by Natalie Chudnovsky
We’re ten years old.
Lily’s in the living room watching TV because she’s too much of a scaredy cat for this game. Mia’s sitting in the chair, eyes shut. I hand her a turkey sandwich.
“The sandwich you’re holding is made with bread, lettuce, and… fingers. Now take a bite,” I say. “Mm, delicious,” says Mia.
“There’s dirt underneath the fingernails,” I say. “The bones are all crunchy. It’s… it’s really gross. You’re still listening right?” “Course I am,” says Mia, shoving the rest of the sandwich in her mouth. She gets up and bows.
“Okay Emily, my turn,” says Mia. “Lay down and close your eyes.”
The carpet is a dull green. It smells thick and un-vacuumed. Mia blows on my eyelids to make sure they’re shut. I giggle.
“There’s a cockroach next to your foot,” she says, a smile in her voice. She knows I hate insects.
“It’s circling your leg. Eww, it touched you leg. Okay, it passed it. It’s going for the sandwich we left on the floor. Wait,” she pauses for dramatic effect and leans in close. I can feel her breath on my ear. “It changed its mind.”
If I open my eyes, I lose the game. The key is to think of something else.
“It’s going up your shoe. Now it’s getting over your sock. It’s crawling up. Its tiny feet feel like little hairs.”
She brushes the end of her ponytail on my shin and I shiver.
“It’s past your knee now. It’s crawling up the inside of your thigh…”
I jerk upright and wriggle my legs. “It’s still there, it’s still there!” Mia yells. I run to the living room. When Lily and I come back, Mia’s on the floor, laughing.
“I’m the oldest, and I think we should play something else,” says Lily. “Emily was fine when she was doing it to me. Besides, it’s my house,” says Mia. “It’s your parent’s house,” I say. “My mom’s, you mean. My dad doesn’t live here anymore,” says Mia. “Okay, but that doesn’t make you our boss,” says Lily. “Whatever,” says Mia.
We’re thirteen. Lily’s black hair is like a sheet on her back. It’s nutrition period and we’re in the empty bathroom on the third floor. Lily’s note is crumpled in my pocket. I need to talk to you.
“Can you ask Mia to stay with you?” says Lily. I look at the floor. “You’re the one with the guest room,” I say. “Look, Mia’s been at my house for a week now. I love that girl, but she’s driving me cah-razy. She’s moody all the time. My parents keep asking me when she’ll leave.”
“Maybe she can go back to her own place? She can’t stay mad at her mom and stepdad forever. I’m sure they had a reason for yelling at her. You know how she says horrible things sometimes. ” Lily is putting on eyeliner, face two inches from the mirror, mouth slightly open.
“It’s more complicated than that,” she says importantly. “Mia said that after she fought with her stepdad, he came to her room to apologize and sat on her bed and kept stroking her hair. And then her back – you know, in a weird way. She was crying when she told me and I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. But she was really freaked. You should ask her. She made me promise not to talk about it.”
“What?” I know that I should feel shocked, scared on Mia’s behalf, but instead I’m angry at Mia for telling Lily first. I had always assumed I was closer to her than Lily.
“What did her stepdad do?” I say.
“I don’t know. She was kind of hard to understand.”
“Why didn’t she tell me,” I say, more to myself than to Lily.
“She thinks her mom won’t believe her if she says anything. Hell, I’m not sure I do,” says Lily.
“How can you not believe her?” “You said yourself, she gets riled up, she says horrible things. Anyways, you guys are always off in some dream world together, so maybe you’ll get through to her more than I can.”
Lily says this nonchalantly, as if she thinks we’re both nuts, but there’s some hurt underneath. Maybe she feels excluded too, and that thought softens me a little.
“Have you seen her today?” she says.
“Not yet,” I say.
“Well, don’t act shocked when you do. Yesterday she locked herself in my bathroom and she cut off all her hair. My mom and I tried to fix it up, but she said she likes it all uneven. It took me an hour to clean up the floor. She looks like a boy now.”
I had always wished I had the guts to cut off my hair. I watch Lily prune at her reflection. And then I feel a pang of guilt for thinking of myself rather than Mia. “Want to try? I can teach you,” Lily says, holding out the eyeliner. I shake my head. “I’ll ask Mia to stay over,” I say.
There’s a new boy at school and it’s lunchtime. The burrito from the cafeteria sits unwrapped on my tray, tiny beads of residue collecting on the inside of the plastic wrap. I open the bag of apple slices and eat those instead.
“He’s sitting all alone,” I say.
“Maybe he’s a werewolf, and doesn’t want the company of mortal flesh,” says Mia.
“Werewolves aren’t immortal,” I say, pointing my plastic fork at her. “And they wouldn’t care about human flesh unless they’re transformed. So obviously, he’s a secret agent.”
“Obviously,” Mia agrees. “Why else would a good looking guy be eating lunch by himself.”
