I was 12 years old when I told Anna Collins* to go fuck herself.
I don’t remember where I had come up with it or how. While my parents didn’t have the cleanest of mouths, a phrase like that wasn’t used on a regular basis. I wasn’t allowed to hang out with “bad” kids. I wasn’t allowed to watch HBO, or even MTV. It was rare that PG-13 movies were even allowed to grace my presence, and you can’t say fuck in those.
But those words were there, inside me, just waiting for the right moment to escape my lips. It was spring. Seventh grade. A grade I had spent putting up with the torment of standing helplessly on the sidelines while the girls I had called my friends since elementary school changed in front of me. The fuck you moment had been building. It was built out of “forgotten” sleepover invites and full lunch tables — this seat is saved — and prank phone calls. It was built out of nasty notes slipped in lockers and public put-downs and newly appointed clique nicknames. They had been trying The Great Eight on for size. I was number nine.
In my memory, the fuck you moment happened spontaneously, but I’m sure in real life it took much longer. I’m sure I hesitated before I spat the insult. I’m sure I worried about what would happen to me. I’m about to say something I can’t take back.
A group of us were walking back to school from open lunch. We would trek to the local coffeehouse, where we could only really afford Italian sodas and buttered bagels with our measly $3 lunch money. “A plain bagel!?” my mother would exclaim when she asked what I ate that day. “What kind of meal is that? Where’s the protein?”
Anna was the queen bee. She was blonde and pretty and athletic. She even looked slightly older and more mature than the rest of us. We existed in the bubble of a tiny suburb, and even the kids talked about the adult drama. Anna was gossiping incessantly about some school board meeting or public forum or something very dry and adult like that; making a non-issue salacious was her specialty.
“That’s not true,” I finally piped in after listening to her talk for minutes. My voice quivered and I hated myself for it. I was tired of people taking her word as gospel. I was small and sometimes meek, but I was unexpectedly stubborn. I spoke out too much and always wanted people to think I was right. This was one of those times.
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Carrie. Like you would know.”
Everyone laughed and my cheeks and ears were scalding. I felt my body begin to nervously sweat more than the cup of half melted ice and flat soda I was still holding on to. Fuck you fuck you fuck you, I whispered in my head. Fuck you fuck you fuck you.
“I’m right, Anna,” I said a few minutes later, this time with a little more confidence. “My dad was at that meeting. He told me what happened. How would you know, Anna? You weren’t even there.”
She was infuriated. Neither of us liked being wrong; the only problem was that she wasn’t as used to being challenged as I was.
“Carrie, shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about, and your dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about. God, you’re so dumb sometimes. Just shut up!”
My grip on my drink tightened so hard that I felt the flimsy plastic cup collapse and deflate in my hand. Walking ahead, I chucked it at the nearest trash can. I took a deep breath and turned around.
“No, YOU don’t know what you’re talking about, Anna. Go fuck yourself,” I snarled. I held her stunned stare for a moment before I whipped around and huffed a few paces ahead, listening to the boys hoot and laugh while the girls gasped and loudly tried to console her.
By the afternoon, it was as if the whole school knew. Carrie said fuck. Carrie told Anna to go fuck herself. In our shared classes, we exchanged glances and I smirked. It was like we were all characters in Mean Girls — we knew it was better to be miserable and part of the clique than to not be part of it at all. Nobody ever talk back to Anna. But I did, and I made a public show of it, too.
I had learned early in life that I could throw my words like daggers at those I had felt wronged me. Whether over my size or my eclectic outfits or the Michael Moore books I briefly carried around, I was made fun of relentlessly, even by people I thought were my friends. It became easy to say things like You’re just jealous because I’m skinny and There’s a GPA requirement; you really shouldn’t even bother and, one I’m still ashamed of, At least my dad doesn’t have to buy my love.
But swearing opened up a world of possibilities. My mother taught me sometime later in those middle school years that calling another girl a bitch was one thing, but the c-word was unacceptable, so that was the only word I considered off limits, although I did let it slip in private from time to time. Bruising someone’s ego was much cleaner than leaving an actual bruise. I never worried that I’d be told on, because most of the people were too ashamed to repeat what I had said, or worried that they’d get in trouble for repeating it. I stopped thinking before I spoke.
Anna would make me pay for what I said. It was middle school; I knew she would. Words come back to haunt us like that. There were times I’ve been slapped or kicked or had my hair pulled, and times when I’ve fought back, but it’s always the words I let slip out of my mouth that leave scars.
*Name has been changed