Joyland

New York |

Girl Talk

by Ingrid Nelson

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Ellie tells me that psychologically it’s possible for any one person to fall in love with any other person, given the right circumstance. Ellie tells me that men are most attracted to teenage girls, they just say they aren’t because of the norms of society. Ellie turned thirteen last month, in September. Soon I will be thirteen too.

“You have to get high heels,” Ellie says. We are sitting in the mall eating pretzels with cheese dip. Ellie is the coolest person I’ve met in my entire life.

“Because, if you wear high heels, they automatically make you stand in the mating position,” she tells me. I look at her and her eyes are blue like an icicle and her skin is orange, from the makeup she wears. She looks like a princess from a cartoon, because of all the bright colors that are on her face and how happily she talks. To me, Ellie is like the most exciting TV show in the world.

“What’s the mating position?” I say, starting to laugh.

“I read about it in Cosmo. If you stand that way, it makes your boobs stick out,” Ellie says. Her voice sounds mischievous. Her eyes are kind of darting around and then they look right into mine. My eyes are brown, the same color as cockroaches.

“Oh,” I say. My mom doesn’t let me read Cosmo. She says twelve is too young for such an adult magazine. Ellie gives me old issues of Cosmo, then I take them back to my house, and then I read them in my closet my mom never looks. Ellie is like my teacher. My Cosmo teacher.

“It makes boys want to mate with you,” says Ellie, “it’s the next best thing to giving them a blow job. It will make them love you,” Ellie learned how to talk like this from reading Cosmo, I’m sure. Cosmo’s half about blow jobs, a word I would never dare say out loud. I smile so she won’t know she’s talking about something I’m mostly afraid of.

I like how in Cosmo they show you how to paint your nails correctly. There’s a diagram of the perfect little hands, and it tells you exactly where to put the nail polish. Ellie’s the queen of everything I like and want, and the queen of everything that’s the opposite of me. She’s the queen of everything normal: the queen of after school hobbies that your mom has to drive you to, perfectly straightened hair, the queen of not having a dead father, the queen of awesome nail polish, the queen of living in a clean house that doesn’t smell weird. We put down our pretzels and walk into Payless. She takes me by the hand, just like my mom did when I was little. Sometimes when I am by myself at home after school I walk around pretending to be Ellie. The reason Ellie likes me, I’m fairly certain, is because I moved here from New York City. We moved here because it was cheaper, Virginia is cheaper than New York City, my mom said. But Ellie thinks New York is glamorous. She has a tiny snow globe on the bureau in her bedroom and in that snow globe is a little statue of the Empire State Building.

Here’s our secret plan: Ellie’s dad is picking us up from the mall. We’re going to have a sleepover, at Ellie’s house. We are going to wait until her parents fall asleep, and then we’re going to sneak into a party at a frat house. Her family lives near the university. There’s a frat house three blocks away, so we don’t need anyone to drive us. We can walk. And it is Saturday night, so there has to be a party, of course. Even I know that, from watching TV. And there are going to be boys. The frat boys, duh. This is what Ellie told me on the phone this morning. Even though she was whispering so her parents wouldn’t hear her she still sounded excited, like her voice was pressing up against something. It was like she was right next to me, even though we were talking on the phone. What I love more than anything is the opportunity to be included in a secret, and I especially want to be included in a secret with Ellie, something that will tie the two of us together, forever. To take me out of my gross life and put me into her nice and clean life. Okay, I said. If you go, I’ll go. Sometimes I try to touch Ellie’s leg with my leg, and make it look like an accident. I really want to be Ellie’s friend.

I had never been in a mall until we moved here two years ago, but I like malls even though they don’t have windows, because you can see the high school girls here, with their perfect faces of makeup, up close. And I can buy things in a way I couldn’t before, because before I was a kid. Now no one is here to supervise. No adult. Earlier this year I had at least three hundred dollars. I had been saving up my allowance since I was seven. Now I think I have maybe forty dollars left in my bank account, because I realized I could buy the clothes that the models wear in Cosmo. All the rest of money is gone because I spent it, this year, on new clothes. I can just go to the mall with Ellie and buy clothes that make me look cool. They even have a section in the back of the magazine that says where the clothes are from.

“They don’t have malls at all in New York?” Ellie said the first time we came to the mall together.

