We called it the Dick Book, but it wasn’t actually a book. It was a magazine—Teen Beat, Kirk Cameron on the cover—with several polaroids of a naked man tucked in between pages. We found it—more than once—while walking home from school, planted in the middle of a sidewalk or just off the sidewalk. But really, the Dick Book found us.
We were ninth graders, thrilled and relieved to be out of middle school, but confused by the fresh set of edicts required by a new school. Sports became a refuge, a place where the rules were very clear: what we wore, where we stood, what we said, when we came and went. On the off season, we often walked into town after school to buy junk food or makeup at the pharmacy and then we’d continue on to the home with the best snacks or the fewest possible disturbances.
Elizabeth grabbed it, thinking she had scored a free copy of Teen Beat. The polaroids slipped out as soon as she picked it up.
“What—is—that?” Meghan yelled, never quite aware of her own volume. She was high energy all the time.
“It’s a dick,” Elizabeth whispered, her rowdy curls tamed only by the sunglasses on top of her head. Taking the lead as she usually did, Elizabeth grasped one of the photos by the corner and held it up as if it were nuclear waste. Our heads tilted as we examined the picture sideways.
“No, it’s a lot of dicks,” Jenny observed, her eyes darting between the fallen polaroids. Jenny was the problem-solver of the group, and often accessorized with a key-filled carabiner clipped onto a belt loop of her jeans. We wondered how anyone could know so many doors.
“Like different dicks?” I asked, barely audible. I preferred not to be heard or seen. Anything that might attract attention—like my freckles—was cause for misery.
“Same dick, different positions,” Christine said with authority. She had an older sister; she knew things.
We were young and immature enough that to use the word penis was absolutely out of the question, as it was far too accurate a word — pee-nis sounded like what it was, like you “pee out of this.” We were old enough to know what a dick was; there were dicks all around us—our older brothers, occasionally our fathers, Señor Porter, Assistant Coach Tom.
Though unproven, some zoologists have theorized that zebras have stripes to confuse predators because it’s harder to identify individual zebras when they are in a group. A group of zebras is called a dazzle, which would be a fine name for a group of teenage girls who prefer to travel in groups, who feel like they might only dazzle when they are together. Our stripes—those things that made us feel like we stood out—blended when we were together. Our awkwardness became consensus. We were brace-faced and gap-toothed; we were flat-chested wishing for more chest and big-breasted wishing for less breast; we were lining our eyes with Go-You Green and glossing our lips with Boom-Boom Berry; we were pretending to know every song The Pixies ever wrote while we sang every word to “Unskinny Bop” by the band known as Poison.
Fellow girls were supposed to be our biggest threat. We had been warned: they are cutthroat and backstabbing, which sounded dangerous. We certainly didn’t want to stab or cut anyone, but we stayed on high alert, especially when we weren’t in the dazzle. Being alone was terrifying back then not just because we became conspicuous, but also because we were forced to become more conscious of our singular selves, more vulnerable.
Lions prey on zebras: they are known to stalk their prey during the day, hiding behind vegetation, sometimes giving themselves away by peeking. They go for the kill at night. If attacked, zebras will first try to outrun a lion and if that doesn’t work their legs can kick hard enough to break jaws or sometimes knock out the predator. For the most part, zebras are completely fucked when preyed on.
Fortunately, we found the Dick Book during the day. It disgusted us and enthralled us, it may have even flattered us. At fifteen, we had all seen a penis, but not all of us had seen a dick. The photos did not reveal the man’s face, but offered plenty of angles of his lower half. “Does he think he’s hot?” we asked, genuinely curious. “Does anyone think this is hot?” The exhibitionism astounded us, that anyone could feel that confident about their nakedness, especially since our own bodies were still so mysterious. It certainly did not sell us on being heterosexual—or sexual at all—it was gross, perverted, and yet somehow not imminently threatening. It created the tiniest of fissures, room enough for an unnamed and unspoken message to seep in and warn us that the world wasn’t safe, not even here in our small, leafy New Jersey town. When a pebble hits the windshield, it sometimes leaves a small crack, a crack that might only obscure a distant traffic light, but over time that crack has the potential to spread into rivulets and then shatter the entire thing. Danger had crept into our quiet suburb and was following us behind the pachysandra. We acknowledged only that the Dick Book had an author, but he remained anonymous and it scared us for a minute, but we kept walking home and ate our Funyons along the way. We didn’t think too much about the drafting of that book, the distribution of it, or the probability that the author was waiting around to sign copies.
