Girls, At Play

Senior Fiction Editor Ronna Wineberg on "Girls, At Play" by Celeste Ng:

In her story, “Girls at Play," Celeste Ng beautifully and unflinchingly ushers the reader into the world of teenage girls, stealing, and random sex. The reader witnesses the initiation of Grace, new to the school, into a group of tough, struggling, cynical middle-school girls. At first small things change for her: she learns to wear make-up, revealing outfits, and then how to steal. The story is written in first person (plural), and the “we” pulled me into the narrative. I felt like both an observer and participant. The trajectory is wrenching to witness: Grace’s loss of innocence. The reader watches, mesmerized and appalled, unable to intercede. I admire the story’s language, honesty, and its lasting, disturbing power. I was thrilled when “Girls at Play” was awarded the Pushcart Prize.

Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng is the author of the bestselling novels Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You. Her stories and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Subtropics, and elsewhere, and her story from the BLR, "Girls, at Play,"is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Celeste lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Fall 2010

"Girls, at Play" appears in BLR V10N2 (Fall 2010).

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Girls, At Play by Celeste Ng 

This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.

We play the game at recess, and the teachers don’t notice. We stand on the playground by the flagpole, arms ringed with colored bracelets from the drugstore, waiting. The boys come past us, in a bunch, all elbows, laughing. They pretend not to look. We pretend not to see them. One of them reaches out and snaps a bracelet off one of us, breaking it like a rubber band, fast and sharp as plucking a guitar string. He won’t look back. He’ll walk back the way he came, along the edge of the football field. And whoever he picked, Angie or Carrie or Mandy, will watch him go. After a minute she’ll follow him and meet him under the bleachers, far down the field, where the teachers can’t see.

We play the game every day. In eighth grade we’re too old for four-square and tetherball and kickball. It doesn’t have a name, this game, and we don’t talk about it even when we’re by ourselves, after school, the boys gone off to football or paper routes or hockey and no teachers around. But the game has rules. You go with the boy who snaps your bracelet. You don’t pick the boy; he picks you; they’re all the same to you. You do exactly what the color prescribes, even if you hate him, like we hate Travis Coleman whose fingernails are always grubby. No talking other than hello. Don’t tell anyone if you hate it, if his tongue feels like a dead fish in your mouth, if his hands leave snail-trails of sweat down your sides. No talking with the boys outside of the game. No talking about it afterwards, no laughing, no anything, even if it’s just the three of us. Pretend it never happened. Rub the dent on your arm, the red welt where the bracelet snapped and split, until it goes away.