I fell in love for the first time at 17 years old. The boy had blue eyes and I compared them to the ocean and the sky, and eventually to the icy terrain of his heart (a sentence I posted boldly on the internet).
I met him outside classrooms and in the car park of the petrol station down the street from school. He was the first person to give me a sweatshirt. He said, “Keep it.” He said, “Let me show you the view from my favourite spot.” I watched his hands on the steering wheel from the passenger seat and thought about the miracle of how exactly I’d got here, on this winding road with the sun in my eyes, next to this beautiful creature – a boy who had the hands of an actual man. He drove me up the mountain.
My first novel is called Girl In Snow. There is, of course, The Girl On The Train, Gone Girl, The Girls, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl In The Red Coat, Girl At War, The German Girl, Girls On Fire (which I highly recommend) and many, many more.
Some of these titles refer to girls, and some of them refer to women. But, to me, the word is singular. It is more than a trend. There is something chemical in the word itself: girl. It touches us in places we’ve long forgotten. We gravitate towards it.
That summer, I spent a lot of time standing at the end of this boy’s driveway, struggling to say goodbye for the night. I felt, constantly, like I was on a stage with spotlights blasting. Warm and slightly uncomfortable and a little bit like I had to pee.
One night, his parents went to sleep early and we dragged the blankets from his bed to the trampoline in his yard. We made up funny names for the constellations. I could not believe that I got to put my mouth so close to his skin. It made my mouth feel like it belonged to someone else, someone older. His senior photo stood propped up on my alarm clock, so it was the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning. Groggy sunlight. The peach-coloured sheets of my single bed. His eyelashes looked so long in the photo – in my diary, I compared them to spider’s legs.
The feeling of being young and heartbroken is something that dulls with time and experience. We are forced to make room for so many new feelings
Even now, I remember the feeling of waking up and seeing this photo – letting the world crystallise moment by moment into something more exquisite than anything my sleeping self could have imagined. Even now, I could tell you exactly what the gearshift of his pick-up truck looked like, the colours of his bedspread, the way his Adam's apple thudded when he chugged a glass of water. This is the thing about firsts – they take a specific, un-erasable form in your mind, simply because they were first. At 17, I had not known to carve out a space for these details. They had to force their way in and, by the time they did, I believed they were permanent.
So much has been said about the phenomenon of the “girl” title in books. In researching this essay, I came across countless other essays. I pulled quotes. I thought hard, trying to formulate my own hypothesis. What I found? There is no answer as to why anything sticks.
Robin Wasserman, author of the novel Girls On Fire, wrote a piece for Literary Hub in 2016, in which she says:
“If there is a thematic message encoded in the ‘girl’ narrative, I think this is its key: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from being someone to being someone’s wife, someone’s mother. Girl attunes us to what might be gained and lost in the transformation, and raises a possibility of reversion.”
I love this. I also think it may be simpler. "Girl" brings us back.
Here are the things I remember from that summer: the exact cut of my favourite pair of shorts and the nervous way I ripped little white threads from the frayed seams; the smell of the sofa in my dad's soundproof basement; the sea-foam polo shirt I wore the first time that boy took it off; the stubble on his cheeks.
By my calculations, this relationship lasted no more than two months. It blew up in a typical way: he found another girl at a party in the woods. “They’re making out down by the lake,” someone told me. I did not drink – I was too afraid of getting in trouble – so I was the designated driver. The woods smelled like bonfire and pine, and I piled my friends in the back of a car that belonged to someone else. A boy from the baseball team was bleeding in the backseat. He had punched inexplicably through a window. This all felt existentially fitting.
I knew then, driving back to some murky basement, that my love was over – but it would take much longer for it to drain from my body. Because my body was something I no longer recognised.
Looking at it now, it did not matter who this boy was, or what we did. It wasn't about the spider legs. I fell in love at 17, but not with him. What mattered was the love itself – that I had realised, so suddenly, that I was capable of feeling it. It was foreign and terrifying. It was an ill, ecstatic pulsing in my very bones.
After my relationship with this boy ended, I wanted to feel every jagged edge of the loss. I relished in the pain, in a distinctly teenaged way. I wanted to squeeze the very marrow from the memories of the precious thing that had slipped through my fingers.
For hours that summer, I sat on the curb at the end of my mother’s driveway, watching the empty edge of the cul de sac, imagining his car turning around the corner. I’m sorry, he would say, if this were the love I’d imagined it could be. Come back, he would beg. His car did not show up. I sat there until it got dark and then I lay down so I could feel the grainy cement beneath each of my vertebrae. I felt my organs pulsing against the hot pavement, utterly devastated, miraculously alive.
Often, when I’m writing, I try to channel this thick, textured emotion. I wonder if this is why I’m drawn to writing about teenagers. The feeling of being young and heartbroken is something that dulls with time and experience. We are forced to make room for so many new feelings, so many new worries, that eventually we are full, we are grown. We are adult.
When I’m writing, I try to reimagine this sense of pain and wonder. Only sometimes can I dig deep enough to find it.
In the autumn, I moved to New York City. Sometimes, late at night, I would climb into the stairwell of my halls of residence and enter a state I liked to call "alphabet soup" – a specific sort of mourning, where I felt like my insides had been stewed up with every feeling I'd ever had, every melodramatic thing I'd ever written. I walked the streets and even the tiniest hints of a smell – chlorine, asphalt, changing leaves – would bring me back. The chorus of a song.
When you are a girl, the moments are everything – they are wider than life itself, they are brighter, they beat audibly, deafeningly
I am listening to one of those songs now, as I write. Still, I can almost smell the manure from the pasture I used to drive by, to get from my house to his.
I did not miss this boy. I missed the way my body felt when it first discovered him.
Last year, Dwight Garner wrote a review in The New York Times of Emma Cline’s 2016 novel, The Girls. The book is about a 14-year-old girl and the review has a particularly condescending headline. “Ms. Cline attempts to wring too much meaning from each moment,” Garner complains.
No shit, I thought. What else is there to being a girl?
The Girl in my novel is dead from the start. In the book, you learn very little about her. But I like to imagine that she has had so many of these meaningful moments that her 15-year-old heart felt swollen when it stopped. I like to imagine that these big, bursting scenes are hers, and hers alone. We as readers are not privy to them, because they belong to her. They are too precious to be sullied with exposure.
“Go ahead,” I told my Girl when I wrote her novel, because I could not tell it to this past version of myself. “Go ahead and keep it all.”
When you are a girl, the moments are everything – they are wider than life itself, they are brighter, they beat audibly, deafeningly, they are gentle moths wings against a screen door. The moments are the things that now, I cannot remember. The moments are the things that we lose when we age. The moments are the things we forget to catalogue. “Girl,” they call out to us from the shelf. “Girl, what have you become?”
I think back to the younger version of myself and I want to tell her what real love feels like. That grown-up love – unlike basement love – will look you in the eye.
But, deep down, when we allow ourselves, maybe we are all still 17. We are still lying on that driveway, sun burning orange through our closed eyelids. We are still those girls, but now we are keenly aware that this is temporary, that something inside of us has already shifted. Pushed us into a different world. Still pushes us further, every day. Now, we are allowed only ephemerally back to that exquisite state of girlhood – girlhood verging on something else.
We ache to remember. Our hearts skip. We reach for the book.