by Ava Harrington
Illustrated by Pepper Pieroni
“Ava, do you wanna be the T-Rex or the Pterodactyl?” This is one of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked all day. I scrunch my eyebrows and stare intently at the bright grass encircling our school building, as though the right answer is woven between the blades. Today is an important Dinosaur Battle because I need to reclaim my victory from last Tuesday, when I tripped over my sandals and gave up an easy win to Mark. The sun prickles the back of my neck, and my two short pigtails leave the perfect opening for a sunburn. I’m now distracted,, trying to remember if Mom slathered me in sunblock this morning and I take too long with my decision. I make up my mind that I’d like to be the Pterodactyl, just as Anthony calls out the same thing. There’s no point in making a fuss, the T-Rex is allowed to charge and with my agility I’ll easily be able to run around him and attack. Everyone knows that it truly doesn’t matter which dino I am; I can easily take Anthony down because I’m far tougher than he’ll ever be.
Just as we begin our battle, some of the older third graders burst out of the doors adjacent to the field. “Ewww, what’s that girl doing here?” one of them jeers. I spin around trying to find the girl they’re talking about, because the Dinosaur Fight Club is exclusively for the boys and me. It’s always been like that, and usually the girls would rather stay on the slides in the playground anyway. It takes me a minute to realize that the third graders are yelling at me. My friends try to explain that I’m allowed, because…well, because I don’t count as a girl. Because I’m too tough. Because I’m fun. Just because. But “just because” doesn’t get you far in third grade, and so the second grade boys who were my friends moments ago suddenly decide I have cooties and force me away.
Disheartened, I shuffle towards the slides and spiral poles where the girls are braiding hair and whispering. There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing exactly, it just doesn’t look like very much fun. Perched upon the top of the high purple slide is the sharp-tongued ringleader, Julia, who has summer camp friendship bracelets strung along half of her forearm.
“Ava, why do you always chase those boys?” Julia giggles.
“I’m not chasing them. I’m attacking them. It’s different…” I try to explain. She looks to her best friend (at least, today’s best friend) and smirks.
“You know it’s ‘cause she’s boy crazy,” Maddie sneers. “She’s gotta have a crush on one of them, at least,” she adds, which is enough to make the girls all burst into broken up whispers. Four side conversations about who it could be erupt all at once.
“It’s not Kent, is it? Emma already has a crush on Kent,” Julia warns.
“Maybe she likes Anthony—did you see how close they were standing just now?” cries Emma, already intimidated by the possibility of my Kent crush.
“You’re right! Ava, how do you feel about Anthony? Do you like him?” they question.
“Um…I like spending time with him,” I answer. In fact, I like spending time with all the boys. The girls gasp. “You do like him! Oh my God, you wanna marry him!” Sarah shrieks.
Is that all it takes to want to marry someone? I guess I want to marry all of them, if that’s what wanting to play dinosaurs really means. Maybe I am boy crazy, and have crushes on all of them. I wonder what that says about me. From there I’m invited to the forming braid train because I have inside information about Anthony, but I decide to read inside instead because I don’t want them to know that I can’t braid anyway.
That night at dinner I lament the recess injustice from earlier. My mom stays quiet for the most part, only interrupting to clarify which boy I’m talking about. When I finish my story I expect some sort of inspirational rallying cry about taking back my spot as the crown dino. But instead my mom looks to my father and suggests I try befriending some of the girls. “It’s about time you made some female friends, those are the only type that you can rely on,” she encourages. “And I don’t want you playing that dinosaur game anymore. It makes your clothes all dirty, and it takes too much time to get the stains out. In any case, I don’t want you getting hurt. You aren’t as tough as those boys.” Aren’t as tough as those boys? She should’ve seen the fight I put up two weeks ago. But it’s useless; I sigh and excuse myself to my bedroom. I check to make sure my sister isn’t around before digging through her closet to find some strings that look like the ones Julia had up her arm. I sit on the floor to begin practicing winding the pieces of yard in between each other, my sister’s friendship bracelet book spread in my lap and angry tears blurring the instructions.
The next day there’s supposed to be a big dinosaur fight, but none of the boys invite me over like they usually do. I try to wave but they look right through me, and suddenly I’m just another girl. Perhaps that’s all I can ever be—maybe my dresses and pigtails will forever prevent me from being any dinosaur. It’s not that I want to be a boy; I like my femininity. I just don’t want my interests and opportunities to be defined by it. I scale the rockwall up to the purple playground slide and take my seat in the braid train. Julia’s shiny legs swing next to my head as she watches the Dino Fight Club from her perch. Spreading my dress so that it doesn’t get any wood chips in it, I catch a glimpse of Anthony pinning Jonathan to the ground, a victor once more.