Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Spence School, New York, NY
Educator: Sara Beasley
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
To Be Made
When I was five, I didn’t know that a kiss meant lips against lips, tongue slithering over teeth like a dagger stroking skin. When I was five, I didn’t know that a body was born to be worshipped—that I already had God inside me, branching into the space between myself and the sky. When I was five, I asked my mother how babies were born, not how they were created. I knew already that little bodies existed already, flitting through heaven alongside angels, just emerged from their cocoons, but with nowhere to go. I wondered if mothers just had to reach into the sky and pull down infants from the clouds, shirts peeling off belly buttons as fingers grasped into the cold light of morning. I knew already that storks could not carry babies in pieces of pink silk cloth. God would never trust a bird with a human.
“Well, for you, I just had to ask God, and then you came into my stomach.” My mother didn’t look at me as we walked up Lexington Avenue. I frowned. I could not picture entering my mother’s body through the surface of her stomach, just slipping through—the skin, unmarred. I wondered if she had undone the button on her belly, stripped off the shirt of her torso, and let me waft in, like a breeze. But that didn’t make sense either. Why didn’t God just lower me down, fully formed, to my mother on the string that had attached me to his fingers? That way my mother wouldn’t have had to give birth to me.
“But, Mommy, how did I get into your stomach?” She was looking through the window of a flower shop. There were white orchids sitting on the window. I knew that she had heard me. “Mommy?”
“Oh, you just did.” And that was that.
I knew that babies were not created on earth because it was obvious that my mother and father could not co-author a body. I never understood why the movies lied. In Mamma Mia!, Amanda Seyfried rolled through the sand with Dominic Cooper, their skin throbbing against shells, against the waves. People didn’t kiss like that, mouths immigrating from body to body. People didn’t touch like that.
But then one day, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. It was a warm May day, and my daddy suggested we walk through Times Square for a bit. As we turned a corner, I looked to my right. There was an open platform, empty except for a fountain and two teenagers. The first thing I noticed was that the boy looked like Justin Bieber. He was short, with long hair twisting around his scalp. His sweatpants were baggy and were arranged in desperate folds undulating over his stick-like legs. I could see the elastic of his red polka-dotted boxers. And he was holding a girl in his arms—a girl who was tall and blond and had big breasts that looked like inflamed water balloons.
I stopped. Their hands meandered across each other’s backs as if searching desperately for a non-existent doorknob. Their tongues snaked hungrily across each other’s cheeks like poisonous serpents. I watched as mouth consumed mouth, as teeth gnawed tongue, as chests smothered each other. I wondered if the girl was in pain. I thought about The Lion King, the animals consuming each other, destroying each other’s bodies, corpses, bones. As I stood there, jaw agape, in awe at what I was observing, my family kept moving in front of me. Soon, I heard my dad’s voice searching for me, trembling in the wind.
“Where are you?” Within minutes, my cold little fingers had disappeared within his dark, warm hand. He heaved my little brother onto his hip. “What were you doing, sweetie?”
I pointed to the platform, where the two teenagers were swirling around each other’s hips, like actors on a stage. “Daddy,” I whispered, hoarsely, as if they might hear. “Look!” I pointed, as discreetly as I could, to the teenagers.
My dad turned around harshly, my brother’s head wobbling with the force of the wind. “What?” I watched his profile, turned directly to the teenagers. He didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. “What, honey?”
“Daddy!” I cried, desperate. “Those two people, there! Doing that stuff.”
“Oh.” My father furrowed his brow. “Seriously, sweetie? He raised his voice. “We have to go. Mommy has been waiting in the cab.” He grabbed me by the wrist and we scrambled toward the blinking yellow blob, the door swinging in the wind.
“What?” He wasn’t smiling now. “I can’t believe you just stopped like that. We were so worried.” We were approaching the taxi, and for some reason sunk too deep into my stomach for me to understand, I didn’t want to include my mother in the conversation.
“But, Daddy, this is important. Isn’t that…isn’t that stuff…illegal?”
My dad stopped in his tracks. My brother began to pound his fists against my dad’s shoulder, growing fussy. He ignored the baby on his chest. “What are you talking about?”
“The stuff we just saw. Isn’t that…isn’t that not allowed?” I was whispering again, as if the police might hear.
He let out a strange, low cackle. “Are you asking if kissing is illegal? Where on earth did you learn that? It most definitely is not.”
And with that, he hoisted me into the cab. He handed my brother into my mother’s open arms, shut the back door, and walked around the front of the car to the passenger seat. He always did that, even though there was more than enough space for a man, a woman, an appropriately sized five-year-old, and a two-year-old toddler to be seated comfortably in the back of a taxicab.
I rehearsed the answer in my head—I learned it at home.