A group of ducks is called a flock or more obscurely known as a brace. Originally, the term brace meant a pair of ducks, but evolved to include a group. The term “sitting duck” originated with hunters who found the animals easy targets, especially when they were just chilling in the water minding their own business. Ducks have few ways of defending themselves—rounded beaks, dull nails, and the domesticated ones (i.e. those that live in the suburbs) can’t fly. The only thing we knew about defense in high school was how to protect your teammate. We could be vicious to our opponents—verbally and physically—but off the field we presumed we had nothing to fear. We didn’t need to brace ourselves for anything.
Male ducks will flirt with females, attempt to capture attention by stretching their necks or splashing their heads into the water like some of the headbangers we knew. Most birds don’t have penises, but male ducks apparently have dicks and use them violently. According to National Geographic, the mating season is traumatic for females: “There are even socially organized groups of males pursuing females to force copulation. This is really physically harmful for the female ducks. They are stressed out. They fly away, dive, and do everything they can to avoid it. Sometimes they even drown because ducks often copulate in the water.” Biologists call this “forced copulation” while our health teachers called it rape.
We got reckless as we ventured further into high school—took the train into New York to buy booze, had parties when our parents left us alone, drank stolen grain alcohol, took the car out for license-less joyrides, at least one of us had unprotected sex, another a try-on eating disorder, the other a full-blown eating disorder—but the ending was always clear. All would eventually end, if not well, then okay. You get pregnant, the end is an abortion. You get really drunk, the end is throwing up a lot, feeling like shit for a day and you might even get caught, but it’s not like you would die. You get nabbed by the cops at a party, your parents bail you out. You stop eating for a while, you start up again as long as your mom has stopped saying you look fat in your spring formal dress. You find the Dick Book, you lose it and walk home.
A murmuration is a flock of starlings that fly synchronously. They swirl in one enormous mass, a dark cloud, a moving constellation. There is strength in their numbers, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. A 2013 analysis by a group of scientists suggests this aerial phenomenon shows the “birds’ ability to manage uncertainty while also maintaining consensus.” The swarm is beautiful and alarming, a reaction one might feel towards a swarm of teen girls. We were no swarm, but like the starlings, we were loyal to our formation. Rarely less than three or more than five, we stuck together, pushing our desks closer, clustering at the lunch table, walking like a moving dam on the sidewalk, piling in the back of our mothers’ station wagons. We were afraid of our singular identities, of our vulnerabilities as individuals. There was no I in team, our coaches always told us. So we avoided the I for as long as we could.
Falcons and hawks are natural predators to starlings, but humans are the primary threat. In the U.S. starlings are invasive and considered to be a major pain in the ass. They are everywhere, which means so is their poop. They deprive other birds of food sources, they damage crops, and can transmit disease. They have caused airplane crashes. Advice on how to control or kill them abounds on the internet—trap, electric shock, poison, or shoot are common suggestions—so it sort of makes sense why they would stick together. We were misunderstood, otherwise more people would have seen our value, our uniqueness. As a group, we certainly felt more protected, but we also felt like we could be beautiful.
A year after we found the Dick Book, we were drinking wine coolers at Christine’s house and hightailed it as soon as we saw her mom’s headlights in the driveway. We made our way down the road and landed at the park. Memorial Field was the hub of recreational life in town. It’s where the Fourth of July fireworks went off, soccer games were played, the annual fair happened. It had tennis courts and basketball courts, two playgrounds, one with a seesaw that made you feel like you were getting shot out of a cannon. The field was encircled by a pebbled track, none of it lit up at night to prevent kids like us from loitering. We were huddled on the sidewalk that bordered the field to discuss our next destination when a white van pulled up. Given the curtains on the back windows, we thought it could possibly be a friendly van. But it was dark and the van had pulled over and we paused in between the grass and the track wondering what this van was doing. Soon, four masked bodies jumped out of the van and ran towards us. We split into different directions, booking it into the darkness of the open field as the bodies ran after us. Our formation had been broken, the murmuration had splintered. In an instant, our “we” became “me.”
