With my parents and sister out of the house, I was finally alone. The curtain fluttered by the sliding glass door, and I swung it shut, flipping the lock into place. On TV, Billy Corgan swayed behind the wheel of an ice cream truck as I crept down the hall into the master bathroom with careful, measured footsteps. No one being home didn’t take away from the fact that my mission was covert, a highly classified secret.
After slowly unzipping my mother’s makeup bag, I fished around inside until my fingers touched what I had come for: a single tube of drugstore mascara. Having just turned thirteen, I had never worn makeup before in my life, but the well-read copy of Seventeen that was stashed in my room devoted an entire page to the art and science of mascara application. Less is more. Use a light hand. Don’t “pump” the wand, it pushes air into the tube. On the page opposite this piece of journalism, Cindy Crawford gazed out from a Maybelline Great Lash ad, smiling.
I wore a seafoam green sweatshirt, my shoulder-length hair swept up into a baseball cap, face scrubbed clean. For a moment, my mind harkened back to Andrew, a boy from my pre-algebra class. He wore Guess jean shorts and a slim gold chain around his neck, and his voice changed registers like a loon warbling on a mountain lake. I pictured his face, especially the soft flesh between his nose and mouth. I held the mascara wand in my right hand and with the gentlest of taps, applied a few short strokes to the outer corners of my upper lip. First one side, then the other. I took a step back and stared into the mirror, judging the effect. Yep, that should do it.
Stuffing the mailbox key into my jeans, I flung open the front door, ready to head out into the world.
Three months earlier up at the lake, Mom handed me a five dollar bill. “Go down to Obexer’s and get us a half gallon of milk.”
The little red and white shack on the side of the two-lane road that circled the lake was the closest thing for miles that resembled a grocery store. Inside were basic food items, wine coolers, sunscreen, and videos to rent for three dollars a day. Summer days up at the lake sometimes dissolved into one long, muggy blur of swinging in the hammock and playing Uno, and the water was far too cold to ever swim in unless you had wetsuits, which we didn’t. A trip to Obexer’s was a welcome errand.
“Bring me back the change,” Mom said. “And take your sister.”
I clenched the money in my fist. Everything always seemed more expensive at Obexer’s but maybe this time there would be enough money left over to get a donut or a Snickers bar. We began our walk, passing the white mailbox at the end of the driveway, edging along the part of the road where the two-lane highway met the gravely shoulder. Because there were no sidewalks, Mom and Dad preferred we walk single-file but since they weren’t around, we walked side by side. Since I was older, I took the side closest to the road.
Inside Obexer’s, a Hamm’s beer sign slowly rotated from the ceiling, emitting a swampy, yellow-green glow. My sister held up a plastic quart jug with a smiling cartoon cow on the side, seeking approval.
“No, this one,” I said, pointing to another brand. Mom preferred non-fat.
The journey back to the house typically took about fifteen minutes, and I held the cardboard half gallon of milk in the crook of my arm as we made our way along the shoulder. We walked with the flow of traffic, and played a game upon hearing cars and trucks approaching behind us. Smaller vehicles made different noises than RVs and trucks, and we tried to guess what kind of car was coming based on the sounds we heard. We’d been doing this for years and had yet to ever guess correctly. Soon enough, we heard the hum of an engine.
“Ford Bronco,” I said.
“Land Cruiser,” my sister countered.
A teal Toyota Tacoma sped by.
Moments later, a different noise emerged from behind. It was quieter, and less powerful. A compact car for sure.
“Geo Metro” my sister offered.
Seconds later, a blue Geo Metro zoomed by. I stared at my sister, stunned. This had never happened before.
She raised her arms triumphantly above her head and cheered, prancing up the gravel on her tip-toes. Then she stopped, bent from the waist, and took a full bow just as another car came around the bend behind us.
It was an unremarkable square-ish beige sedan. Three men sat inside with the windows rolled down. As they passed, one leaned out of his window toward us, and all three of them made the exact same noise.
“YEAAAHH!” they bellowed from the car, all in the same key, as if it were rehearsed, as if they knew exactly what to say once their cue came.
The car flew past us and disappeared around a bend in the road. We both stopped walking, momentarily stunned. I had never been yelled at like that before. Sure, grown men had cheered for me in the past. At softball games, talent shows, and when I’d won second place in the geography bee. But this kind of public declaration of approval felt different. This kind of “Yeah” sounded like the noise my friend’s older brother made when he watched football games on TV and the camera would cut to the cheerleaders. We said nothing, and continued our walk. Our mouths were quiet, but my brain was in fifth gear, trying to come up with something light-hearted to say to break the silence. That’s when the car appeared again. This time on the other side of the road, going just a little slower than before, with one of them leaning out of the window.
