The Rules for Watching

Melissa Darcey Hall

Ever since Ramona debuted her prosthetic leg at school, she’s walked the school halls with her head a little higher. She has something no one else in the school has. Hulga, the name she’s given her prosthesis, has shifted her social status from invisible to popular, just a tier below the cheerleaders. Her teachers call her brave, applaud her for surviving a car accident and offer extensions on homework. Her friends are jealous, but instead of ditching her or calling her a bitch, they latch on tighter, as if some of her popularity will rub off on them like magic or perfume or lice.

But best of all, the boys finally notice her. They adore this new Ramona, ask to feel the leg, ask what it feels like to inhabit a new body part. She catches them staring at Hulga, whispering to one another, each word crashing into the next, frantic and directionless. They follow Ramona down the school hall, offer to do her homework, to drive her home, to buy her frozen yogurt with as many toppings as she wants. Some try to cop a feel, but she swats their hands away from Hulga every time, pleased. Others stuff heart-shaped notes in her locker and promise to love all of her, not just this new part. She knows they’re probably lying, that they’re probably only proclaiming love to get something from her, but a part of her feels like giving them what they want because maybe they’re not lying, maybe they do love her.

Ramona reveals these thoughts to her best friends, Maia, Rya, and Hannah, that afternoon at Maia’s. Of the four of them, Maia’s home is the smallest—a two bedroom apartment with a living room the size of their old elementary school’s four-square court—but it’s the only place they feel welcome. They can’t talk at Rya’s house because her parents work from home and use the late afternoons to make business calls, and while Hannah’s parents work late every day, the housekeeper stays until six and won’t let them eat food in the living room or put their feet on the couch. None of them want to hang out at Ramona’s, where her dad will be drunk, complaining about his fourth month of unemployment while watching on TV what Ramona’s mother calls “porn adjacent.”

Sprawled across Maia’s living room floor, they thumb through Playboy magazines that Hannah stole from her father’s closet. Only Hannah, whose father is a plastic surgeon, can distinguish the natural breasts from the implants. As they turn each page, they look to Hannah to reveal the results.

“Fake, fake, natural, subtle lift to look natural, fake,” she lists. Hannah, by way of her father, has taught them the most important rules of their bodies—that breasts grow until age eighteen; that, at fifteen, none of them have to mourn the loss of womanhood and sex appeal yet. And besides, there’s always surgery. Hannah’s father promised the four of them free implants if they wait until they’re twenty-one when they’re old enough to know what they want, as if they don’t already know exactly what they want and what they need to navigate this world as women.

“You know,” Maia starts, in response to Ramona’s confession. “It’s not a bad thing to want to please someone. My mom says that means you’re the one with the power, not the other person, even if they think they’re the one in control. It’s, like, a basic theory of feminism. Isn’t that right, mom?”

“Mhm,” Maia’s mother, Holly, says while painting her nails in the kitchen, her heel propped on the sticky laminate counter. “It’s only wrong if you don’t get something out of it, too.”

Holly is an exotic dancer at a club in a near-deserted strip mall and she’s always telling them that women have to capitalize on what they have to get what they want. Ramona doesn’t exactly know what that means, but she assumes it has something to do with taking off her clothes and letting people watch. Holly is more like a mother to Ramona than her own. Since Holly works nights, she’s usually around when Ramona and her friends flock to Maia’s apartment for snacks and advice. Holly is kind and good and smart. She can read books written in Italian and thread her own eyebrows. She has double-D breast implants and bleach blonde highlights, but she says it’s no different than a businessman investing in an expensive suit except that men are safe from judgment and women aren’t. When she was eighteen, she went to Juilliard for ballet, but a knee injury prevented her from making it to the big time. She says she makes more money now as a club dancer than she ever would have as a ballerina, and has more “agency,” which Ramona only recently learned from Holly is a thing she’s supposed to want and have as a twenty-first-century woman.

Ramona asks Holly if she, too, feels powerful being watched.

“Of course. Because I decide what happens and when and for how long,” Holly explains.  “I’m like Penelope from The Odyssey. The suitors think they’re in control but Penelope was tricking them the whole time, right in front of them.”

