Some girls know they have it. They use what they’ve got to get what they want, living off what no economist ever had to tell them was straight up money. We would watch them from our high school steps, walking down the street in their short shorts, flexing what must have felt like leverage. Leverage, a word girls like that never needed explained, never even cared about, but everyone knew they had. We thought they were beautiful. We thought they were bitches. We wanted to be girls like that.
“Girls like that get whatever they want,” Lynn said, staring at a leggy senior with slim thighs and a skirt so short that if we couldn’t exactly see her panties, we could imagine them.
Tara said, “As long as it holds its value. That’s the name of the game, value,” snapping a hairband between two fingers, face turned up to the sun.
The four of us were best friends since the fifth grade, and in 1991 we were seniors in high school and called ourselves The Girls. We had mantras that made us feel liberated and progressive, like power to the pussy, sisters before misters, and don’t ever settle for five minutes of pumping ass in the backseat of some guy’s Datsun. Who needs ambassadors when we have each other, we said. We weren’t afraid of anything. Not then.
We talked trash to boys at house parties and in downtown bars with fake ID’s, over pool tables and kegs, on laps and over magazines dusted with remnants of someone else’s eight ball of coke, but we never did any, and nobody ever got hurt. We slept with long-term boyfriends but not with randoms and we qualified sex as intercourse only, which was a major distinction because we wanted to keep our counts low. Nobody escapes the count, we said. Believe it.
“Keep it low, or else you will become that girl, and you never recover from that,” Lynn warned us one day at her house over a 12 pack of Rolling Rock we had shoulder tapped at the Raleys Grocery on 7th Street. Her mom was a hairdresser and worked noon to seven, so we camped out at Lynn’s after school most days.
Tara wasn’t having it. “That’s crap. My motto is come correct or you won’t come at all.”
We cheered her. Preach it, Tara. She was our fearless leader, with her mottos and her bravado, the de facto head of our girl power liberation front. She was tall and strong, toned legs and strong arms, dark, and spiral curls pulled back ponytails only. She would let us French braid her hair for away basketball games, as fancy as she ever got, even on dates.
We dated all kinds of boys to feel wanted and desirable, to say I love you and hear it back, even just because we could. We said, we don’t have to play by the old rules, and hate the player, not the game. We were not going to be bound by the conventions that kept our mothers and grandmothers in the kitchen or serving her man a martini after work. We were still in that space where deconstructing what we didn’t like around us felt like building something worthwhile inside us, and it all felt good. We dated tall boys and short boys, black, white and brown boys, funny and sad boys and sometimes even boys on the heavy side, but not too heavy because we were practical, especially Lynn.
“If some guy drops dead on top of you, you need to be able to get out from under that. I mean, I don’t want to be prejudiced or anything against large people, but I saw that once on TV. That’s like, my nightmare.” Miniature, not sure what her heritage was because she was adopted Lynn, always trying to save the rest of us.
“You watch too much TV. It’s making you paranoid and stupid.” Tara swigged her Rolling Rock and grabbed a clove. She had just taken up smoking and was getting pretty good at it. She could blow smoke rings without coughing anymore, real progress. The earthy smoke circled our heads and filled our noses, smelling like high school ever since.
Lynn said, “It’s just a good standard to have, like a health and safety regulation, like a product warning like the FDA has where it says, Do not use if you weigh less than 125 pounds.”
I said, “You don’t even use a condom when you give a guy head so I think you might be focused on the wrong things here, Lynn. Plus, the FDA doesn’t care about who you are doing unless it’s a large farm animal.”
Marisela tried to respond but ended up choking on her beer until came out her nose. Marisela, who came to the US as a baby from Mexico was a straight A student and held more esoteric knowledge than the rest of us but couldn’t hold her alcohol in the least. The rest of us ate up the crazy like it was red meat, howling and stomping and slapping each other’s backs. She finally got it together and said, “That’s the USDA you idiots.” We laughed even harder at this one, falling on the ground and into that place where laughter normalizes everything, that reassuring place, where all we had to be was funny.
Keep it real no matter what, we said to each other, just lay it down. We wanted to be more urban street and less middle-class Reno; angrier and less vulnerable; more consumer and less product; more empowered and less afraid, so we spoke to each other as if we were all those things, and more. We are The Girls, empowered.
