The Girl Who Drank Lye

Mary’s left arm was shorter than the right one, Stephanie had asthma, Alyssa’s mom was straight from Korea, I wore corrective glasses, but Shawna was the girl everybody remembered. Shawna was the girl who drank lye.

Shawna’s picture was in the McGraw-Hill Health Science book, page sixty-five, down on the right. Shawna’s dirty blond hair was feathered back and sprayed in wings flanking her face. She smiled gap-toothed for the camera. The picture didn’t make much of the black circle scar around her neck. It was just there, as it was in real life, like a necklace of thin, black twine around Shawna’s sloping throat. Being the girl who drank lye was like having “BADASS” tattooed across your front gums. Everybody knew.

“Do you think I give a shit?” Shawna asked. “I drank lye. Now pony up and hand over your lunch money, bitches.”

We handed over our lunch money, thinking ugly thoughts about Shawna.

“I bet her mom’s a total whore, leaving that lye around.”

“What do you use lye for anyway? This is 1982.”

“Shawna’s remedial. A certified slow learner.”

“Yeah, but guys think she’s hot.”

“Well.”

All of us, we were thirteen, eighth grade at St. Catherine’s, but it was like Shawna skipped ahead, sailed right past us into sixteen. Boys from the high school swung by after class, picking up Shawna before peeling out of town. Shawna went to parties at the quarry where the high school kids drank beer from cans and shared marijuana cigarettes. She hung out at the George Webb late nights, crammed into a pink leather booth with her high school friends, laughing so hard her feathered-back hair flapped like wings over her ears. On Friday nights, at Skateland, Shawna slipped into a pair of white roller skates with green pom’s-pom’s on them and went flying across the waxy, blond floor.

“Bet those skates were a gift from her mom. Trying to make up for almost killing her,” Mary said, hiding her short arm by sticking the tips of her fingers in her left pocket. We all laughed. But we were constantly watching Shawna, picking up signs from the corner of our eyes. Even I did in my dimly lit, corrective glasses. We watched how Shawna wore her scar like a necklace, a piece of twine around her neck, how she chewed watermelon-scented bubble gum all the time, how she painted her nails glitter pink, how she wore tiny baby tees with iron-on decals printed across them like rainbows and sparkly sneakers, how she leaned back against the wall behind the Skateland Snack Bar, making out with some guy, slipping one hand neatly in his back pocket, the other fast down the front of his jeans.

“Bitchin,” Mary said and we all rolled our eyes, groaning.

“Who are you, some Valley Girl? This is Wisconsin,” Stephanie said. She stuck her inhaler in her mouth and took three quick hits. It made a metallic sound like tires hissing. “Hurry up,” she said, tucking her inhaler into a pocket attached to her belt. “My mom’s waiting.”

At school, during recess, we stood around the playground, making eyes at Corey Torch who ran across the field for flag football. We grew up on the same stretch of asphalt since we were six years old, playing four-square, Chinese jump rope, hanging upside down from the monkey bars. But now, we were in eighth grade. We ruled the school. Our job was to stand around and try to look cool, despite our impediments.

But mostly, we found ourselves warily regarding Marquette High School across the valley. Past the swings and the monkey bars, past the cinder track and the football field, Marquette rose high on the hill behind our school, all blond bricks and tinted Energysafe windows. It was huge, a behemoth, rising like a beast on the hill before us.

The high school kids got out of school early. They hopped into low-riding cars, revved their engines, and blew past us in a haze of cigarette smoke and Metallica. In less than six months, that’s where we’d be. The omega to the alpha, in the claws of the beast.

I blinked my bad eye and asked, “What are we gonna do?”

Before the accident, I thought I’d survive at Marquette High, mostly. I didn’t have any big illusions or grand hopes. I wasn’t pretty and I knew it: brown hair, brown eyes, a spray of freckles across my nose. But at least I was normal looking. I thought I’d get a boyfriend from the chess club, keep my head down and get good grades. Mary, Stephanie, Alyssa and I would go to football games and sit in the back row; we’d pass notes in class; we’d give each other secret high fives in the halls, shoring each other up under the many and terrific pressures of high school.

