APRIL 2008 – NO. 23
The first period bell will ring soon; the bathroom bustles with teenage girls
The first period bell will ring soon. Hallways will flood with a rush of students who wave assignments above their heads like surrender flags, book bags slapping backs while feet scuff and squeal across the floor. Classroom doors will creak to a close, a final metal locker will scream out as it is slammed, teacher's hands and forearms will become white with chalk dust, surnames misread from attendance sheets. Everyone please stand.
With liberty and justice for all.
The start to another day.
For now, the bathroom bustles with teenage girls. Lanky 12-and-13-year old bodies press against porcelain sinks, shove to study reflections, as they glide pearl-pink frosted lip-gloss across strawberry-tinted lips. Chitchat, chitchat. Gossip is exchanged, small talk about nothing, about everything. I hardly hear any of it.
Megan sits on a green radiator, swings her legs and kicks her black lace-up boots against its side. She sucks in her cheeks and widens her emerald-colored eyes, lines as sharp as arrows forming down her face. She purses her lips and models in a sea-foam Cover Girl compact mirror. I stand behind a line of young girls, young women, reach up on my tiptoes, and analyze every inch of my face in the mirrors.
"Lipstick?" Megan says and slides down the radiator, her long, stubble-free vanilla legs pouring from a tattered second-hand kilt. I fumble through my purse, an Indian-print satchel held together by safety pins, and toss her a black tube of matte burgundy lipstick. Megan squeezes between the wall of matching twin-sets and powder pastel baby-tees, presses her waist against the lip of a sink, and finger combs her thick red hair into messy buns on the sides of her head. The buns remind me of a plush teddy bear, the way they protrude from her crown in two rounded balls. She slips the red-purple shade back and forth until it is caked on her lips in flaky layers, and kisses her hand between coats to blot. When finished, she leaves a perfect, thick, movie star kiss mark on the mirror.
Beside Megan stands a petite blue-eyed, blonde haired girl named Kelly. Kelly's voice is high pitched and her chest emaciated, but boys love her anyway. At least the good boys do. Together, she and her clan are always clad in neatly ironed clothing, their arms prepared to shoot to the sky at a moment's notice to answer, with grace and articulacy, any question posed. To me, she is a walking caricature of a Q-tip, with her white as snow skin and narrow body, her short bob of fluffy platinum hair. Kelly is so pale, that sometimes, while seated next to her in class, I find myself staring at her legs to study the maps of blue veins that trail down her thighs. The translucency of her skin fascinates me.
Kelly adjusts her stiffened collar, smoothes her hair, and smiles at her own reflection in a way that suggests a yearbook photographer is on the opposite side of the looking glass. I lean against a wall, rustle through my bag and begin to flip the pages of a flimsy paperback.
"Hey, Angie," Carol, a preppy girl who lives down the street from me, says. "Heard you did really good on Mr. Tabor's test last week. Congrats."
Kelly, who overhears the exchange, briefly looks over one shoulder and eyes me. My cheeks flush as embarrassment settles in.
"No I didn't," I say.
"Yes you did," Carol says. "Mr. Tabor told me you did. One of the highest grades in the class."
Kelly pushes her thin lips into a straight smile. I try to brush Carol off and keep my eyes focused in the book.
"He's an idiot," I say. "He doesn't know what he's talking about."
"Oh. Well, okay," Carol says. "So, I guess I'll see you at the game this weekend. I think you're playing defense."
My face, I am sure, is the color of cherry ice.
Carol and I play on a soccer team organized by our town. Though a handful of our classmates are in the same league, it mostly consists of girls from other schools. On the field, in my white shorts and pink t-shirt, fresh-faced and giddy, surrounded by girls who do not know who I am, or rather, who I try to be, I feel alive. Many of my friends mock me for this hobby, including Megan, and so I never ask any of them to come and watch me play. And yet, every Saturday, when I look across the field mid-game, like clockwork, Megan is on the sidelines, smoking a cigarette, and subtly cheering me on.
"Yeah, whatever," I say nonchalantly. I am embarrassed that Carol has just outed the closeted teenage normalcy I work so hard to conceal. I shove my book into my bag, walk inside a stall, and stay there until I hear Carol's light footsteps tap towards the door and into the hall.
Kelly leans against a sink; she watches Megan reapply the dark stain to her already reddened lips.
"That's a little dark, don't you think?" Kelly says and raises a brow while her eyes follow the movements of the tube.
Megan twists and caps the lipstick and seductively puckers her lips. She throws the tube up and over Kelly's head; I reach for it, but am clumsy, and so it rattles across the sink. Megan sucks her tongue across her teeth.
"You're a little boring, don't you think?" she says without flinching a muscle in her face.
Kelly's jaw drops and for an instant, she is left speechless. She shakes her head as though to wake herself from a daydream. In the corner of the room, a group of younger girls giggle. They cover their mouths with cupped hands as their hushed laughter becomes louder. Kelly's head twists in one swift motion.
"May I ask what all of you are laughing about?" she says. As though on cue, the girls' laughter ceases, and, one by one, they begin to file out the door.
Her lids already dark as an October night, Megan rims her bottom lashes with ebony liner and sings out the lyrics to a song. Her voice bounces off the tiles in a way that makes her sound like women on Broadway. Amazing Grace. I turn to her and smile. Kelly rubs some tinted lip balm across her thin, dollish lips, glances at Megan and rolls her eyes.
"Kelly, why the fuck do you care?" Megan says and looks at Kelly's reflection.
"Care about what?" Kelly says.
"About what I'm doing. About what I'm putting on my face."
"I don't care about that. I don't care about any of those things. You can do whatever you want."
"Then why in the hell do you keep staring at me?" Megan says.
