Anne-Marie and Emily both wore eyeliner and purple iridescent lipstick by sixth grade; they blotted their shiny mouths in the third-floor girls’ bathroom and traced thick lines onto their lips. Except Celeste was the first to buy department store lip gloss and leggings. Celeste was always first, and she liked it that way. Hannah always followed Celeste, even when she stole her mother’s Dunhill cigarettes and smoked them in the basement laundry room. Celeste taught them all how to inhale, and how to hold their cigarettes like Sandy in Grease. Her indigo lips pursed and released white wisps of smoke through the screened window slowly as she sat atop the Maytag dryer with her back straight like a queen.
On weekends, they didn’t bake chocolate chip cookies anymore but nibbled on carrot sticks and called up boys. Older boys, boys from the tenth grade and sometimes even older. Late at night they burned what they said was incense and giggled loudly under blankets.
They lived in big houses of brick and expensive stone facades, houses on the outskirts of town that loomed up like temples before neatly manicured lawns and intricate landscaping. Sometimes their mothers would be outside planting hostas; most of the time green-suited men from the lawn-care companies would finish the job.
At school they held court the way they had since second grade, with Celeste at the helm the same way she had been since the minute she was born. While everyone played basketball in the gym before class, they occupied a spot at the bottom of the bleachers, away from the bounce of sports equipment and squeak of tennis shoes. They crossed their legs and talked in low voices, close to each other’s faces, or, when they wanted to be noticed, would lean back on their hands and push their small chests forward. They spent hours getting ready in the morning, just to look as though they hadn’t.
They all had sleek, thick hair in rich colors, hair that floated back into perfect place when it was disturbed. Of course, Celeste was a blonde, a coveted platinum that needed no rinses or dyes. They wore all sorts of jeans, the popular distressed kind that looked as if the fronts had been bleached out and then rolled in mud; the skinny, stretch-denim pants whose lack of rear pockets made them possible for only the thinnest of females. They made sure that their Lycra or rayon tops were fitted tightly, with necklines that dipped to the most appropriately inappropriate level.
They poured over issues of Cosmopolitan and Glamour, giving up the crush confessionals of Seventeen for advice on “How to Please Him.”
“I’ve done that before,” Celeste scoffed, as they giggled about the sexual exploits of a 30-something writer.
“Right,” said Anne-Marie, with a drop of sarcasm. Celeste threw her a look, but she never said anything to Anne-Marie, because Anne-Marie was beautiful.
“It sounds gross,” Hannah offered, and Emily snorted. Then Celeste threw her a look, because snorting was something they just didn’t do.
Celeste had discovered blow jobs by fifth grade, but it was Emily who supposedly had experienced the real thing the summer before eighth. After that, they all looked at Emily when she ate popsicles, to see if she looked any different.
At lunch, they had the first table, the seating capacity and arrangements of which varied from day to day. Not that any of them really ate. They preferred seclusion, or at least anywhere that was void of some 500 pairs of teenage eyes. Anne-Marie, who had an ongoing relationship with Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, remained tall and lithe and never over 100 pounds. She showed them all how to stick their fingers down their throats, but Celeste preferred less messy methods.
When their parents had parties, they wore tight dresses and waited for their fathers’ friends to notice their cleavage, then slip an arm around their waists and say how much they’d grown up. At these parties, their mothers were all sociable and whiny, and their fathers drank scotch from crystal cocktail glasses. Everyone was beautiful and sparkling and loud; the women had shrieking voices to go with their thickly sequined dresses.
There were school dances, which they never went to at the junior high. Instead, high school boys asked them to homecoming and the winter formal, where they wore short little dresses with heels, but made sure they stood by and yawned for the full three hours.
“Want to dance?” Emily’s date asked her at the start of all the slow songs, but she just shook her thick red hair and smiled at him. They all made sure to ignore the homecoming queen, and the spring princess, and the prom court. Sometimes they danced, to the fast songs, moving so precisely that everyone would stop and stare at them. There was something comforting about being so beautiful that boys stopped looking at their own dates altogether, just to look at you.
