by Cassia Gaden Gilmartin
It hurts when Aisling plucks the hair from under my brow. For a second my eyes close a little tighter; I feel the lines around them clench into deeper furrows, the way they’ll look when I’m old.
“Raise your brows.”
I raise them like I’m feigning surprise, but with my eyes closed. She plucks a stray hair, and then the bed sighs as she leans back to inspect her work.
“And you’re done.”
I blink and she’s there, sitting across from me on the bed, her own brows perfectly arched and filled in though she’s been nowhere today but school. Mine never look like that—they’re thick and straight, no arch, like two dead slugs. Today she said she’d fix them for me. My makeup is lined up at the ready on the dresser behind her. Foundation and contour kit, eye palettes, old tub of glitter that I don’t intend to use. On my bed, the sheet has come loose to expose a corner of the creaky mattress. I’ve had that pink sheet on there for months, with the purple duvet set Mum bought me to match the lilac of the walls. It’s time I changed them.
Aisling changed her bed yesterday, before her boyfriend Conor came over, replacing a pile of cream and flower patterns with a blue duvet and black sheet. She said it needed to be black.
She’s at the dresser by the time I’ve uncrossed my legs. Tossing the glitter away into my makeup bag, tossing some other things in there too. “What do you want to look like?” she asks.
I glance at my outfit first: a green bandage dress with a frill in the front that hides my tummy, slung across the chair in the corner for now. I stand up to examine myself in the mirror on the wardrobe door. The big eyes, the pinkish tweezed arches.
“Just hot,” I tell her.
Every time Dad mowed the grass when we were kids, we ran to save the daisies from the lawnmower. The shed where he kept it was hidden at the side of the house, so when we were playing in the back garden we’d hear it before we saw it. The tap and whir as it started, then the purr of the engine. Sometimes we’d give up on the flowers out front, where he started, as being a hopeless cause, but we had to pick the rest. Aisling, older by two years, would tell me where to go. I took the patch of garden she gave me and managed to clear it every time, piling the plucked daisies on the patio or in flowerbeds.
When I picked too many too fast I’d end up crushing them in my fist, throwing a mush of bent stems together on the pile. With my hands overflowing I’d just barely get the job done.
“Let’s go with this, this and this.” Standing in front of me with a makeup brush in hand, she points the brush in turn at three shades in a palette I’ve barely used. The last one’s a shimmering gold.
I sit on the bed again and close my eyes so she can dab on primer. Her thumb rubs across each eye, hard enough to make light and dark flash about behind my closed lids. After that she starts with the base shade, a pinkish tone like ground-up skin.
“Has Conor texted back?” I ask, while she rubs the brush against the eyeshadow to gather powder.
“Not yet.” She holds up the brush. “Close your eyes.”
I close them.
She brushes the shadow on in long sweeps, all the way up to where she plucked the hair from. “He said he’d be out with his parents for dinner tonight.”
“Today’s his actual birthday, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” There’s a rustling sound as she rummages through the bag for another brush, a pressure again as she applies the next colour. “I posted on his Facebook earlier.”
“He should at least get in touch and say hi or something.” I stop, because I don’t know what to claim he should be saying besides hi, and hi on its own sounds stupid. Maybe I just don’t trust him. He was late to pick her up last week, the day she took her first driving lesson, when he’d promised to take her out for dinner. She’d chosen earrings and a matching necklace to wear for him, and waited an hour before he texted to say he was parked down the road.
“He’ll be busy.”
“I guess.” I blink, close my eyes again. She’s on the gold now.
Yesterday morning, she asked me to go sleep over at a friend’s house. She wanted to let Conor spend the night while Mum and Dad were still away. She’d bought a card, and got wine from a friend who had ID, and she was going to give him sex as a birthday present. She was going to give it, I thought, not the way you give a holiday or a secret or anything else to share together, but the way you give a card or wine, or something in patterned paper to be unwrapped.
He was on our couch when I came back in the door this morning. His hair was the same bleached blonde as that guy in Wezz who ranked me and my friends by the size of our boobs.
“Hi,” I said.
He raised a hand as if to wave, then dropped it again and went back to scrolling something on his phone.
I heard the key in the bathroom door, and Aisling came out. Her hair was tousled. She was wearing the Minnie Mouse pyjamas I bought her last Christmas. “Oh, hey,” she said, and to Conor: “This is Abby.”
“Hey,” he said.
When he’d left, she came into my room and sat on the foot of the bed. “I didn’t bleed on the sheet,” she told me.
I pulled the duvet up around me. “He still seems like a prick.”
“You’re the expert are you?” She smiled and hugged her knees. “He gave me head for ages first, and when we were done he asked how it was for me.”
“He didn’t have much to say to me though.” I looked her in the eye. Last night’s makeup, smudged around her eyes, made them smoulder.
“He didn’t want to use a condom, because he wouldn’t be able to feel me properly. I made him, though.”
I gave up and smiled back at her, wondering whether it hurt.
When I twirled a daisy between my fingers I could make the petals spin like a tiny white fan. Afterwards, I’d turn it over and spin it upside down. I liked to stare into the damp of the broken end, the invisible severed networks of vessels—xylem and phloem, the Junior Cert in my head tells me now. We thought of the flowers with the longest stems as the eldest, curling over like old ladies with bent backs.