“You guys are crazy. He’s probably just a weirdo loner,” says Lily.
“We should invite him to sit with us,” I say.
“Then do it,” says Lily, flipping through the pages of a magazine. “His name’s Aidan. He’s in my geometry class.”
“He’s in our grade?” I say. “He looks older.”
“Emily thinks he’s cute, don’t you Em?” says Lily.
I shake my head, but heat blooms in my cheeks.
“The worst he can do is say no,” says Mia. “Just do it.”
I pretend to be interested in the cover of Lily’s magazine. She rolls it up and waves it out of my reach. You think he’s cue-oot she sings.
“You guys are ridiculous,” says Mia. “I’ll go ask him.”
She walks off and Lily rolls her eyes.
“I’m ridiculous?” says Lily. “Secret agent my ass.”
Mia and I are in the park next to her house. Her brown hair is short and choppy, barely brushing her shoulders. The sky is a low flat grey, charged with the promise of rain. It smells like earth and wet concrete. Mia has kicked her shoes off and she’s sitting on the swing. I open a textbook and flip through it absentmindedly, not seeing the pages – a nervous habit.
“You’re always studying,” she says. “You’ve already gotten into college. Relax.” There’s an edge to her voice. I close my book. “Aidan said you talked to him today,” she says.
I look down at my shoes. The rubber edge is peeling away.
“I didn’t tell him anything,” I say.
I pull a blade of grass from the ground. “Just that this is your first relationship and he needs to take things slowly because you’ve had some bad experiences.”
“So you think you know what’s best for me? Why’d you think I wouldn’t tell him myself?” she says.
“He looked shocked when I told him. I just wanted to protect – ”
“I don’t need your fucking protection, Emily. You think you’re doing me a favor? Or you just want to feel like you’re such a good friend. Friends are supposed to respect each other, right? ” I grab fistfuls of grass and tear them away.
Mia is the only topic of conversation Aidan and I share. I like that he comes to me with questions about her. I like the way he touched my arm when he said, what would I do without you, Emily?
“If you liked him, why didn’t you tell me when I asked you?” she says. “I didn’t want to get in the way,” I say. “Oh no, you wouldn’t want to do that. You’re so wrapped up in your head, Em. You need to grow up.”
“I don’t see what I did wrong,” I say. “Aidan wanted advice about you, so I gave him some. You’re just lashing out, like you always do when you can’t handle your own feelings.”
“Can’t you put yourself in my shoes? What if I talked to your boyfriend and explained to him that you spend hours overanalyzing everything and you’re a complete coward? That you study oh so hard just to avoid being with people because everything makes you so fucking anxious? If you ever get a boyfriend, I mean.”
I pick up my book and brush away the grass from my skirt. I can’t look at her face.
“Say something,” she yells. I run back home and sit on my porch until I’ve stopped crying. I decide that this time, she’s going to have to apologize first. She never does.
Lily and I are sitting in the patio of Ramen Jinya – a Japanese noodle house. She chose the place. We watch the traffic go by until our food arrives.
I eat the pork slices first, then the noodles and then I pick up the bowl and tilt it to drink the salty broth.
“How are you, Emily?”
“I’m good. School’s going well. How’s, um…”
“Community college? I’m transferring next semester. Good riddance.”
I haven’t seen her since high school. Two years of college and I have nothing to say. I want to tell her that I’ve grown and changed. I’m open now, I want to tell her. So much less nervous, more comfortable in my own skin. Look at how relaxed I am now, how mature. But being here with her makes me feel like seventeen-year-old Emily again.
I pick at the dessert menu. I’ve read it cover to cover twice. Lily eats her noodles but leaves the rest untouched. I realize I haven’t ever spent time with her without Mia.
“I actually called you up for a specific reason,” she says. “Mia’s been in a really bad state.”
She pours two cups of tea, and pushes one towards me.
“She hasn’t left her house in three months now. I know you guys haven’t seen each other since you fought before graduation, but I thought you should know. You were her best friend.”
The tea burns my tongue.
“That doesn’t sound like Mia at all,” I say.
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened for sure. She was missing for a while, and they found her sleeping in some office building bathroom at night, wandering around during the day. Her mom says that she refuses therapy. Doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t sleep and wake up like a normal person. She just kind of lives in this dreamy haze.”
The noodles turn in my stomach.
“But what happened?” I say.
“You know she pushes everyone away. And then when she went to college, she didn’t know anyone. And the people she pushed away never came back. She was alone.”
She drinks the last of her tea and pours herself another cup. “Anyways, that’s just what I think. Her mom thinks she has some sort of chemical imbalance, but Mia refuses to take see a doctor or take medication. Which sounds kind of like her. But apart from that, she’s not belligerent at all.”
“Have you seen her?” I say.
“No, I met with her mother last week. She says Mia’s been talking about us recently. But her mom stressed that if we visit, we need to do it for the right reasons.”
