Introduction by Erin Bartnett
The narrator of “Becoming Amish” by Rachel Ephraim is twenty years old and living with her boyfriend, Joey. She used to work at a strip club called The Cha Cha Club, but now all she wants to do is eat egg salad and flip through her New Yorker in peace. But then there’s the way her ass makes men talk to her—she’s a Greek Goddess, a teenager, even heaven. Her ass is saving the world. It’s a secret weapon. It’s not all bad, and if she still lets them press up against her every now and then, she can make enough money to take Rita for a fancy drink and make out with her, too. When Rita asks her when she’s going to stop going around with the men, the narrator responds, “Till my tits give up? Till the whole world stops telling little girls they are beautiful?”
These are open questions. “Becoming Amish” is a story written in present tense, which makes every action feel like it’s buzzing and alive with uncertain potential. There’s little time for reflection because life is moving on. So there’s her boyfriend Joey and the egg salad and the Greek Goddess ass and the fancy drinks with Rita, but then there’s also the pressing, confusing desire that surfaces from time to time: “It’s hard to explain my aching to transform into a lamppost or doorknob, so I say, ‘I wish I didn’t have a body.’”
At one point in her life, she was told by different adults that language—poetry—was her ticket to becoming someone else. Now, it’s like the language all these men use to describe her makes her want to transform into something else, to jump out of her own body altogether. But then there’s Rita. And so maybe it isn’t so bad to be in a body after all. Where’s the language that communicates both of these feelings at the same time?
In her electric, sharp, and hilarious prose, Ephraim is able to balance the conflicting truths about growing up in a body that’s sexualized fast. There’s a flattening horror, and there’s a growing power and pleasure, too. Rita asks her what it is that she wants now. She can’t figure out how to say that out loud. Not yet. Maybe she doesn’t have to. What Ephraim so elegantly suggests in this fast, smart, funny story, is that maybe there are many ways to express ourselves. Sometimes that expression gets frustrated. But how powerful it is to find someone who understands what you can’t say.
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Worshipping My Ass Doesn’t Make Me a Goddess
Becoming Amish by Rachel Ephraim
At age five people called me precocious, at twelve promiscuous, and now, at twenty, every Jim and Tom I walk by calls me Mamacita as if my ass could save the world. They say it like they are desperate for One Good Thing, as if my ass promises to take up room in their empty lives like an expensive couch in their dingy apartment. Something for them to press against, anyways. My boyfriend Joey says my ass is saving the world. He says it like, hey hot shit, if we go broke, we’ve got your ass. He says it like it’s a secret weapon I can pull out of my back pocket at any moment, and he isn’t wrong.
Already been down that road, I remind him, and then depending on whether or not he’s had a hard day at the station, he asks me to detail the highlights of my year at The Cha Cha Club in breathy whispers when all I want is to eat the egg salad I’ve just made while I leaf through The New Yorker.
Why do you read that shit, he asks when he finds one of my magazines lodged between the Penny Saver and overdue bills. You think you’re someone else, don’t you? He rolls up the mail and whacks me lightly, a puppy in training.
Before we met, I was in a bad way, and I don’t mean doing all the stuff in the back room that can make a stripper rich. I mean I would go whole weeks longing to be a table, or a rock, or a little metal paperclip. Even after I moved into Joey’s apartment, even after I’d quit dancing, I couldn’t seem to shake old habits.
Mamacita, they still say as I run a few errands. I turn my head, take off my sunglasses, and ask where they eat their lunch. We go behind buildings, inside cars, into public restrooms.
“You’re pussy is perfect,” Anthony, or Mario, or Chuck will say. They will say anything.
“How perfect?” I ask.
“Like a fucking Greek goddess.”
“Like a teenager’s.”
“Better than your wife’s?” I ask.
The good ones are practiced and say who? The first-timers look worried like I’ve babysat their kids or scrubbed their toilet. Like I’ve experienced their wife using that tone that’s brought us both here, the one where the wife knows everything and is exhausted by everyone else’s stupidity. Sometimes the men are so grateful they open up their wallets and unload every last bill. I let them be kind. It gives me a chance to take Roxy somewhere nice, somewhere we don’t belong where she can annoy me with questions about why I keep doing this shit. Depending on my mood, I might tell her to can it and enjoy her twenty-dollar shrimp cocktail, but sometimes I’ll put my hand on hers. Till my tits give up? Till the whole world stops telling little girls they are beautiful?
