looking sixteen

nikki borgel

Erik Kirkland Memorial Prize Finalist

cara roets


I wear my hair in pigtails to work. Two Dutch braids starting at the front of my head and curving down behind my ears. I work outside at the local baseball stadium and it’s hot and the health inspector says your hair must be up. I like my hair in pigtails. They make me look even younger than I already am. It helps me get tips. When people think you’re sixteen and good at your job, they tip you because smart young kids need to save money for college. I don’t mention I’m already in college, but I welcome the tips. I need them now more than I ever did.

But instead of dollars and quarters and nickels and dimes, I get pennies for people’s thoughts. They glance in my tip jar, see the straw wrapper and the quarter that’s there and tell me not to spend it all in one place. Tell me to study hard in school. Tell me to save up: College is expensive, and I don’t want to be working a job like this for the rest of my life. They tell me to be careful. Young girls like me shouldn’t be touching hot fryers like those. They ask how old I am. They ask where I go to school. They ask what I study.

They tell me my hair is beautiful. Some old ladies reach out and stroke my pigtails. Old men call me sweetie, honey, baby doll, honey girl. They tell me to smile more. They tell me my pigtails make me look young. They tell me to be careful around boys. They grin, and they wink. They make sex jokes and talk about “girls my age.”

My coworker always asks about the boyfriend I don’t have. He asks if I’m married yet. When the new girl asks what I study at school, he cuts me off and says sex ed, that’s what he studied. It’s the most useful subject. I fall silent and she never finds out about my writing.

I come home from school on summer break. My first shift back I work with Old Man. He tells me about his grandkids. His granddaughter got a penny stuck in her nose last week. He tells me my skin really cleared up since I started working at sixteen. Tells me he’s sure I never have to buy my own drinks. I don’t mention I’m not old enough. I never mention I don’t tend to go to parties. I don’t mention that my ideal night includes just a drink or two and a long round of Uno.

Old Man mentions my body. Tells me I’ve filled out nicely. He comments on my tits. He calls them tits and tells me I can shake them to get boys to buy me drinks. I don’t point out that I barely have tits. That’s not a problem though. He says pretty girls like me always get free drinks. I take a walk. It’s two blocks to the port-a-potty, but that’s not far enough.

I work a lot of shifts with Young Guy. He’s a bit older than me, but he looks like he might be too young to work, kind of like me. He flirts a lot. Not just with me, with everyone. Young Guy pokes my sides. I flinch away. He puts his hand on my shoulder as he reaches around me. I freeze. He makes jokes and I make them back because I don’t know what else to do. My tone shifts ‘til it’s so thick with sarcasm I start to drown in it. Young Guy talks about girls. The ones with their boobs out. The ones with fat asses. The ones with big tits. He accuses me of checking out boys. I don’t confirm or deny.

One day, Other Vendor tells me he likes my pigtails. He just became a grandfather. He tells me about it. He compliments my pigtails again. “You just don’t see that any more. Sweet and innocent like that.”

Old Customer has season tickets to the baseball stadium. He’s there when the gates open every night at 5:30 p.m. He’s never late. Old Customer comes to my fry stand first. Always first. Asks for a large fry. Winks. Calls me beautiful. Calls me baby. Always tells me he’ll see me later. Old Customer comes back. Sometimes he tries to touch me. I start making a point of being busy every time I see him coming. Young Guy sees it. Young Guy starts serving him instead. Old Customer stops coming by.

One day, Young Guy grabs my pigtail, pulling my head towards him. He reminds me I have hair you can pull. I look at him. “Don’t fucking touch me.” I say it harsh. Say it to stand for all the other times I wanted to say it. All the times I was too scared to make things weird. To embarrass him. Young Guy gets quiet the rest of the shift. Near the end he finally says, “Do I make you uncomfortable?” I lie. I don’t know why I do, but I do. “I’m always uncomfortable,” I say. Young Guy never makes an icky sex joke again.

I wear my hair in pigtails at work. People tell me they make me look like I’m sixteen, but no one ever gave me tips when I really was sixteen, so I’m not sure what “looking sixteen” really means.