Strawberry Girl

by Anwen Ricketts

Betty rapped at my window early afternoon, all curls and flyaways, and said with some excitement that the strawberry picking fields were open. I was in the middle of homework, but she hopped inside as I unlocked the window–my room is on the bottom floor, around the back of the house, looking over the garden–and she had freshly shaven legs and was wearing these little pale purple Mary Janes, with a chunky button. Betty is our neighbour’s daughter, same age as me. Ma keeps saying we should bunk together for college, but I… Well. She has no idea what she is talking about. Me and girls get along, yeah. Maybe a little too well. She wouldn’t like that. I was only wearin’ my loose summer dungarees and a shirt, but we looked the part together. I just… needed to ask. Needed to know. My stomach cramped as she started closing the textbooks on my desk, carefully keeping all my page markings uncreased.

“C’mon, Shirley, it’s a beautiful day. You can’t stay cooped up all afternoon, come to the field with me! Ma and Pa are making devilled eggs, we can have some when we get back. And strawberries! Please say you’ll come!”

I thought of Betty sucking strawberry juice off a perfectly manicured thumb, and I found myself nodding and putting on my brogues. I was shrugging on a jacket when Betty tssked and said, “Come on now, it’s hot as hell. You can’t hide forever.”

And then she swung her legs over the windowsill and she stood, blonde hair shining gold in the sun, eyes squinted and lashes full. I don’t know how long I stood there, looking, with her looking back, but eventually I slid out of my window and we were both out there.

God, it was hot. Sweat was prickling on my back as we pushed the gate at the end of the garden closed and turned left along a country lane. The field was only a few minutes away, but for some reason I hadn’t been since I was a kid, when Ma liked to show me off as a beautiful dark-haired beauty and not some dyke-loner. The word in my head almost made me flinch, but then Betty pointed to a bird soaring through the sky, and we made gentle conversation about how great it must be to fly wherever you wanted. And just like that, I felt better. 

Old Tomm owned the field, and he let people in for five dollars each, and then you could pick as many boxes of strawberries as you wanted and it was one dollar per box. It was then I realised I had no money, it was all in a jar in my drawer, and began to turn to Betty and apologise and tell her Ill be right back, but she pulled out enough money for both of us and took a wicker basket off the stack. “Let’s go, little Sherbert.”

I had rolled my eyes and tried not to scream, “You know my name ain’t Sherbert.”

But if Betty heard me, she didn’t say a thing, and we strolled out into the field and into the rows of strawberries. “Your Ma being alright to you, Sher?” Betty’s eyes were inquisitive, but was there something darker there? I really couldn’t tell. 

“Ma is Ma.” I had said, feeling a hand of anxiety scrunch up my guts. “You know how it is.” I added, like I had any clue whatsoever. “I mean—” I backtracked when Betty’s mouth straightened, but then she just picked a strawberry and threw it at me. It bounced off the sleeve of my shirt, and left a perfect little red kiss of juice. “Oops,” Betty said, and then smiled. 

“Sorry.” I said. Apologising was something I was particularly good at. 

“You don’t need to apologise for nothing. Not to me.” Betty’s voice hardened, but it was still soft. I don’t know how to explain it. Like Betty could get real, real angry, just not… not with me? I had seen her throw a cup of juice in her mama’s face, heard her shouting in the yard. Stomping her feet and making her curls frizz up ‘round her red cheeks. 

“Sorry.” I said again, realising I had been weirdly quiet for a few minutes, and then I started laughing and so did she. We kept picking, and the back of my neck throbbed with the beginning of a burn, but I felt fine. Good, even. Around the half an hour mark a light breeze ruffled through the field, and we both let out a sigh of relief and sat down. It felt weirdly…intimate, being hidden by the rows of strawberry plants, just me and her, and our basket of strawberries. I picked at a loose thread and tried not to look at Betty’s legs, stretched out and creamy, and the way her skirt didn’t really cover anything up when she sat down. I was sure I was red as a beet, and maybe Betty realised because she had this wicked light in her eyes, and started to eat a strawberry. It was horrendous, that feeling. Like I would do anything to be that strawberry. To even go close to her mouth. I felt this clamp on my heart, like my chest was being squeezed. I balled my fists and looked at the patch of sky I could see, trying not to cry. Trying not to make a sound.

Ma liked me to be quiet, liked me to study hard and go to Sunday school with Pollyana and Jessica. Liked me to brush my hair and stay home. Liked me to cover up, like my weirdness could spread. My little sister, Patricia, was seventeen, a year younger than me, and she was the complete opposite of everything I was. Where I was messy, she was organized. Where I was weird, she was normal. Ma doted on her constantly, and it wasn’t even painful, because I had learnt to cope. I constantly worked to do better, to be better. But there are just some messes you can’t iron out of yourself. And believe me, I tried.

“Hey, it’s okay,” I looked down from the sky, and for a few seconds I was blinded. Then Betty came into view, and she had scooted closer. Was holding my hand, ever so gently, on the ground next to me. I used to hold hands with everyone. I have always been very affectionate, kissing my friend’s foreheads, holding their hands, brushing their flyaways until I got pushed and called weird and gay and don’t you ever come near me again.

I almost pulled my hand away. Almost. But it felt so pure.

Nothing about this is dirty.

And the realisation shocked me. Shocked me enough to whisper, as if I were alone, as if I were looking into my mirror practicing a never-going-to-happen coming out, “I’m gay, Betty.”

I never expected the mirror to say, “I know, Sherbet.”

 I never expected the mirror to say, “Can I kiss you?”

And I never expected to say, yes.

Anwen Ricketts is a bi autistic aspiring-author with a passion for improving mental health treatment in the UK. She loves dogs, camping and making her voice heard.

Her mission is to show the world what a healthy, happy autistic can look like, because it is possible.