But everything changed in February when a pinecone fell and hit me in the eye. One minute, Mary, Stephanie, Alyssa and I were toeing the line to the flag football field, watching Corey Torch tuck the football neat as an envelope underneath his armpit and dash across the field. The next, something spiky fell from the sky, knocking me to the ground.

The doctor said, “Scratched cornea.” He handed me a pair of cobalt blue glasses. They looked like swimming goggles: raised plastic shades tinted a dark, navy blue, backed by padded, suction grips that would fit snugly around each of my eye sockets. I just stared at them. He said, “They’re corrective. Eight months. For your protection. You could go blind.” Immediately, I counted off on my fingers: March, April, May, June, July, August, September. It was obvious, unavoidable, that I’d be wearing the horrible, coke-bottle goggles my first day at Marquette High.

“It’s not that bad,” Mary tried to tell me. “Honest.”

“Can’t you just wear regular glasses or something? We could get you some cute Calvin Klein’s,” Stephanie winced, just looking at me blinking in my blue goggles.

“Maybe you could go away to boarding school or something. Like the pregnant girls do. Then come back when your eye’s better,” Alyssa said. When Mary and Stephanie stared at her, fiercely, Alyssa said, “What? I’m just trying to help.”

Marquette High rose in the distance, blond bricks piled on top of each other. High school kids swarmed the doors like a hive, shooting each other devil horns.

“Remember what happened to Carla Jones?” Stephanie said.

“C’mon now,” Mary said. “Go easy.”

Carla Jones was the name of a girl who threw up once in third grade. She vomited all over her desk and the janitor had to come and sprinkle sawdust over it while she stood there crying. Kids started calling her Upchuck Charlie and Cookie Jones. It stayed with her all through eighth grade at St. Catherine’s and to her surprise followed her across the valley to Marquette. At Marquette, there were even more names like Gag Hag, Vomit Face, The Retchinator, Pepe Le Puke, Chuckie. At her high school graduation, when the proctor was about to call out Carla’s name, she cried from the back row, “Don’t call me Chuckie!” and then threw up all over herself.

“We’re screwed,” Mary said, cradling her short arm.

To keep our minds off Marquette High, we talked about Shawna.

“Did you see her jeans today? What does she do, peel them on?”

“You know her dad’s dead.”

“No way. He moved to Chicago with his secretary.”

“Did you see that Band-Aid on her neck? I bet the biggest, blackest hickey is hiding under there.”

“Shawna told Kathy Sullivan she made out with Matthew Melton in the back of her mom’s conversion van. Kathy said he tried to put his thing in her mouth.”

“No!” we cried.

We couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t. It wasn’t true.

Shawna stayed inside for recess. She got math tutoring from a college kid with chronic halitosis and a bad case of dandruff. His name was Alistair.

“Everybody says they’ve done it already,” Stephanie said.

“Who hasn’t Shawna done already?”

Shawna was bad in math, but she could draw. Unicorns were her specialty, in three primary colors: pink, purple and verdant green. She gave them braided hair and human, expressive eyes. She showed us how to do it once when Alyssa shyly asked.

“Do the head first. Like a thumb. Then the eyes. The mane. The horn,” Shawna said, sitting on the front stoop to St. Catherine’s, gnawing on a piece of oat-colored hair, waiting for her ride.

I watched her from the cover of my blue-tinted goggles. Shawna wasn’t even that pretty, really. Her pores were amoeba-shaped and oily. She smelled like Love’s Baby Soft, almost sickly sweet, and underneath that, something musky, a hint of peat. Her breasts were small, two plums under the tight cotton fabric of her baby tee. But really, it was her scar, that thin black wire looped around her neck that made her sexy, that picked her up and set her apart from all the rest of us.

Everybody always thought Shawna’s black lye scar was a necklace. That’s how it looked from far away, like in the McGraw-Hill Science Book. But up close, you could tell, it wasn’t something you could clasp on and off for show. It was skin that had burned black and was raised on a millimeter line all around her neck. Fine as diamonds. Her very own black choker scar.

“Hey, what’s your problem?” Shawna said. She put a hand over her black circle scar and I swear, almost blushed. “Stare much?”

Stephanie’s breath rattled. She pulled out her inhaler and took three swift hits, whispering, “Just be cool.”

