Prose by Marianna Schultz
Art by Grace Guy
We burn the needle over a lighter Mimi found in her mom’s purse. Then she lies on her pink sheets, facing away from me as I kneel next to her head. With clean hands I tuck a dry bar of soap behind her ear and poise the needle over the dot she drew. I don’t really want to pierce her ear, but it’s a friendship thing, she assures me. An earring instead of a bracelet. A more permanent promise.
I tell her to breathe in and her small chest rises, then I sink the needle through the cartilage. It goes straight through the mark, but comes out at an angle at the back. I’m disappointed, I wanted to impress both of us with a natural talent.
“Is it done?” Mimi’s face is screwed up hard.
“I guess so.”
“That wasn’t too bad,” she says. She goes over to look closer in the mirrored door of her closet. The needle is still lodged in her ear. “Gimme the earring.” She opens and closes her hand at me, not taking her eyes off her reflection. I pick up a tissue holding the sterilized rhinestone stud and exchange it with the needle.
It’s my turn after that. I lie down and crush a fistful of bedsheet as Mimi drives the needle into my ear.
We admire our new reflections. Mimi has on a fresh face of drugstore makeup, even though it’s six p.m. and we don’t have plans for the rest of the day. She just likes to practice, I know, and I think she wants to be ready in case something happens. We’re always ready for something to happen.
I lean into the mirror to look at my ear. Mimi missed the mark I drew, it went a bit too high and now it’s hot and I can feel my heartbeat there. Some blood has congealed around the earring, which makes me feel better about the job I did on her.
Mimi wants to take photos, so I tuck my hair behind my oozing ear and put my cheek next to hers. She grins at us in the mirror, then looks herself in the eye as she takes the photo.
In the picture her gaze is fixed and unnatural, but a soft light happened to fall across my face.
“Why do you look so good in pictures?” she asks, pleadingly, like it’s something that I’m inflicting on her.
“I don’t,” I say. “Look,” pointing to my ear on the screen. “Disgusting.”
I know the comparison isn’t quite equal but she still accepts it in return. This kind of exchange is something we’re still working on perfecting.
We pick at a bag of individually wrapped rice crackers and green grapes that Mimi washed for us. It’s the same snack we’ve eaten since we were kids. I hold an ice cube wrapped in a paper towel to my ear, and keep taking it off to check if it’s still bleeding. The melted ice drips in pinkish lines down my forearm. Mimi scrolls through her phone and holds it up to me every few minutes, showing me different pictures of outfits and asking me if I think she’d look good in them. I look up from taking mindless history notes and say yes to the one with punky heels and no to the spandex skirt set.
This is how we spend a lot of our time, in her room, on the floor.
Downstairs the door opens and closes. It’s seven. This is when Mimi’s older brother comes home from university on Fridays to stay the weekend.
“Ugh,” she rolls her eyes as we hear him come upstairs.
I scoot away from the mirror and back to my open binder on the floor.
He pauses in the hallway on the way to his room, duffel bag in hand.
“Hey Jason,” I say.
“Hey kiddos.” He turns to come into the room.
“Shut up, don’t call us that.” Mimi reaches a foot to the edge of the door to try to close it in his face. He pretends to fight back against Mimi’s genuine efforts, grinning at me like it’s just us in on the joke.
I laugh, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to.
“How’s the studying going?” he asks, his elbow lodging the door open.
“It’s good,” I reply before Mimi manages to kick the door shut.
“Bye!” she yells. “God he’s such a loser.” She sprawls onto her bed.
“Wait, how is it, actually?” She leans over and grabs a sheet of my notes. “The quiz is on Monday, right?”
Mimi’s always said I’m the smart one. I feel guilty when I don’t deny it, which I rarely do. I know in the past she’s only said it because I don’t hand in late assignments or fail homework checks, but this year I’ve been trying to live up to the title. I took a summer camp at the university this summer and saw the sweatshirts with embroidered crests, the soft piles of unread student newspapers, the coffee chains glowing with open laptops and knew it was what I wanted. So, I’ve started skimming political articles on the front pages of news sites and staring at random pages of my mom’s copy of the Iliad between classes.
