Seventeen years after she’s gone, your clearest memories will be of her lipstick: a cartoonish smear of burgundy bourbon, cheap and trashy. The way it flakes off her mouth like a dry disease, and the way she reapplies it between third period math and fourth period gym class—sans mirror, blurring the edges of lip and skin—salacious, as if her preteen sex appeal is the key to running the mile in eight minutes flat.
Maybe it is. For example, this is you running the same race: awkward and asthmatic, whimper-wheezing all the way to the finish line at sixteen minutes and counting. Gossipy girls chirping freak just loud enough for you to hear; squawky pubescent boys all lined up in the final stretch to whistle and jeer you on, go, thunderthighs, go! You, yanking at the inseam of your suddenly-too-short shorts between every stride—yank-jog-yank-wheeze-yank—longing for the foresight to have worn sweatpants instead, or for scissors to carve the blubber off your twelve-year old body and thread to suture the wounds. It won’t occur to you for a decade that wishing to trim your flesh like a paper doll could be considered something of an oddity.
But you’re made of oddity. Your whole life, eccentricities have come at you blindingly, in excess—like the year spent hoarding tiny blue packets of aspartame sweetener, dumping them into your six-year-old mouth in twos and threes. Or the year, age nine, when you refused all clothing that was not tie-dye or Spandex—you, fat little four-eyed mousy girl, scrubbing the same shirt and leggings in the kitchen sink with Palmolive, never getting the full stink out but wearing them every day anyway, a self-imposed school uniform. You were a fifth-grade kleptomaniac, swiping unicorn-shaped erasers and glitter stickers from a classmate’s desk while she stood in the lunch line, then: deny, deny, deny. And now, in seventh grade, you wheeze and clock miserable sixteen-minute miles. Given the choice, you prefer research to running. You burrow deep into books because they are the safest place you know. You build mental dossiers on every queer thing that strikes your fancy: woodwind instruments, childhood diabetes, chlorine-based pesticides, plastic recycling codes, the Iberian lynx.
Here is something. The Iberian lynx is the most endangered cat species in the world. In the wild, young littermates often fight to the death, throwing each other under the bus of claw and fang—a survival impulse gone entirely wrong.
In Spanish class, the new girl claims the desk next to you. You stare at her—how could you not stare at her?—layers of caked-on Maybelline, acne pustules sprinkled from forehead to chest, oily black bird’s nest of hair, homemade crop tops and stonewashed Sassoon jeans pinned at the ankles, the lazy southern lilt of her voice. She is to small-town Wisconsin as kindness is to junior high: in a word, rare. You can’t shift your eyes even an inch from her.
The boys in your class call her Scary Carrie because nothing good rhymes with Carrie, and because to them, she must seem a behemoth of womanhood—her twelve-year old tits already blooming out of a C cup, her mouth always drooping open like a solicitation to stuff something in it. At lunch, you shovel starch and grease into your ever-widening belly. Across the table, Carrie fellates a soup spoon. This is how Cliff likes it, she tells you, invoking her presumable boyfriend back home. She dips the spoon between her breasts and ignores, or doesn’t notice, the spitwads flying at the back of her head from a neighboring table. You only notice that they are flying at her head and, for once, not at yours.
The girls in your class call her a slut. Alone, quietly, you test-drive the word on your tongue. Slut.
It tastes, to you, something like self-preservation.
You believe in environmentalism the way some girls believe in white weddings. In your notebooks, instead of future husbands’ names, you doodle triangle-shaped arrows with numbers and cryptic acronyms. They are resin identification codes for plastic, and you know every single one by heart.
As far as plastic’s concerned, your town only recycles polyethylenes—terephthalate (#1), high-density (#2), and low-density (#4). At recess you lecture Carrie on the irresponsibility of pudding cups (polypropylene, #5, nothing but landfill fodder). She eats pudding with her forefinger like a beast, scooping up globs of chocolate goo and slurping them down. Telling you, between swallows, how Cliff once ate her pussy in a treehouse. You gulp and giggle like the thought of having a boy’s mouth down there doesn’t make you want to puke, like it doesn’t make you want to die—it does, it always will.
Later, you dawdle in a bathroom stall and overhear two chatterers at the sink: I heard Carrie got a boob job. I heard she did it with Mr. White and his wife walked in on them. I heard she’s pregnant with her brother’s baby. Gross. You slink out of your stall and approach them. These are the same girls who once tipped a beaker full of brine shrimp over your head in science class, snickering while you cried behind your salty puddle of hair.
What a slut. You cringe as the words tumble from your mouth. You half-expect them to do something—splash dirty toilet water at you, barricade you in a stall and turn off the lights, call you a barnyard animal, pig, cow, dog, something. Instead, they just barely glance at you.
Yeah, total slut, they say.
The girls leave you at the sink, scrubbing your hands raw and reeling. The inflicting end of cruelty is a foreign place to you. How shameful it feels, but how delicious, too, to sense your station rising one tiny notch, from scapegoat to invisible. You pledge to hold your own there, whatever brutality that might take.
Your speech on the effect of insecticides on the bald eagle population wins third place in a regional competition. Third, your father rages. What shit is that? Once, you come home from school to find him paranoid and manic, on a mission to rid your home of flammables. The sheaves of paper that once littered your bedroom—diaries, stories, a math textbook—are stuffed in the kitchen trash, soaked through with bacon grease and wet trout guts. Why you keep so much paper, estupida? He corners you. You want the house burn down?
