Nonfiction: Required Reading by Jo Varnish

She’s a little girl, aged eight. The neighborhood Cool Teen is fifteen. He smokes, he swears, he’s trouble. He beckons to the little girl, his glossy black hair falling in his eyes as he tips his head. Unnoticed, they leave her friends and her brother playing football on the hill, its grass bright from the English rain. On her bed, he lies on top of her, his body too long for hers.

“This is what grown-ups do,” he says. “Next time, let’s go in there.” With a sweep of his hand he gestures to the opened closet, its low door leading to little more than a crawl space. His words float slowly through the eight-year-old, and she takes a moment to relish their implication. He pushes his arms under her and squeezes her, molding her to him in ways neither of them can understand. She can’t speak or move for she is little and knows enough of what she doesn’t know to fear a misstep. He is danger and he is beauty. She worries that her mother will be home soon and will need help with the groceries. She needs to make sure he leaves before the car pulls up.


Her mother takes the girl, now aged ten, and her brother to visit the Brontë Museum in Howarth, England. The ten-year-old girl loves Jane Eyre. She asks her mother if she thinks Mr. Rochester’s wife might haunt the Brontës’ parsonage, silently wondering if Charlotte Brontë had known a Mr. Rochester, if she were inspired by secrets and guilt and hurt.


The eight-year-old girl is with her friends, boys and girls, sitting on their bikes, feet on the ground. The Cool Teen approaches, red t-shirt and jeans, and the kids’ attention falls squarely on him. Her friends chat, shy statements, desperate to impress the Cool Teen. The eight-year-old girl’s insides squirm with the delight that he is hers.

“Who do you reckon you’ll marry?” asks one of the boys. The little girl inhales that vast volume of air reserved for the proud, preparing to be declared his Queen.

“Whoever I fancy at the time,” the Cool Teen says, and lights a cigarette.


The ten-year-old girl is fascinated by Charlotte Brontë’s tiny boots and the sisters’ scribbled messages, still visible on their parsonage walls. Standing by the sofa on which Emily passed away, the girl welcomes melancholy’s thrust. What is more exquisite than the pain of love and longing and tragedy?


The eight-year-old girl looks out of her brother’s bedroom window, hoping to see the Cool Teen. He has stopped beckoning her, stopped visiting her, stopped leading her behind the wide low prickly shrubs and the tall evergreen trees up against the wooden fence. Her heartache is a body-wide bruise, twisting with each breath, its hidden nature incongruous with the vivid blues and blacks she imagines across her skin. There was shame in the secret. There is deep shame in being unwanted. There is deeper shame in wanting to be chosen again. The feelings, as yet too slithery to label, wind themselves around her bones, constricting, fusing, becoming part of her being.


And then there was Branwell, the brother, the black sheep of the Brontë clan. The shoes, the scribbles and the sofa all swiftly dissolve in her mind to make way for him. A ne’er-do-well, a failure, a drunk. The ten-year-old asks the tour guide question after question about him. Did he write too? Was he close to his sisters? Was he jealous of their success? She scours the gift shop books for stories of his downfall. She rejects the pictures of him: too old-fashioned. Her Branwell is tall, his face tanned, his hair dark and shiny. The girl knows how it feels to be held by him. She decides to keep this Branwell close.


She’s a teenager now, fifteen, and she’s whispering with her friend at the back of their Drama class, listing the few boys she’s fooled around with. Her friend adds a name, a Round-Faced Boy a couple of years older.

“No,” she says. “I would never, no chance.”

“Yeah you did, at New Year’s,” her friend says.

The fifteen-year-old’s pores leak sweat. She closes her eyes, think, think, think. She remembers waking on New Year’s Day in a girlfriend’s bed, wearing nothing but an unfamiliar t-shirt. Her empty hangover is pinched by a gentle foreign ache in her limbs. Nothing hurts, but nothing is without sensation either. Alcohol has sieved her memory of the night before so that what remains are movie-style flashes: of a bathroom, of the Round-Faced Boy, of the Round-Faced Boy’s brother, both leaning over her, both laughing.

In Drama class, she asks her friend, “Who knows about this?”


The fifteen-year-old girl breezes into a new conversation. She won’t make a fuss. It’s been three months, anyway.


In the hotel in York, the ten-year-old girl lies awake, imagining some romantic torment rippling through Branwell Brontë, a current that sucked him in and tossed him away, lifeless at thirty-one. She feels his loneliness. It’s too beautiful and crushing to bear. She imagines marrying a man like Branwell, with his toxic and intoxicating damage, a man to calm and be calmed by. She falls asleep with wet cheeks and a new wound carved behind her ribs.


She’s outraged at seventeen when a friend confides about the Saturday-job boss who stopped his car while driving her home. In a darkened parking lot, unzippered, he told the friend what to do. How fast, how hard. The fury for the friend is a fire raging, pure, unrelenting. The seventeen-year-old doesn’t relate what the friend endured to what happened to herself, and she won’t for many years. Understanding isn’t a walk up the stairs. It’s a meandering course, and she progresses with calm, focusing on her next steps, like a horse in blinkers. There will be times when the troubled, beautiful face of the Cool Teen will surface in the darkest of corners. There is deeper shame in wanting to be chosen again. She will grow to be a balanced and resilient woman. And she will still be the eight-year-old girl with her heart full of feelings for a handsome boy with sad eyes who did things he shouldn’t have.


She’s a nineteen-year-old university student in a crowded London square, standing with her brother and their friends, their faces lit by neon signs. Couples and groups bustle around her, brushing past, making their way to plays and films and bars. There is something pushing into her hand, so she shifts until it is gone. Moments later, it is back in her hand. She looks down to see a penis, fat and floppy. She yanks her hand away and turns to see a man close behind her: Tan Anorak, thirties, sandy hair, sad confusion smeared over his pale face. He shuffles away quickly. She watches him leave the square, her rising revulsion washed away by pity. She knows she can’t remain silent. But she waits before telling her brother to ensure that when he runs after the Tan Anorak, he is too late.

Originally from England, Jo now lives outside New York City.  She is the assistant editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, Pithead Chapel, The Coachella Review, and others.  Jo is a 2021 Pushcart Prize nominee, has been a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers for two years, and is studying for her MFA.  She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1

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