My friend’s mother is coming to pick me up for a sleepover so I need to quickly disguise who I really am. I spritz myself with grapefruit-lime body spray to mask the second-hand smoke and first-hand mildewed despair on my body. I wear my best socks. I brush my hair but refuse to look into my own eyes, focusing instead on the corner of the mirror which offers smoother, more-symmetrical angles than my face ever could. The brushing doesn’t help the hair situation a bit, except to add static electricity. I do, however, look fifteen-percent more lovable when half my bangs are standing up, airy and awake.
Maybe this fifteen-percent uptick in my worth will mean that Stacy lets me be the surgeon when we play hospital. Last time she made me be cancer. I had to get under her bed and sound like dark growth as she gave her stuffed penguin the bad news.
I smell my armpits. They smell like two small animals fighting for dominance, like sheer will and hair growth. My mom only very recently agreed to buy me deodorant. She didn’t start puberty until the middle of her fourteenth year so she had a hard time believing I could be pokey and smelly at age twelve. Lately she looked at me like she wanted to scrub me with a metal scouring pad and then cover my expanding body with three pairs of footie pajamas.
A horn honks. Stacy’s mom, Janine, doesn’t believe in getting out of her car to knock on people’s doors. My mom says it’s because Janine has short legs and a tall car. That’s both amusing and accurate but I refused to laugh when Mom said this because I take anyone’s side over my mother’s. I told her, “At least Janine does nice things, like buying her daughter the jeans she asks for!”
As I grab my sweater off the bed, I accidentally catch a side-glimpse of myself in the mirror, which makes my eyes close, which causes me to stub my toe on the metal bed frame. The jolt of the stub makes my bangs fall back down, which resets me back to my standard level of lovability.
Now I’m as ready as I deserve to be.
I run toward the front door to save myself the indignity of being twice-honked. As I go through the kitchen my mom calls out, “Sal, don’t let Stacy keep you under the bed so long! Speak up for yourself. Be assertive!”
I mutter, “At least Stacy has never been divorced four times” and slam the door.
As I climb into the back seat Stacy says, “That’s a stupid shirt, just kidding.”
I buckle my seatbelt because it’s the law and not because I feel like my body is worth saving—especially in this shirt, which I now realize has too many upbeat colors going in directions that undermine the seriousness of who I really am.
Janine looks at me in the rearview mirror. “I need to run a few errands before we go home. I hope you girls don’t mind.”
“Of course we mind! Why can’t you do your errands while I’m at school?” Stacy is talking in a whiny toddler voice, which I would mock if I were more assertive.
“It won’t take twenty minutes, Stacy.” Janine turns on the radio, almost as an apology, and I want to say something nice to her like “Thanks for picking me up” or “I understand that your errands are probably in service of your family and not cool-fun tasks” but I know I’m supposed to be on Stacy’s side because we’re the same age and both passengers.
The car is in the bank ATM line when Stacy asks me, “Why are you being so boring?”
I’d been watching a person I recognize as our school librarian pause on the nearby sidewalk to dig and dig through her purse. I really need to witness the birth of the object she’s been fishing for but instead I turn toward Stacy and say, “What do you want me to do?”
“Tell me things.”
The car pulls forward, we’re next in line. The purse-fishing librarian walks into my new line of vision, behind Stacy’s head, lighting a cigarette with the fire she keeps at the bottom of her purse. “I think my mom is getting married again. Her boyfriend bought me a belt.”
“So?” Stacy crosses her arms and pretends this doesn’t scandalize her. Her parents are married and behave in a relentlessly consistent manner, which we both know is best. And yet we also both know my situation provides me the instability necessary to become a highly-interesting-person.
“Her boyfriends only start caring about whether I like them when they’re ready to propose. Last week he barely knew I existed. He started pawing my mom in my living room and I heard her whisper ‘Put yourself away Randy, Sal is sitting at the snack bar!” Anyway, it’s a braided navy-blue belt. I’m going to wear it Monday.”
I know I shouldn’t tell this kind of personal story in front of Janine, that I should be more loyal and private, but shocking people with my truths has become a hobby. (My mother said we cannot afford a piano and that gymnastics is for girls who think “doing backbends” is the same as “having personalities.”)
We pull up to the ATM and Janine gets cash. Stacy is singing along to the radio. The song seems to be about how someday she’s going to give herself to someone better than the person to whom she’s currently giving herself.
Janine stuffs several twenties into her purse, probably for babysitters, and I feel shy about seeing her money. It feels a lot like seeing her beige nursing bra with the ta-da snaps… which Stacy insisted I try on after leading me to her mother’s drawer. The flaps were down and open, and even though I was wearing a shirt and had very little breast tissue, I felt exposed in a selfless way.
By the time Stacy’s song ends we are in a church parking lot. It’s Friday. Janine and Stacy attend services each Sunday, but not at this particular church—which is small, white and devoid of stained glass. I don’t go to church at all but I once attended a puppet show here with my preschool class. A marionette Jesus promised to take away my suffering and yet the next morning I still had a sore throat.
Janine lowers the radio. From the church I hear the auspicious sound of people syncing their words while swelling their voices. The voices lose their muffle and reach new heights when Janine cracks her window several inches.
Stacy sits with her mouth open in disgust before saying, “What are we doing here? All the poor kids who wear their coats for more than one winter go to this church. I don’t even think it has a basement.”
Janine doesn’t respond, which is more effective than telling her daughter to shut up. The inside voices have started singing Amazing Grace, which I recognize from TV show funerals and one surprisingly downtrodden fireworks display.
When Stacy asks “Did someone die?” I point out a hearse in the parking lot.
Janine is facing the open window but when she reaches over to crank up the heat I see that she’s crying. I hadn’t realized that people could cry silently or privately. When my own mother cries she goes shrieking from room to room like a haunted house actor.
Stacy hasn’t noticed the tears. I want to tell her to gently touch her mother’s shoulder but I know Stacy doesn’t take suggestions from boring girls in stupid shirts.
I wonder who Janine lost. A favorite bus driver? An old lover? An estranged sibling? I wonder why she’s not properly attending the funeral. A fued? A misunderstanding? An irreparably broken heart?
If I touched Janine’s shoulder myself, Stacy might call me a teacher’s pet or a pervert or some similarly accurate indictment. The heat is blasting to make up for the loss from the open window, so Amazing Grace is now underscored by hot, dry buzzing.
Stacy asks, “Can we… go now?”
Janine stares at the church a bit longer, sticks three of her fingers out the window (a final goodbye), then rolls it closed, wipes her eyes, turns up the radio, puts the car in reverse and says, “You two want to stop at DQ for Buster Bars before we head home?”
Stacy groans. “God Mom, I’m not a baby. I eat Blizzards now.”
I think of the night ahead and wonder if Stacy will cast me as toe fungus and make me sleep at the foot of the bed. As the car pulls out of the parking lot I weakly offer, “I think a Buster Bar sounds good” by which I mean “I’m sorry for your loss.”