I remember thinking how this couldn’t possibly be happening, that really I was back at the house being lectured to by Christine’s mom. But reality struck when I was grabbed from behind, and lifted up in a straitjacket hug. I screamed and twisted wildly, eventually maneuvering in such a way that I bit into the scalp of this person, which made him let go. It wasn’t intentional, but I probably said it was in an effort to prove I wasn’t as defenseless as a duck. I don’t remember how long this went on, but it felt interminable and terrifying, and ended once each of us managed to unmask them. They were a mix of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade boys. We were friends with at least one of them, friendly with the rest. They thought it would be funny.
“Total dicks,” we said, and then eventually, after the terror wore off, we acted like it was funny too because we were tough and we weren’t going to let them think otherwise. For a few moments, the end felt certain, we’d be assaulted or killed. But that danger was an illusion and offered proof to us that we were always going to be fine. All would eventually end well. In many ways, getting older is that process of realizing that we weren’t always going to be fine, that there will be moments when you can’t deny your vulnerability.
We did reach Meghan’s house safely, and left the Dick Book for someone else to find. It found us one more time after that in a different location, but by then it wasn’t as interesting any more. How unoriginal, we may have thought. Pathetic even. We can only speculate now how our lackluster response may have been received by the author, if he was watching, as we still suspect he was. That was the point. He knew teenage girls would not find his polaroid porn arousing—but he knew he had power over us, that his anonymity may have been cowardly, but it gave him the perch he needed to watch us, exploit us, prey on us. The van incident widened the fissure the Dick Book created. Those masked boys used their anonymity too—until we took it away from them. They terrorized us not just by physically threatening us, but also by showing us we could be hunted and harmed by people we knew.
The van incident wasn’t just a cruel prank, it was also a warning: there were men out there who felt entitled to our bodies. Some men engaged in bizarre mating rituals; some men showed off their penises like lions do with their manes; some men forced copulation. We felt less invincible, but more convinced of the strength in our number. As we got older, we would learn that our bodies could betray us too—that danger could arrive in the form of a tiny fucked-up cell, causing depression, infertility, cancer.
Over the years, our formation resumed: straight-lined as bridesmaids, bent-elbowed as bar patrons, flocked as aunties, kneeled as mourners. When we are in the group, we manage the uncertainty of getting married, of having babies, of getting sick, of death, more bravely, like the starlings. Now middle-aged, at last, we are comfortable with who we are, insist on the frequent use of I since we abdicated it for so long, but settle into the solace and safety of we because we choose to.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains a database of threatened species that evaluates the vulnerability of animals and plants globally. Each species is given a rating to assess their “extinction risk status,” ranging from “least concern” to “extinct” with other markers in between. The zebra is considered “near threatened,” one notch away from “vulnerable.” Humans are to blame: farming, hunting, warring, climate-destroying. Surely, the zebras are not as oblivious to threats as we were—they can at least sense a predator hiding in the bushes. And yet we survived, close call after close call. That denial of our own vulnerability is what kept us close, what convinced us we could run into a dark field without consequence. The opposite is true now—our expressed vulnerabilities are what hold us together.
We come together again in that leafy New Jersey town, pewed like crows, sitting six excruciating feet apart, mourning the last of our fathers. We blend in black, but each of our stripes still stands out. There is Elizabeth, her perfect posture, sunglasses still serving as a headband; and Meghan, still unable to whisper, her impeccably neat short hair feigning reserve underneath; Christine streams in from Vermont, still so chic in her laid-backness; my freckles have shifted into larger constellations; I am still disheveled, inside and out. And then there is Jenny, who sits even farther away, up front, her deep red locks a little less fiery on this day because she can’t solve the biggest problem. Her father had called her Red.
Outside the church, we huddle, defying the danger of a global virus, the danger of known and unknown predators, and we hold each other—so briefly safe in each other’s arms.