“Not really,” I said. When she talks about New York she’s like a baby staring into a mirror: so fascinated. Sometimes I wonder if she put the snow globe on her bureau deliberately, so that I would see it. She likes New York the way she likes eyeliner and recipes for face masks you can make from food you already have in your own kitchen. To her, it’s something grownup, it’s like Cosmo. She told me that she saw an episode of Sex and the City, on an airplane, but annoyingly they had edited out all the actual sex scenes. I think that she thinks my life is about the same as hers, or at least easy to figure out. Ellie’s mom comes to pick her up from school at 3:15, like everyone else’s mom. I just walk off by myself, to my house. Hopefully Ellie just thinks this means I am cooler and more mature than everyone else. I don’t like to tell Ellie things about myself, because I’m scared she might find it disgusting.

After we moved to this town I started going to this dumb new school where everyone thinks that I’m weird because I don’t do horseback riding, and when I tried to tell my mom about this stuff she wasn’t really listening. I know she’s very busy. I took one horse back riding lesson but then I couldn’t take more lessons because my mom didn’t have time to drive me to them. I can’t ask her for too many things or she will yell at me. Our English teacher is missing half of his index finger, which grosses me out. Once he asked our class if we thought it was fate that decided unlucky events, or something else, because he knew some very unlucky events had happened to some of us, and then he looked right at me and smiled. It was a smile like he was sure he was doing exactly the right thing. After that I felt very ashamed of myself and like I wished I was a different person. It’s an all girls school.

It got easier this year when me and Ellie became best friends and started hanging out all the time. Ellie’s mom makes us these fancy snacks, snacks like yogurt parfaits, with cubed and skinned apples. At my house my mom and me eat food you eat with your hands, like fish sticks. You don’t need to cut an apple into tiny pieces, put it in a glass, then eat it with a fork. It takes so much work. Ellie’s mom does it anyways.

“How are you?” I said to my mom this morning when she woke up. I was sitting in the kitchen already. I read in Cosmo that the best way to achieve your goals is to wake up early. I looked at her face, I could see there were were purple circles under her eyes. I looked around at the pink putty colored tiling of our kitchen. It reminds me of a public bathroom, because of the sticky floors.

“I’m so tired,” she said. “I was up till two last night working on the life insurance claim. I feel terrible.” She’s talking about life insurance from when my father died. Whenever she talks like this it scares me. Ellie uses words like “tankini” and “cuticle clippers,” not “life insurance.” It’s one of the worst parts about my father dying, my mother staying up so late to work on everything, and talking like this. She’s basically a different person now.

“Why are you staring at me,” she said. “Do I need to put on my under eye concealer?” my mom said. I tried to pretend she didn’t say that. I don’t like it when she acts like this. I feel guilty saying it, but in a certain way, it’s worse than my dad dying, my mom changing.

“How are you?” my mom finally said back.

“Oh, I’m great,” I said. I smiled at her but my face felt stiff and scared. I was happy that she wasn’t talking about how tired she was anymore, at least.

“Will you stop making jokes for just one second,” she said.

“I wasn’t making a joke,” I said. I can make myself feel great by telling enough people that I’m doing great, I’ve noticed. I can also control my emotions if I just don’t think about them. She put toaster waffles into the toaster. We always make toaster waffles, because they’re so quick. So you don’t have to think, like how you do when you make a more complicated meal with many small steps. I look at the bottoms of my feet, and see that they are black, and that there are hairs and crumbs stuck to them, from how dirty our floors are. Then without meaning to, I feel myself start to gag. I think about the fountain at the mall, and how it sounds like it’s on a tape that’s supposed to be relaxing.

At Payless, Ellie finds shoes for me. They’re black and shiny with really high heels. They’re the shoes of an an adult woman who lives in her own in her own apartment and makes her own decisions.

“These are so sexy,” she says. I could never just say the word “sexy,” just like that, like it was any word. The way Ellie does. Everything she does feels like no big deal for her, even if it is a gigantic deal to me. “They’ll look really good on you,” she says, but I know that will never be true. I stare at her, at her thick hair. She is like a real mermaid and I am like if a little kid tried to draw a cartoon of a mermaid. I just look dumb.

“What,” she says.

