EMERGING ARTISTS & WRITERS
DEVANSHI KHETARPAL & GRETA WILENSKY
I see your skin bleed into the shore,
each thread of sand: a body
it caves into. Your skin hollows as
smoke, once in its pull.
What flesh can drink back the sea?
Madge sits there. Madge
talks of dying, then, of a boat axing back
to your limbs, heavy with
Hear this sea:
heaving such thirst, she ends.
When we go shopping, Dusty palms plastic eyeshadow palettes off the rack so fast not even I can tell. Her fake leather purse hangs slung against her hip, open like a mouth, hungry. We feed it what we can; Maybelline, Almay, sometimes real good stuff too, when we can hitch a ride to the mall from Billy and stalk through the racks at Sephora. We’re trashy girls, but not on the days we go out foraging. We’re not stupid. We know what they’re looking for—frayed knockoff Uggs, stringy blonde ponytails, yellow eyelids and tank tops with bras poking through. At the end of 9th grade we went to the Goodwill and invested in real uniforms—Mary Janes and pleated skirts and cardigans for the department stores, nice jeans and flowered blouses for the CVS and Walgreens. We gloss our lips once but not twice, twist our hair into neat little buns, and when we step in looking like this, nobody bats an eye.
The purse is the one Dusty always brings with us, because it has a million flaps and hidden pockets. It’s so bottomless that when we tell ourselves, no, there’s nothing in here, we almost believe it. It was Dusty’s mama’s, before Dusty’s mama went to prison. She don’t need no purse, Dusty grinned to me one night. We were pawing through her mama’s closet, knee-deep in leather shoes and silk dresses, and Dusty pulled the purse out from under the pile as if she had just found baby Moses himself drifting down the Nile.
Today’s a good day so we ride with Billy in his baby blue Chevy to the mall three towns over. It has crumbling plaster pillars and the overhead lights flicker a sickish yellow but they’ve got the good stores still, a Macy’s at one end and a Sephora next door. Daisy and I both swing our legs over the edge and into the bed of the truck before Billy can say anything. Sometimes he’ll make us take turns sitting up in the passenger seat with him. The floor is littered with empty fry containers and soda cups from McDonald’s, sometimes girls’ clothes, the tops of condom wrappers like bits of shiny of ribbon; I imagine he pulls them open against his teeth. Fifteen is too young for him, Billy says, but that doesn’t stop him from putting his rough right palm against my thigh and tightening his grip. I don’t think about this too much though, try not to relive it whenever we’re riding in the back.
In the early afternoon air my hair flows out behind me like feathers. Daisy hooks her arm into mine and we sit with our sides touching, staring out at the traffic behind us, our backs pressed to the body of the truck. Macy’s or Sephora? I ask. Dusty traces the insides of my palm with her fingertip, squinting hard. You have a fractured life line, she says. What’s that mean? I go and she says No idea. Let’s hit Sephora first.
Inside the store we stalk through the too-bright aisles. The girl at the counter has an Afro and a gold ring hooked through the space between her nostrils. She glances up at us when we walk in, doesn’t look twice. We work quickly, raiding the aisles one by one. Dusty palms three eyeshadows from the highest row, I pull out seven eyeliner pencils, stick them inside her magic purse without looking down. Working in a rhythm, we go through the store, filling the purse until it sags with new weight. We move to lipsticks now, my favorite. I pull colors too fast to read their names. I give them my own; Blister Pink, Straw-ber-ita, Back-Door, Bruised Apple. I imagine running the smooth tubes over my lips until I become the shiny version of myself only Dusty knows. We don’t tell anybody about our hobby, and nobody suspects. We walk out the door and I hold my breath. After all this time I know we’re not going to trip any alarms, but the fear is automatic. When we step past the entryway without incident I feel relief pooling out from the pit of my chest, and everywhere else in my body.
After we get back to Dusty’s we yank the black purse upside down. Our world tumbles out, plastic-wrapped and shimmering under the light of her kitchen lamp. I run a clammy hand over it all. Two foundations too dark for our baby faces, seven lipsticks, all hot pink. A bottle of something cloudy white. Six tubes of mascara; waterproof, thank god, because even though neither of us cry easy, the girls we pretend to be do. This is only a fraction of everything. We carry it all in our palms and the crooks of our elbows to Dusty’s room in the back of the empty trailer. She has white plastic bins we bought together at Wal-Mart just for this. Each drawer holds something different—eyeliners, eyeshadows, glass bottles of foundations glittering like an ocean of flesh.