A blue Chevy pulled up to the curb in front of St. Catherine’s. Two Marquette guys with big, beefy arms beat their hands against the sides, calling, “Shawna!” A blond girl in the back seat fixed her bangs. Shawna gathered her papers together, her unicorns with their sterling, spiral horns, but not before sticking out her hand before us and asking, “Who’s gonna give me two dollars for smokes?”

When Shawna and Corey Torch became a couple, the news hit the school like a banner raised high on the flagpole. Shawna and Corey Torch were in love. It was honest to goodness true, meant to be. Get out of their way, because here they came, strolling down the hall with their hands tucked into each other’s back pockets. Corey Torch and Shawna Larkin, just the sound of their names was drawn with hearts, forever and ever, Amen.

“I don’t believe it,” Stephanie said.

“It’s not fair,” Mary whined.

We looked to Alyssa who just shrugged, “Don’t ask me.” Alyssa was the authority on Corey Torch. They dated briefly in sixth grade, the high point of Alyssa’s grade school career thus far. For a while, we thought Corey Torch only liked Korean girls and that we were lost forever, but after Alyssa, he dated Carole Siebert, then Misty Wiggins, both white girls, one brown-haired, the other blond. We didn’t tell Alyssa, but the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief. There was still a chance for us.

Corey Torch was sacred. We’d loved him since the first grade, and now, eight years later, we loved him even more. Corey Torch was the hottest guy we’d ever seen in the flesh. Just to watch him, across the valley, a lick of reddish-brown hair in his eyes, bent over and breathing hard after catching a Hail Mary pass made us go weak in the knees. Eight years of our lives, all four of us, eight years spent thinking Corey Torch, Corey Torch, and now he was Shawna’s. All six feet three inches of him. Shawna guided him down the hall with the palm of her hand nestled in his back pocket, cupping his ass.

Shawna stopped stealing our lunch money now that she lunched with Corey Torch. And now, instead of standing at the periphery line of the flag football field, trying to look cool, we retreated to the swings at the bottom of the valley. We shoved aside the third and fourth graders and took over the swings, our old stomping ground.

What did we care how we looked? On the swings, you couldn’t tell that Mary’s left arm was shorter than the right one; Stephanie never got nervous so she wasn’t constantly reaching for her pink plastic inhaler case; my goggles almost looked like sunglasses in the afternoon light and Alyssa, well, Alyssa would always be pretty, with her open Korean face.

We pumped the air with our legs and went soaring, up and over the valley, over the boys playing flag football, over the girls in pigtails hanging upside down from the monkey bars, we pumped higher, where the sky stretched cornflower blue and where it didn’t matter that we were in eighth grade, about to graduate and cross the valley to Marquette High School on the other side, where all the kids drank beer from cans and smoked marijuana cigarettes, where the boys blasted hair bands from low-riding cars, where the kids went to bonfires and football games and pep rallies, where all the girls were cool like Shawna, cooler than girls like Mary, Stephanie, Alyssa and me would ever be.

Stephanie dug her heels in the dirt and stopped short. “Sleepover tonight,” she said. “My house.”

Ever since the pinecone, sleepovers had become potential minefields for me in my tinted blue goggles. I was embarrassed to walk down the hall, for fear of running into Stephanie’s older brother Christopher on my way to the bathroom. He was a big, hulking brooder who liked to glare at me in his silver braces and leer, “Hey Fishface,” or even worse, stumble across Mary’s little sister Samantha who once took one look at my eerie, aquatic face and screamed a high-pitched dolphin yelp, bringing Mary’s mom wide-eyed in rollers running from the master bedroom, whispering, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Instead, I hid out in my friends’ bedrooms and went through their stuff. When everybody was downstairs at Stephanie’s, flipping through her sister’s dirty playing card collection and giggling, I uncapped Stephanie’s pink plastic inhaler and stuck it in my mouth. In my mind, Stephanie’s lungs were flat as pancakes and I imagined that her inhaler held some magic solution to inflate them. I thought her inhaler might give me a fast, contact high, but when I took a hit, I tasted nothing but air, metallic and sweet.

