Bomb Girl Ballet - Jennifer Giacalone

Lily knows the girl from the factory by her first name only, Rose.


Rose is the only Black girl on Lily’s shift. She’s taciturn, gruff, and mostly keeps to herself. Her production is always a little ahead of Lily’s. She always finishes a few pieces more. Her welds are always a little neater. Her rows of finished wing flaps are always perfectly to spec. She cuts a compelling, if slightly intimidating figure, tall and broad-shouldered, smoking outdoors in front of the factory in her coveralls with her hair knotted up in a red bandana.


Lily doesn’t like to be second. She’s tried chatting her up, tried to figure out how she does it, but Rose is not much of a talker.


When the whistle blows today, Lily goes and changes back into her blue day dress, the one that balances the tones of her skin and hair just right. Rose goes to her locker, and packs all the contents of it into a duffel bag. She doesn’t bother to change out of her coveralls. She just leaves. Frowning, Lily follows her outside.


Rose takes out her filtered Luckies.


“Need a light?” Lily offers, mostly for the sake of starting a conversation.


Rose shakes her head, takes out a Zippo, and lights her cigarette.


“Why’d you take all your stuff? Did they let you go?”


Rose shrugs. “The men are back. They need the jobs.”


They exchange an awkward look. Lily fiddles with the little cross around her neck. She isn’t quite able to give a name to the flush in her cheeks. They both know why Rose was first to go. The fact is, Lily isn’t really “white” either; but if Rose is bronze, then Lily is golden, and she can pass herself off in a way that Rose can’t.


She feels some indignation on Rose’s behalf. “But you’re better than me.”


“I know.” Rose looks at her, not unkindly, but with a certain distance. “But I’m used to it. Don’t worry your pretty head about it, Miss Garcy.”


She turns to walk off into the early autumn night.


Lily can’t help calling after her, “It’s Garcia, actually. Liliana Garcia. I changed it to Lily Garcy, to get by a little better.”


Rose turns around. She looks exhausted. “Yeah, too bad I can’t change my name and get by.” She gestures to her general appearance. “They tend to still notice.”


Lily watches her go, and wonders what her circumstances are, why she needs the money, where her family is, what she’s going to do now. She knows it’s none of her business, but she can’t help it. She keeps her distance, but she follows Rose down the sidewalk into the cool evening.


Lily has long suspected that she and Rose have more in common than being good at spot welding. It’s why she’s following her now, she supposes. She wants to know if she’s right.


She follows Rose on the long walk into downtown, into a neighborhood she doesn’t know. From the sweet shops, the shoeshine shops, and the jazz pouring out of the storefronts, she concludes that it’s Black, but not poor. Some buildings have little gardens along the side, porches where the elders sit and watch the world stream past. There is pride here. She smells chili cooking, and cigarillos burning, and hears laughter.


She catches a few sidelong looks as she walks; she doesn’t quite belong here, and anyone could tell that.


Rose enters a brick-faced residential building with curly wrought-iron bars on the windows. Lily decides that since she’s committed herself to this tomfoolery now, she may as well follow Rose in.


It’s a walkup with four floors. She can hear Rose’s footsteps in the stairwell. She inches quietly through the door and listens, counting the flights until she hears the sound of a heavy door opening and closing, and Rose leaving the stairwell. The top floor. Lily shrugs to no-one in particular and walks up the stairs.


When she reaches the top, she finds two women, young, fit and dressed in trousers and short sleeved shirts, smoking in the stairwell. “Hey there, honey,” the younger one with sandy hair asks, “are you lost?”


Lily hadn’t quite planned for running into anyone. “I was looking for Rose.”


They exchange a skeptical look. “Well,” the other one says in a cool, quiet tone, “she’s on the roof.” Her eyes flick over Lily. “Not really dressed for it, are you.”


Lily doesn’t understand. She just thanks them, and then takes the short set of steps up, pushes the heavy door open, and steps out onto the rooftop.


It takes her several seconds to make sense of what she’s seeing.


The open rooftop is dramatically lit with a bunch of handheld paraffin lamps in a wide circle. The breezes are stronger up here, and they tug at Lily’s skirt like they want her attention. The air seems cooler under the open city sky, with its few pale stars. An older woman, her dark hair in tight victory curls, wearing trousers of army green, leans back against a wooden structure that looks like it might be an old pigeon coop. She has a scar down her cheek, a cane, and dog tags around her neck.


