Three gap-toothed little boys chase you down the center of the basketball court, each wielding a blob of Legos welded together in the approximate shape of a pistol, giggling so hard their shoulders shake. Your shoulders are shaking, too; mostly from exertion—it has been at least half an hour of this game, darting and ducking as imaginary shots whizz over your head—but also from laughter. Theirs is contagious.
An only child, you have little experience entertaining children, but you think you’re doing well. Most of your classmates are sitting on the sidelines, having their hair braided by tiny hands or cooing as the kids show off their favorite toys, but those have never been your games. War, though—or guerra, as these boys called it in their piping voices when you clumsily asked ¿Qué juegan? ¿Puedo jugar contigo?—is something you remember.
Blunt pain suddenly blossoms over your hip; lost in self-congratulation, you veered too far left and hit a basketball hoop. You are off-balance, slightly dazed by the ache and the harsh rattle of the wobbling pole, and that halting moment is all it takes for the boys to surround you. A triumphant chorus of pew-pews fills the air as they crowd in, jamming their blasters into your stomach and thighs.
You reward their victory with an agonized wail, sharp enough that the chaperone snaps her head to look at you from the sidelines. ¡Por favor, ayúdame! you cry, toppling over in slow motion, giving the boys time to flee the path of your collapse. ¡Tengo dolor, mucho dolor! ¡Estoy muriendo!
As your eyelids flutter shut in your death throes, a few scattered claps sound—before cutting off in sudden silence. You hear a sharp intake of breath, then whispers.
Unease coils in your stomach. You open your eyes, prop yourself on your elbows to look up at where the boys stand in triangular formation, weapons hanging toward the ground but fingers still resting where the triggers should be. ¿Qué?
¿Por qué tienes pechos como una chica? asks the boy in front, cupping his hands over his scrawny chest. The other two mirror him, fingers curling to coax roundness from the air.
You are suddenly aware of your body in a way that, generally, you try very hard not to be—aware of the thrifted button-up shirt fastened up to your throat, of the leg hair sprouting beneath the frayed edges of your cargo shorts, of the hair curling at the nape of your neck, freshly trimmed to keep you from sweating in Guatemala’s heat. You are suddenly aware of the smallness of these boys; five, maybe six years old, a time where gender is sketched out in bathroom-sign figures. You were that age when a friend told you the difference between girls and boys was boobs and you said that was stupid, asked how lumps of fat on your chest could mean anything like that, laughed in her face when she tried to explain.
But these boys are not laughing anymore. And you have never learned the words in relentlessly gendered Spanish to express what you have not even found the courage to say out loud in English yet, so you clear your throat and say, Soy una chica. ¿Es problema?
The boys look around at each other, then bring up their guns in tandem and point them at your heart, uttering another chorus of pew-pews. You yelp and slump back to the ground, hoping embarrassingly hard that their willingness to shoot means you still earn their approval.
Later that afternoon, as you wait in a scattered line to board the bus that will take you back to your host families’ homes, the girl who sits behind you in Spanish III asks you what the boys said to you. And because the only thing you are worse at than telling lies is thinking them up on the spot, you tell her.
Her laugh is pitched higher than your dying yelps. Oh my god, that’s so funny, she says, steadying herself with one hand against the side of the bus. And, like, kind of sad. I mean, how could they not know you’re a girl?
You try to laugh with her. You try not to look at your reflection in the rearview mirror as you board the bus, at the way the top of your head barely reaches the collarbones of the boy behind you, the way your hips and chest swell in the glass like it’s a funhouse mirror. You try to let your mind fill up with the trees rolling by outside your window and the Shakira song pulsing through your earbuds, and nothing else. You try—but you fail, and you fail, and you fail.