The moment they became friends, Spike started begging Alice to let him give her a makeover. She knew she needed a new look. One that would help her get out of town, and maybe even inspire Spike to love her. But Alice worried about him seeing that she still looked forgettable and wrong, no matter what he tried. In her heart, she knew this would be the outcome.
He ended up calling it off after just five minutes.
Weird, Spike muttered. It's like makeup doesn't work on you. The experience was traumatizing for him. His trembling hands fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette and lighter, which Alice slapped away. Not in my room, she'd sighed. Mom will smell.
But this was just Alice being grumpy — her mother, Mary, wasn't home and of course wouldn't care; she was a permissive sort who parented on autopilot now that Alice was in junior high. There were a few anemic rules. There were zombie rules that would occasionally resurrect, fiercely insist upon themselves with an unwarranted hunger, and then disappear as quickly as they'd come. But nothing thrived under her mother's roof, and rules were no exception.
I know you're going to do the drugs and the sex, all of it, her mother liked to say. Life's a bore; why wouldn't you? Mary's boyfriend du jour, a sunburnt construction worker who was always bare-chested, plus or minus a reflective yellow vest, sometimes voiced disagreement. Too lax there, hey, Mary? Go a bit strict. If you say "No kissing," then it's like a thing in her mind when she's kissing. Some guilt, see, and if she goes further, she feels like a real tart. He'd look down at his belly button, extract something that was lodged inside. When you're all, "Sure, try a threesome and heroin," think about how far she has to go to rebel, huh? You've got to take psychology into account.
Pigshit, her mother would respond. Life is trial and disappointment. Vice gets stale once you've had a taste. And the boyfriend would make a lobotomy face and start thrusting his crotch back and forth into the wall, and Alice would walk away with her mother's cackling laughter filling her ears.
But other than her room, there was nowhere for Alice to go, really. Occasionally she'd wander over to the apartment of their elderly neighbor Patrice, who always left her door open. She was nearly blind, but the way her enormous prescription glasses magnified the thin liver spots on her cheeks made her appear to have additional eyes. Whenever she addressed Alice, she'd look far beyond the borders of Alice's physical person to enter a conversation with a radiator or a long-retired lamp. Patrice always wanted her to smell things, and Alice got the smells completely wrong. Isn't this lilac? she might ask of a bottle of ancient perfume that had pickled to the odor of warm ammonia.
Once, she opened up a tin of baking flour and reached out to grab Alice's wrist with urgency. Tell me true, she asked, her whisper barely audible. Does this smell like a cat? She pressed the tin too close to Alice's face, dusting her nose a heavy white. The other day I thought I smelled it, Patrice confessed. Wet cat on the bread I made. For the rest of the visit, the tin took on a macabre relevance for Alice. She had to leave because she couldn't shake the creeping irrational thought that it wasn't flour at all. What if the tin was full of the cat ashes of Patrice's former cremated pets? What if there'd been a horrible kitchen mix-up?
After her failed makeover, as she and Spike walked to the gas station, he talked about how they were a natural pair, like two birds in the wild: he was bright and colorful; she was camouflaged to blend in with the underbrush.
She didn't find the metaphor comforting. There was something bird-like, though, about Spike. The first time she'd seen him, he'd reminded her of a tall, pierced, rubbery swan whose body stretched to shift shape. Bones? she could imagine Spike saying. Yeah, I don't have them. Spike could do small things, like dye his hair a different color or wear one long earring, and completely change his face. His current hair was a black feathery plume of mohawk.
The pain between her legs was a guiding rope, a lifeline she clung to in the hopes that it might pull her elsewhere.
The gas station didn't sell gas, but somehow this didn't disqualify it from the title. Everyone called it the gas station. Its actual name was some string of monosyllabic words that seemed like a phrase for emergency-response protocol: Stop Shop Save. Spike liked to go there to flirt with guys and try to get people to buy him cigarettes, to steal candy or warm cans of fruit punch that made the inside of his mouth look like he'd just thrown up red paint for an hour.
She didn't like going there; Spike was too good at making new friends. Whenever they went to the gas station, she came home alone.
Can't I just try sleeping with you? she finally asked Spike, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. For practice?
His eyelids were glittery and his fingernails were glittery; she knew that all she had to do to be so close to the glitter that she glittered herself was convince him. Spike paused, looked into the sun. I've never done it with a girl sober, he said. I don't even know if it would work.
What if we watched something while we did it? On the Internet?
Spike gave her a look of amused sympathy. Girl, he smiled, I didn't know you were so hard up.
That evening, in the dark, the muted cries of men on her computer were a helpful chorus cheering her on. The pain between her legs was a guiding rope, a lifeline she clung to in the hopes that it might pull her elsewhere.
When he finished and she looked down at the blood, she tried to interpret it as a spent catalyst, a sign of transformation, but ultimately could only see the truth. Which was that she'd opened another window only to look out on the same landscape. She'd been thinking of sex as her best chance at a journey that could take her somewhere other than back to herself, back to herself alone, and it hadn't. "But maybe Spike will feel differently now?" she thought, and seconds later, when the delusion of what she was telling herself sank in, she felt as though she'd spit upon her own face.
She still continued to fantasize about Spike having a change of heart. But it was a very manageable sort of optimism, a low-running engine in the boiler room of her chest. It acted up occasionally but usually responded to a hefty beating against the pipes with a wrench.