Must have been WAC, Lily thinks. Lily had wanted to be in the Women’s Army Corps, but her parents refused to allow it. She wanted to be a part of the war effort, so they grudgingly allowed her to become a bomb girl. She had imagined that it was as close as she would ever get to adventure.


“Come on, Maude,” the older woman is shouting, “you’re faster than she is! Use it!”


In the middle of the tarpaper rooftop, a crowd of maybe a dozen or so women, most of them in their twenties and thirties, stand ringed around Rose and a slightly younger woman in canvas work pants. The younger woman –named Maude, apparently– manages to scamper out of the way just before Rose takes a swing that would have likely left evidence if it had landed.


Maude is smaller of build than Rose and has a baby face, but she’s quick and ferocious, and Rose has to work hard to get anything to land. Lily watches in fascination as they circle each other, fill the air with a flurry of thudding as punches strike, and then disengage. They’re graceful. They know each other. It’s strangely like ballet.


Eventually, Maude takes one in the stomach, and calls time. The other girls on the roof help her away and sit her down, get her some water. A few come over and congratulate Rose.


The older woman notices Lily’s presence at this point. “There are no spectators here,” she says, sternly enough that Lily wishes she could disappear into the sky.


“I’m sorry, I didn’t know what was going on.”


“You don’t stay if you aren’t fighting.” She has a demeanor that reminds Lily of one of the austere nuns that used to teach her at Catholic school.


“I was just looking for Rose…”


The older woman gets a gleam in her eye. “Rose! Are you ready for another?”


“What?” Lily exclaims. “No no! I’m not here to fight, I just wanted to–”


Rose wheels around and sees Lily in her little day dress and grins. “Well, look who stalked me all the way up here.” She puts her up dukes and grins at Lily over them. She’s wearing boxing gloves.


“I didn’t stalk you! I just followed you!”


“What’s the difference?” one of the girls asks. It’s the sandy-haired one who was smoking in the stairwell when Lily came in.


Rose takes a towel and wipes the sweat from her face. “It’s alright. You still jealous, Lily?”


Lily is annoyed by this. Of course she was jealous when Rose was outproducing her, but she’s not competition anymore. “No, I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”


“I’m just swell, honey,” Rose says. “Now come on. I’ve got some extra frustrations to work out tonight. You gonna help me or not?”


The two girls Lily had encountered on her way in are pulling her over to one side, and before she can effectively object, boxing gloves are tugged onto her hands. “Of course I want to help you, but I really don’t want to–”


“You’ll get the hang of it,” one of the girls says to her.


“It actually feels awful good to beat the bejeezus out of somebody and take a few lumps,” the other one says. “You’ll see.”


Lily stumbles forward into the ring of people and the circle of lamplight. Rose is circling her slowly, her gloves at her side. “Come on, take a swing. First one’s free.”


“I don’t want to fight you,” Lily says again.


Rose punches Lily once in the stomach. It knocks the wind out of her. She stumbles back. “How about now?”


She’s not dressed for this. But she raises her fists in front of her, trying to mimic the posture she saw Maude and Rose using just a few minutes before.


The heels of her shoes are sinking into the tar a little as she moves. But she took a punch, and she needs to give one back or else she won’t be able to look herself in the mirror tomorrow. Pride demands that she has to at least try to return it. So she moves forward and takes a wide, artless swing at Rose’s head.


“There you go,” Rose says encouragingly, even though she knocks her punch to the side without much effort. Rose’s movements are measured. She’s strong, but she’s also been doing this a while, clearly, because she’s confident. She clips Lily’s shoulder.


Lily stumbles to one side a little. “Was that good?”


“No, it was terrible.” Rose laughs and takes a relaxed swing at Lily’s head. Lily ducks out of the way just in time. Rose looks more in her element now than she ever did at the shop. Here, with her sweaty brow and disheveled pin curls, she looks easy, happy, natural.


“This isn’t fair!” Lily protests, but she can’t bring herself to stop fighting. She propels herself forward into Rose, fists first, not even sure what she’s trying to do. She stumbles on the uneven rooftop.