You beg your mother for rides to Econofoods, and burrow through the grocer’s dumpster to recycle every scrap of corrugated cardboard they’ve mistaken for waste. Even when you cut your fingers on sticky, dark things, you keep digging and sorting. You dig and you sort until your mother’s had enough and drags you home.
All you know for sure is this: to be the guardian of a helpless thing, a child, a friend, a tree—to hold that thing’s salvation or destruction in your hands—it is a tremendous power.
On Carrie’s thirteenth birthday, you listen to oversexed teenybopper pop in her bedroom and dig through her makeup case. You try on a vampiric shade of plum, wipe your mouth clean, settle instead for a neon fuchsia that makes you look bloated and radioactive. Lipstick comes from fossil fuels, you say, pursing your lips in the mirror. She rolls her eyes and tweaks the volume knob on her stereo until the beat assaults your eardrums. You try to dance. What it looks like is a self-conscious, arm-flailing, head-bobbing disaster. What it feels like, what everything has always felt like, is you and your body against the whole wide world.
This is how you do it, dummy. Carrie gyrates like a seasick dreidel. You notice the glint of a silver bellybutton ring peeking out from under her shirt, how her long legs taper to tiny ankles. Her pimply chipmunk cheeks, her doggish underbite, the droop of her fat bottom lip. You notice everything, and now you’re seasick, too, staggering from the sour-sweet scent of girl, revulsion and attraction tugging your limbs apart like horses.
Carrie’s father is a man of hard words and hands, like yours; unlike yours, he’s a man of hard liquor, too, with the heat of whisky on his breath as he stumbles into her room and backhands her stereo onto the floor. He descends on her, drags her into the hallway by her oil-slick hair, knocks her into the wall like she is a nail and he a hammer—a sickening rhythm, slam, slam, slam, until you think she might crack and send bits of bone and skin and skull flying everywhere.
How ought you react to such violence—what protocol can a dizzy twelve-year old follow but to keep absolutely silent, to crouch on the floor and cover your ears and bite your tongue bloody until it’s over, until she comes back in the room, face blotchy and wet, nose dripping red, the front of her shirt still crumpled as if held by an invisible clenched fist?
And when, years later, you begin to see how easily hate is internalized, how fathers break daughters and how girls break each other, how selfishness and survival masquerade as one and the same—knowing all this, will you forgive yourself for what happens next, the indelible moment when you see the bruises blossoming on Carrie’s arms and think well, dumb slut, you deserved that?
You slip slowly from friendship to viciousness; you let your own fear of falling guide you. You sit with Carrie at lunch, but throw pickles at her back when she gets up to return her tray. You write malicious notes—dear Scary Carrie, you are a nasty slut, stay away from me, I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND—and stuff them into her locker vents. When the boys spit at her and pinch her ass in the hall, you do nothing. In swimming lessons, when someone unties her skimpy bikini top and yanks it off, you egg them on. What else is there to do? You are every bullied twelve-year-old girl who ever felt she had a shot at redemption.
Seventeen years later, you will stare at a photograph of you and Carrie sitting on gymnasium bleachers. In it, you are holding your off-brand backpack—adorned with recycling symbols etched in black Sharpie—on your lap. Both of you are smiling, unaware that a few rows up, three girls and an entire flock of boys are all sneering in your general direction. Which one of you is the main object of their scorn? It’s impossible, really, to tell.
Near the end of seventh grade, Carrie leaves as unexpectedly as she came—her locker cleaned out and a wounded emptiness in the places she’d inhabited. Nobody knows why, but everyone has a theory: knocked up, mostly, though some girls say she killed herself because she was so ugly. You have her phone number and address, but you don’t investigate. You swear, to anyone who will listen, that you’re glad she’s gone. You’ve won, survived, clambered your way above a sister outcast and eagerly dismantled her. Is this what winning ought to feel like? A kettle of vultures pounding wings against your chest?
Your knowledge of ecology is vast, but what you don’t understand is this: that a vacancy in an ecosystem yearns to be filled. That you once occupied that bottom rung. That of course you will again.
Field trip to a graveyard. The rest of your class makes headstone rubbings while you wander deep into the woods to collect beer and soda cans, all of them crumpled and sun-bleached to a dull silver. In the absence of a recycling bin, you appoint yourself temporary custodian of the abandoned aluminum, stuffing cans into every pocket and cranny of your clothing. Maybe you do this because cans take two hundred years to decompose, or because they are as helpless as you are powerless; maybe you do this because in an odd-numbered class, you have no partner for grave rubbings—no paper, no crayons to scrub it with.
Later, you waddle onto the bus, cans in tow. Halfway home, you feel the ants: dozens, or hundreds, scuttling up your calves, your forearms, the exposed skin of your neck. Down your shirt, your stomach, your back, where you can’t reach to swat them away. You wiggle in your seat while the boys around you chant. Ants in her pants! Ants in her pants! Something soggy hits the back of your head.
You make a decision: you unfurl all of the cans from your clothing and let them fall to the bus floor, where they clatter and slide to the back—destined to be trash again. You chew the inside of your cheek until it bleeds. But you don’t scream, you don’t cry, no, not until you are home and in the bath, hyperventilating, maybe hallucinating, watching countless tiny black ant bodies—tiny, disgusting, vulnerable lives—float to the water’s surface like a promise broken.
Alicia Catt is an MFA candidate and composition instructor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Citron Review, 1966, MARY, decomP, and others. She lives with two cats, one dog, no television, and a very well-organized recycling bin.