Alyssa’s house always smelled like dark spices and pungent, bloody meats. Alyssa’s mom was born in Korea and could only speak one word of English. Whether we asked for a glass of milk or where to find the dog biscuits, Alyssa’s mom would smile and nod, “Yes? Yes?”

Alyssa traveled around the state on weekends to compete in Korean dancing matches and won prizes. In Alyssa’s bedroom, I tried on an exotic, short, silk jacket, a pair of pink pointed dancing shoes, and stood in front of the mirror. I looked like a Martian: short, pink jacket, pointed shoes and my blue, corrective goggles. Alien or retarded, take your pick.

At Mary’s house, I found the cast she’d worn when she was eleven. Mary’s stepfather had backed over her left arm with his motorcycle at the tail end of a six-day bender. It was all an egregious mistake, but Mary had to wear a cast for a thirteen months. There were twenty-two pins in her left arm and when the doctor took it off, her left arm was shriveled and shorter than the right one by two and a half inches.

Mary kept the cast in her third desk drawer like a glove. The bluish white cast was covered with our sixth grade scribbles like “Kool & The Gang Rules” and “Best Friends 4Ever!” Even Shawna had drawn one of her unicorns with wet, weeping eyes right at the fist. I slipped my hand inside the white, colorful cast and looked at myself in the mirror: my flat, dun-colored hair, the pinprick rash of freckles across my nose, the undeniable, avian, coke-bottle goggles. How would I ever survive at Marquette High?

At St. Catherine’s, all the kids, the teachers even, gave me a wide berth. I walked down the halls in my blue corrective goggles, blinking. There were names for me now. I knew this. Things like The Professor or Aquarium Face. Some of the girls kept a Lysol can in their desk drawer and would pass it back and forth if one of them touched me by mistake to disinfect against goggle germs. Even Shawna took one look at me in my blue corrective glasses and said, “You’re fucked, kid.” Then, like an afterthought, she stuck out her hand, palm up, saying, “Gimme all your loose change.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mary, Stephanie and Alyssa came for me, breezing down the hall in a clatter of a slinky silver bracelets and beaded friendship pins. I blinked in my blue corrective glasses, the goggles that made everything hard to see, and gaped open-mouthed when Stephanie said, “Look, it’s nothing personal. It’s just, they’re going to eat us alive over at Marquette. And we can’t take any chances.”

“We like you,” Mary said. “We really like you. But you know how it is.”

“I still think boarding school isn’t a bad idea,” Alyssa said.

Stephanie and Mary cried, “Alyssa!”

“So you get it? You understand?” Stephanie slipped her inhaler quickly into her mouth and took a fast, dry hit. “You won’t talk to us anymore? Or sit with us at lunch? And recess, you know, you get it?”

“S-sure,” I stammered. “I mean, of course.”

Where before I spent my lunch hour with Mary, Stephanie and Alyssa, now I retreated to the library, the only safe place in the school where I could sit at the window and hit the books. I read that lye is made from ashes. It’s a solid caustic, meaning it eats away anything it touches. You can buy it at the store, like Red Devil Lye, or you can make your own with a wooden barrel that has a hole in it. Lye comes in a variety of colors depending on the manufacturer, like indigo, puce, or a waxy rose pink. You can use lye to make soap. You can use it to cure green olives or make a hot hominy drink. You can use it to distill alcohol. Lye can double for drain cleaner in a pinch. There are a hundred uses for lye.

In March, Shawna dumped Corey Torch. He took the break-up badly, like he was somehow smaller than he used to be. On the football field, Corey Torch started missing the Hail Mary passes, his face broke out in an ugly white acne rash, in class he’d pass a flurry of notes to Jess Michaels who’d palm them to Brett Easel who’d toss them to Misty Wiggins who’d slip them up and under Shawna’s elbow. But Shawna didn’t flinch under Corey’s arsenal attack. She simply unfolded each note, blew a watermelon-scented bubble, and laughed.

I saw them together in the hall once. Corey Torch was gesturing with his hands, wildly moving them up and down, while Shawna sketched out a unicorn on the cover of her purple Mead notebook. Up and down, Corey Torch pleaded for the return of her love, until Shawna looked up and said, “Cool it, sister. I drank lye.”