“Life isn’t fair, honey,” Rose says, and catches Lily in her arms for a second before setting her back on balance. “Aren’t you mad about it?”


“Of course!” Lily answers without thinking.


She’s working at a handicap, but she still manages to move herself around Rose and get a punch in at her ribs. Rose grunts a little, surprised, but she’s grinning. Lily’s blood roars in her ears. She’s intensely aware of the weight of the gloves, the ache in her arms, the need to breathe, and breathe, and breathe.


Her parents will be annoyed that she has tar on her shoes. Her parents will lecture her about not being able to find a decent husband if she’s running around sweating in dirty, dangerous places. She doesn’t care. Whatever this moment is, it’s without pretense.


Lily is not anything right now except a girl, circling another girl on a rooftop, suddenly relieved at not having to pretend to be anything else.


This line of thinking is too cerebral. Rose knocks her in the side of the head and then with one more punch to the gut, puts her on her ass on the rooftop.


Lily sits looking up at her. She hurts in a few places. Her backside in particular is smarting. She’s got a bit of blood in her mouth that she doesn’t spit out. Strangely, she’s not that mad. The girls were right; it did feel good somehow. The older woman comes over and unlaces Rose’s gloves and pulls them off. Rose leans down and takes Lily by the forearm. “Come here.”


Lily allows Rose to help her up. The other women are applauding, and yes, it’s mostly for Rose, who clearly won, but somehow it feels like it’s a little bit for her too.


Rose helps her out of her gloves, and then the two girls who laced her gloves up decide it’s their turn in the ring. Lily wanders over to the edge of the roof and looks down onto the street. It’s far enough down that it feels like a separate world. These women have created something of their own up here, and Lily has wandered into it.


Rose turns up next to her after a moment.


“So what is this?” Lily asks.


“It’s a place for us to let loose,” Rose says.


Lily doesn’t quite understand. “But who are all of you?”


“Some of us are factory girls, losing our jobs to the men coming home. Some of us, like the Colonel, are ex-WAC and can’t find a place to settle in after the war. Maude can’t get a husband ‘cause she can’t have kids. Bea and Betty are lovers. Nancy over there is a communist. We’re girls who don’t fit, don’t get seen, don’t get believed.”


“Are you a communist?” Lily demands. She’s not sure it matters.


Rose smiles. “No. But I do think they get a bum rap.”


Rose takes a towel and dabs Lily’s forehead and then gently presses it to the corner of Lily’s mouth, where the blood has collected a little bit. Lily mumbles a thank you.


“So the question is,” Rose goes on, “why do you belong here?”


Lily wants to say she doesn’t, but it isn’t true. Her blood is still surging with adrenaline. She looks at Rose, all rough and sweaty, all contented and moonlit, and says, “I think you and I are more alike than not.”


“Oh, is that right?” Rose’s eyes are wise, Lily thinks; wise to the world, wise to Lily and her pretending. Wise to what she mostly ignores, until she can’t.


“I’m tired,” Lily finally says. “I’m tired of the world and its opinions. I’m tired of Lily Garcy. She’s a phony and a dreadful bore.”


“Then she doesn’t belong here,” Rose says. “But maybe Liliana Garcia does.”


They hover in the corner the rest of the night, watching the other girls go round after round. When the others aren’t fighting, they lean on each other, laugh and jape and elbow each other with easy familiarity. Lily didn’t even know that she needed this until right now.


She has run out of cigarettes, so she smokes some of Rose’s. When they break, it’s nearly eleven.


The Colonel comes over and looks at both of them, and Lily can just barely detect the amusement beneath her stern expression. “You,” she says, pointing at Lily, “see you next week. Come dressed for it next time.”


“You gonna come back?” Rose asks.


Lily nods dumbly. Her shoulder still hurts, and she still tastes a little blood. “I want to do this again.”


“Good. I’ll teach you how to throw a real punch.”


They descend the stairs and say goodbye in the street without touching.

Jennifer Giacalone is the author of the queer focused mystery-thriller "Loud Pipes Save Lives", Rhysling Award nominee, Bucks County Short Fiction Contest winner, and co-author of the forthcoming queer superhero comedy "Gin Fizz at the Outer Rim".

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