“Oh, sorry,” I say, “I was just thinking about the mating position.” I always hope that by being around Ellie I will be more like Ellie but I am afraid that she will see my dancing at the party and realize that I am bad.

I pay for them and outside the store, Ellie says, “You know what? You should put them on now, to practice wearing them for tonight,”

“I’m gonna be terrible,” I say. She’s fantastic, walking with high heels on. I’ve seen her do it in her room so many times. She practices so carefully. She works so hard at it, she loves it so much, and she wants me to be good at it too, so we can do it together. I want to be good at it, but I just know in the dark, soft and secret part of my heart that I am not right.

“I know,” says Ellie, her voice like oil. “But can you try it, please? Don’t you understand why this is important?”

I take off my sneakers and put them in the shoebox for my new high heels. I don’t know what the floor of the mall is made of, but it feels cold against my bare feet. Maybe it is made of metal. “Wow,” says Ellie. “You do look awesome. You look like Elle Woods, but much shorter and with brown hair.” I see myself in Payless Shoe Source’s shiny window. Ellie blows a kiss to a guy walking by outside.

“Ahhhh!” I scream, and hold my hands around her neck, like I’m hugging her, but from around the back. We both start giggling like insane. I wonder what Ellie is thinking. It feels nice to touch someone, without having to do it so it looks like an accident. We don’t say anything. We look into each others eyes and we smile at each other.

“Okay. We have two more hours left,” says Ellie. Her dad is picking us up at four. “And we still have to get our eyebrows threaded, go to Victoria’s Secret, and then look at jeans.”

“Grace,” Ellie’s dad once said, “When you puff your cheeks out like that, you look like a squirrel.” He likes to joke around with me. Sometimes when we’re in the car with him and he and Ellie are talking, I’ll think of her mom standing in the kitchen, skinning apples, and my eyes will start to water as if there’s smoke in the air. I try to concentrate on the NPR news playing quietly in the car. I know there isn’t smoke in the air. The air is just regular air. I look back at Ellie and her dad. They’re not even looking at me. Ellie is looking at her dad and her dad is looking at her and at the road, back and forth. Sometimes I have these thoughts, and it’s like, I’m the weirdest freak in the universe.

I can never believe that boys are just ordinary people living amongst us. A boy lives in a house two doors down from me, but his face is really red and shiny. Once we accidentally made eye contact through my bedroom window as he was walking by my house and I waved at him but he didn’t wave back. I wonder what he was thinking. Probably about something really intelligent, like Iraq, and also that he hated me, obviously. That would never happen to Ellie. She seems charmed, I wonder if it has to do with her boobs. Everyone at school says they’re perfect: they’re big but they’re not big in a gross way. I wonder what the frat boys do while they’re alone in their house. Probably they sit around together in front of a giant fireplace reading old books and wearing sweaters while smiling. It’s so sweet they share a house. Ellie still has bath toys in her bathroom, a red plastic fish with one eye winking. I noticed them when we were standing in my bathroom and she was giving me a makeover earlier this year. As she leaned next to me I could feel my heart beating louder, like it was coming up closer to my chest. But when I saw myself in the mirror and I just looked kind of crazy. I thought I would look like a cool teenager who wears black eyeliner but I just looked like the same lame person with eyeliner on. I wiped my hand against my eye, and all that was left of it was a black smudge. “Why did you do that?” Ellie said. I didn’t say anything.

“I like him, he’s cute,” I finally said, pointing at the plastic toy fish.

She blushed. “Oh, that’s so boring. I’m giving those away to my cousin,” Ellie said. “She’s three.” I guess Ellie thinks that toys are lame now, because she’s thirteen. I just find it difficult to think about blow jobs one hundred percent of the time, without getting grossed out.

“Hey,” I said. “Want to play a game of Monopoly?”

“If we must,” said Ellie. Ellie even has New York City themed Monopoly. The tokens are a hot dog stand and a taxi cab. She got it down from her closet and we played for four or five hours and then we stopped, so Ellie could paint and then repaint her nails.

