Em had made it to 14 without ever having to wear a real bra, but her mum had become insistent now.
“We’ll go before netball, to the boutique shop in the village. You can get something pretty — you’ll like it, I promise.”
Em’s mum had started on the bra thing a couple of years earlier, when, trying on a t-shirt, Em was horrified to notice a little bump on her chest that just wouldn’t go away. Not large enough to hint at a bosom of any kind but still painfully present. And to make matters worse, it was only one. Em had come out of the changing room and her mum said “that’s a nice t-shirt” and Emily had just wordlessly pointed at that horrible left nipple.
After rejecting various training and starter bras, Em settled on a light blue camisole that seemed to do the trick. Her mum bought three and over the next few years the collection grew.
Her mum began her campaign to get Em into a real bra in summer that year. In January, she said, “Em, sweetheart, aren’t you going to be too hot wearing those camis all the time?”
In February she said it again. “Sweetheart, you’ll be hot.”
In March, she said, “Em, love, these camis are all getting worn out. I’m going to toss them out.” When Em asked for new ones, her mum said, “Why don’t we get you a bra instead?”
Em stubbornly lasted through April and May on the remaining camis, but in June their numbers had dwindled down so much that one morning she couldn’t find a clean one. Upon raiding the laundry basket, she found five bundled up underneath the dirty clothes. Em presented them wordlessly to her mum, who shrugged and said, “I thought if I stopped washing them you’d give in and get a bra.”
Em persisted in wearing her sports crop top instead of camis for another week before she finally gave in. It wasn’t her mother’s pressure, though; in the changing room at school with the netball team she suddenly felt terribly gauche as the other girls compared bras.
Even Georgie, her best friend, was able to chime in, tugging her sports top down and the cup of her bra up to show a butterfly pattern, to which another girl called “jinx” and confessed that she was wearing the same one. Hana said, “My sister keeps trying to give me her old bras but they’re massive cos her tits are huge,” and Em busied herself digging through her bag, pretending to look for her socks. It was true, Hana’s sister was famously tall, and their netball coach Caro had coached Hana’s sister two years ago, so she insisted on putting Hana in the goal circle, saying that Hana would shoot up soon too. “Like beansprouts, those James girls.”
The bra shop in the village was discreet and intimate, but not quite discreet enough for Em’s liking. People walking by would be able to peer in the window, possibly spy Em rifling through the racks. It was a bit confrontational, she thought, as she and her mum entered the store. Mannequins clad in lacy thongs and frilly bralettes seemed to sneer at them from their mechanical poses. A rack of swimwear threatened to entangle Em in string bikinis as she walked past, and even the sleepwear was no ally, satins and silks producing static and wanting to make her hair stand on end. She made a beeline for the hosiery, closely inspecting a pair of maroon cable-knit stockings.
“You don’t need any more tights,” her mum said. “Let’s start by getting you a fitting.”
The shop lady was short, about the same height as Em, and rather wide. Em couldn’t imagine her squeezing her enormous bust into any of the delicate pieces displayed throughout the store. She was one of those women whose bust had sunk almost to her waist, and the circumference of her bosom was matched only by her expansive behind. She hurried Em into the small changing room at the back of the store.
“I’m Linda,” she said, standing behind Em, both of them looking at Em in the mirror, Em wearing her yellow netball skirt and a black hoodie over her netball top. “Take your shirt off lovie, you can leave your singlet on, and I’ll just whip this tape measure around.”
Em was getting a strange feeling coming up through the back of her head, a kind of spinning feeling that was floating down her throat and into her chest and then back up again. An uncomfortable lightness, as if there were a cool little ball of fire wandering down her trachea.
Whip the tape measure around was indeed what Linda did, her briskness and frankness setting Em at ease somewhat. It wasn’t long until Linda harrumphed and nodded, then sent Em out onto the shop floor, armed with a couple of sizes and directed to choose “whatever takes your fancy, dearie.”
“Don’t worry about the price,” her mother stage-whispered, a hiss that was somehow louder than if she’d just spoken it. Em wondered if she could send her mum back out to the car.
Em surveyed the shop, feeling somewhat voyeuristic, and then ducked behind a rack when she saw Hana and her sister Miriama appear in the window.
“Oh you’ll want to look over here,” Linda called, from a rack near the window. Em pretended not to hear.
