Jamie cut her hair today. It used to be long and blonde and heavy, hanging down almost to her butt. She used to twirl around really fast to make her hair fly up around her like a satin cape.
Whenever I’d sleep over at her house, which was a lot, I used to spend almost the whole night braiding Jamie’s hair. She had a special horsehair brush on her nightstand and I would brush and brush her hair until it was super shiny and glossy, then carefully separate the hair into three parts before tucking the strands around and around each other, always going under like her mom had taught me. I loved watching the yellow braid emerge from my fingers like some magic snake. Jamie’s hair was all these different shades of yellow and white and gold and I would sort through her hair and twist the strands and let it fall over and over again in different patterns.
The last time I slept over at Jamie’s house was maybe at the end of May, before school got out for the summer. Jamie acted really weird that night – she didn’t want to take a bubble bath together like we usually did – and she spent most of the night in the bathroom while I read in her room. When it was time to sleep, her mom made my bed in the trundle instead of just letting us flop together on Jamie’s bed the way we used to.
“Honey, I think the bed is getting a bit small for the two of you,” she’d patted the trundle with the white guest sheets all tucked in like a hotel bed, “you’ll both be much more comfortable this way.” I laughed and dove into Jamie’s bed, which smelled like her hair, musky and warm, but Jamie just said “Seriously, Gabby, get off of me,” and turned away, and her mom had laughed weirdly again and turned off the light and said good night. It took me hours to fall asleep on the trundle, from which I could only stare at the dusty space below Jamie’s bed. Jamie didn’t say anything else to me the whole entire night. I felt really lonely that night at Jamie’s, and I never told anyone about it.
Jamie’s been acting even weirder since school started this year. She wasn’t around all summer, so I had to hang out with Emma a lot, which wasn’t great even though she’s really good at hula hooping and she taught me how to do it. We spent almost every afternoon practicing how to hula. I missed Jamie all the time. My mom let me text Jamie on her phone by texting her mom, but she only texted me back twice. I think the last thing she texted me was a thumbs up emoji even though I had written like three paragraphs about learning how to hula from Emma and how weird and awkward and bored I was.
So my summer sort of sucked, but my mom just said maybe it’s a good thing because I got to make a new best friend. (Emma is not my new best friend, even though I think my mom wants her and not Jamie to be my best friend.) I was pretty excited when I heard Jamie was also in Mr. Green’s class for fifth-grade. I’d planned on tackling her and giving her a big hug on the first day of school like we always used to, but when I actually saw her in the classroom I didn’t end up hugging her. I kind of looked away instead. I think it was because she had gotten fat and no one had told me, so I was kind of surprised and embarrassed. I don’t know that many fat people, and I didn’t know what to say.
Jamie didn’t say hi to me either. She wore a baggy T-shirt and her hair looked dirty. It was pulled back with a green scrunchy. She had gotten a double chin. Her nose was red and bumpy and greasy, and she looked sweaty. She seemed embarrassed even though no one was talking to her. I couldn’t see well from across the room but it looked like she had grown a shadowy mustache above her upper lip.
Jamie was hanging around Jack and Griffin, trying to talk to them. I could tell that they didn’t want to talk to her. Jack kept giving me this look like “she’s your friend, come over here,” but I just went over to Emma and Sophie and kept my distance. After a while Jamie sat down at a random table with her back to me. I spent the rest of the week avoiding her at recess and lunch, even though each day I would think of all sorts of things I wanted to tell her after I got home from school. Jamie wasn’t ever actually busy or doing anything important. At recess, she mainly bounced a basketball by herself in the ball alley, even though she looked bored and tired.
After she cut her hair, Jamie looked even weirder. The haircut made her look like she was halfway between a girl and a boy. She was wearing boys’ sneakers with black ankle socks and gym shorts, which made the dark hair on her legs stand out. I was standing with Emma’s group listening to everyone talk about what they wanted to be for Halloween when Sophie pointed at Jamie and said, “Jamie’s already got her costume – a boy!”
Emma smiled at me. “Wait, Gabby, you didn’t tell us yet – are you going to be a boy like your bestie?”
Sophie giggled. “Yeah, are you going to use the boy’s bathrooms because you’re ‘all-gender’ like Jamie?”
My heart pounded and skipped violently. My mom didn’t tell me Jamie was changing her gender. No one did. We’d made rainbow-colored signs that said “all-gender” and taped them over the first-floor bathrooms this fall because the teachers said that was the nice thing to do, because sometimes people didn’t have to be what they were born as but could choose for themselves, and that was a good thing. It was supposed to be cool to do that. But no one actually knew someone who was like that. No one told me that was why Jamie had become so weird. It actually wasn’t cool at all.
I ran over to Jamie.
“So what are you, a boy now?”
Jamie let the ball bounce away and looked at me. It felt like it was the first time she’d looked at me since May. She sneered.
“Yeah, so what?”
A soccer ball flew by our heads and bounced off the wall behind Jamie.
“Yeah, fags! Look they’re going to make out!”
“Eew, gross! Gay!”
A group of six graders started pelting balls at us. Red and green rubber balls flew towards me and I instinctively grabbed Jamie’s hand and ran. We ran around the building, zigzagging and ducking, until we reached the shadow of the doorway that led into the school. I knew the boys wouldn’t aim the balls at us there because they didn’t want to hit the windows.
We leaned against the door to catch our breath. Jamie suddenly grabbed me around the waist and pushed her head into my chest. I leaned down and breathed in the familiar smell of her hair, soft and spiky now that it was short. She smelled the same – warm and musky, mixed with something new and unfamiliar, pungent and mysterious. I drew it in as my tears slid onto Jamie’s scalp.
Jenny Fan Raj lives in San Francisco, where she teaches at the California College of the Arts and is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She has a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and an M.Des from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She’s taught English in Tokyo, consulted in Amsterdam, mothered in San Francisco, has a patent, and is convinced that all of these experiences will make their way into her work somehow. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Obra/Artifact, The Columbia East Asian Review, and The New Engagement, among others.