The girls nod, accepting Holly’s word as gospel. They read The Odyssey last year in English class, but Mrs. Peterson never explained Penelope in that way, only that she was a loyal wife. Ramona has never seen Holly dance, but she hopes to one day, to see how a woman wields her power while tricking men into thinking it’s theirs.

Holly makes tuna noodle casserole for dinner, but if there’s one thing she can’t do, it’s cook. When she leaves for work, Maia, Rya, and Hannah scuttle to the kitchen for snacks while Ramona limps behind. She’s had Hulga for two months and is still adjusting to her new gait. If she walks too quickly and for too long, the top of the prosthesis chafes the back of her knee. She used to be embarrassed by her uneven footsteps, but now she embraces it. Hulga demands the attention of anyone nearby, dares them to look. The girls scrape the soggy, yolk-hued noodles into the trash and replace their now empty plates with Doritos and graham crackers.

“I’ve got an idea,” Maia says while sucking cheese dust off her fingers. “We let the boys see Hulga up close, but for money to make it more exclusive.”

Maia calls it a peep show and says all they need is some music and a secret location.

“How is that a show?” Ramona asks.

“That’s just what you call it because you’re showing them a peep of Hulga,” Maia explains, confident in her definition. Her plan is to host one peep show a week in the woods by the school.

“But just one boy at a time. They can’t bring a friend,” Rya says. Her dad’s a coroner, so she knows the dangers of males in packs, even at fifteen years old.

“And we’ll blindfold them so they don’t know where we’re taking them and they can’t tell their friends,” Hannah adds.

“I dunno,” Ramona says, chewing on her bottom lip.

“They won’t be able to resist. Every boy will be lining up for a look. They’ll love us and we’ll be the most popular girls in school,” Maia says, knowing it’s exactly what Ramona wants to hear.

Ramona nods in agreement and Maia high fives Hannah. They choose Fridays for the peep show because, according to every single TV show they watch, that’s when life happens to people. Rya offers to handle the marketing and spread the word amongst the boys at school that $5 gets them full access to Hulga.

“But you should mention my name, not Hulga’s,” Ramona says. “Hulga is part of me, so I’m what they’re paying to see.”

That night, Ramona admires herself in her bedroom mirror, watching herself touch Hulga. She always imagined that a gun or a queen’s crown or a man’s hand vibrated from its power, but she doesn’t feel any drum beats in her leg; only a heavy stillness. Nonetheless, she knows the power Hulga has gifted her, is grateful for her new leg, and intends to take full advantage.

Her father, on the other hand, hates Hulga and thinks Ramona should have a little more grace.

“No one wants to see that thing,” her dad says, wincing as she walks past him reclined on the couch, remote in one hand and can of beer in the other.

Ramona ignores him, like she does most nights. She hates her father, despises her mother even more for marrying such an idiot. Three years ago, she saw her father fondling her math teacher’s boobs backstage at the school talent show, but when she told her mother, she just shook her head and told Ramona that men can’t help themselves.

Ramona sorts through the half dozen food storage containers in the fridge—her mother’s attempt to appear present in Ramona’s life despite never being home—and makes a plate of fried chicken and rice leftovers. She takes it to her room and, as she passes her father, glances at the television. A nude woman walks across the screen and falls onto a bed, the sun from a nearby window highlighting her smooth and unblemished butt. A man collapses on the bed next to her and runs a finger along her back. The woman smiles, watching him as his breath quickens. Ramona wonders if this man loves the woman, or if he just told her that to get her naked, or if the woman didn’t care to begin with. Holly told her once that the most dangerous thing a woman can do is confuse desire and love, but Ramona’s still not sure she understands the difference.

At school the next day, Rya already has a list of ten boys for the peep show. Sebastian, a gangly sophomore and the star player on the JV soccer team, is lucky number one. Sebastian fist bumps the air when he learns the news.

“But it’s $10, not $5, for being the first,” Maia tells him. “You’re practically popping her cherry.”