We listened to Too Short and Sarah McLaughlin, Missy Elliot and Annie DeFranco, a hot mess of rap and chick music despite the affront to our feminist ethics of some of our choices. We told Lynn she must have been at least part white when she cut her arms after a breakup listening to The Cure. That was before she found that alcohol cured what ailed her and started mainlining Keystone Light and Boone’s Hill instead of razor blades. That is such a white middle class story of angst, we told her, your daddy must have been a white man. She told us to kiss her ass.
We traded in all kinds of stereotypes and slurs when we spoke of each other and to each other. We spoke as if the words didn’t matter, as long as we were laughing and as long as it was just between us. We couldn’t see the words knitting themselves into girl-coded narratives that would define us as much as we defined ourselves.
We laughed through everything, but we couldn’t see the space growing between the humor and the hurt. We couldn’t imagine that one day we might want to look in the mirror and see women of worth, not punch lines. Not then. We are The Girls, funny as hell.
By age twenty-six we were college educated and had graduate degrees and good jobs, and we felt motivated and validated. Over dirty martinis at the El Dorado Casino celebrating her promotion, Marisela said, “Doesn’t twenty-six just feel so blissfully removed from all that stuff we went through in high school trying to be all that? Our generation is just blowing the rules away now.”
“No, our generation is just blowing people,” Tara said, “there is a difference.” We howled at that one.
But she was not wrong. We tried out our mouths and bodies and fingers on other mouths and bodies and fingers in long relationships and short, coming out winners and coming out sorry, but always came out of it together, with options.
Lynn got married before the rest of us, right out of college. She had been selling us on monogamy for years, but it never stuck. “Married sex is really good, I’m telling you. Even after all these years my husband is quite romantic.”
“Romance is for churchgoers and musicals,” Tara said. “I just want to get laid. Just give it to me good and then get the hell out.”
“You are seriously just like a man,” I said. “What kinda woman says that? I mean, no woman really wants that, no matter what they say. Try to be a lady for once in your life.”
“Why?” Tara asked.
And that was the question that we still couldn’t answer. Did we want to be ladies? And what was a lady anyhow? We were girls until we were eighteen and then we were chicks and at twenty-six we called ourselves women, but we never thought about being ladies. We thought about being older and smarter and thinner and more comfortable in our own skin and what it meant to be truly loved, but not about becoming ladies. Ladies were grandmothers and aunties and philanthropists and good girls who never said ‘fuck,’ and we knew we wouldn’t be any of those any time soon.
“You know, Tara, you don’t have to front all the time. It’s okay to admit you are a woman, to be feminine and sensitive. You know, you have to feel like a woman to be treated like one.”
“Marriage has turned you into someone from the 1950’s, Lynn. You oughta get an apron to go with that ring and that curfew,” I said.
“Some girls love being married,” Lynn said, downing her last drink. Her husband always said nothing good happened after ten o’clock, so Lynn had to be home before ten. Lynn’s husband told her the rest of us were still too wild and had started calling us the Ten O’clock Girls and the name stuck.
“Oh, so marriage is so good that you drink like a wino and act like a good girl with your reform school outfits and your curfew? You keep repressing all that and you are gonna have a stroke.” Tara said, stirring a dirty martini, flicking Lynn with the straw.
We all laughed, except Lynn. She told us we had better settle down before we regretted it. She told us some women never learned, and some women looked like they had been ridden hard and hung up wet before they even hit thirty. She hit a nerve, and we all hammered her back with questions. We asked her things like, what is it we should regret, Lynn, founding member of the blow-jobs-don’t-count club? You think we want to settle for that suburban sex life you have with Mr. Curfew and dishpan hands? We said, what do you regret the most, Lynn, that you were just as wild as we were or that we know you were? We said, maybe you should run along home before you remember that you used to want more than what you’ve got. We said a lot of things to Lynn, even after she had gone home, pushing out of the bar doors at 9:47.
To get over all that ugliness, we went to the Beer Barrel and drank Seven and Sevens. Marisela went home with a veterinary student she met there and woke up the next morning with her diamond stud earring embedded in her cheek. She had passed out on his couch drunk as hell and had to get two stiches to put the skin back together. She ended up marrying him seven months later, and we told her it was because she had to physically injure herself before she could slow down. Slightly scarred but settled down, she was happy, and we were happy for her.
By thirty-five, each of us had been married for a few years and had baby boys and baby girls and husbands at home except Tara who had never married and already had one abortion. Lynn’s husband almost divorced her over her drinking until she found Jesus. Tara said that she could have ended up like Lynn, but she found a good doctor instead of the Lord.