Megan kicks her schoolbag across the floor and watches it spin in fast circles until it slams against a wall.
"Face it," Megan says. "You're fascinated by me, Kelly. You're too dull, and you know it and it scares you."
Megan enters a stall and closes its metal door behind her. Click. Click. Click. The room fills with the woody scent of tobacco smoke. I pick the lipstick tube from the sink, wipe away the tiny droplets of water, and cover my lips with the wine-colored stain. Kelly stands at the next sink over and taps her white tennis shoe. She coughs, dramatically, and waves her hand across her face.
"That stuff stinks," she says and looks to me, as though for support. I stick the lipstick into my jean pocket and skim my tongue across my teeth. I remain silent.
"I know you did good on that test," Kelly says and leans in close to me.
"So?" I say.
"Then why did you pretend that you didn't?"
"Kelly, why do you care so much about what other people do?"
"I'm just saying, I know you did well on it, that's all."
"Why, what did you get?" I ask.
"That's none of your business," Kelly says and runs her fingers across her wispy bangs.
"Exactly," I say and pause. "It doesn't matter, Kelly. But if it makes you feel any better, I probably did better than you anyway."
The hallway bell buzzes once more; its loud, piercing sound seems to vibrate the walls. Kelly stomps towards the door.
"I'm totally telling Mr. Tabor that you guys are smoking in here," she says and presses her hand against the door.
As she does this, Megan swings open the stall and flicks her cigarette into the toilet behind her. The room is so quiet that I hear the ember sizzle.
"No you won't," Megan says and flushes the toilet with her foot.
"Oh yeah?" Kelly says.
"Kelly, you know you don't have it in you to do something like that."
Kelly extends one of her feet into the hall.
"You guys better get to class," she says and then vanishes behind the swinging wooden door.
I press my back against the cool tile wall, slide my body to the floor and begin to pick at the torn black stocking that peeks through the holes in my jeans. The hallways have silenced. The room has emptied. Only Megan and I remain.
Megan stands at a sink; she fiddles with her hair, wrapping rubber bands here, sticking bobby pins there, and sings out the lyrics to a Motown tune. I close my eyes and listen to the peaks and valleys of her voice as it ricochets through the room; the way it rises and falls makes me think of black girls I've heard on the radio. Megan slams down her purse and sits across from me on the floor. My eyes jolt open; she holds a plastic liter-sized bottle, grips its neck with a gentle force, and delicately slides her fingers across its metallic label.
"Consider this a gift from my 'rents," she says and rolls the bottle to me.
The thick plastic clunks across every groove in the tile. I awkwardly hold the bottle in my hands and read from the label as though the words themselves are foreign.
"Are you sure they won't notice?" I ask.
"Trust me," Megan says. "No one will notice it's gone."
The safety seal cracks as I twist open the cap. I sip the creamsicle-colored liquid. My chest burns to the point that it brings tears to the inner corners of my eyes. The liquor swooshes as the bottle thuds back across the tile. Megan grabs the neck and gulps the stuff like a seasoned alcoholic. She wipes her mouth with her sleeve and rolls the bottle back to me.
I take another few swigs before I feel it: the sluggish sensation that creeps from my toes up through my lids. I laugh at this feeling and the sense of maturity it gives me. I laugh about the fact that Megan and I are able to pull stunts like this so frequently. We fill Disney-brand children's sippy cups with vodka and orange juice, and suck their straws before classes. I laugh about the fact that our teachers do not recognize what we are up to or simply do not care enough to put a stop to it. I try to share this thought with Megan, but become jumbled, and so instead, I laugh at the words that float from my lips in sloppy, slurred waves. And I just keep laughing. I laugh when Megan unclips a safety pin and scratches it against her skin until she almost bleeds. I laugh at the empty bottle. I laugh at the familiar feeling of booze that beats through my veins. I laugh, hard, as my head smacks the floor.
When I wake, my face is pressed against the tiles, red indentations spread across my cheeks like branches, the bottle, a wounded solider, flat on its side. The bell rings. I begin to lift my body from the floor, but it feels like I am floating underwater, like I am swimming through a dream. Megan is a few feet from me, her back to the wall, her black military-styled boots jutted forward, her face pointed towards a skylight. Amaaazinggg Graaaceee. I rub my eyes, hoping the gesture will wake me, though it only spreads messy smudges of charcoal liner. I blink and let the makeup smear down my skin in drips. My mouth tastes chalky. The light feels harsh, invasive. The floor is cold and refreshing. I allow my head to slip towards it once more.
Megan balances herself against the wall as she stuffs the empty bottle into her school bag. Crumpled sheets of loose leaf float from her bag like giant snowflakes and litter the floor. She kicks her feet through them and we both fall deep into laughter. In seconds, Megan is on her knees amongst the artificial snow. She crawls and dips her head over the ceramic edge of a toilet seat while her bag, defeated, lay spread open and spewing its contents beside her. I pull myself from the tiles, pat the back of Megan's head, stumble towards a mirror and catch glimpse of my face. For the first time since waking, I am afraid.
"We have to get out of here," I say through a whisper.
Megan stands and glances at her reflection. Like a child, she gathers a pile of snow in her arms and throws it above her head. She dances beneath the fluttering flakes.
"We have to go," I say.
Megan takes hold of my hand and slips her fingers between mine. We move into the hallway, mix into the sea of students that seem to drift past in a slow motion parade. Our bodies weightless, we glide through the crowd, bouncing off shoulders and walls. She laughs and it sounds like music to me. Our fingers still interlaced, she guides me past a row of faculty, out a set of side doors, across the courtyard and into a nearby cornfield, where, together, we seem to melt and disappear.
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