Then, unbelievably, Shawna put out her hand to Corey Torch, palm up. More unbelievable still, I watched Corey Torch fork over a fiver. I blinked in my pale blue goggles. I couldn’t believe it.

Graduation rapidly approached. And beyond that, Marquette High School. I stayed inside for recess, using my corrective goggles as an excuse, counting off the days until I would leave the valley of St. Catherine’s for once and for all and cross over to the other side.

I felt far away and removed from life at St. Catherine’s, hidden behind my blue goggles that made everything curl-up at the edges. My head felt bulbous now and enormous. I felt conspicuous, ugly, not even gendered anymore until Shawna wandered into the library one afternoon while I was hiding out from recess. She looked to the left, exhaled loudly, and said, “Where’s the moderator? I need a hall pass. I’ve got cramps.”

I didn’t know where the moderator was. Shawna and I were the only people inside. Everybody else was out on the playground, bouncing a little rubber ball against the wall of St. Catherine’s or watching Corey Torch miss an easy hand-off pass.

Shawna fingered a lock of white-blond hair and said, “Hey, Goggle Girl. I’m talking to you.”

“They’re not goggles,” I said. “They’re corrective eyewear.” I stared at her: perfect Shawna with her perfect face and her perfect lye scar. “If a speck of dirt falls in there, I’ll go blind.” It all seemed so pathetic, I thought that I might cry. “Six more months and the doctor says they can come off. Six more months,” I said. “And I might as well drink bleach.”

It’d been so long since I’d spoken inside the halls of St. Catherine’s that once I got started, I couldn’t stop. I turned around in my desk chair and kept talking, explaining, about the pinecone, the doctor, the blue corrective glasses, how Mary, Stephanie and Alyssa all left me in the lurch. I told Shawna about Marquette and how it sat there, high on the hill across the valley, how I was about to cross over to the other side forever and ever and who knew what would happen to me there?

Instead of saying, “That sucks” or “You’re really brave” or “Keep the chin up, kid, there’s people dying in Africa,” Shawna let out a long sigh and said, “Wanna smoke?”

We retreated to the back stairwell, where you could smell the janitor’s bucket, ammonia and dirty water, and past that the grease from the cafeteria lingering in the air.

“Aren’t you supposed to getting tutored by Alistair?” I asked.

“Fuck that. What a creep-o,” Shawna said. She took out a pack of Lucky Strikes from her crescent-shaped purse. “Here,” Shawna said. Our cigarette smoke clouded the stairwell. Shawna laughed to herself, then scratched her leg. “His semen tasted like sand.”

I tried to hold my cig steady, process this piece of news, like I talked about these kinds of things every day. I’d never talked about semen with Mary, Stephanie or Alyssa. We usually talked about Shawna.

We sat there and quietly smoked. I tried to glance at Shawna’s black lye scar, but then thought better of it and stared, coolly, straight ahead at the green tile wall.

Since I couldn’t think of anything else, I said, “Drinking lye is like drinking liquid fire.”

“I know,” Shawna said, like she was bored, but I could tell that she was impressed. She dragged on her cigarette and blew smoke dragon-style from her nose.

“If lye comes in contact with your skin, you should wash immediately with lemon or vinegar,” I said.

“No shit.” Shawna blew smoke dryly.

It was that nowhere time in the middle of the day, when the inside of St. Catherine’s seemed ghostly quiet. We could hear the muffled yells and cries from the playground, the steady beat of rubber balls bouncing against the school wall and the slap of jump ropes on the asphalt.

I stared at Shawna’s pretty, caustic scar and asked, “How did you survive?”

“I drank some egg whites,” Shawna said. “No biggie.”

The bell rang. Everything flooded with noise again, kids charging through the hall and lockers slamming. Shawna slapped her leg and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way. But don’t speak to me in class, okay?”

Even though she didn’t talk to me in class, Shawna and I started to hang out during recess. Technically, Shawna was supposed to be attending her tutoring sessions with Alistair. But she threatened to post bulletins detailing their awkward congress all over St. Catherine’s. Since Shawna couldn’t go outside, we roamed the halls together, running our hands over the swinging locks to the lockers, running breathless down the third floor hall, sharing cigarettes in the back stairwell.