We drop the new goods onto Dusty’s bed and open up the seals with hungry fingers. Since this is actual Sephora stuff we don’t want to use too much, but we need to christen what we now have. Dusty pushes up the tip on a shimmery violet eyeliner and circles my eyes until I glitter. She traces hot pink lipstick over my chapped lips, smudges too-thick foundation over my cheeks and across my nose. In the dirty mirror over her dresser, I stare back at myself. I glow in my new face, not quite pretty but something that feels more dangerous, more right. Now do me, Dusty says, and I pull a new mascara tube out of its plastic cocoon.
Next, we wander into the kitchen of Dusty’s father’s trailer. He’s never home on weekends, not since he started going out with Miss Mae, me and Dusty’s fourth grade teacher. She has big blonde curls and Dolly Parton tits and taught us how to make potholders out of strips of rags, not that we remember anymore. The stove has two burners instead of four, lined on the bottoms with aluminum foil gone black with heat. Dusty takes a box of Kraft Mac n Cheese out of the cabinet above our heads, sets a pot of water to boil on the stove. I watch the coil of the burner heat up until it’s glowing red, imagine sticking my fingers into the in-betweens. When I was six I touched my tongue to the bulb in our old living room lamp, felt my mouth throb and swell with the burning. I had wanted to taste the light. Now, nine years later and I still feel hungry for the glow. Dusty opens up the box of Kraft and dumps the noodles into the pot, hands me a wooden spoon and tells me to stir.
When we eat the Mac n Cheese, straight out of the pot and sitting cross-legged on Dusty’s bed, it’s nasty like always. The noodles are soggy, orange cheese powder lumped up in places that don’t burst open until they are on our tongues and burn with too much salt. This is all that’s ever in the cabinet so we eat in silence, don’t complain. Dusty’s wearing the same red lipstick, mixed with flecks of orange powder that I wipe away with my finger. In the back of her trailer we don’t exist. Not when Dusty’s mama is in prison and her daddy’s with Miss Mae and my parents are home but not really there, floating through the shag-carpet rooms like ghosts. So we slide our fingers into each others mouths and kiss until our lips are numb and sore. Dusty slides off my cardigan, undoes the buttons on my fancy Goodwill skirt. My body hums against hers and it all happens fast, skin merging into skin until we are one girl-body, moving rhythmically in the dark. The first time Dusty grabbed me by the wrist and held it I yanked back, but when she pressed her mouth to mine I let her hold her face against me, breathing in her smell. Kind of like WonderBread and kind of like rust, pocket change and melted saltine crackers, but sweeter. This was when we were thirteen and learning how to walk in our new bodies. We slouched into ourselves, curved our spines, wished our breasts and hips would grow back inside of us like something vestigial, tails or maybe wings. Now we know each others bodies almost better than our own. Dusty smooths down my hair, unhooks the bra I only wear when we have our nice girl outfits on, and I lean my head back and close my eyes until I feel her head brushing against my thighs. Once in the seventh grade two boys were caught in a janitor’s closet doing something bad like us and were expelled, never seen again. I don’t know any girls like me except for Dusty. She claims there are others like us, somewhere east of Appalachia, New York City maybe, says she read about our kind of girls in a book she stole from the Church yard sale last summer. I don’t know if I believe her—it sounds too strange to be real, but then again, here we are, pressing bodies in the dark. Tree branches scratch against the side of the trailer and I think for a minute that someone is watching, tense up. Dusty hears it too and we look up at the window with the same scared eyes. Dusty and I hold our breath until I think someone has stuck a million pins into my lungs, and finally we realize it’s only Billy, stumbling drunk from Cindy Barnes’ trailer back to his own. We hear his door slam shut and relax. I slide down onto my back and Dusty kisses me with her lips parted, slides her tongue between my teeth. She tastes like spit and lipstick and something sour. After we’re done we fall asleep like this, holding each other where no one can see.
Let’s go, Dusty says to me, shaking my shoulder. It’s morning now, sun streaming through cracks in the closed blinds. Cold air seeps in through the old window and I jolt awake, reach for my Goodwill outfit but the cardigan and skirt are flung across the room. I know it’s Sunday before I hear the church bells, before I remember that I’m in Dusty’s bedroom and we spent the night here together. This isn’t anything new, but we aren’t allowed to think about it during daylight hours—a rule I momentarily forget. Dusty grabs a hairbrush, rakes it through my hair. It snags, I jerk away, hairs cling to the brush, ripped from my head. We have to leave, she says. Why? I go and she says, Dad’s coming back home soon with Miss Mae. Said she wants to see the place. I think if she sees the trailer and me and how I’ve turned out, I’ll be sick.