“Em — go over to Linda,” said her mum, sharply. Em obeyed, but slowly. Hana and Miriama had stopped outside the shop, not looking in, but not not looking, either. Em hoped her yellow skirt wouldn’t catch their eyes, and tugged the hem of her hoodie down to cover the skirt.
“Don’t pull on your sweatshirt honey, you’ll stretch it,” said her mother. Linda started showing her some of the bras on the rack, saying something about underwires, but Em was distracted, watching the girls outside in her periphery.
“I’ll just leave you to it, shall I?” said Linda, startling Em, who nodded.
Linda went and propped the shop door open, as it was getting quite stuffy, and the voices from outside drifted in. Hana and Miriama were talking quite loudly, and Em, who was definitely not eavesdropping, heard a third familiar voice. Georgie? Georgie was with them. What? Em knew Georgie had been talking to Hana about getting a ride to netball with her, but they didn’t have to be at the courts for another hour, so why was Georgie with Hana now?
“When I’m rich I’m gonna buy all the fancy underwear,” Georgie said.
“No way! Waste of money, if you ask me.” That was Hana.
“Na, Hana, wait til your boobs really come in. Then you’ll want to spend the big bucks.” That had to be Miriama. “But in the meantime you can just stuff my old bras eh!”
All three of the girls laughed, and peered in the window. Em froze. There was no way they wouldn’t see her.
For a moment all three girls were looking in and didn’t see her at all. Maybe I’m invisible, Em thought. Then she and Georgie made eye contact, but after a flicker of recognition passed over Georgie’s face, she turned away from the window.
“Let’s go to the dairy,” Georgie said. Em was supposed to be staying at Georgie’s house that night, her backpack waiting ready in the car stuffed full with her pyjamas and toiletries and two changes of clothes, and a book, just in case.
“Na, let’s go in and look at bikinis,” said Miriama.
Em’s mum was supposed to be dropping Georgie and Em both back at Georgie’s house after netball, and they were planning to do makeovers and baking and watch movies until late, and make sure Georgie’s brother and sister stayed OUT of Georgie’s room.
Hana pressed her face up against the glass, saying, “Do they even have bikinis in here?” Then she spied Em, and started waving. “Em! Hello! Em!”
Next thing she knew, Hana and Miriama were either side of her, flicking through the rack, pulling out different items and shoving them back haphazardly. Georgie had trailed after them into the shop, and was cornered by Em’s mother.
“Georgie, sweetheart! How are you doing? How’s your mother?”
Miriama held one particularly lurid bra up to her chest, a road-cone orange that could have doubled as night-time cycle-wear, and Hana roared with laughter. Em smiled.
“Did your mum make you come shopping?” Hana asked, and Em nodded. “Yeah, that sucks,” Hana continued. She pulled a black bra out of the rack, plain, smooth cups and a tiny lace bow in the middle. “I’d get one of these ones. They won’t show under your t-shirts and they actually look quite comfortable.” Em smiled again and, checking the size, took the black bra from Hana.
As she headed to the changing room, Miriama called, “Don’t forget the bounce test!”
When Em came out of the changing room, and directed her mother to buy three of the plain bras (black, navy and white), the other girls had disappeared.
Em’s mother stopped the car right by the netball courts and let Em out while she went to find a park.
Georgie and Hana were already by court 10, with Shelley and their coach Caro. As Em came to join them, Caro rubbed her hands together briskly.
“Right, you four, start warming up, go for a jog round the courts.”
Shelley and Hana, the fast ones, took the lead. Georgie and Em fell into a natural pair behind them, although Georgie made no effort to let Em keep pace, and Em was struggling to keep up.
Finally Georgie slowed, and matched her steps to Em’s.
“You can’t stay tonight anymore,” she said. Em looked at her, frowning. “I forgot you were supposed to stay and Hana asked if she could and I said yes. And you stay all the time so I can’t really take it back now, can I? It wouldn’t be fair. You don’t mind, do you? We’ll have a sleepover another time.”
Em just nodded and jogged along beside Georgie, processing, as they rounded the end of the courts and turned back. Shelley and Hana were way ahead. Georgie was speeding up again, and Em stopped trying to keep up. Better to let her go ahead.
The sun was coming out, bright and sharp, and Em blinked back the hot wet rising in her eyes. It was fine. It was fine.