Mimi does well in school too, but in her own way. In class her comments are always obvious but so earnest that the teacher will thank her and graciously twist her answer into the point they were really trying to make. Last year she entered the talent show and played something on the piano. The music was trudging and clumsy but she wore a dress and played so confidently through her wrong notes that she came in second.
“Do you wanna do something? Wanna go out?” she asks, lying half on her bed and half on the carpet.
Going out means walking along Sixth, the strip of shops and restaurants a few blocks from her house. This is a Friday night activity. The goal is that we’ll run into kids from school doing the same thing as us. I’m not sure what is supposed to happen after that.
I pretend to be finishing a problem in my homework. “I guess so.”
It’s a straight walk to Sixth. It’s only seven but it’s already dark and the night feels hollow and dry as we move through it. A year ago, I would have been skittish and walked quickly with my arms crossed over my stomach. I’ve only stopped worrying about being kidnapped now that I stomp around in severe boots with loud heels, carrying a shoulder bag instead of a backpack.
As we walk Mimi texts some people from school and chats to me at the same time. She keeps answering her own questions and making herself laugh. When someone texts her something she finds funny she reads it out to me. I don’t mind it like this at all.
Sixth is yellow with street lights and scattered with adults on their cellphones trying to find the people they made plans with. There’s a restaurant on the first corner we turn. I walk past it often, but on weekends there’s outdoor seating with soft lights and music. It’s full of people with their work friends or fiancés eating and making noise together. The air around them dissolves with the gas from the heaters and their breath. I feel a rush of desire to be one of them, comfortable and sure and ordering appetizers and desserts.
“There they are.”
She’s talking about the three figures across the street. Our friends. They’re really Mimi’s friends who I hang out with. They’re nice enough, but every time Mimi leaves me with them to go to the bathroom I quietly panic as my mind clears of any thoughts or opinions.
They like to talk about other kids at school but mostly about this crime show I don’t watch. I don’t have the provider it’s on so I used to watch it with Mimi until she started catching up without me.
They’re sitting on the concrete steps outside the library. One of the boys is drinking from a coffee cup and the other from a plastic bottle. Ramona is smoking.
We all say hey to each other and start talking about school. Ramona offers us each a cigarette from the pack. I accept without thinking and regret it instantly. Mimi says no thanks and smiles.
I’m wondering if Jason will be around when we get home. Sometimes if I’m reading a book, he’ll ask me about it and relate it to a recent essay of his, or recommend a new one. I don’t always get what he’s talking about, but I don’t think he does either. I don’t mind though. It’s nice to talk like an adult sometimes.
Now all I can concentrate on is not coughing as Ramona and Mimi talk about how they’re worried about Frankie Ling’s cryptic posts on Instagram and the guys talk about the trailer of this horror movie they both want to see.
“What do you think?” Ramona says turning to me.
“Huh?” I blow some smoke from my mouth.
“You’re not even inhaling,” one guy says to me.
I feel a rush of shame, then a second one for caring what he thinks.
Ramona frowns at him and continues. “Have you seen her account? All this kinda emo, cry for help poetry. It’s dark shit. Not even very good. I feel like someone should reach out to her, though.”
“Oh right, I saw it. I dunno. I think if you actually needed help you’d just talk to someone in real life, right?”
“Harsh,” says the other guy.
“But it’s not like she has a best friend or anything,” Mimi says. I know she doesn’t mean to side against me, but I’m still annoyed.
“Then maybe you should try talking to her instead of gossiping about her life with us.” My words come out harder than I meant and suddenly I feel very ugly.
Ramona and Mimi look at each other again. I should probably apologize or laugh it off but I don’t want to have to acknowledge that I just spoke. I feel Mimi’s looking at me while I stand silently, and for a wild second I imagine that maybe no one heard me.