The last time I went to a big party, before tonight, it was the party after my dad’s funeral five years ago and I kept having to leave the room to pee because I drank so much Coke. There was soda there, which my mom didn’t used to let me have, but that day she let me have as much as I wanted, because my dad had just died, obviously. Kind of like a reward. The funeral was this heavy thing, and the only way to make it feel light was if I kept drinking the coke, because it tasted so sweet and bubbly. It was really nice to finally be allowed to drink coke. I don’t know if I’d feel that way now though. Now I’d probably be too worried about the calories.

Ellie and I walk to the other side of the mall to get our eyebrows threaded. The rug in here is gray with brown stains. I try not to step on the stained parts because I don’t want the dirty part of the rug to touch my feet and ruin the bottom of my shoes forever because it is so gross. When the woman with crepey dry hands pulls out my eyebrow hairs, it’s painful, but the pain feels good because I know it will ultimately make me prettier. Ellie is lucky: she’s hairier than me, and the hair is darker. She can get her eyebrows threaded more. My eyebrows barely have enough hair to go at all and all the hair is downy, like the soft little hairs on a baby’s head. Sometimes Ellie complains about having to do it but we both know that she is the lucky one. She was allowed to start shaving her legs at the end of fifth grade, and I had to wait all the way until the beginning of seventh. I feel so bad for Rachel Bern, this girl in our class whose mom doesn’t let her at all. That’s the worst punishment in the entire world. At least I’m better than her. At least I’m allowed to shave my legs.

When we’re paying the woman for threading our eyebrows I open my purse and Ellie says, “What do you have in there?” I look at her. She grabs my purse from my shoulder. “Why do you even have tampons in there? You don’t get your period yet,” she says. I don’t know what to say. She’s right. I don’t get my period yet. She does.

“I don’t know,” I say. She looks at me. “Just in case.” I speak in a low voice in case someone hears what I am talking about. Ellie rolls her eyes. Oh my god, I wish I had my period so badly. One of my old friends from New York told me that if you put your menstrual blood in a guy’s food he’ll fall in love with you. I laughed but at the same time I felt bad, because I wished it was true. But I know that it’s not, because I know that you cannot count on anything. Right before I moved here, my mom was deleting all the old messages on our answering machine, to pack it away, and I heard one I left. I was calling home sick from school, I think from when I was in first or second grade, and my voice sounded so high and clear I didn’t recognize it.

“Oh man,” I say, looking at my feet, which look exactly like sharp black scissors, “I love these shoes.” Every time I lift one leg up and then put it back down it hurts my heels and the bottoms of my feet. That gets Ellie to stop talking about how I don’t have my period and we go look at the jeans in Macy’s.

Ellie’s dad always drives us to the mall. Or he picks me up and takes me to her house. I never want Ellie to come over. I do not ask her. My mom doesn’t have time to clean and it’s so dusty and sticky. The house has the worst smell ever, like mildew, and sometimes I smell it on myself when I’m at school, and it just makes me want to cry, because I smell like our house. Three years after we moved in everything is still packed in boxes. If you put your elbows on our kitchen table, it leans to one side. We bought it at Walmart. When I feel the table move under me when I eat I feel sick to my stomach. I thought it was just going to be a temporary piece of furniture until we got a nicer table but now it has been our main dining room table for three years. We are never going to get another table. The surface of it is covered in the build up of something sticky and I cannot get it off no matter how many paper towels I use. We eat a lot of frozen pizza off the table. I used to love frozen pizza. It used to be a treat. Now it tastes awful, because I eat it so much. Every time Ellie’s dad pulls up in front of our house, honks the horn and sees that the grass in our yard is three feet tall I feel so nauseous. I smile at him like I am smiling at an adorable baby bunny. I mean that’s what I’m thinking of in my head as I’m smiling at him. Before my dad died, my mom used to make me eat only health food, like squash soup and roasted broccoli. Now she just makes frozen pizza because she’s so busy. She gives me those pink Hostess Snowballs and says, “I know these will make you feel better.” Sometimes I feel so sad that I actually think my heart will rip apart inside of my chest. She just hands me the cardboard box. The Hostess Snowballs have a thick skin around them like nothing I’ve ever seen before. “No,” I say. “It’s okay. I don’t feel like it,” and then I say something unrelated, like about the price of gas, new construction, or something, until my mom stops saying anything at all.

