Set in a verdant pouf of hillside, Leger shines pavlova white against the dirty, eucalyptus green. In the 1920s, lisping alcoholic Francophile Lady Flora Tivoli had purchased the lighthouse on the cliff for her sortie into female education. Whimsically sloshed, she’d named her school Léger, the French word for light, which had subsequently been anglicized to Leger (pronounced: ledja). One lawn planes to the harbor’s staired descent, and the other runs right to the sea cliff’s ragged drop, announcing the nation’s coast like a hangnail. Leger girls wear bright rose-and-emerald colored tunics; the boys leering from bus windows catcall them “watermelons.” The girls don’t mind. Watermelons are pretty and summery and sweet and everybody fucking loves them.
Ziggy Klein transferred to Leger from a coed school because her psychotherapist mother preaches female empowerment and is the boss of Ziggy’s dad. But the girls’ school is no longer run by nuns pushing a subtle, domestic insurgency through classes in watercolor and embroidery. In the 1980s, the school board removed the sisters and built a three-story gymnasium, installing acres of Astroturf on which the girls could scrum out their teenage ire. And just in time: the limping feminism of the late 1970s had been rebooted in the form of female shoulder pads, and the young women of tomorrow required team sports and war cries for their emancipation; which would all be fine, if Ziggy’s mum thought women should be allowed to wear sneakers. Ruth Klein says second-wave feminism made women butch and third-wave made them self-loathing and now the Feminine must be reclaimed along with the murky “art of seduction.” But Ziggy thinks the rugby players at her new school look very empowered. Watching the senior A team from the oval’s outer reaches, Ziggy observes a new species of hypermuscular Anglo-Saxonette. Even the cradling motion that precedes each ball toss has a casual, unmaternal deftness that Ziggy finds hard to square with the femininity sermonized by her mother. The rugby players move with an embodied ease that makes them seem more solid than the other girls. To Ziggy, the Senior As have the sharp presence of cartoon characters: there is no mystery, no inner weakness—none of the attributes she equates with that dreaded term “feminine vulnerability.” She can’t imagine these girls slunk under the hairy pits of proprietary males.
From downfield, a burst of tan legs and pom-poms now comes pinwheeling toward them. Watching the cheerleaders’ sequined tennis skirts dance in the sun, Ziggy sees her mother’s feminism on full display. Ruth says girls are allowed to wear princess dresses and the color pink and eventually lipstick and Wonderbras and high heels. Beauty is a woman’s essence, and anything required to accentuate its outer manifestation is her birthright. The cheerleaders ooze a different kind of confidence. Ziggy watches one of them huff toward the rugby players then fling a pom-pom onto the field.
“Oi, Edwina!” she yells at the largest girl. “Quit looking up our skirts!”
Edwina chucks the pom-pom back. “You wish, skank.” Ziggy feels disappointed. On Leger’s same-sex campus, it seems a gendered ecosystem has emerged. The rugby players are just proxy men while the real girls are cheerleaders. That afternoon, Ziggy opts out of team sports altogether—citing her eczema as evidence of a grass allergy. There aren’t many Jews at Leger, so the administration doesn’t challenge the stereotype.
Ziggy quickly learns that the social stratification of her new school is far more complex and sinister than she first imagined. At the bacterial bottom of this food chain are the big-boned unpretty—hunchbacked by the shame of it; girls with lazy eyes and facial hair; all the moley, birthmarked, bowlegged, lisping, erratically sobbing, suspected lesbian and cat-molesting creatures unfit for boyfriends. And the impoverished scholarship students. This motley group receives the avoidant pity of unsalvageable spinsters; Ziggy assumes she slots in here. Above these girls sit the brilliant Asians, who are presumed virgins and suffer a constant stream of pens and erasers to their ponytails, especially on test days. Ziggy hopes their weekends are rich with friendship and adventure. Then come the cool, homework-averse Asians, who hide behind heavy makeup and an air of disaffection. They are both sexy and cute in a perfect ratio that Ziggy’s own slight form fails to achieve. She covets their straight noses and smooth, hairless arms. Compared to her Jewish school, Leger has an abundance of Asians and a softly pervasive racism. But these boyfriended ones are driven around in the usual blur of steel and smoothie cups—granting them vassal status within Leger’s social kingdom.
Just above them are the boarders, who dress in men’s jeans, boat shoes, and blazers. Their administrated orphanhood has robbed these girls of aesthetic style and glamorous biography. They all play sport. It is assumed the boarders come from happy households with cheery, alcoholic parents who buy them horses, hoping they’ll return one day to Dubbo or Mudgee as country doctors and attorneys. The boarders are uncosmopolitan: culturally homogenous, socially regressive, and operating outside the centralized sexual economy. But Ziggy was wrong to doubt the rugby players’ wider female appeal; they are only macho for the purpose of intraschool sports. Because these girls get subhumanly smashed at weekly barn dances—returning to the city with grass-stained pant seats and tales of tampons finger-banged to emergency rooms—they still occupy the outer suburbs of Leger’s sprawling metropolis. Now Ziggy notices their girly anachronism: those bright ribbons they wear in their ponytails have a priss made for frisking on blue moonlit beds of hay.