“You’re such a downer,” she says and then orders us both another Tito on the rocks, a drink we usually sip from a plastic cup but comes now in a glass tumbler. Roxy works at the local gardening center and it shows. She speaks with a big-picture long view and isn’t scared to deadhead a few feelings for the sake of a thick, full future. “Forget them,” she says. “There’s more for you if you can forget them.” We’ll make-out a bit on our way home, nothing big, just some feel-good vibes before we each go back to cockroaches fleeing the stovetop.
On a day where no one has looked at me, a day where I’ve emptied the bottle of mouthwash before noon because the gin’s all gone and I don’t know what else to do, I text Roxy. She comes over and tells me to quit being the stupidest person she’s ever met. It’s hard to explain my aching to transform into a lamppost or doorknob, so I say, “I wish I didn’t have a body.”
“He hurting you?”
How to tell her that shit hurts without anyone’s interference? I lie and make choking motions with my hands around my neck.
She puffs around the apartment and goes to the closet, rips some clothes off their hangers, and tosses everything in a garbage bag. We’ve done this dance once before, hiding from our boyfriends in some motel where we talk like sisters and then fuck like we’re praying the apocalypse would claim us already. Like, enough. Like, show us the worst thing so we can stop being scared.
But today we aren’t going to a motel; we are going to Roxy’s mother’s.
“Gladys doesn’t take bullshit,” Roxy says. “She’ll set you right.”
Gladys all but raised me while my own ma came and went, and I don’t want her to see me in this state. I’ve only seen Gladys angry twice before, once when Roxy fell off her motorcycle, and once after we’d thrown a party at her house while she’d been in the hospital for her heart. Both times, Gladys slammed her dimpled hand onto the nearest surface and told anyone who would listen that her daughter was a fucktard.
Before we leave, I dip my hand into the breadbox where Joey keeps the rent and slip the cash into my bra.
When we arrive at the tan ranch on Willowbrook, Gladys is on the porch in a mui mui fanning her cootch with a postcard.
I unfurl my body from the car, my legs shaky like a colt’s, but Roxy grabs a Bud Lite from the cooler next to her mom and begs me to drink it slowly. I sit cross-legged on the grass and pop the tab. The birds are talking in the birch tree, and I can see them set against the clouds, fragile and free.
“What’s wrong with her?” Gladys asks.
“She’s just tired,” Roxy says.
Gladys says, “We’re all tired.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to stomach that women aren’t being brought peeled grapes all day every day. It feels isolating thinking about all the work we must do just to stay sane, but then a fat woman with greasy hair says we’re all tired like she’s seen what I’ve seen and worse, and while it doesn’t make me feel better, it makes me feel like maybe some of us are in it together.
“Put her in Brian’s room,” Gladys says and gives me a wink. “You have two days, and don’t ask me for nothing.”
We go into the kitchen, and Roxy digs her hands into my bag and comes up with my phone. “Call him,” she says. “Tell him you’re not coming back. Not tonight, not ever.”
“It’s not like that,” I say. Joey’s the sort that gets to work on time, calls his mother, and occasionally throws a can of soup in the donation box. And yet.
“It is like that,” she says and squeezes my hand. Ever since eighth grade, Roxy’s been squeezing my hand. Sometimes, when I feel like it, I squeeze back. “We can leave,” she says. “You just say the word.”
“I have money,” I say. “Almost a thousand dollars.”
“Look at you,” she says, grinning. “Well, where are we going? What is it that you want?”
Truth be told, I just want to find a way to get ahead. Once, when I was in sixth grade, I won the school poetry competition. When the principal handed me the award in the cafeteria, she’d said into a microphone—a microphone!—that we’d all be seeing my name in print someday. But then seventh grade came, my tits and ass arrived, and the English teacher, Mr. Zaber, let me know with his hands that I possessed a different kind of potential.
Roxy stands, hands on hips. She’s been waiting a decade for me to declare myself.
“I’ve always dreamed of driving out to Pennsylvania and joining one of those Amish towns.”
“I’ll get the buggy ready,” she smirks.
After we eat some lunch, I tell Roxy I need a nap and step into Brian’s room, which hasn’t changed in years. Lots of motorcycle paraphernalia and broken electronics, but with odd feminine touches, as if Gladys tried her best to raise a boy without hard edges by slipping in an eyeleted dust ruffle and lace curtains. For the whole of eighth grade, until Brian went off to college, I’d sneak into his room when Roxy fell asleep. Brian welcomed me inside his closet, where he’d spread a blanket so the carpet couldn’t rub raw our thrashing bodies. It always looked like some makeshift camp site, as if the flashlight’s glow dancing off my body in playful rhythm was something I could stop wanting any moment I pleased.