When it did flare, cutting sometimes felt unavoidable. Spike both hated and loved to watch, and Alice liked him watching. There was a martyr effect, good for her own peace of mind even if he was oblivious: Swan, look, I bleed for your Mohawk. She enjoyed the horror on his face, his exaggerated expressions of pain and empathy. She liked to pretend he wasn't looking at her cut at all, but seeing an average day of her life and reacting appropriately.
In her room, Spike's favorite thing to do was go through each of her drawers very slowly, halfheartedly scanning their contents like a disappointed thief. Today he pulled a sanitary napkin out of her bottom drawer. This is, like, the size of a shoulder pad. Why don't you use tampons? They look so much cooler in their little individual packages. Like cigars.
I think tampons are creepy, she told Spike. Like, too participatory. Too "come on in."
Why? The way they feel?
The way they don't feel. You put it in and then you can't even tell it's there. It seems deceptive. Like it's tricking my radar.
He held his hand out in front of her. She liked the way he did this, with great authority, like an international stop sign that all bullshit had to obey. Untrue. Radar is for pain. You can't feel your spleen right now, can you? That's good. That means it isn't about to burst.
A tampon is not an organ. He was right though, about pain and radar. For Alice, cutting was like a loud alarm that went off, even loud enough to drown out thoughts. It drowned out the imperceptible hush inside the house when she was home alone, the sound of the walls reminding her that things could easily be better, but weren't.
We have to move you forward, he sighed. Try a tampon. I'm sure your mother has one. If you try one, I'll have sex with you again. This was now a reoccurring barter in their relationship, always wielded by him instead of her. She tried it once, and he'd laughed and said, That's OK, I'm good, and she'd thought she was going to pass out; she'd felt an insane amount of sweat building up underneath her arms and in the creases where her legs joined her torso, as if the glue that held her limbs onto her body were melting. So now she waited for him to want something and offer, every time.
The colorless outline of her reflection suddenly appeared in his lip gloss. Except it wasn't quite her; it was the smiling ghost of her future self.
When Mary's breakup with the construction worker happened, Alice did hope Spike might see the additional misery Alice was under and extend some masturbatory pity. Breakups meant that for weeks, her mother would do nothing but lie on the couch and watch the TV. There was a certain detergent commercial that featured a talking stuffed animal holding a handful of helium balloons and rising up with them into the sky. Whenever it played, her mother would start weeping.
Until the funk lifted, Mary would forget to go to the grocery store. She'd also forget how much cash was in the zipped quadrant of her purse, and Alice could take some money every few days without its being noticed. It felt like earned wages, because Alice would sit with her for hours, feeling like it was somehow wrong to change the television channel even when the programming shifted to an infomercial. Well, was all her mother occasionally said. Her voice sounded gravelly and dangerous and gave Alice the distinct impression that her mother's breath must smell like a campfire. I didn't think it would end so soon.
That night, at nearly 3 a.m., Spike climbed into her room through the window. He threw himself across the floor dramatically, like he'd just survived a shipwreck. I met the most amazing boy, Spike squealed. I think he might take me with him to Europe.
Shhhh, Alice said. Mom broke up with Larry. She's got the house locked down in tomb mode.
Do you have food? Spike asked. I'm beyond starving.
Alice tiptoed to her mother's bedroom and found her ridiculous, giant purse. It was patterned with cartoon images of citrus fruits engaging in acts of flirtation: a rambunctious orange made eyes at a shy but interested lemon; an oversized lime, whose circular, slightly askew eyes hinted toward its naïveté, was oblivious to the fact that it was a third wheel.
Alice returned with a wad of small bills. Seeing the money, Spike leaped up off the floor and began a series of celebratory jumps that made her smile. For a moment, they both stood and looked at it in awe. It almost felt like a ticket to anywhere, to the rest of their lives.
They walked to the 24-hour McDonald's, Spike sashaying, men occasionally leaning out of car windows and calling animal sounds out to him. You know, he said, if the moon were always full, I think everyone would be dead by the age of 30. It was bad, Alice knew, how she wasn't close to 30 but already felt dead.
The place was packed with intoxicated people speaking loudly. Of course Spike wanted to be in the middle of it all, but since she was buying, he agreed to a back booth where they could chat about Spike's beau of the evening, who was apparently a small-time DJ. When he grabbed one of the softer French fries, the soggy ones that she liked, he'd briefly stop talking and feed it to her. Lately, I feel like I should really leave here, Alice said when they were done, as Spike looked into his compact mirror and touched up his makeup. But then I remember that I don't have beauty or money to help me make it out. She stared out the restaurant's large window. A guy was trying to do a headstand on the back of a car. When he fell, a laughing girl hugged him. Or love, she added.
Spike closed his compact and lowered his eyes, staring at the carnage of empty sauce packets and wrappers on their table. "We've expended all our resources together," Alice thought. "We're done." Finally, he started loading their garbage onto the tray. Almost as an afterthought, he turned as her neighbor Patrice might, looking near her but not at her, and said, You'll make it. I mean, it'll be hard, but you don't expect a lot, and you're not easily disappointed. That's an advantage.
And then, to her great surprise, as Alice stared at Spike's mouth in the restaurant's fluorescent light, something happened. The colorless outline of her reflection suddenly appeared in his lip gloss. Except it wasn't quite her; it was the smiling ghost of her future self. An image of Alice, several years older, like time travel. It stayed for a moment. Just long enough to let Alice know she wasn't imagining it, that Spike's words were true. When the image disappeared, Alice told Spike she agreed with him.
Alissa Nutting is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College. She is the author of the story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, as well as the novel Tampa. Her new novel Made for Love is published by Ecco.