Next come that broad caste of attractive, urban high-achiever who arrive at school with hickeys or blow-job lockjaw or just the vacant look of sexual daydream, replaying the luscious hurt of rabbit sex with a random boy. Some of these girls are Asian, many play sport and dress like wealthy farmers, but as long as they don’t live on campus, even these pseudo-boarders are included in grade ten’s sexually active, civic majority.
And perched at the top of an inhospitable, icy peak are the Cates. One of whom is called Fliss. The Cates are old money and old mansions and ancient values, and these things have serious cachet in a young country. They fraternize with older boys and have access to a society with social pages—an old-school virality that gives their blond auras a golden glow. Cate Lansell-Jones and Kate Fairfax kindly include Felicity Kunchai-Wells in their holy trinity because her pretty, “perfectly symmetrical” face has been gracing kids’ clothing catalogs since Mrs. Kunchai-Wells could wrangle her from a stroller, and because “Eurasians are seriously the new Kate Moss.” Fliss is nicer than the Cates—she never bullies her peers or laughs at their pimples. To her friends, Fliss’s moral protest seems to register only as adorable squeaky sounds, which they just find cute and so pet her like a handbag dog. The Cates attribute Fliss’s sweetness to her Thai heritage. Every summer Cate’s family holidays in Phuket, and she says Thais are the nicest fucking people in the world, considering how many of them seriously have to be prostitutes.
Cate Lansell-Jones is the most popular girl in their year. Buxom, doll-faced; her farts are the whispered whips of shuttle-cocks. Everyone knows Cate popped her cherry in a pink canopy bed with a boyfriend who loves her. Her buxom, doll-faced mother brought them French toast in the morning, while Cate and Toby announced their sleepover on social media. Everyone knows Susan Lansell-Jones (“Suze,” to the girls) parted Cate’s pink curtains to let the sun warm the sheepskin for their toes.
Kate Fairfax is also a pre-PC Disney princess from a time when girls aspired to rescue-by-prince narratives and the companionship of songbirds. Kate keeps her lovebirds, Ansel and Elgort, in a cage in the year-ten common room—terrorizing the whole grade with shushes when her blankie bedtimes their little hanging prison. She is taller and leaner than Cate, with a severe cheekboned beauty that people say could probably model, or at least host a travel show. Kate has no known aspirations but walks with the catwalk swagger of a girl universally envied.
The Cates have their own lexicon to communicate complex cultural ideas. There is yaysian for anything Asian that is too threateningly adorable: “Those polka-dot pore strips are yaysian.” And sannies, an abbreviation of sanitary pad, which applies to dumpy girls who refuse to go swimming or wear leggings for athletics. But most of the Cates’ intellectual energy is directed toward the sexification of the school uniform. Leger girls have to wear straw sun hats and knee-high socks with shapeless tunics, and ever since year seven, the Cates have been refining workable alternatives. You can raise the hem on your skirt and pull your socks above the knee so that they resemble hookers’ or Fuck Me boots. Shirts can be unbuttoned down to the laced cups of a black bra—made more alluring by a plunging gold cross (options include a sexy goth choker-cross or one that grazes the cleavage). Earrings are outlawed but clear plastic studs are permitted to keep holes open, and these can be worn in subtle shades of pink to match French manicures and the elastic bands between braces. Layering your hair undermines the eel-slick, sexless regulation ponytails; fringes hood eyes; and bold edges build architecture into cheekbones. And everyone, including the Asians, should obviously straighten their hair.
Much of the Cates’ pedagogy exists in visual form online. Ziggy spends a lot of time on Kate Fairfax’s Instagram. This is a place of white doves, frangipani flowers, and yoga platitudes. It is selfie-heavy and dense with Ansel and Elgort. Kate strives to project a sense of ethereal ecstasy—of birds in flight, feathers opalescent under golden sunrays; the maxim “happy girls are pretty girls.” Instagram seems specifically designed for a crisp, WASP aesthetic. Ziggy can’t imagine what she could share. The way a radiant sunset catches the down on her side-face? An after-school snack of whitefish salad? Still, she doubts that any of the Randalls boys actually come to this white, fluffy place to jerk off. Kate’s daily struggle for the perfect pictorial story has to be lost on these boys. Or at least severely misinterpreted. Like decorating a house with delicate bunting before the demolition party. How do the Cates really feel after they spend two hours on makeup then let a boy jizz in their hair?
