VIRGINS by K-Ming Chang

Sixth grade was the year I met Melanie. She’d transferred from private school, Catholic, and around her neck was a copper locket with the Virgin Mary’s portrait inside it. It was the first white person I’d ever seen, minus the wasian in our class who had freckles even in the crack of her ass. The first time Melanie showed me what was inside her locket, we were changing together in the concrete-walled locker room, right in front of the window spattered with flies that spanned the gym teacher’s office. Everyone knew those were the worst lockers to get, the ones in front of the window, because inside the office was our lesbian gym teacher with breath like bug spray and gray pubic hair at her temples. She never wore a bra under her gray T-shirt, and so her nipples pecked out at us like twin beaks, twitching as she chased us on the blacktop, blowing the whistle that meant run, bitch. While the lesbian gym teacher paced the length of the window, looking out at us, I was bent over, trying to cross my arms over my chest while simultaneously bucking off my teal terrycloth T-shirt. When I glanced beside me at Melanie, I saw that she could change from her pink baby-doll T-shirt into her gym shirt without undressing at all, and that she could do it with her shorts too, some kind of magic, the uniform descending over her like an eyelid, clean as the sky when it swaps its skin from morning to evening. Melanie saw me looking and said she’d teach me. It involved acrobatic choreography, yanking my original shirt out of the sleeve of my substitute, threading my head precisely. She was fleshy like a chicken breast, so I was impressed by the elegance of her undressing, and it was satisfying to be naked next to someone who wasn’t yet whittled into any shape. In comparison, I was a silver skewer, I was a preened wing, I had a few bones showing. Beside her, I glittered like the locket that swung from her neck when she bent, scabbing over her chest. When I asked her why Mary’s first name was Virgin, she said because Mary gave birth as one. That doesn’t make sense, I said, did they check to see it was really a baby and not just a really big shit? Melanie turned away from me, but I could still see the puckered purple line at the back of her neck where she carried the weight of that face. 

I didn’t master Melanie’s undressing method for another three weeks, but our skin solidarity strengthened—sometimes she’d hold up her baby-doll shirt as a curtain so that the lesbian gym teacher wouldn’t see me through the window while I fumbled with my sleeves—and I discovered several things about Melanie: first, that she wore that mare-haired woman around her neck by choice, which confused me because the woman wasn’t even pretty or a celebrity; second, that she lived two streets away from me, in an apartment building where a husband-wife murder-suicide had occurred in the past year; and third, that she didn’t know we had three holes. This was evident one day in the locker room when I chose to change in a bathroom stall—I made fun of the girls who did that, the ones who still looked like wishbones, who had no fat buttered to their chests at all—because my tampon leaked and I didn’t want to flash the stain at our lesbian gym teacher, who might interpret it as a mating call, the way birds grow bright feathers on their breasts to attract females. When I left the bathroom and joined Melanie at the exit of the locker room, she asked why I’d changed on my own, and I said I’d gotten it, and Melanie said, oh, I haven’t gotten mine yet, I thought I did last year, but actually I just peed blood because my brother threw me at the TV, he was playing Call of Duty, so how do you know if it’s blood you’re peeing or the actual thing, and I said, you idiot, it doesn’t come out of that hole, and she said what hole, and I had to explain there were three—I held my fingers up to her nose and furled them down one at a time—the pee one, the poop one, and the period one. Melanie said oh, like the five holes, the five wounds Jesus bore, and I said no, three. Three holes. And only one of them likes to bleed, Melanie said, I wonder why. She said she thought everything came out of one hole, kind of like the spout of a soft serve machine, where sometimes it’s a vanilla swirl, sometimes it comes out chocolate, and sometime it’s a chocolate-and-vanilla braided swirl, and I said what the hell are you talking about. Melanie didn’t like when I said hell, and always chained her voice to mine: O, she added abruptly. You can’t say what the hello, I told her, because no one says that. Then we were separated on the blacktop, split up and lined up along rows of spray-painted numbers, 1-60—Melanie was in the tens because her last name was An, and I was in the thirties because my last name was Hsiao. I watched her as we did our stretches, our gym teacher up in front, fiddling with the whistle in her mouth like a nipple, strands of her spit suspended in the air when she pulled it away from her lips, a cobweb that stickied all our hands. I watched the fabric of Melanie’s black jersey shorts strain itself sheer as she bent over to touch her left toe, her underwear showing through—My Melody print—and I was embarrassed that for all her sorcery with sleeves in the locker room, I could see the dark sweat stain rivering the crack of her ass, flooding its bed. She bent over further, her fingertips skimming the blacktop, and for a second before she yanked it back up, the hem of her skirt scrolled all the way down to her chin and I saw that she wasn’t wearing a bra, that she had nipples small and pink, like the ceiling of pimples I plucked off my buttocks, flicking the skin into the toilet, her belly button an outie, its shadow hanging like a berry, and I reached forward to pluck it with my tongue before looking away, looking somewhere that could not implicate me or my teeth. Something wet released between my legs, hot as a finger seaming my skin, and I thought I’d pissed myself before remembering it was my week. I ran from my number thirty-one into the locker room bathroom, looking down at the jellied blood, so much of it. Then it was Melanie standing outside the stall and knocking with her knees, asking what had happened, and I told her to go into the teacher’s office and look in the lost-and-found for some shorts. I turned away from her voice and looked down into the toilet, dropping my underwear into it, the water turning that color of beef blood in the trenches of a Styrofoam tray. Melanie paused outside the door, and I said hurry, hurry, and she said, did you know this is punishment for Eve’s sin? And I said, oh my god, now is not the time for you to be a Christian. Get pants. But Melanie lingered outside the door, and finally I sighed and said come in, look at what you’ve done to me, look at what I’ll have to live with if you don’t help me. In the stall, she bent over the toilet and stared at the wad of my underwear, rafting up like an organ, pulsing and winged, and said I bet this is what an abortion looks like, don’t you think it’s sad, and I said no, just help me flush it. I pressed on the handle with my toe and watched as it slithered down before getting snagged, the toilet hacking it back up, butchered water splashing our ankles and veining the floor. Shit, I said, shit, and reached in to tug it out. No, don’t get rid of it, she said, catching my wrist. We panted, flinching at the water that would ring our socks with permanent stains, and she moved my wrist up to her lips, latched her mouth to the center of my palm, the tip of her tongue plunging a hole there, circling its rim before threading through me, and between my legs was the wet again, bloodless and bearing her face.


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2021, her chapbook BONE HOUSE was published by Bull City Press. Her short story collection, GODS OF WANT, is forthcoming from One World on July 10, 2022. She lives with her birds in California.

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