First, find a tube of lipstick—a good color for you, sure, but more importantly one that fits your palm and pocket. Pick it up. Pick up some eye shadow, mascara, lip gloss—whatever. Survey everything, look at price tags, and then put it all back. Except the lipstick.
You need thumbnails for this. Grow them out. Make them sharp.
Wander the store—look at body wash, deodorant, family packs of Pringles. The lipstick has a wrapper, usually a perforation, too. This is where your thumbnails come in. Pick at the wrapper. It won’t look like anything to other customers. Like a nervous tic, maybe, if they even notice. Do it slowly—look at lots of stuff. You’re going to need something you legitimately want to buy. But first, pick things up, look them over. When the lipstick’s unwrapped, grab an item with the hand it’s in. When you put the item back on the shelf, you’ll tuck the wrapper behind it. Next, shove both hands in your pockets (lipstick and all) and wander the store a little longer.
Don’t buy anything too expensive, but nothing too cheap, either. Tic-Tacs aren’t enough. Scented candles are too much. Buy Cheetos or a soda. Hair gel. Something they’d expect from a teenage girl.
And smile. Ask the cashier about his day. If you can’t make conversation, if your hands are shaking or you’re turning red, put the lipstick back and walk away.
When the cashier rings you up, look him in the eyes. Notice how green they are. Notice how straight his teeth are when he smiles, and the little dimple in his right cheek. When he asks your name, tell him. He’s probably twenty-two or twenty-three, but you like older men and he obviously likes younger girls. Women. You’ve got to start thinking of yourself as a woman.
After you’ve bought your Diet Coke, go sit outside by the bike rack and drink it. Stay under the awning, in the light where the clerk can see you. Maybe turn around and watch him through the window, flirt with him a little. When he comes outside on his break, don’t walk away, even if he is looking at you like he’s wearing X-ray specs. Be happy this is a twenty-four hour store, that they keep it lit up like the Vegas strip, which you’ve heard can be seen from outer space.
Keep drinking your soda. Smile. Check your watch. Gina said she’d pick you up at ten.
Don’t flinch when his T-shirt brushes your arm. Say hi to him. Ask how long he’s worked here. Don’t cough when he lights a cigarette or tell him he needs to be twenty-five feet from the door. When he puts his hand on your back, let him. When he asks what you’re doing later, write your number on his arm with the pen you’ve got tucked behind your ear—the one you took from Office Depot last week, walked out with two of them stuck into your ponytail like chopsticks and nobody noticed.
You’ll want to jump when you hear Gina honking, but don’t. Let him write his phone number on your arm, and don’t cringe when he pushes too hard. Make him think you like it, the way he almost breaks the skin. Make him think you’re dangerous. Get in Gina’s car.
Tell her the clerk’s name is Jake, that he smokes Lucky Strikes, which is totally badass. Don’t ask about the burn mark on her right arm or the golf-ball sized hickey in the crook of her neck. She never gives you a straight answer, anyway. Suck in your gut (your dad’s been buying jumbo bags of potato chips lately) and check your hair in the rearview. Show Gina the lipstick, broken-blood-vessel purple. Feel that jump of jealousy in your stomach when she slides it over her lips without looking, one hand on the wheel while the wind whips her hair around her face.
Don’t think about last time, the shimmer peach that she chucked out the window. Or the argyle socks you forgot to unwrap in the dressing room, even after she explained (how many times?) why they had to be unwrapped in case security turned out your purse. Or the corset you took out from under your clothes right in front of the store. She really nailed you for that one, but it’s not like you got caught. Stop thinking about it. Think about tonight. The party. The clerk named Jake.
Gina has a fifth of Jack under a blanket in the backseat and a fresh pack of cigarettes (most likely her mother’s) on top of her purse. She has a tattoo on her ankle that her cousin Frankie did when she was fifteen, a broken heart oozing blood toward her foot. She has three holes in her right ear, four in her left (the fourth is your own handiwork, though afterward you ran to the bathroom and threw up your breakfast). She has yet to tell you how she knows the guy whose house you’re headed to, and whether she has dibs on any of the guys there.
Slip out of your jeans and into a skirt while Gina drives. Wait until she parks to take the scissors to the hemline (your dad bought this one, so it’s all the way down to your knees). There’s an old lady across the street, walking her dog. She stares at you while her dog stops to crap. Give her the finger—or think about it, anyway—and glare until she yanks her dog’s collar and totters away.