Back by their court, Miriama had appeared and was standing next to Caro. The rest of the team was there, too. Em noticed Dani’s bra strap that had slid down her arm to hang in a loop out of her t-shirt sleeve, and then she thought about the three bras sitting wrapped in white tissue paper, in a pink paper bag, resting behind the passenger seat on the floor of her mother’s car. Almost unconsciously she slid her thumb under the thick strap of the sports crop she was wearing and tugged it, checking it was secure.
“Why don’t you try the tall one in Goal Shoot?” Miriama asked.
“She has a name,” Hana said, “that’s Em.”
“I can’t keep track, you little turds all look the same to me. Em. You want to try shooting?” Em nodded, and Miriama tossed her a ball. “Go do some practice shots.”
Em looked at Caro, who nodded as well. “Miriama’s helping out today, girls, so listen to her like you’d listen to me.” Caro turned to Miriama. “Hana at Goal Attack then?”
Miriama shook her head. “Try Hana at Centre. She’s so speedy, she’ll be good there. Maybe that one,” and she pointed at Shelley, “I’m sure I’ve seen her shooting for you guys before.”
Shelley and Em headed down to the goalposts to practice their shots while the rest of the team started running through their usual drills. Em was glad to be with Shelley, who was quiet and easygoing. Each girl took turns flicking their balls into the hoop, laughing at themselves when the shots went astray, but not talking much.
Em’s mum appeared on the sideline. “Em — you’re not shooting are you? Are you sure you shouldn’t be in a different position? Do you want me to talk to Caro?”
Em shook her head and flapped her hand at her mother, tongue out as she concentrated on her shot.
When the match started, Em was nervous. Her partner was smaller than her, though, and when the first lob came her way she was perfectly positioned, right under the hoop, and someone yelling “Take your time!” gave her a complete sense of calm. She took a deep breath, bent her knees and flicked the ball up and into the hoop, a clean swish through the net.
Hana ran to grab the ball and patted Em on the back as she went by. “Nice one, girl!” Em grinned.
As the match went on Em’s shots kept swishing through the hoop and her partner got more and more aggressive.
“She’s losing her cool,” Hana said after the first quarter. Hana’s parents had arrived by then, and they were standing with Em’s mum. Hana’s dad clapped Em on the back.
“You’re killing it out there,” he said.
Em grinned. She was killing it. The feeling from the morning was gone. The sun had come out and even though the air was still cold, the wind that she’d heard rattling the windows the night before had died down. She didn’t look over at Georgie, who had been taken off that quarter.
Shelley was struggling in the second quarter, Em could tell. The other team had swapped their goal defence and this girl was vicious, pushing Shelley around. Em’s partner and the goal defence were both getting pushier and pushier and the ref didn’t seem to notice. They didn’t score as many goals that quarter and the gap in the score was closing.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Caro said to Em at half-time. Miriama had gone to warm up for her own game.
Hana and Georgie were talking intently. Em ignored them. She didn’t want to think about the afternoon, about telling her mother that Georgie had un-invited her. All that mattered right now was the game, getting her shots in, and pulling ahead.
Caro took Shelley off and switched Georgie in to Goal Attack. “Go practice your shots for a minute before we go back on,” she said, directing Georgie over to the goal post. Hana came and stood next to Em, swigging from her water bottle. Em could feel that her face was hot, red from the exertion. Even Hana who was typically unfazed was showing her effort, sweat beading on her forehead.
“We can win this,” Hana said. Em nodded and drank from her own bottle.
Caro called the girls back in. They gathered round her, piling their hands in. “Team on three,” Caro said. “One, two, three–”
The ref blew her whistle and the girls scattered onto the court, to their respective places.
Even though she’d been switched positions she had the same partner again, who had also switched. Em gave her an awkward smile and her partner scowled back.
The whistle went again and Hana, still at Centre, flicked the ball out to Georgie. Em’s partner was blocking her every way she moved. As Em’s teammates brought the ball down the court, she tried to get free, but the smaller girl was in front of her at every turn. Em called for a lob but it was intercepted, her partner tipping it out of court. Hana took the throw-in and tossed it high to Em but her partner intercepted again, this time catching it.
“Get in front, Em!” A voice from the sidelines — Hana’s dad. Hana’s parents were standing beside her mum and for a moment Em felt like the whole world was watching her.
Down the court, Em’s team had got a turnover again, winning the ball back. Their midcourters were bringing it down.
