her enemy. The boys went from surprise to laughter, then from amusement to fear. Unable to break up the fight, they forgot their friendship, rushing to their sisters’ defense, each to his own, faithful to the most primitive of all bonds. When the parents heard the commotion, they discovered four mauled children, with tears in their eyes and clothes ripped to shreds. The families grew distant.

Friday’s recess arrived without Marta waiting for her in the hallway. Surely the new girl was disappointed by her abrupt departure the day before. All right, back to solitude. Lazily, she let her classmates get ahead of her one by one. She didn’t feel like going down to the schoolyard and she went into the bathroom. Once she had pulled down her underpants, there was a knock on the door.

“There’s someone in here.”

“I know, stupid, open up. It’s me.”

She opened the door and Marta stared at her.

“You’re not gonna pee?”

With the other girl standing there she couldn’t pee, so she told her no, and the new girl asked her to move aside to take her place. A fine stream ricocheted off the porcelain.

“Yesterday I told Pedro what you said about the honeymoon.” Marta paused to wipe herself. If she had closed her eyes, she wouldn’t have seen the outline of Marta’s bottom, and maybe she wouldn’t have fallen silent while Marta told her that her brother Pedro wanted to meet her, because since she had experience and he was so shy they’d make a good couple. As long as she was up for doing it again. They left the sink area. She slid the pink soap between her hands until it turned white, squashing it again and again between her palms.

“Hey, I’m talking to you. You’d do it again, wouldn’t you?” Marta’s words not fazing her, she made more and more lather. “Answer me, because Pedro and I have it all planned out.”

She nodded, although she would’ve preferred to say no and have Marta disappear.

“We were thinking,” the new girl went on, “that we could do it for my birthday. That way my mom won’t suspect. We would have a little party in the living room with Fanta and snacks. Do you like Coke? We don’t. But if you like it we could buy Coke too. He would be so excited. You can’t even imagine.”

Marta grabbed the other girl’s still-soapy hands and pulled her downstairs toward the schoolyards. She felt like her body was leaking water, all of it from the palms of her hands, no longer soapy but rather sweaty.

“My brother would wait for you in his room. I’ll show you the way.” The hubbub of the rest of their classmates sounded in the distance. “If you want, I can tell him to get into bed before you come in. It’ll just be one night and you can do it with the lights off.”

At that moment, taking advantage of her hands’ dampness, she slid out of her captor’s grip and tripped on the last stairs. She broke her fall with her knee. It would definitely leave an ugly bruise. Marta ran to her aid, and when she had her very close the new girl whispered:

“My brother gave me money.” She slid her hands under the other girl’s armpits, bringing her to her feet and pulling her in close. “I have it upstairs. If you don’t think it’s enough I can get more.”

From that position, the old girl could smell the new one’s greasy hair, and some rebellious strands, escaped from the ponytail, tickled her cheeks. Marta squeezed her even tighter and she could feel her body throbbing.

“What are you girls doing?” the gym teacher asked. “Come on, go out to the yard.” She grabbed each one by the hand, led them to the dodgeball court, and put them on different teams without consulting the captains. Alongside her usual classmates, Marta seemed even stranger.

After dodging the first ball, the old student found the game simple and fun. On the next turn, one of her classmates eliminated Marta. The new girl beckoned to her as she left the court, suggesting she get knocked out too so they could meet off the field, but she lay low, staying in the game. On her next turn she grabbed the ball with newly discovered skill and fired it at other bodies that were less attentive or motivated than her own. She never spoke to Marta again, nor did she learn if the new girl had made the same proposal to other girls or just to her.

© Mar Gómez Glez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Sarah Thomas. All rights reserved.