This is a really nice neighborhood, and Gina is already walking up to the nicest house on the block. Don’t let it throw you. Sure, you usually party with burnt-out college guys in rat’s-nest apartments. There are usually a few girls with belly rings out front smoking (or, if you arrive after midnight, holding each other’s hair and puking), beer cans in the grass. Here, there are a few luxury cars parked along the curb (and Gina’s POS). There are rose bushes. There’s freshly mowed grass.
Say, “What is this, a tea party?” when you catch up to Gina at the front door.
She rings the doorbell. There are never doorbells.
Say, “Whose party is this, anyway?”
A guy in a suit answers the door, with grease in his hair or gel or something. He has nice eyebrows. He grabs you and Gina by the waist.
Gina told you this would be a different kind of evening, but you thought that meant Jell-O shots or some kind of psychedelic. You made sure to eat a hefty dinner so you wouldn’t wind up passed out before midnight. Instead, you’re being led into a room full of cigar smoke and middle-aged men. A couple of them are handsome, you guess—especially the eyebrow guy—but mostly they look like they should be in some dive somewhere, ogling waitresses.
Don’t say anything when Gina gets up on the coffee table and dances to whatever jazz they’ve got playing. They have an actual record player. Some of them have a little gray in their hair. Don’t ask them how old they are. You’re pretty sure they’re older than your dad.
Try not to smack Gina when she announces that you’ll both be right back, that you need to freshen up a little. Let her hustle you into the bathroom. Let her explain. There’s got to be some angle to this that you haven’t figured out.
“Put this on,” she says once the bathroom door is closed. She’s holding a lacy, purple bra. You’re getting a bad feeling about this.
She lifts your arms above your head and before you know what she’s doing, she’s got your T-shirt off and your bra unclasped. Cross your arms over your chest and elbow her in the ribcage. Ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing.
Slow your breathing. Calm the muscles in your neck.
“Drink this,” she says, shoving the bottle of Jack in your face. Take a swig as she pulls your hair into a clip and straps on the new bra.
Don’t think about the time your dad bailed your aunt out of jail, the night she slept on the couch and left wide smudges of mascara across the throw pillows.
Figure this has to be distraction. You’ll prance out there in your purple bra and get those men looking the other way while Gina lifts a Rembrandt or something. Tell her you’re not sure about this, that you don’t want to go to prison. Notice she’s putting on the same bra she gave you, so you’ll be twins or something.
“He already paid me fifty bucks,” she says. “We’ll get fifty more when it’s over.”
Try not to choke on the bile in your throat. Don’t let your jaw fall off your face as she tells you it’s not sex or anything, just a little dancing, and that this could be a great way to help pay for that trip to Mexico you’ve been talking about. If you do well tonight, they’re sure to hire you again. It could be regular.
Remember how shocking it was the first time she dropped a necklace down your shirt and ordered you to act natural. You were still a freshman drama geek who cared about homework and ate lunch behind the library. You couldn’t have imagined this scene, this bathroom (with its shell-shaped soaps and lacy shower curtain), those men in the other room. Remember how skinny and flimsy Gina looked when you first saw her stumbling out of the girls’ bathroom, smelling of clove cigarettes. You’d imagined snapping her collarbone with two fingers, and you probably could have done it. Could you do it now?
“They won’t touch you,” Gina says. She pulls out this evening’s lipstick and dabs it on your mouth. “You just have to wiggle around a little, strip down to your panties, and it’s over. It’s not like you don’t do the same for free on any other Friday night.”
Put your shirt back on and smile. Tell her it’s fine—you’ll do it. Tell her to go out first. You’ll be right behind her.
She wants a pinky swear. Go ahead and do it.
When she closes the door behind her, take another shot of Jack.
Don’t think about your aunt walking around your house in her nightgown, her toothbrush in your bathroom, her arm around your father while they watch sitcoms on TV, on the same couch where her sister sat and braided your hair when you were little, or the ugly green soaps she put in the bathroom, the frog motif your mother would have hated.
Grab Gina’s bag. Ignore the weird world music that’s firing up in the living room. Just unzip the bag and start filling it. Take the shell soaps and the hand towels and a half bottle of shaving cream. Open the cabinets. Take aspirin, vitamins, mouthwash, aftershave. Take the toothbrushes, used and unused alike.