“Where do you get your clothes?” Shawna said, eyeing my patchwork, prairie-style skirt and hook-and-eye sweater. “The Mormon store?”

After school in mid-April, I took the bus to the Milwaukee Eastern Mall. I avoided the large discount shop where my mother bought my school clothes and headed instead for the brightly lit, candy-colored stores with blasting rock music and tiny, handkerchief-shaped items of clothing like the kind that Shawna wore. I bought a t-shirt two sizes too small. I asked the cashier how to iron-on a giant shooting star. I bought a dark denim-dyed pair of Jordache jeans, white-and-purple Kangaroo sneakers and wore them all to school. Even though Shawna still wouldn’t talk to me in class, during recess, while we were sharing a smoke in the back stairwell, Shawna admired my new sneaks and said, “Bitchin’ kicks.”

Later, a few weeks later, Shawna took a drag on a cig and said, “The goggles have got to go. You know that, right?”

I exhaled loudly and stared down the long, dimly lit hall at the double doors that let out onto the world beyond St. Catherine’s.

“I could go blind,” I explained.

“You won’t go anywhere if you don’t take chances.” Shawna thumbed her black lye scar and said, “Wanna try it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

But Shawna leaned fast against me and grabbed hold of the tinted Plexiglas ovals. She took one quick inhale and then pulled the goggles off my face. They made a sound like suction cups un-suctioning, a healthy, meaningful sound. Air brushed the sides of my eyes. I blinked feverishly, my two eyes like hummingbirds beating their wings before the nectar of a flower, thinking, I’ll go blind, I’ll go blind.

“Does it hurt?” Shawna asked.

How could I tell her I felt like a shelled boiled egg? I felt tender and young and the light burned my scratched eye. But I felt wonderful, blinking and bare-eyed. The long hall stretched down to the double doors that were glowing with afternoon light. Light dappled the black and white linoleum tile from windows above the lockers. The world was a luminous place, filled with light, perfect and new, how had I never noticed before?

“Here, slit your eyes like this. To protect your bad eye.” Shawna cut her eyes, serpentine as a snake. She looked sleepy and drugged, but sexy. I tried it too.

“Not like that,” Shawna laughed.

I tried again and again. Finally, I slit my eyes half-mast and peered out at the world like Shawna did, coolly, from kohl-lined lids.

“You can be pretty if you want to,” Shawna said. She tucked a lock of brown, wispy hair behind my right ear and smiled. “Anybody can. You just have to decide.”

At school, I felt like a foreign exchange student or the pretty new transfer. I was exotic and new, sailing down the hall with my jeans slung low, my hair feathered back, my eyes carefully held at a sleepy half-mast. Everybody noticed, even Mary, Stephanie and Alyssa.

“I got a new pair of roller skates,” Alyssa said. She leaned forward from her locker, smiling. “Wanna see?”

“You could meet us at the swings during recess,” Mary said. “Like old times, yeah?”

Only Stephanie said, “Whatever.” She nervously toked off her inhaler, adding, “You’re still a total freak.”

“Stephanie!” Alyssa and Mary cried. Then Mary practically vibrated, waving with her short arm as I kept walking, saying, “Can you tell Shawna ‘Hi’ for me?”

I went blind in my right eye. It was a gradual thing and took about a week. Like a telescope lens focusing on a dot on the horizon line, my vision got muddier and blacker around the edges, until a film of greyish haze descended over my right eye entirely. I felt off-balance and nauseous. When I walked down the hall, I had to steady myself by touching the far locker wall. I couldn’t see anything past the right tip of my nose. I hid this piece of news from my mother and continued to wear the blue goggles at home, slipping them off, neat as a note into my pocket, as soon as I turned the corner for school.

Shawna said, “Who needs two eyes when you’ve already got one good one?”

Shawna and I went to parties at the quarry, we drank beer from cans, we rode in the backseats of cars and sped out of town, laughing, with all the windows down. It made the time fly, bringing us right up to the day before graduation, both of us behind Shawna’s bedroom door, playing Adam Ant loudly and trying on our caps and gowns.