This morning I was sitting in my closet trying to read an article in Cosmo. I thought my mom was in her room, paying bills and working on the insurance claims from my dad. I don’t understand it and it makes me feel sick if I think about it for too long. That is what she does all day on Saturday and Sunday, why she can never drive me anywhere where other people from school go. I don’t like her room. It’s smaller than my room. It’s dusty and it only has one window.

“Grace,” she yelled from the hallway. “Do you want to see a movie tonight?” She doesn’t normally take me to movies.

I very quickly put my copy of Cosmo in the back of all my clothes in the closet. The article I had been reading was all about pockets on jeans. If your butt is too big, the article said, you should wear jeans with very small pockets. For the opposite problem: a too small butt, you should wear jeans with very large pockets. It was very compelling.

“Mom!” I said. “I’m sleeping over at Ellie’s house tonight! Remember!” I hoped she didn’t hear the closet door open and shut as I came out of it. I didn’t want her to find out I had been doing something bad and yell at me.

“Why doesn’t Ellie come too?” she said through my bedroom door. “She could sleep over here.”

I didn’t say anything. That was the worst plan in the world. Ellie would see the inside of my house. We would all be trapped in there.

“Why don’t we do that?” Her voice was still coming through the door like a siren.

“No, mom!” I said. I felt like I was about to shatter. “We already had everything planned!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, but her voice was all mean and sarcastic. All I want is for her to be like everyone else’s mom. “I shouldn’t have asked,” she said. I heard her turn around in the hallway.

“I’m sorry,” I started to say, but she just slammed the door of her room before I could finish what I was saying. Instead I went back into my closet and sat on the floor and did this thing that I do without thinking: I touched the tops of my new, big teeth that are growing in the back of my mouth with the tip of my tongue while reading Cosmo for maybe two or three more hours.

Next Ellie and I go to literally my favorite place in the world, Victoria’s Secret. Ellie says that Victoria’s Secret is where the models buy all their underwear. I’ve bought ten pairs of thong underwear, at least. Thong underwear is the most sophisticated and beautiful underwear in the world.

I started doing my own laundry this year, just so my mom wouldn’t know I had them: the thong underwear. It’s worth it. She keeps saying she is proud of me, that I’m becoming a grown up, a responsible young lady who can do her own laundry. She thinks I’m trying to help her, because she is so busy and stressed out and tired, but I’m not. I feel guilty, but I’m not trying to help her. I’m just trying to figure out a way to wear thongs without her knowing.

As soon as we walk into the store, Ellie and I start grabbing things to try on. I really want a pair of those low rider sweatpants that say something across the butt, like “ROCK STAR” or “PRINCESS.” I think of Ellie wearing the pair that she already has, and how good she looks. I hope none of the sales people try to talk to us. I like it better when they don’t because then I can imagine I live here. It’s decorated like a cozy bedroom, with pillows and pajamas, even a fake bed, where they display some of the stuff you can buy.

When we’re standing in the changing room together I take off my shirt and all of a sudden I smell our house. It’s in the shirt but it feels like it’s becoming part of my skin. Like there is no difference between that horrible smell and me.

“Are you okay?” asks Ellie. “Your skin looks so weird.”

I look at myself in the mirror, with just my bra on, and Ellie stands behind me, staring at me. “I’m fine,” I say, and I smile. “Why?” I ask. I can see my patches of my skin flushing a color like I’m bleeding underneath the surface. My skin does this sometimes, if I feel a certain way. It’s like I start to blush really badly and I can’t control it. I try to think about something relaxing to calm down, like how fancy J. Crew is. I smile this smile that hurts my face and I put my shirt back on, so Ellie can’t look at the splotches on my neck and chest. There are parts of me that no one ever sees and I never want anyone to see them as long as I am alive. Ellie will take her clothes off in front of just about anyone. She’s always naked, in front of me, she just doesn’t seem to care. I feel like my lips are cracking from smiling at her. I will never tell Ellie why my skin is turning such a strange color, that it’s not because my father is dead, and I am alive and standing inside of the mall. It is because I can smell my house on my skin and all of the awful stuff inside of it. That smell. That smell is why I feel so bad. The low rider sweatpants are really nice. I imagine myself wearing them, and looking just like Ellie.