Maybe we just wanted to be the ones who did the plucking.
“Wait a sec.” She walks over to the dresser, opens the top drawer and rifles through it. There’s still a familiarity in the way she goes through my things. Back when we shared this room, she used to keep her makeup in that drawer too. “Who’s going to the party?” she asks.
Not finding what she’s looking for, she disappears down the hall. I think of that song we learned in primary school, the one about flowers and war. Girls pick the flowers, it said, and then meet boys and marry them. The boys die as soldiers and the flowers grow again on their graves. Where have all the flowers gone, the song asked. Long time passing. Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago.
She comes back, liquid liner in hand. “Anyone in particular?”
She always thinks there’s someone in particular. There’s not: there’s something too much for me in the way the boys and girls from school act together. Kissing hard at parties, as if they might crawl inside one another, then wiping their mouths before they return to the crowd. One girl says she’s had sex already. She’s tall, with gold hair like a lion’s mane that’s always catching the sun.
Aisling’s up on the bed again, perched in front of me, before I can get out an answer. “Stay really still,” she tells me.
I try not to let my eyelids flicker. She paints a line across each lid, flaring out to the sides. Cat eyes.
We learned that song together in the same classroom, each of us part of a tiny class group that only took up one table. During maths—my class still adding and subtracting, hers on long division—we were too far apart for passing notes, but would turn and grin at each other.
The lyrics are replaying in my head as she finishes my makeup. She does thick concealer to hide the dark circles under my eyes, then foundation and contour. She blends everything, her hand on my shoulder while she presses hard with the brush.
When she’s done, I get up to look in the wardrobe mirror. My hair’s still wild, my body hidden under school uniform, but my face belongs to someone else. I blink, and cat eyes blink back at me.
“Go get changed,” Aisling says.
In the bathroom, I pull my tummy in while I pull up the dress, and try to pretend everything won’t bulge again the minute I stop holding it in. The fabric ends just before my knees, and I curse the red mark on my shin where I cut myself shaving. I could wear tights, but no one does that. The sheen of them would stand out.
“When does this thing start?” Aisling calls through the door.
“I’ll be out in a sec.”
Long time passing. Long time ago. The same lines over and over, until I’m back in that shared classroom. Mum had bought me new shoes the day before we learned the song, branded runners that she thought would look cool. The left one scraped my heel the whole time we were singing. It was little more than an itch at first, but every time no one was looking I slid a finger down the back of my sock to scratch at the place where it would cut me later. One time my finger caught on a bit of flayed skin. I flinched, and my finger came away bloody.
She’s in her coat when I come out of the bathroom. She picks up a hairbrush that’s been sitting on the radiator, smiles and hands it to me. I brush my hair in front of the bathroom mirror, but can’t think of anything I want to do with it, so I leave it hanging flat against my shoulders.
It surprises me to realise the shops will be open; I was thinking of it as later in the night. When we step outside, me still buttoning my coat, it feels late. It’s dark and there’s a wind that has the trees waving. I look up and see clouds, all shades of purple like bruises, trailing across the sky.
“What time was it Mum and Dad get back?” she asks as we turn out of our driveway onto the street.
“Not until the afternoon,” I say. “Don’t worry about the tidying tonight.”
“No, that’s grand.” She’s not looking at me. Her eyes keep sliding past mine, to rest on our neighbours’ gardens as we pass them by. I realise I’ve hit a growth spurt. A few more inches and I’ll be looking at her face to face. “Do you really not like Conor?” she asks me.
“Like, do you really think he’s a bad guy?” She glances over at me, just once. The streetlights make her face look paler.
“He doesn’t pay you any attention.”
“It wasn’t his first time last night, you know. He’s been patient with me.”
“I know,” I say, though I don’t know anything really. I let out the breath I’ve been holding, and remember what Dad said about fixing up the garden. “We should cut the grass tomorrow.”
She just keeps walking, hands in her pockets for warmth, while with every rise and dip in the road I think how she won’t be able to catch herself if she falls. We’ve reached the long road that leads to the bus stop and the Spar.
“Right, yeah,” she says. “Sorry I can’t do lifts just yet.”
“It’s grand. The bus goes right to Meaghan’s house.”
When I get there, the party will already have been going for a couple of hours. I’ll have to drink fast to catch up. They’ll be playing Never Have I Ever, maybe, and I’ll drink for some things I haven’t done as well as the ones I have, just to make people wonder. People will like the dress and I’ll find things to compliment in return.
Later, when everyone’s doing their own thing, I’ll find a boy to hang out with. One of the shy ones, maybe; I’ll like it better if he’s shy, I think. I’ll ask him if he wants a drink and he’ll top me up from someone else’s bottle of vodka. There won’t be much mixer left, so I’ll empty the last splash of Coke into my glass and it won’t take long to drink. I’ll put my hand over his and hold it until he leads me into a corner somewhere. We’ll kiss and I’ll guide his hand up my top to cup my breast. When he reaches my nipple, he’ll pinch it lightly between finger and thumb.