Our gowns were white and satiny, they billowed out under our arms. Our flat square hats were white and we could hook white tassels over the buttons on them. It felt strange, staring at myself in my cap and gown in Shawna’s full-length mirror, like I was wearing something saved for the older, cooler girls like Shawna. When I ducked my tasseled head, I felt like one of Shawna’s unicorns, mythic and rare. Shawna stuck a cig in her mouth; she dropped the needle on an Adam Ant record and said, “Listen to this.”

We were stoned off the marijuana cigarettes Shawna kept in her dresser drawer, wrapped in a clear plastic baggie. Before there were four of them and now there were three. We couldn’t stop laughing. Shawna kept pretending to make out with the album cover of Adam Ant.

“Stop,” I said, laughing. “Stop, it hurts.”

Shawna stroked Adam Ant’s painted eyes and moved her mouth over the picture of his face. Everything had that last day feeling, like it was memorable and already tinted at the edges. But there was one more thing that I wanted, one more thing I needed to happen before Shawna and I crossed over the valley from St. Catherine’s to Marquette High. I leaned my head back, laughing, “Wait. Just wait, I’ve got something to tell you.”

Shawna sat on the yellow shag carpet in her white cap and gown. Her feathered blond bangs framed her kohl-rimmed eyes and her black lye scar circled her neck like corded twine.

“I want Corey Torch to like me,” I told her.

Shawna made a “fft” hissing sound with her hand. “It’s easy as that,” she said and snapped her fingers cleanly. “Besides, he thinks you’re cute.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

I laughed and ducked my tasseled head like a sterling silver horn. I felt like I could shake my mane and run for miles. I was a new breed in a new magic world.

“But can you make Corey Torch my money slave?” I asked, holding my palm out flat like I’d seen Shawna do.

“You saw that?” Shawna laughed. And then we were both laughing, we were laughing so hard our sides were splitting, we were leaning over and laughing because it was so funny, we were so funny.

“Wait,” Shawna said, standing up wobbly. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”

I lounged on Shawna’s bed, thinking about Corey Torch. I thought about holding hands with Corey Torch, first in the halls of St. Catherine’s at graduation, then across the valley to Marquette High. I thought about going to the first homecoming game with Corey Torch, maybe riding a float with Corey Torch, I thought about what color my dress would be at my first Social Dance with Corey Torch, something peachy, maybe, or silver green.

When Shawna came back, she closed the door behind her, laughing over some secret joke. Her hands were pinned behind her back, holding a clear plastic jug with something pink in it.

“Okay, okay,” Shawna said. “Don’t give me the hairy eyeball,” she said, then laughed some more. “Oh that’s right, you only have one hairy eyeball anyway.”

She leaned over laughing and I was laughing too. I was the Queen of Hairy Eyeballs from now on, and that was fine, everything was fine because Corey Torch would be my Hairy Eyeball King.

“Okay,” Shawna said, swinging the bottle of lye from behind her back and onto the vanity table in front of me. “Okay, I can show you,” she cut her eyes, snake-wise and serious. “But first, you have to drink this.”

Shawna eyed me calmly. She took in a small sliver of air and then lost it, laughter all over again and I was laughing too. It was so funny, we were so funny, life was so funny from here in Shawna’s bedroom with my right eye blind but my hair feathered back in perfect wings from my face.

“I’m not kidding,” Shawna said, laughing. “Even though I’m laughing,” she said. “I’m totally serious.”

“For sure,” I said, laughing.

“It will hurt,” Shawna said.

“I know,” I said.

And then we weren’t laughing at all. The lye bottle was in my hand and the cap was already off, held like a quarter, a coin from a foreign country, in the center of my hand.

“I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere,” Shawna said. She reached out for my hand and squeezed it.

There were so many things I wanted Shawna to show me: how to dance, like Shawna did, swinging my head from side to side, how to streak my hair with lemon wedges, how to roller-skate backwards with ease, how to roll a joint, how to slide into the back seat of a car, how to kiss a boy like Corey Torch, how to slip my hands fast down the front of his jeans, how to lean back, nice and slow, how to let it happen, how to want it to happen, how to cross over for once and for all, from the valley of St. Catherine’s to Marquette High School.mar

I did not understand the world yet but Shawna said I would someday. First, she said, I had to hit the bottle before me. First, I had to drink the lye.

This story was originally published in Mid-American Review.

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