The man tells her, you’re sixteen and being sixteen is the thing. Like being a very old woman, or a baby: an age is all you are. The farthest thing from the men who stride across television, late at night in black and white, the ones who know that power isn’t being old or young but being the kind of man who doesn’t need an age.
She’s sixteen like girls in movies are sixteen, sixteen like teachers sigh it, sixteen like men in bushes hiss it, sixteen. But she’s also sixteen the way this man says it, this man her sister is about to marry, the way he says it to her in the kitchen. You’re sixteen and being sixteen is the thing. They’re supposed to be stamping the cards, blue for fish, red for chicken. But you’re not bad.
Yeah, you’re all right. You could be sexy, maybe. If you didn’t try so hard.
Which was odd, because she doesn’t know she’s trying. She pulls on her sleeve and leaves.
Sixteen so there’s still too much time. She knows sometime there won’t be enough time, but can’t imagine how that will be. Sixteen so she can lie in a room, she can do what the others can’t, which is nothing. She can think, this is what it is: to want. If this man comes by that night, this is what he’ll say. He’d tell her that wanting was what she was for, which would be pretty close to saying it was what she was good for, which isn’t a good thing to have said about you. But because it isn’t a good thing it feels sometimes like a true thing. Her parents and this man’s parents say good things about her. They do this by listing all the things they hate about girls who aren’t her, things that she has never considered and so can’t take much pride in having avoided. In time they might find a quality of hers to praise, but those good things will not be true things. This is another thing about sixteen: after all those years of smiling pinchy lies you can’t believe good things can also be true.
Come Sunday, this man wears a ridiculous suit down the long hall and the sister he wants to call wife wears something stranger still but the girl wears the worst thing of all. Purple straps cut sixteen-year-old shoulders. In every direction there’s too much fabric. In line for food she’ll hear a man whisper something in the ear of some woman in a slip-on sleeve. The woman will pretend to blush and say, if only I’d had the nerve to dress this way when I was sixteen. She’ll take a drink in compensation. When it would have mattered. The woman will look at the girl, lost in her fifth layer of purple. Which is another thing about being sixteen: people talk about what they might have done when they were you, how much they regret that they are no longer you. You’ve barely shown up but you’ve stolen their place. You hear it and understand the implied advice but it doesn’t do you any good.
Come Sunday night, she’s back in the room. It’s a strange room, a room that, like everything, has been picked for her. They’d apologized that there was no one for her to share it with, meaning, no one else was sixteen. The ceiling is too high; it makes her think of a different kind of movie. By now she knows that this man isn’t coming, that no one will knock on the door unless she calls the desk.
So she waits, but she can’t call it waiting because no one knows she’s there, knows what she’s thinking, least of all this man, just four flights above, this man called husband with this girl now his.
She turns on the television, and there she is, another girl who says “I’m sixteen” every time her mother is around, only you can tell she’s not, she’s one of those twenty-six year olds who gets a job playing a sixteen year old. Everyone likes sixteen as long as you don’t have to deal with the real thing.
Emptying your head is good practice her father says. If you lie quiet there will be one thing and another thing but eventually there will be nothing, and if there isn’t nothing, there might be the right thing, like the voice of this man who is supposed to call you sister, instead saying, you’re not bad.
If you didn’t try so hard. She lies in the sleepless dark, still sixteen, trying not to want, wanting not to try.