“Come on Em, you’ve got this!” This time, her mother’s voice. Encouraging. She actually believes in me, Em thought. She inched forward, watching her teammates’ passes as the ball came down the court. The hot-cold feeling in her throat was back, but she swiped her palms on her skirt and straightened up. Her partner was in front of her again and Em shuffled forward, pushing up against the smaller girl. Hana had come down, had the ball, and was looking like she was going to throw it up high for Em.
“Don’t lob it!” Em yelled, and dropped back a little before ducking to the side. Her partner followed and Em did a little roll off her partner’s back and drove down under the hoop. “HERE!” she called, her voice sounding like it belonged to someone else. Hana was on it, flicking a bounce pass that ended up easily in Em’s arms. Em pivoted and there was the hoop, just above her. Like every other shot before, she neatly flicked the ball upwards — and swish through the net.
Em’s hot-cold feeling was gone by the end of the game. Hana’s parents had vanished to watch Miriama’s game. Georgie, Hana and Em were standing in a little circle, their teammates already heading off, feeling extremely self-congratulatory. Em’s mother appeared at her shoulder.
“Hi girls — Georgie, I’m dropping you and Em at your house?”
“Um…” Em started, not sure how to broach the awkward subject of the sleepover.
“Yeah — and can you bring Hana too? She’s going to stay over as well.” Georgie smiled at Em, who blinked in the sunlight.
“Oh, you girls will have a lovely time,” said Em’s mum.
Em was sprawled on Georgie’s bed, and Georgie and Hana were sitting on the floor, inspecting Georgie’s nail polishes. Em looked at her own nails, the chipped red polish that she’d been told off for several times at school that week. From her position on the bed she could only see the back of Georgie and Hana’s heads, Hana’s brown hair in a fat bun on top of her head and Georgie’s in a straight ponytail that had ended up draped on the bed. The urge to pull on it suddenly came over Em, and she shook her head to clear it. She couldn’t really hear what Georgie and Hana were saying, and she felt herself fading a little. Am I even here, she wondered. She thought about rolling over, away to the wall, and that she might shrink, become paper-thin and two-dimensional. She could slide down between the bed and wall, and end up on the floor inhaling the dust from Georgie’s carpet.
As she thought about it, her head began to spin, and this pressure, the sense of disappearing grew and grew. I need to say something, check I’m really here. But she stayed silent. And it grew and grew.
Em could no longer even see the other girls, wasn’t even sure if they were there. The pressure was mounting, somewhere in the back of her skull, until it felt like a small pop and her ears cleared, sound rushing in.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Georgie announced.
The girls made their way through Georgie’s house, past her younger sister and brother planted on a rug in front of the TV–far too close, thought Em. The faint sound of yelling drifted from the general vicinity of the kitchen. Georgie’s cat was watching the dog in the yard, who was barking madly back at it.
The walk was somehow worse than the bedroom, with Georgie in the middle and Hana on the other end. Em felt hyper-aware of her height as she could see over the tops of the other girls’ heads to the sea. The footpath down to the beach was too narrow for them to walk three-abreast, so Em had obligingly trailed behind.
The wind kept whipping words away from the other girls’ mouths and Em quickly tired of trying to keep up with the conversation. She scooped a thumb across her shoulder, adjusting the strap of her new bra. She wished she had different shoes, and wondered if her mother would be annoyed she’d gotten her netball shoes so sandy.
When they reached the part of the beach where the sand became rocks and boulders, Georgie said, “Let’s turn around.”
“No, let’s explore a bit further,” said Hana.
“I don’t have any shoes.” Georgie had come down from her house in bare feet, but Hana had no patience for it.
“You can wait here,” Hana said. “Come on, Em, you keen?”
Em was suddenly glad of the thick soles of her netball shoes. She followed Hana up the side of a boulder, feeling Georgie’s eyes on her back.
Hana scrambled ahead, nimble on the rocks. Em stopped for a moment, squinting after Hana, the sun bright in the sky. She turned back to look at Georgie, who had sunk onto the sand, her legs sticking straight out in front of her. She was lightly running her hands over the sand, tracing semi-circles on either side of herself.
“Hey George,” Em called down. Georgie looked up at her, and raised one sandy hand to block out the sun. She smiled, then stuck out her tongue.
Em thought about the winter sun on her neck, the straps of her new bra rubbing a little. Sticking her tongue out back at Georgie, she could taste the salt in the air.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Grace Tong grew up on the Kāpiti Coast, and now lives in Te Whanganui a Tara and works as a lawyer in the public sector. Grace writes increasingly short stories that swivel between the everyday and the futuristic.