“And you didn’t go see her?” I say.
Lily blows on her tea and the steam uncurls.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I don’t think it would help her to see me. You know Mia and I grew apart, we stopped talking after tenth grade. And now, I feel like…”
Lily looks out into the street. Her cheeks are hollowed now and she’s wearing dark lipstick. It suits her. “When I was eight,” she says, “I went to my grandma’s funeral. That was the first time I had ever seen my grandmother. My brother and I were so bored. I even tried to cry. I stared at one spot without blinking until my eyes watered. Anyways, my brother was excited that there was an actual dead person in the room. When we came up to look into the casket, he touched my grandmother’s hand. Everyone thought it was a sweet gesture, but he just wanted to know what a dead hand would feel like.”
She ties up her hair.
“I guess, if I saw Mia now it’d be for the same reason. To touch a dead hand. To see what that kind of breakdown would feel like. I don’t think that would help her at all.”
We watch the traffic go by. Two men sitting next to us light cigarettes. One of them keeps glancing over at Lily.
“What would the right reason be?” I say finally.
“I’m not sure,” she says.
I’m standing in front of Mia’s door.
The paint is peeling away at the edges and there’s a plastic holly wreath underneath the knocker, even though it’s July.
I take a step back. You’re a coward. I take a step forward, hand hovering over the knocker. I don’t need you to protect me.
It makes me sick to think back and remember being jealous of Mia. Thinking that things happened to her, while nothing happened to me at all.
What would the right reason be?
In the window there’s a silhouette, out of focus, dark blue against the yellowing curtain. Short choppy hair. She puts a hand on the windowpane.
And I’m afraid.
I run. I run down little concrete path, past the lawn into the street.
The car doesn’t hit me, but the scrape of wheels makes me trip and my head smashes the concrete.
“Oh shit dude.” The car doors open.
The headlights are blinding and there’s a deafening hum in my ears. I fall away from myself.
I’m in a Japanese noodle house, familiar, but off-kilter. The ceiling is low and Mia’s sitting at the bar. To her right are two men, like the ones who sat next to me and Lily, but their features have been scrubbed away, and they’re bent over their bowls, chopsticks in hand, scooping thin brown noodles into their mouths.
“You came,” says Mia.
“What is this place?”
Mia looks around.
“Don’t you recognize it?” she says. “The place isn’t mine, so it must come from you.”
Five scared looking girls scurry past the bar, and each starts wiping down the dark gleaming tables. They’re all shaved bald. A man in a dirty apron comes out of the kitchen and barks at a girl wearing a shapeless grey dress. She shuffles into the kitchen without looking at us.
“So what do we do?” I say.
“What I usually do is try to make up a story,” says Mia. “For example, that man with the apron is the father. He runs the restaurant.”
“And those are his daughters?” I say.
“Yeah. And they can’t leave. He keeps them here. They’re not allowed to talk to each other or anyone else.”
I look over at the three balding men. They slurp noisily and orange broth specks the front of their shirts.
“Mia, those aren’t noodles. It’s hair.”
Mia nods slowly. “The daughters grow out their hair during the day, and at night their father cuts it for the soup. It makes the men strong,” she says.
The girl in the grey dress comes out of the kitchen, two steaming bowls in her hands. She takes small steps, taking care that her slippers never leave the wood floor, and puts soup in front of us. The soup smells good – like chicken broth and green onion and chili pepper. I lean over to look at the tangle of soaked hair in the bowl and I want to vomit. The two men finish their broth and smack the bowls on the bar table. The father walks to the bar, and the men lean into to whisper to him. They point at us and dread grips my stomach.
“You can leave, you know. You just open your eyes,” says Mia. “It’ll be easier for you than it is for me.”
The father takes out a pair of scissors from a drawer and wipes them on his apron.
“Will you come?” I say.
“I’ll be there too,” she says. “I’m here. And I’m there.”
He walks around the bar slowly, closing the scissors with a slick snap.
“Such beautiful hair,” he says, and his voice sounds familiar, though I can’t place it.
I shut my eyes and open them. My breaths are coming too quickly.
“It’s not working, Mia.”
My heart is beating unevenly. He’s behind me. I can smell salt and raw meat on his breath. He strokes my head, and then twirls a strand of my hair around his finger.
Then I feel a gentler touch, Mia’s fingers, something on my knee.
“Emily,” Mia says, “There’s a cockroach on your leg.”
I’m in Mia’s living room. Her mother helps me up.
“There’s an ambulance outside,” she says. “You were only out for a few minutes, but they need to make sure there’s no concussion.”
She leads me towards the door. Mia’s standing in front of the windowpane, like a ghost. Her skin looks like tracing paper under the lamplight. She holds my eyes for a moment.
“I’m going to come back, Mia.” I say.
Natalie Chudnovsky, as her last name suggests, was born in Russia, though she grew up mainly in Los Angeles, reading books and drinking too much tea.