That Friday, Sebastian meets Maia and Rya at the edge of the woods, three blocks from school. It’s four o’clock, and even in May, the sun sits high above the horizon with hours of daylight and sticky heat left. The girls aren’t scared of the dark, but they are afraid of what they can’t see coming, of the possibility of something watching them without them knowing.

Sebastian pays while Maia slips his phone out of the back pocket of his shorts.

“Rule number one: no pictures or recordings,” she says.

“Rule number two,” Rya says, holding up a blindfold.

Once securely blindfolded, Maia and Rya each take an arm and guide him half a mile through the woods to the creek where Ramona sits on a boulder with Hannah at her feet. Ramona wore her shortest dress today. It shrank in the wash and now barely reaches her mid thigh. Her natural instinct is to tug at the hem, but she stops herself and feigns confidence.

They remove the blindfold and Sebastian looks around, finding his bearings. They tell Sebastian the third rule: if he’s on good behavior, he can touch Hulga. Good behavior really just means he can’t get handsy or aggressive.

“Let’s get started then,” Hannah says, navigating the music app on her phone and playing Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold” through a portable Bluetooth speaker.

Ramona bops her head to the beat of the music, finding the rhythm and then drags her hand up Hulga before kicking her leg up like the blade of a scissor. She whips her head back and pushes her A-cup chest forward, pretends she’s Holly or one of the women in the movies her dad watches. She slides the knit sleeve down her thigh and slips her residual limb out of the socket. Hulga detaches from her body and everyone gasps. Her friends clap and nudge for Sebastian to do the same but he’s too focused on Hulga, his eyes following its every movement as Ramona sets it down next to her.

“Can I?” he asks, gesturing to Hulga, and Ramona nods. She tries to remain neutral-faced, but her stomach somersaults in excitement.

Sebastian approaches her slowly, as if any sudden movements will spook Hulga or Ramona or himself. He extends his hand and, when he touches Hulga, he flinches, pulls back, and gasps.

“What’s wrong?” Ramona demands, her voice accusatory and timorous all at once.

“Nothing,” he says, his hand returning to Hulga. He runs two fingers up and down the prosthetic, shocked by the smooth surface of the silicone cover. His hand wraps around the ankle before massaging the calf.

Ramona can sense his greediness, his innate instinct to mark what is not his. She should stop him now, before he goes too far, before he remembers he is the taker and not the giver, but she yields to the pleasure of watching. As she and her friends watch Sebastian, they lick their lips and grin, as if his desire for the four pounds of insentient plastic says something about their own value. He is putty in their hands, and would do anything they ask at this moment. They will take any possible sense of power, of desire, of love, even if it’s secondhand.

Sebastian pulls Hulga closer and Ramona rubs her knee, her fingertips dancing and then diving off the edge. She feels naked without Hulga, especially in public. She wonders if this is how Holly feels when she dances, or if she’s so used to nudity that she only feels strange and not herself when she’s at Maia’s softball games wearing jeans and a baseball cap. One time, Ramona asked Holly if she ever felt weird or strange on stage, all those eyes on her naked body. But Holly shook her head, told her that the rule for watching is to watch back—“otherwise, you’re just something to admire and then dispose of.”

Ramona tries to catch Sebastian’s eye, but he’s too focused on Hulga.

“Hulga,” he whispers as he fondles the leg.

Ramona looks at Maia, Rya, and Hannah. They’re grinning and staring at Sebastian, imagining his hands are on their legs. They crawl closer to Ramona, crouching behind her and watching over her shoulder at Sebastian.

“Look at me,” Ramona says.

But Sebastian is either lost in the fantasy or ignoring her because he doesn’t respond, doesn’t even pretend he heard what she said.

“Hey,” she snaps her fingers, her voice loud and demanding and shaky all at once. “Look. At. Me.”

Sebastian looks up and sees four sets of narrowed eyes, four pairs of parted lips, the  flicker of four sets of white teeth.

“These are the rules,” Ramona says.

Sebastian keeps his eyes trained on the four of them while his lips find Hulga’s calf.

“Hulga,” he whispers, and it almost sounds like he says “Ramona” or “Rya” or “Hannah” or “Maia.”

“Hulga,” he repeats, and they pretend he says their names, that he desires them, that he loves them.