At lunchtime, the fifth and sixth grade girls run around the grassy field. From a distance, it looks like they’re playing tag, pursuing and then fleeing with their high-pitched screams echoing throughout the grounds of the school. But they’re checking.
The girls press their fingers over the others’ backs, feeling for the taut strap of the bra beneath. When they find it, they stick a finger underneath and pull as hard as they can. They all yelp when the straps hit, even when they know it’s coming. There is hurt and annoyance in their cries but with pride mixed in—they’ve grown enough to merit the sting.
Before this, the girls looked up to Sesame as one of the nicer sixth grade girls. The checking rapidly changed the hierarchy. Sesame knew she was sunk when Pepper Simmons discovered she wasn’t wearing anything underneath her t-shirt. Of course Sesame knew it would happen—a little part of her even wanted to get it over with. But the dread of waiting proved to be better than what happened: Sesame screamed loud as soon as she felt Pepper’s cold finger sliding down her back. She knew she was supposed to and that it would cover the fact that there was no snapping sound. As she was screaming, Pepper regarded her with disgust and superiority. Though she wouldn’t tell (they were supposed to be friends) Pepper moved away from her quickly, as if it never happened, as if Sesame was infected or didn’t exist, and onto the next girl, where she would feel the rightness of a strap beneath her finger that could partially make up for the embarrassment of knowing Sesame wasn’t one of them.
The boys had started it but they only did it to the girls they liked. Sesame envied those girls then—boys never noticed her like that.
The real checking began as the classes filed out of the auditorium one day. Milly Jackowski, who had developed early and everyone shunned, started it. It just took seconds for her to pull Pepper’s bra strap back hard like a slingshot. When Pepper squealed, everyone laughed.
When Sesame remembers that moment, it’s not Pepper she thinks about, even though she had been walking right beside her and they had been best friends at the time. It was Milly, and how she looked when it happened. She didn’t shrink into herself and make herself small the way she usually did. She just kept walking behind Pepper, standing as tall as she was and grinning at everyone as if she’d just told a great joke.
In that moment, Sesame could project this whole thing into the future and knew she was in trouble. She asked her mom that afternoon for a bra but was shut down: “There’s nothing there. You’re too young. Don’t you want to enjoy your childhood while you still have one?”
Sesame’s mom didn’t wear a bra and thought they were anti-Feminist weapons of the patriarchy that caused muscle atrophy and breast cancer. As a compromise, she bought Sesame a sports bra, but by the time she waved it in front of her nose, it was too late. Pepper had already felt her naked back.
The girls consider sports bras lesser for looking like a small tank top and not having the firm strap for their fingers to snap. Sesame hates that in hers she’s only considered a little better than the uncovered girls, like Clover Teegarden, who everyone teases because she’s starting to show and everyone thinks she really ought to be wearing something.
If only Sesame could have a magic, invisible bra. Or just the strap—an invisible strap that appeared as she walked to school and could keep her safe at lunchtime. As she made her way back home, it would disappear again so she could be a child for her mother, who complained that she was growing up too fast but only seemed to notice her when she got in the way.
At school, Sesame tries to be vigilant, keeping her back to the wall and lying down in the green grass whenever she can with the excuse of being so, so tired. She’s just leaving the lunch line and is distracted, balancing her tray and putting change back into her wallet, when Milly Jackowski not only presses her finger down her spine but lifts up her shirt to reveal her entire back to the line behind her.
“It’s a sports bra! And Sesame doesn’t even play any sports!” Milly jeers.
Sesame’s face burns but there’s nothing she can do except pretend to laugh along with everyone while insisting very loudly that she goes to yoga right after school and doesn’t have time to change completely.
That’s when she cracks.
She decides she’ll have to steal one. It has to be when she’s shopping with her mom because there are no stores within walking distance that carry bras and she can’t just order one online because her mom will receive and open the package, and it’s just better if she doesn’t. The two places her mom goes often are the grocery store and the big warehouse store where she buys things in bulk. Sesame settles on the warehouse store. She’ll just have to be quick and brave.