We had ideas about who we should be by this time in our lives and spent a lot of time acting as if. We acted like committed wives and unflappable businesswomen, self-assured PTA mothers and Blue Dog Democrats. We acted like confident lovers but not too confident, because we didn’t want our husbands reminded of who had come before them. We acted like we knew what was expected of us, like we had it all under control.
Lynn stayed sober and drank so much root beer when we all went out that we told her to slow down, or she would end up diabetic. Marisela wasn’t ever without child for more than a few months at a time anymore, so she, too, was sober when we met for drinks. It was now Tara and I taking one for the team and getting wasted at our once-a-month get together with The Girls, and we ended up getting closer because of it. For Lynn and Marisela, we said, pouring some of our whiskey on the bar in an Irish toast. We said, we don’t recognize them anymore, but they were good women once. We are The Girls- half sober.
In June of 2013, Tara was raped by a man we all knew. She had gone back to his apartment for late night partying, and he pushed her into the couch and forced himself on her. He left semen on her and she left his place shattered. When she walked out the door he said thanks for the good time, I knew you were always down, Tara.
We did not see Tara for three months after it happened, but not for lack of trying. We finally backed off and processed this event by talking amongst ourselves at our monthly gatherings like church group women. We said things like how could this happen? We said, Oh my God, oh my God. We said, but she was the toughest one of all of us, half statement, half question. We said she should have been more careful. We said she should have known better. Without even knowing it, we became part of the problem. We are The Girls- seditious.
Tara was late to the October get together at my house. She came in and grabbed the Jim Beam off the counter and started pouring a man-sized shot.
“So, I don’t want a bunch of sympathy from you guys, alright? It happened. This asshole will get what’s coming to him. I believe that, and I am fine. I am going to be fine.” She shot the Beam and lit a Newport Menthol, her new brand. My husband and I didn’t allow smoking in our house but this was an emergency.
Lynn started to make her way over to Tara, but Tara held up her hand. She didn’t have to say anything else, and Lynn backed off.
“You can trust us T., we are here for you,” Marisela said. “We know how you must feel. I mean, we have all put ourselves in dangerous positions. It’s so scary.”
Tara was red faced and puffed up. “You know how it went down, do you? You think this is something I let myself get into? You have been drunk off your ass a thousand times and used zero judgement, but you think you would have done it better, huh? You have a predator barometer in your panties now? That’s just beautiful.”
Lynn was talking the big picture. “Why do we have to go so low, all the time? We aren’t some wannabe girl gang anymore. We live in the suburbs for crying out loud. Let’s quit the trash talking and ask the real question. Where is God in all this? We need our faith to get through this. This is real.”
Tara lost it. “What faith Lynn? The faith you picked up with your 30-day chip when you put down the Smirnoff? You think you earned the right to judge me when you came clean to your little AA band of misfits about how many guys you blew before you got sober and found Jesus?”
“It’s not about denying who I was,” Lynn said. “It’s about choosing to accept life on life’s terms. We took a lot of risks, flirting with men and acting like we were on equal footing when we never were. I’m just saying we women pay the price.”
“What the hell?” I said, jumping in to get Tara’s back. “Are you saying she deserved this? Because she got too drunk with a guy she freaking knew? That is literally the stupidest thing you have ever said, and you have said some seriously stupid shit.” Lynn’s judgement was unexpected, even from her, and I could see the hurt on Tara’s face.
Tara stared Lynn down. “Let me be clear, Lynn, in case you missed the irony, or you haven’t had the chance to work this out in group. Who do you think put that son of a bitch so far up my ass to begin with? Who didn’t pull him off me? Your God likes it rough, I guess.”
“That is crude, Tara. I’m sorry if that hurts but no matter how tough you talk, you are still a woman. This was always a risk. For all of us.” Lynn looked down as she spoke.
“The day I believe I asked for this because I am a woman is the day I eat a gun. That is the day I just call it. You understand me Lynn?” Tara was yelling now, standing up to her full height, pointing her finger in Lynn’s face.
Marisela stepped in between Tara and Lynn. “Women don’t commit suicide with guns to the face. There’s research on that. I read something on that in a magazine. You wouldn’t do it like that, Tara.”
“Really? That is what we are talking about, how I am not gonna use a gun to take myself out when I finally get around to offing myself because I wasn’t a good girl all my life?”