I feel something on the side of my neck, and when I touch it my fingers come away smeared with blood. I feel relieved as I hold up my hand in front of everyone. “Ew, look.”
“Oh! What the fuck, are you okay?” asks Ramona.
I push my hair back to show them and they all lean in towards me. Mimi takes a photo so I can see too. There’s a dark red line from my ear down my neck except for the spot I’d touched it. It looks like someone found a tab under my ear and peeled it back, pulling a thin, neat strip of skin off my neck.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not really. It’s just kind of warm. And itchy.”
“Maybe it’s infected,” says Ramona.
“But it’s new.”
“We should probably go,” Mimi apologizes.
They nod coolly and we turn to walk away. The three of them fill the space we leave.
I find myself talking more than Mimi on the way home which is unusual. I run out of things to say after a couple of blocks.
“Is it cool if I stay at yours tonight?”
“Yeah, obviously.” Her voice sounds flat and deeper than normal.
I look at the side of her face, she’s blinking a lot and it looks like she might cry. I can’t tell if she’s working not to or if she’s about to say something.
“I feel like you don’t try with my friends.”
I know that they’re not my friends, but I didn’t think that Mimi knew too. I thought even if she did know, she wouldn’t point it out.
“Sorry, I thought I was.”
Mimi presses her palms to her cheeks and sniffs.
“Can I still sleep over?”
“I said yes.”
The house is quiet when we get back. Mimi’s parents are still out. Jason creaks in his room upstairs. Mimi wipes the dried blood from my neck with a towel she wet in the sink and gives me a fresh pack of ice.
We’re settled into the couch with a sitcom on TV. I’m watching it with an open book on my lap, and Mimi’s asleep, curled between the leather cushions.
It’s ten when Jason comes downstairs in sweatpants with an empty plate in his hand. I have to twist around in my seat to see that it’s him.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hi. How was your week?”
“So busy. Enjoy high school while you can.” He says it like he’s the first person who ever has.
“What about you? What are you up to?” His plate clatters into the sink.
I hold up my book in response. It’s one of his recommendations. “It’s good.” I’ve only read the first chapter but I don’t say that.
“Oh, nice.” He gives an affirmative nod. “It’s good that you’re already so well read.”
“I don’t read that much,” I say truthfully, turning back to the TV.
“Sure you do. And you have good taste. That’s why you’re smarter than the girls in my classes.”
I know that’s not true. I feel a pang realizing he thinks I’m dumb enough to take the compliment.
I turn around again. It occurs to me that he doesn’t realize Mimi’s on the couch with me. He looks smug and expectant from the kitchen. I’m not surprised, but I feel a drowning disappointment in him. I had been happy with banter and recommendations. I thought that was the agreement.
His stubble is sparse and too long, his skin is washed out in the light, and he seems pathetically old. I hold his gaze blankly for a couple seconds, and frown a bit to show I’m rejecting him. I go back to watching the show, but I hear him walk up behind the couch.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch his hand approaching my face. Reaching for my hair, or my shoulder. It bumps my ear and I wince.
“Mimi,” I say, louder than necessary, some panic cracking through my voice.
Jason’s hand retracts like a pen and Mimi opens her eyes.
“Uh, what?” Her eyeshadow is smudged on one side.
I don’t know what to say. I just wait as she looks up and notices Jason there, then makes a face.
“Oh my god, get your own friends.” She closes her eyes again.
He takes his time, filling a glass of tap water all the way to the top, and looking through way too many cupboards before choosing a bag of chips.
“Do you want to go sleep in your room?” I ask Mimi.
She shakes her head and shimmies deeper between the cushions. Jason passes behind the couch and thuds across the landing. I pull a fleece blanket over the two of us, tucking it around her shoulders and my knees. Upstairs the door clicks shut again.
I text my mom that I’m staying at Mimi’s tonight. Mimi tugs the blanket higher on her body which pulls it tight between us. I dig the remote out from the couch and click through some shows, looking for something good.