A week passes without incident thanks to her old, dorky backpack that she pulled from the back of the closet. People make fun of it, but it’s still preferable to the checking. She skips lunch altogether and hides the hour in a stall in the bathroom.
Finally, her mom announces they’re going to the warehouse store. She expects Sesame to keep her company whenever she goes anywhere, but this time Sesame doesn’t mind. Her mom needs to buy salmon. It’s one of the few dishes that she can make to impress people. She only buys fish from the warehouse store and insists it’s better and cheaper there. Sesame can’t tell the difference from the packaging but doesn’t argue, as her mom never needs to impress her so she’s never tried the dish. During her mother’s date, she’ll hide in her bedroom with a pizza so that it seems like there are no kids in the house and it’s just her mom and whoever will be eating the fancy food, and their imaginary adult life together.
“I’m going to look around,” Sesame says once they’ve stepped through the entrance.
Her mom doesn’t say anything, and Sesame is off walking swiftly down the aisles. The store is cold like an empty hanger, even though it’s stacked with cardboard boxes on pallets that rise up to the high ceilings. Sesame’s almost running but she doesn’t want people to look at her funny. And it’s hard to run. She gets sweaty and out of breath.
In the clothes section in the middle of the store, Sesame finds a bra. There’s only one real version that they have. It’s basic and ugly, a flesh-coloured flimsy piece of fabric, but the rest are all for sports. They’re packed into two-packs in plastic pouches scattered in a big cardboard box. Sesame searches for a small one. She grabs the smallest number and letter she can find and hopes it will work. It just has to, even if she has to cut it with scissors and sew it back together again. Her cheeks flare as she glances around to see if anyone is watching her. But no one is.
She shoves the pouch in her armpit to conceal it and tries to look light and untroubled as she browses through the book section. She finds a novel that she wants, the latest in a fantasy series that can cover the package while she figures out how to steal it. She picks up a tub of red liquorice, too. She’ll look less suspicious if she’s shopping.
While she’s trying to figure out what to do next she sees Clover Teegarden from school just standing there, staring at her, and holding a giant, stuffed giraffe that blocks her way.
“Hey Clover,” Sesame says because it’s too weird to not say anything. She tries to manoeuvre around her and the giraffe but trips, and everything falls onto the hard, cement floor.
If it were anyone else, Sesame would worry about being seen with the bras and them knowing that she was getting her undergarments from the warehouse store and not somewhere nice with her mom. But Clover Teegarden is in no position to judge. It’s weird to be standing there next to her—distasteful even—knowing that Clover’s just wearing a t-shirt and underneath it’s all soft flesh. Holding the giraffe, Clover looks younger than at school, where she stands out next to the others and looks like she should be in a higher grade.
Clover’s eyes travel over the things Sesame dropped. She just watches as Sesame rearranges them into her arms so that her plastic package doesn’t show.
“Hi Sesame,” Clover finally says, quietly.
“I didn’t know you came here,” Sesame says stupidly.
“We come here sometimes.” Clover speaks so slowly, running her mouth over every word while Sesame fidgets. Clover can just stand there as long as she wants. She’s not like Sesame. Sesame has a mission.
“My parents are having a party,” Clover drawls. “They stock up on booze and cheese and hamburgers.” She rolls her eyes—Parents, they say—but Sesame wouldn’t know. “I like that book, too. I can’t wait to find out what happens with the guy that died at the end of the last one.”
“Why? He’s gone.” Sesame doesn’t know why she bothers to talk to Clover and doesn’t just ignore her. Everyone knows she’s weird.
“He was stabbed. He’s dead!”
“Maybe not dead dead.”
Sesame nods but looks at the floor.
“Maybe,” she concedes, just to be nice. It’s the fastest way to end the conversation. “See you,” she says as she walks away.
She can feel Clover’s eyes on her back.