At 14, the only aspirations they had were to model, or perhaps go to college, for the parties. Anne-Marie’s father wanted her to go to Sarah Lawrence, but his girl was intent on watching E! Fashion television and snacking steadily on celery stalks.
“You’ll never stay beautiful if you don’t take care of yourself now,” she’d lecture, thin thighs cocked and applying her mother’s Lancome eye cream.
Celeste rolled her eyes and asked, what did she think plastic surgeons were for?
Emily and Hannah silently vowed to never eat pizza or donuts again and added eye cream to their mental shopping lists.
They’d begun drinking coffee already, and drinking it black, although some of them emptied pink paper packets of sweetener into their silver Nissan mugs when no one was looking.
They had rules, laws that they’d seen their mothers live by, and their mothers were beautiful and successful. Never eat past eight in the evening. Low-fat ice cream tastes just as good as regular, you’d swear you could never tell the difference.
You can tease the boys, said their mothers, but don’t let them lose interest. Ever. There were too many other girls, and other girls were sly. Other girls were catty. Other girls were just jealous. Then their mothers fixed any stray wisps of hair, tucking them back into their Ivana Trump coiffures, and wiped away the lipstick that caked in the corners of their large, round mouths. When they reprimanded, their hands flashed with fat diamond rings made from four-carat gems purchased at cost on winter vacations in the Caribbean. Their faces were never bare, always made up with age-defying foundation and rouge that sat high on the apples of their sallow cheeks.
Their fathers, who had been affectionate and warm a few years ago, now only smiled at them with tight lips and gave stiff hugs. They were afraid of their daughters, painfully aware of their new bodies and the older boys who followed them down to their bedrooms on Friday nights. Their fathers made sure that work kept them too late for dinner most days, but always remembered to get their wives expensive jewelry for Christmas.
Celeste’s father was gone so long and so often, that she would sometimes forget the color of his eyes or how tall he was. But when he came home – together they tried to avoid each other, and together they made it work.
Her father brought home a friend for a week, a business acquaintance from the east coast. Mr. ___ drank imported beer in the living room and stared at Celeste when she arrived home from school. He shifted his weight on the buttery leather sofa and ran manicured fingers down the leg of one trouser, pulling the creases taut.
At dinner, Mr. ___ leaned in close to her when he wanted a dish passed. He flattered her mother and talked business with her father. Afterwards, when everyone was having their wine in the living room, Celeste slipped his wallet from the breast pocket of his coat in the mudroom – as she was inclined to do when she
as curious. He was 33, he had a platinum card, and $200 in dirty, creased bills. Celeste replaced the wallet and pocketed half of the cash.
When she started back for the living room, he was standing there, leaning against her mother’s china cabinet with thick arms folded against his chest. He smiled at her with his eyes, and she wasted no time returning the favor.
On Saturday nights they went to high school parties. They knew people – some important and some not so much, but it was enough. A quartet of sophomore boys pulled into the driveway; they all wore ratty baseball caps backward and sucked on hip flasks full of sweet, syrupy liquor of a bright color, a drink that was so thick with sugar and booze that it always made them throw up at the end of the night. They shouted and caroused, driving too fast and listening to their music to loud. The girls laughed at them, swiping shots from the small bottles they’d tucked in their purses. But they didn’t really like these boys, they were too stocky and Celeste said she hated the smell of them when they thought they could kiss her. Anne-Marie thought they were repulsive. Nevertheless, boys were boys, and boys with a car were even better.
At the party they balanced plastic beer cups on their knees and whispered together, bare shoulders sparkling with spaghetti straps and cheap drug store glitter. Boys came up behind them, kissing their cheeks, offering drinks or back rubs or dances. They licked salt off their forearms and sucked lemons with tequila, they chain-smoked in an upstairs bathroom and tossed the butts in the sink. They were childish, they were disgusting, and they were beautiful. Altogether, they were so lovely.