I know I was young, but I never did anything with Brian I didn’t want to do.
After he moved out, he’d leave me little gifts in the closet. Once he left me a picture of him holding a kitten, another time a shot glass. The best: a gold-plated bracelet that turned my wrist green. The worst: a note that read I got nothing for you, kid. Even worse still: nothing. Last I heard Brian had taken a trip out west, and when I asked Roxy why, she’d looked at me as though no one around here ever needed an excuse to go any damn direction they pleased.
Now, I open the closet and graze my hand against Brian’s outdated, forgotten clothes. I’m fingering the toothy zipper of a cracked leather jacket when I see a little shoe box. I open the lid and find a bag of drugs, a hunting knife, and some photos of a tortoise the size of a boulder. There’s also some fireworks, nothing too big, just some Roman Candles and sparklers, but it reminds me of that Fourth of July smell—that summer moment where rain might come after a heatwave and make the air into a warm, soft beginning. Then, wrapped in a paper towel, there’s a studded strap-on, and I’m curious as to the occasion where Brian, with a dick of his own, ends up needing this.
My buzz is fading. I’m feeling soul-tired, feeling like going back to The Cha Cha Club, but I hear the front door slamming and then Joey’s voice in the hallway.
“Where’s she hiding?” Joey asks.
“I told you she’s not here.”
“You break it, you bought it!” Gladys shouts from the yard.
I can hear Joey going through the house until he’s in Brian’s room. The door to the closet is only half-way open, and I quietly move to the back to hide behind Brian’s funeral suit.
“Whatcha gonna do? Hit her again?”
“Jesus, what’s she telling you?” Joey asks.
I’m wondering if it’s still possible for me to enter the room casually. Like, Oh hi! I was just thinking of you! Like, I wasn’t planning on being born, but oh well! I open the box again, the one with the drugs, and think maybe if I’m high enough, I can wait for Joey to wear himself out and go home. But maybe the knife is a better bet? Maybe I should take the lighter in my pocket and set off some fireworks? Instead, I fasten the strap on right over my jeans.
This is how Joey finds me: sober and dicked.
“What are you doing?” Roxy asks.
Joey tries to be mad. He tries so hard. He’s red in the face, and his fists are clenched, but he is speechless. He just keeps looking at my face and then my dick. He’s waiting for me to speak. I walk toward them, strutting a little, the rubber dildo flowing with the gyrations of my body, and I think of Brian, of all the things he once taught me about how to do the right thing in the wrong way.
“I’m not doing a thing,” I say.
Roxy laughs, and Joey—finding himself—grabs at my dick and pulls me forward to whisper in my ear. “I’m done messing around. Come home, now.”
I tell him I’m staying, and Roxy gives me the once over. Joey takes a step back, his hand releasing its grip on my shaft. His eyes rove my body, and when he meets my gaze, I try to send a psychic message: If I go back to our apartment, I’ll die.
Joey says, “Keep the cash,” says he doesn’t need it, doesn’t need me, but I know he’s just trying to find one last way to be kind.
After Joey leaves, I lay down on Brian’s bed while Roxy gets busy packing snacks from the kitchen. Gladys shouts, “Leave the chocolates!” and then we’re back in the car.
“Where are we going?” I ask, and Roxy looks at me like I’m nuts.
“Pennsylvania,” she says, and we head south. We take the scenic route and it becomes the kind of car ride that warrants a hand catching air out the window, the kind of telephone-wire-stretched-across-the-sky trip that makes a girl wonder what a life other than hers might look like. I imagine Roxy churning butter by candlelight. I imagine the clothes—dresses up to our necks—that we joyfully dirty making jams and then wash with a homemade lye until our hands grow rough. I imagine the smell of meat cooked on an open fire, the freedom of spending so much time outdoors that fireflies become a religion.
And yet, we’re not even half-way there and I’m bored out of my mind listening to the same five radio hits. I’ve counted and recounted the money and find myself wondering how long it will last. Who in God’s name will look at me when there are barns to raise and gardens to weed? In those frumpy frocks, who’s going to notice my ass?
“I don’t know, Rox,” I say. “It’s going to be hard to get work out here around all these decent people,” I joke.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “They’re always a job for a reliable woman.”
“Is that what we are?”
I picture bearded men gazing at my child-bearing hips, bearded men listening to my breathy whispers with the hope that I can discipline a child with grace. Roxy lets me go far off, to that place inside my mind that gets me in trouble, before she squeezes my hand. I squeeze back.