I know what she’s talking about. We won’t admit it, but the trailer is nasty. Caked on bits of food stuck to the floor, mold spanning over a mound of dirty dishes, clothing in piles up to my knee. The only thing clean is Dusty’s bins of makeup and the tiny vanity she keeps in a corner of her bedroom, and even then the mirror is cracked.
I pull on my clothes and shoes and we shiver in the morning air. My stomach rumbles with emptiness. I feel the orange Kraft sauce burning against my insides and nothing else. I want coffee, and eggs or cereal or anything to fill the crater, but I stay quiet. Dusty grips my arm for a second, hard, then lets go. We walk into the CVS and even under the fluorescents everything is too dark. The blue blue sky burns in my eyes as an afterimage.
It’s too early in the day and the wrong crowd—mothers pushing strollers, holding squealing toddlers by pudgy wrists. The stillness isn’t here and I miss the empty aisles, the occasional old men and women grasping canes with shaking fingers and stumbling towards their filled prescriptions. We don’t look right either. I know this without having to check a mirror. Our clothes are wrinkled, the breast of my white flowered blouse smeared inky mascara black. My hot pink lipstick is garish and runs past the edge of my lip and out to my jaw. Dusty is in a rush, she’s talking to me in her pretend voice. So he tells me I’m never allowed back on his yacht, and I’m like good, my daddy’s is twice as big and yours doesn’t have a TV, so goodbye, thank you very much. She snaps imaginary gum and runs her fingers through her short hair. I forget that it’s violet, that sometimes this color can make people stare. She fake-chews aggressively, clinking her yellowy baby teeth. Eyes locked with mine, she holds open the mouth of the purse and knocks a whole row of blue eyeshadows inside. Her mouth twitches into a smirk and I see that this is some sort of challenge. She’s never been this daring before. A pit that wasn’t there before opens up in my stomach. Suddenly, it all feels not right.
My chest burns with a heavy panic as we keep going, leafing through aisles, stealing what we already have. I think that we have too much, almost, that we’ve been at it for over a year now and it’s time we find something else to do. I’m thinking maybe I’ve had enough, that I should give some away, but still I swipe bronze palettes with the flats of my palms like a pro, slide them into the magic purse without a sound.
Hey Grace! Dusty goes, and slings the strap of the magic purse over my shoulder, fast. Its weight collides against my hip and its innards fly out, three eyeshadow palettes, one foundation, two lipsticks red and glaring as flags all scattered across the white tile floor. Dusty is running now, fast. She pushes open the door to the CVS and goes out into the street, purple hair swinging in the wind, and I’m all alone. I crouch over the stolen makeup, helpless, and a big lady with long red nails grabs my arm, twists. Goes, Don’t move, and I can feel her fake nails making imprints on my skin. She yanks at the purse. I feel the strap cut into my shoulder, fake leather sharp as teeth against me. Red Nail Lady paws through and suddenly I see how much Dusty took, know there’s easily a hundred dollars in the purse that now is mine.
Stay here, Red Nail Lady says, and I stand motionless in the corner of the store, my nose pressed against the glass, her nails still gripping into my arm. The cops pull up and step out of their car in a flash of armor; blue uniforms and silver badges, combat boots, weaponry hooked into their belts. One of them nods his head towards me, glances back at the other, and they walk into the CVS. The handcuffs are cold against my wrists, heavy. I’m led into the back of a police car in silence, focus on not choking on the lump building in my throat. The car peels out from its parking space and onto the road, towards the police station and everything I know I deserve, and all I can think of is Dusty, her arms and legs pumping, running somewhere only she knows.
Greta Wilensky is a seventeen year old writer from Lowell, MA. She was the 2015 runner-up in prose for the first annual Winter Tangerine Review Prizes and a 2015 YoungArts winner in short story. Her work has been published in the Best Teen Writing Anthology of 2015 and Souvenir Lit Journal, and is forthcoming in the Winter Tangerine Review and the Blueshift Journal. Her work has been displayed at MoMA PS1 in New York City and in the Department of Education building in Washington, D.C.
Devanshi Khetarpal is the author of Welcome to Hilltop High (Indra, 2012) and a poetry collection called Co:ma,to'se (Partridge, 2014). She is an attendee of the prestigious Iowa Young Writers' Studio at the University of Iowa and was also accepted for the 2015 Sewanee Young Writers' Conference at Sewanee: The University of the South. Currently, she serves as the Poetry Editor for Phosphene Literary Journal and a Journalist/Representative for Redefy. She is the Co-Editor-in-Chief/Founder of Inklette magazine. Her work is forthcoming in The Cadaverine, Eunoia Review, Polyphony H.S. and Crack the Spine among others. She lives in Bhopal, India, where she is a junior in high school. Visit her blog/website: www.thepaperbackdevil.wordpress.com