Probably Ellie will grow up and have fun, just like everyone else. She’ll get married to a doctor and have kids and a country house and maybe a sailboat. I imagine her parents as these cute grandparents. I imagine grown up beautiful Ellie on her sailboat with her same awesome boobs and her parents as little old grandparents and Ellie’s future adorable children. I think of the the sound of the stupid ocean hitting the stupid sailboat. I think about my mom and she’s crying because she’s so unhappy. I wonder about Ellie’s mother. I doubt Ellie has ever touched her mom’s face and there were tears on it.

“Ugh, I actually don’t think I want anything. I only have like twenty dollars left,” I tell Ellie.

“That sucks,” she says. “Does my face look shiny?”

“No,” I say. She takes off her shirt, and then her bra, so she can try on all the new ones hanging from the hook on the changing room’s door. I pretend not to look at her, but I can still see her reflection. She has angled herself in a particular way, so I have nowhere to look except at her terrible boobs. I see her smile at herself in the mirror.

“Do they even have Victoria’s Secret in New York?” she asks. “Probably they have something way better.” I imagine a pair of fangs growing in where my teeth are.

“Maybe. I don’t know though. My mom bought my underwear when I lived there.”

“Oh.” She says and then she says, “Grace.”

“What,” I say.

“It’s okay, don’t worry about tonight. I’m a little nervous too, but don’t worry. We’re going to have a really good time. No one will know that we’re in seventh grade. We’re mature. And we’re going to have a lot of fun. Together.”

“Okay,” I say. Sometimes I dream that I am back in New York, in Prospect Park.

“Okay!” She says excitedly. “There’s really no malls in New York at all?” Ellie asks.

“I think that they would have them but the problem is the buildings are all attached to each other. Or they’re too tall. There’s no room for the parking lots,” I say. I feel like I have been talking for a very long time. I look at the floor. I think about when this mall was built, how long it must have taken. People are always talking about how beautiful this area of the country is, but I don’t care about the stupid Blue Ridge Mountains, they’re lame. I like the mall more. I really like to go shopping.

“Oh,” says Ellie. She really does sound very interested, and impressed. “That is so funny.” When she says this she smiles at me, I look at her teeth.

She looks at me for a long time and then she says, “Do you think I should get bangs?” and she turns toward herself again in the mirror.

Sometimes our fingerless English teacher puts his hand on my shoulder and I get to see his stub up close. It looks shriveled. I think that’s what a penis looks like, sort of.

I remember going to set up my bank account with my father the summer I turned seven. I thought I was so grown up. This was when I still lived in Park Slope. Now the bank statements come in the mail every month to our new house in Virginia and I check the mail as soon as I get home from school to make sure I haven’t missed one so my mom won’t open it up and see that the money is gone. I have spent it, at Victoria’s Secret.

I used to feel so proud about having saved up all that money.

“Look at the statement,” I remember saying to my mom, after the first one came in the mail. “I already have fifteen dollars in there.” That was saved up from my allowance. When I think of how little and childish my voice must have sounded then, I feel so stupid. I thought my mom was impressed, I really did.

Ellie and I are standing outside, and from here the mall is just a low and windowless building, surrounded by brown and gray trees. I can see where the sidewalk turns to gravel, where you are no longer supposed to walk. Five years ago my father and I walked through Prospect Park together and I pushed a pile of leaves together to jump into. I was so happy it was fall, so I could build that dumb leaf pile that I wanted to jump into.

I think about darting away, into the bushes a hundred feet away, by the side of the highway. I imagine my tracks, like marks from a chicken’s claws. But I could never run away fast enough, not with these new high heels on. I look at Ellie and her face suddenly looks so happy as she waves at something coming in the distance.

“Hey girls!” It’s her dad, his hairy forearm hanging from the car’s open window. It reminds me of a dead piece of meat from a pig, but with black hairs on it. “Hop in! There might be traffic on the way home. There’s construction on the parkway,” he says. NPR news is playing quietly. I think about how in four hours Ellie and me will walk into the party.

We get into the backseat, and Ellie reaches her arm around my shoulder. I slide my arm around her waist, and her ribs shift like popsicle sticks under my fingers. Her skin feels really warm. She whispers into my ear, “I’m so excited for tonight, aren’t you?” She smiles at me with this look in her eyes, this really happy look.

“Yes,” I say to Ellie, “Yes, I promise that I am.”