Despite Ziggy’s misgivings, it is clear that these girls have achieved societal domination. Their feminine propaganda campaign is powerful on social media, but they also have a keen understanding of follow-through in the physical realm. Their digital efforts appear to aim toward a social event carved into the calendar and the collective heart of all Leger girls. The year-ten formal is the Cates’ Nuremberg Rally and a chance for all their virtual brainwashing to manifest in resplendent chiffon and blow-dry. Daily, Ziggy overhears her peers planning outfits and pre-drinks parties around an event slated for eleven months’ time. The Cates have designed themselves an edifying evening, but so have all the lesser creatures of their universe. There are, it appears, alternate ways to shine at the year-ten formal. If you are a C-minus average Asian, you can bring your boyfriend with the Vietnamese gang tattoos and have him do wheelies in the valet parking lot. If you are a boarder, you can sew your own cocktail dress and attend as a group of Stepford Wives plastered on gin and tonics. In the first week of her Leger education, it is clear to Ziggy that the formal is a kind of coming-out ceremony for all the girls—popular, pariah, and everything in between.
Except for Ziggy, who is what adults generously call “small” for fifteen. The zaftig fellow Jews at her old school called her a Holocaust survivor. In her final yearbook, getting sentimental, they cushioned it to “cute.” But Ziggy knows “cute” is worthless without sexual appeal, and the doughy puff of her cheeks, her buggy eyes, and slim, unsensual lips all confirm its absence. Ziggy has a defiant center-part, which people love to draw attention to: fingering the symmetrical sheets of her blow-dry and saying, “Peace, Man.” Peace, Man, she says back, giving them the sign then flipping it when they are no longer looking. Ziggy has internalized Peaceman. He shuffles around the dense museum of her inner life, dodging abstract statuary. His is the anemic voice she hears leave her mouth whenever Ruth forces her to talk about feelings—“I’m fine,” whines the craven avatar—buying time until the sob in Ziggy’s throat dissolves. Peaceman is probably just trying to protect Ziggy from her mother’s obvious biological weakness.
At her old school, Ziggy had been somewhat of a pariah. The classic story of a charismatic leader sullied by minor corruption. Ziggy had at one time been the most popular girl in grade six—a talented illustrator of horse bodies and eyeballs, she had ascended to class captain using her natural charm and some light bullying. At the height of her power, she had even acquired an albino boy-minion, happy to collect her canteen sandwiches and clear the center of a coveted lunch bench. Then, away on a long weekend skiing trip, Ziggy had designated Rachel Katz the new leader of their group (because her brother had behavioral problems and was probably headed to public school, poor Rachel), which had created a safe space for mutiny. Returning from the ski fields, Ziggy was deposed and began her descent into a three-year social purgatory. During this time, there had been bright moments of near-acceptance; her Bat Mitzvah disco was one such unexpected triumph (thanks in large part to the Maypole dance devised by her mother). But Ziggy never again felt the snug fit of a loving clique walking to either side of her. Never had an inbox full of messages or two girls fight over the bus seat next to hers. Instead, Ziggy has withdrawn into imaginative games, elaborate and historical, closer in tone to punishing tests of survival. The mise-en-scène is clearly borrowed from her maternal grandmother. What gets Ziggy’s adrenal glands going is undeniably the Holocaust.
Her favorite game involves an onion, a bottle of vinegar, and a sympathetic Nazi. Before her family were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Ziggy’s grandmother spent much of the war hiding in her uncle’s barn just outside of Budapest. She has told Ziggy about the games she played, imagining at every hour of the day what Zsa Zsa Gabor might be doing as a new American émigré. Her grandmother could also recall the morning she and her older cousin, Andrea, were questioned in the street by two Nazis, and how Andrea had entertained them with a long, intricate story about her pet, Spinoza, a wild hare found by their town’s philosopher hermit who drunkenly conveyed the creature to their household, ironically declaring it the Easter bunny. Ziggy’s grandmother relayed this story often and with verve, channeling the famed charisma of precocious Andrea. She claimed the Nazis had been charmed by the clever young Jewess, and momentarily restored to their former humanity. Ziggy has never questioned the veracity of her grandmother’s anecdote. Maybe because she likes it too much. The story hints at something opaque she senses about men and women, narrative and empathy. It dissolves the dense sick Ziggy feels at the mention of the word Holocaust, drilling a hole through the gray haze of skeletons and bone ash to a specific moment, bizarre and human that—thanks to the chutzpah of a very special little girl—seems to reverse the irreversible.
Nearly every afternoon, Ziggy takes her unappetizing victuals into the bathroom closet and pretends she is an SS officer’s secret captive—forced to distract the Nazi with interesting personal anecdotes until the Allies invade. Usually she repeats the harrowing things overheard in her living room, where Ziggy’s mother runs her women’s workshops. Every kind of female suffering is represented here, but mostly Ziggy appropriates the sexual abuse stories. When she makes the SS officer weep, he tosses Ziggy a few fingers of onion skin; when he laughs she gets a small capful of vinegar. It is enlargening to feel other people’s feelings. Or maybe it shrinks the world. Either way, Ziggy is good at it. She can describe a stranger’s pain without crying, and under extreme duress. She can joke about incest with a Schick razor pressed to her throat. Which is kind of how she meets Tessa and Lex.
From Inappropriation. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2018 by Lexi Freiman.