They went back to Celeste’s house that night, arriving home long after the TV stations had shut down and the stoplights in the middle of town were flashing yellow. The sky had a weak light to it, and they tiptoed through the hazy purple, stumbling and giggling.
Emily held her stomach and said she felt sick; Hannah tripped over the stairs and laughed. One by one they ended up in a spare bathroom, holding thick handfuls of sticky, smoke-scented hair back while someone threw up, resting their heads on the bathtub ledge and wishing they were dead.
Celeste, who was leaning against the doorway and reveling in just slight intoxication, shook her head in disgust. She thought them all rather pathetic.
She found that Mr. ___ was having a cigarette out on the patio, holding it in his thumb and index finger like a joint, one leg resting casually over the other knee. He was dressed as though he had just arrived home himself.
“Care for one?” He waved the box flippantly at her, speaking clearly but very quietly.
She took one; they were Nat Shermans, black paper with a gold filter. She liked that he didn’t reprimand her the way most adults would. He just watched her with a half-smile, and when she brought the cigarette to her mouth he did the same.
“And where have you ladies been tonight? It’s pretty late,” he remarked.
“To a bar,” Celeste lied coolly.
“Really.” He widened his eyes in mock surprise. “You might have invited me along, I was out myself.”
“Where did you go?” Celeste blew the smoke out her nose, the way she’d seen her mother do.
“The Green Room. On the east side of town.”
“Oh, we don’t go to the Green Room,” she said dismissively, with a wave of her hand.
“You don’t, huh?” He grinned and lit up another one.
“No. It’s too quiet.”
“So where do you like to go, then?”
“Oh, here and there. Anywhere that’s not too boring.” She smiled like a little chorine, pleased to death that she was keeping up her lie so smoothly.
“Well, my date and I liked it very much. It was nice – nice for the Midwest.” He paused and let the silence fill in, drinking from a cup that she hadn’t noticed earlier.
“You had a date? Who is she?” Celeste asked this the same way she always had, curious but not demanding.
“Oh, just an acquaintance. Not a girlfriend. Business, you see.”
“Ah.” Celeste had come to know what “business” dates meant. She swiped another smoke from between them.
“Do your parents know you smoke?” He chided lightly, offering her the blue flame of the lighter anyway.
“Probably not. They don’t know most of what I do.”
“They should. They should worry, I mean. You’re quite pretty, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.” But she did, and soaked up the compliment that made her move a little closer to him.
Mr.___ didn’t mean to then, but he kissed her, right under the burned-velvet sky, on her parents’ patio. He was careful, and when he opened his eyes he noticed where the mascara and eyeliner had smudged down beneath her lower lashes. The glitter gel from earlier was crusted to her skin, on the sharp turn of her shoulders and the pale flesh that lay over her bony sternum.
What he liked about her was the slowness, the deliberate delicacy of her movements, coupled with innocence, and the fact that she didn’t get up and follow him afterwards.
She watched, and stayed just as quiet as she had the whole time, watching his retreating back; with her head on its side, it looked as though he were walking on the wall. The floor tiles were cold on her cheek.
In the morning, they were all asleep in one room, sprawled on the floor in wrinkled skirts and tank tops, their hair wild and makeup smeared across the pillows. Celeste was huddled on the bed, hugging her knees up to her chest and breathing deeply under the quilt her grandma had made,
There were still dolls on her shelves, the expensive collectible kind that could never be taken out of their boxes, but stared blankly through cellophane windows in big fluffy dresses and cotton-candy hair. Her bed was carpeted in stuffed animals, some old and worn, some brand-new with tags on their ears. Sometimes she tossed them off the bed at night, but most of the time she slept with them. And when she slept she held her blanket up to her face, just to smell the scent of being a little girl again, because they would have to wake up and do it all over again the next weekend.
“You’re so beautiful,” the boys would say. “Don’t you know that?”
“No,” with a coy smile.
But they did.