Pop the screen out of the bathroom window and pray you can fit through it after all those potato chips. Try to land on your feet as you fall into a rosebush. Ignore the thorns.
Don’t stop to wonder if there’s a guard dog or if Gina will be okay with all those men. Don’t feel for her at all. Don’t think about your pinky swear. Walk. Run. Climb the fence. Gina’s keys are in her bag. You can take the car, drive away.
Don’t think about the glass ponies your aunt has started collecting, or how she uses your dad’s money to buy them, or the job she quit because your dad said it was the source of her misery, or the way she stays home while your dad works on Saturdays, cooking food no one wants to eat and telling you you’re her only friend, though she hasn’t treated you like one in years.
You can’t go back to your house, where your dad and aunt are probably watching game shows, thinking you’re spending the night at a friend’s. You can’t go back to the drama club, to the desk in your bedroom that’s been covered with clothes for months now, to eating lunch alone behind the library and calling the librarian by her first name. You can’t go back to zero.
Imagine Gina with those men, all of them drunk, all of them leering. Imagine their hands on her, their lips, their teeth.
Go back to the bathroom window. It’s too high to climb through. Go around to the backdoor. Drop the bag by the kitchen table and walk straight into that living room.
Pretend it’s all a gag, like you’d planned it all along. Like you were supposed to barge in, slightly bloodied from the rosebushes, like it’s sexy or something. Let the eyebrow man pluck a leaf out of your hair. Let him trace the phone number on your arm and ask what your plans are around midnight, if you prefer men or boys.
But keep your eye on Gina.
Watch her step onto the coffee table and start turning her hips in circles, a dance you’re pretty sure she ripped off from one of the R&B videos she’s always ragging on. Keep listening to the eyebrow man—give him the yes’s and no’s he’s looking for—but don’t let Gina out of your sight.
Keep your pulse steady, your palms dry.
Remember the time Gina poured grape juice into your math teacher’s purse after she gave you a C on your final. Remember the time she punched Kylie Mays in the eye for calling you ugly.
Watch as two of the men start putting their hands on her legs. She bites her lip, like it’s supposed to be sexy, but you can see the muscle between her eyebrows flex. Watch their hands move upward, their fingers crawling toward her waistband, her bra strap. Watch the vein start to pulse in her forehead.
And then, start crying. Use everything you can remember from drama class and more. Dimpled chin, plump lower lip. But not sexy-like. Cry like you did in the second grade when that bitch Teeny Williams stole your Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox and chucked it over the fence, into the street. Remember the way it flew open, sending your peanut butter sandwich under the tire of a car. You could swear you heard the bread squish. Let your face get red, let the tears flow. Morph into something uglier than you think you can; let the snot drip down your nose. Wail. Don’t let anyone touch you except Gina, as she hustles you toward the backyard. When she slaps you, cry harder. Feel it in your chest, your guts. Make her edge you all the way around the house, to the street, to the car.
Now settle down. Breathe. Don’t mind the hatred in Gina’s face—it will pass. You’ll get her fifty bucks back somehow. You’ll snag something at an antique store and sell it on eBay. You’ll ask your aunt for it. You’ll babysit the neighbor’s kids, if you have to, and make up the difference with a lost piece of jewelry.
“Damn right you will,” she says as she shakes your hands off her. “You little puke.”
She’s never called you names before, and you want to think she doesn’t mean it, but she probably does. It can’t ruin the feeling you have, every inch of your skin kicking with adrenaline. You could bring that house down if you wanted to, the way you feel. You could tear the drywall down with just your fingernails.
Laura Ender earned her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University, where she served as an assistant managing editor for Willow Springs. She remains a contributor for Bark and writes her own literary lifestyle blog. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Ascent, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a novel.
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Laura! I love it! I love the pacing, your sweet yet commanding voice throughout, and I love, love, love the story in general. This so takes me back to 7th grade or maybe to my high school years spent surrounded by college kids like you. 😀 My only complaint: You need to write something novel-sized so I can enjoy your writing for longer periods of time.
This was really fantastic.
Loved this. Tragic and powerful.
[…] ever unfold, this character has already appeared in three finished stories, one of which has been published and one of which is about to be. Two more sit unfinished in my computer. This character has a […]