While her mom is distracted with her head in the freezer, Sesame notices that the doors cloud after they’ve been open for a while and then she can’t really see her mom at all. She opens another freezer door and pretends to be considering all the frozen things in front of her that crackle and complain about being disturbed by the warm air that floods in while she lets the door fog up. Then she steps in at an angle, so most of her is concealed. Sesame’s so small, she almost fits inside the freezer completely with the door covering her. She pulls off her shirt and puts on the bras, one after another, quick as she can, and pulls her shirt back on. She slips out with a bag of chicken nuggets in case anyone’s watching, but the aisle is quiet. She looks back and forth, expecting people to be laughing or pointing and yelling, “Thief!” But no one seems to have noticed or if they do, they don’t bother.
“This too,” she says as she drops the nuggets in her mom’s cart, expecting to give a long explanation about why it’s a good idea for her mom to buy them. But her mom just nods in her direction, absently.
At the checkout, Sesame’s job is to load the shopping onto the conveyor belt while her mom stands ready with the credit card.
“Are you excited for your date?” she asks, trying to district them both and make the line move faster.
Her mom smiles tightly but keeps looking down at the shopping that passes by—fish, wine, liquorice, the nuggets, frozen pizza.
“All you eat is junk,” she sighs.
No one notices that Sesame is any different. The checkout girl doesn’t even glance at her.
When everything’s on the conveyer belt, Sesame announces that she’ll wait in the food court. As she walks past her mom through the line onto the other side, she expects the store police to grab her.
Her stomach growls. She’s tired of missing lunch. There’s pizza for dinner, but Sesame orders a big slices of pepperoni anyway. She takes a big bite and feels something like relief laced with disappointment.
“Can I sit here?”
She looks up to see Clover Teegarden carrying a tray. Sesame wonders if Clover has been following her and just exists to make her feel bad.
Sesame nods but it’s harder to chew with Clover sitting across from her. Clover’s hot dog sticks out far beyond the bun. Sesame hates the way it looks, audacious and smeared with mustard and ketchup and green pickle relish. Finally, Clover bites off the end and then it’s normal, with everything fitting neatly into the bread.
They’re eating in silence with just the sounds of their chewing and swallowing when Clover stops and stares at Sesame.
“Why are you so mean to me?”
Sesame looks down at her food. “I’m just the same as everyone else.”
Clover shakes her head.
“You always get me first and then everyone starts on me, too. Go on, do it. I’m almost used to it by now.”
Sesame wipes the grease off her fingers and walks around the table. She can feel the warmth coming off Clover’s back. Clover doesn’t flinch when Sesame touches her. Her finger starts at the top of Clover’s spine and brushes down between her shoulder blades until it’s well below where a bra strap should be. It’s an addictive thing, the power of a finger, to wield over bare skin or rubber when it’s there, before letting it fly to make a satisfying pop.
Sesame wants to run—no need for the rest of the pizza; she’s not hungry any more. But she has to wait for her mom and act like nothing’s wrong. Her mom’s cart will guide them out of the store. She hopes she can slip next to her mom as store clerk checks the receipt without anyone noticing her. No one ever does. But at the same time it feels just like at school, that everyone is.
“You can do me,” she whispers to Clover as she sits back down. “Just hurry.”
She gasps as Clover’s finger pokes hard into her back. Clover doesn’t know how to do it; it’s not supposed to be a crude poke but a light, downward stroking. Sesame doesn’t say anything. It’s not Clover’s fault she doesn’t know. She never checks anyone back.
Sesame feels the finger push into her spine until it’s made its way into her middle back. The fingers slide underneath the strap and then hesitate. Sesame hears a sharp intake of breath behind her. Clover must know that she stole. She was watching too hard not to.
Clover doesn’t say anything. She keeps feeling and grabs for the second strap.
She pulls so hard that Sesame thinks they’ll break. But they just slap back and hurt, the way they’re supposed to as she holds in her scream.
“That’s my mom,” Sesame points as she blinks away the moisture behind her eyes. “She hates to wait.”
Her mom’s cart swiftly moves to the exit without slowing. Sesame’s supposed to follow. Sesame runs to catch up but not too fast—the woman is checking the receipt and marking it with her pen—and then Sesame’s clear to follow. Right before she’s out the door, she looks back to see if Clover’s watching. When she knows that she is, she raises her hand to wave.