We are proud to share “Degenerate Matter” by Jennifer Galvão in this week’s New Voices. “Degenerate Matter” was chosen by our editorial team as the honorable mention in this year’s Summer Short Story Award for New Writers competition. “Degenerate Matter” follows Daphne in her tumultuous time at Danver, an all girls’ school where she meets Mr. Littler, an English teacher who seems to take a special interest in her.
At that time I thought about sex in an abstract, intellectual way. When other girls spoke of it—hushed and laughing, brazenly casual—I knew to laugh in the right spots. I stood before the mirror sometimes and made the appropriate faces, shook my mouth through a series of ecstatic Os, a muted opera singer.
Earlier that year a friend of a friend had asked me if I was a virgin. Over the hum of hand dryers, I told her yes. I wasn’t yet a liar.
Girlhood was uncomfortable, flyaway. I couldn’t keep myself assembled. Always a drooping sock, a shirt coming untucked. I had bruises whose origins I couldn’t place. I felt called to maintain impartiality, to never admit to liking anything. I did everything in secret.
I think of my years at Danver as numb, but when I read back old journals—faithful records of nothing very interesting—they are full of small betrayals, hot humiliations.
Not much attention paid to my surroundings, no careful descriptions of the brick-and-ivy building, the warped wallpaper, the sloping green lawn. I was there at Danver School for Girls without aspirations of artistry, without a dorm room to call my own. I was only a townie who longed for snobbery with a mother who distrusted boys my age.
I had always lived there, in the town built in Danver’s shade. I learned to ride my two-wheeler on the Danver drive, attended summer daycamps in the Danver library. I spent mosquito-bitten nights on the front lawn watching stoned, unenthused Danver girls mumble their way through Shakespeare. I watched the shapes their girl bodies made, the angle of a knee bent, a foot lifting to scratch an opposing shin, girl lips touching chastely above a fringe of fake beard. This was Danver as I knew it then. I can’t imagine it’s changed; it’s the kind of place that doesn’t.
Danver was first the home of a Kodak executive and then it was a local historical museum, one of those ill-lit places to which every town feels entitled—chartership documents and gluey dioramas. Some of these items were still stored in the Danver attic, and if you were daring you could get in through a maintenance closet, walk in your socks through bird cages and minor taxidermies. Rodents and birds, mostly. A red fox, its face inexpertly reassembled around a gunshot wound. An Erie Canal constructed from dusty plastic tubes. It had a wooden crank you could turn to simulate a levy, its gate rising and falling like a torpid guillotine.
As long as I knew it, Danver was a girls’ school. Those words were lush, magic. Teenage girls were not the same creature as my rosacea-rashed mother, as my own body which I shielded from view even in the bathroom, slinging a towel over the mirror when I bathed.
On late spring evenings I would ride my bike along the bumpy cobblestone paths that circled Danver’s campus, bicycle seat jolting against me, and watch the Danver girls. Crossing the grass to the dining house. Ducking around low-hung trees and lichen-frosted statues to share a cigarette. Laying out on the lawn to catch the last hours of spring sun, faces buried in the grass, bikini strings untied to prevent tan lines.
I wanted to be a Danver girl. I imagined it would be as simple as enrolling there. That some change would come over me. In the weeks after I got my acceptance letter I lay awake, wracked with growing pains, ecstatic with transformation. Waiting to become this new animal.