I said, “That’s not what she meant, Tara.”
Tara said, “None of you have said one thing that you mean. What is it that you smell on me girls, weakness, the scent of your own hypocrisy, maybe? It could have been any one of you, and you know it. Guess I took one for the team, huh?” She laughed and lit another cigarette.
We didn’t laugh. We didn’t move.
I didn’t even get up when the half dead cherry of her cigarette fell on the floor and lay smoking on my throw rug. I just stared at Tara, afraid of what was next. We had never been violent with each other, but we had never been here before. We’d never let our fear turn us against each other.
Tara wasn’t done, and was all over the room, ranting. “Drugs then, that’s how I’ll do it, sitting on your fucking Pottery Barn bullshit leather sofa, Marisela. Maybe I’ll drive into the side of your house going 100 miles an hour just to see if you can get the fuck out of my way fast enough. Maybe it will be something like that. You got any research on how you are gonna feel when I do that?”
We told her we were sorry, we said things like, it will be okay, and we only want to be supportive, and we just don’t know what to say, but we love you. We said it could have been any of us, and the woman never deserves the blame, and you knew the guy, anyway. We were three washed out voices, off key and inauthentic, our-power-to-the-pussy roars caught in our throats. We didn’t laugh. We didn’t call names. We didn’t know what to say, except we are sorry. We are The Girls- silenced.
We lost touch with each other after that night. We hit each other up on Facebook, maybe a post here or there, but we didn’t call ourselves The Girls anymore. We didn’t get together and drink and act stupid and say things like sisters before misters or just don’t settle. If we were being honest we would have said we knew we had betrayed our own sister with our judgement, because we were afraid it could have been us.
Tara and I still hung out once or twice a week, sitting on my patio, sipping wine and talking about life, but we didn’t talk like we used to. I don’t know why she would talk to me but not Lynn and Marisela. I thought maybe it was because I wasn’t so happy in my own marriage, even though by all accounts it was a good one. I figured that even though Tara and I didn’t share the old laughter anymore, we had that underlying loss of something bright and shiny to hold us together.
We sat outside, feet up on my deck, and said things like, we should start kickboxing and try Pure Barre, we should save more money and think about retirement, we should drink less and switch from cigarettes to vapes. We said, we have to make sure we support the women coming up after us, and our daughters, or at least mine, since Tara never had children. They have the chance to be stronger than we were, we said, we believe that. Our shared past was dead to us, like an old regime that failed to deliver on its campaign promises. It died that night and we knew it.
Some nights, after Tara went home, I’d cry. I’d lie on my back in my bed and settle in for what was coming, that onslaught of dangerous questions that came with the silence. Were we in any way at fault here? Was Tara? Had we lost more than just each other in the fallout? Did we ever have any sort of real freedom, sexual or otherwise, and should we be sorry for acting like we did? Did I betray my friend with my questions? Was I betraying her now?
As I lay there, I couldn’t stop wondering what that new crop of Ten O’ Clock Girls was doing out there. I would see them out on the street in the summer, down at the bars or by the river, and they looked like younger versions of The Girls, all pink and new and powerful. How were they filling their hours? Maybe they were hunting for something elusive and slippery like honest love or real freedom. Maybe they were out there charting the specific place, that exact spot, where what they were told to think ends, and what they really believe begins, and marking it with their indifference. Maybe they were just like us, wearing their narratives like armor, until they failed in the crosshairs of something that humor couldn’t wash away.
Were they writing each other’s stories, speaking in girl code, I wondered, or keeping a silent count on each other, lying in wait? Did they know the leverage over men we all wanted so badly was only powerful in relation to someone else? Could they even describe who they were if they didn’t have it, or want to have it? Did they know any more about what it meant to be a lady or feel like a woman than we did? Were they afraid? Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way, how could I help them? The vast amount of their choices was overwhelming. I hurt for them, like I hurt for Tara, for The Girls. But I envied them, too, in that awareness time of their lives. I guess I always would.
Cyndy Cendagorta is working on a collection of short stories about broken things, including bodies, children, faith and love. She holds an MA in Political Science from Washington State University and is a past Women’s Research and Education Institute Fellow. She runs a public policy consulting company and is a special needs advocate. Her work can be found in Memoir Magazine, Cagibi, The Spectacle, Salmon Creek Journal, Please See Me and more. She lives in Reno, NV, with her husband and three children.