“WOOOO!” came the noises from the car, like a pack of coyotes howling in approval. They had turned around. They had turned the car around to come back to us. Now the car sped away toward Obexer’s, in the opposite direction we were walking.
Beads of sweat surfaced along the sides of my forehead. It was as if I had been dropped into the middle of a foreign country, and was clamoring to make sense of a new emerging reality. But it simply could not be. My mind raced with excuses, rationalizations, justifications. If only my sister hadn’t bent over and stuck her butt in the air. Maybe if we hadn’t been wearing shorts. They just didn’t know. They didn’t realize it was scary. They couldn’t know how young we were, how I had only started wearing a bra last summer. I thought of other reasons they could be mistaken, imagined them apologizing to us and feeling bad about it later as they drove home.
I looked at my sister. “If they come by again, just start running.” She nodded. Our feet crunched over the gravel shoulder.
The carton glistened with condensation, and the milk sloshed back and forth inside, like the soft, wet slaps of waves hitting the sides of a boat. The shadows from the fir trees were just starting to lengthen over the asphalt.
A Winnebago hurled past on the road, kicking up a tiny trail of dust. As the noise grew distant ahead of us, new sounds emerged close behind: the soft purr of a slowly-rotating motor, and tires crawling over the shoulder, the jagged gravel groaning beneath the weight. A car was right behind us, straddling the road and the shoulder, moving at a slow, steady pace. We faced forward and kept walking, too terrified to turn around and look. My breath quickened, my heart thundered in my chest. One foot in front of the other, we kept walking. I glanced at my sister, her face drained of color. She heard it, too.
We rounded the bend and caught sight of the white mailbox. One hundred yards in front of us was sanctuary, safety, home. My throat was heavy, my mouth dry. “Go!” I managed to croak, and we began a full sprint, the milk tucked under my arm like a football.
I flew over the gravel, my arms pumping. Who’s the fastest person alive, and what would they do? A supercut of athletes from TV played in my head. Flo-Jo sprinting on a straightaway, Kristi Yamaguchi winding up for a triple toe loop, Michael Jordan taking flight for a slam dunk. The slippery milk carton slid out of the crook of my elbow and flew out of my grasp in a rainbow arc high above our heads, landing ten feet in front of us on the gravel. It burst open with a mighty sploosh, the laminated cardboard torn apart, the milk rushing away in deltas between the pebbles and sand. Behind us, the peel of tires making a u-turn. Then, silence.
The road was quiet now, and the trees sighed and shivered in the wind. Far away, a dog barked. We stood over the shredded carcass, staring at it like a piece of roadkill, its blue-white entrails eddying over the ground, when Mom appeared, a hand on her hip.
“What...happened?” The usual softness in her voice had turned to surrender, a slowly unravelling ribbon, emanating fatigue, exasperation, and bewilderment at her own children and their ability to ruin the simplest of requests.
I looked at the ground. “It fell.”
The mailbox key lay nestled in my pocket, and the mascara on my upper lip was dry. Our vacation at the lake was done, and now that we were back at home, Mom had recently tasked me with the responsibility of walking a mile and a half through our suburban streets to get the mail from our new PO Box every Saturday. I obliged, but I needed a plan. I’d started wearing the baggiest clothes I owned, hiding my long hair in a hat, squeezing into a sports bra to flatten any indication of emerging womanhood. If I looked like a boy, I hypothesized, no one would bother me. And so far, it had worked. No honking, no yelling, no creeping cars, no commentary flung from an open window that echoed in my head for days afterwards as I made the mile-and-a-half journey to and from the post office. And today, with the drugstore makeup dirtstache, I’d taken things further than I ever had before. How far could I go, I wondered. How long could I hide.
It was the weekend, and the post office was quiet. The contents of our PO Box contained nothing of interest to me, just something that looked like a bill, and one of those junk mailers where you tape a penny to the corner and get five CDs in return. My stomach growled. There was nowhere I needed to be. I could take a little bit more time.
The automatic doors to Safeway slid open, and shiny bundles of mylar helium balloons twirled in the breeze. I passed the stack of newspapers piled up front and eyed the headlines. Nolan Ryan had pitched his last game. They still hadn’t found the missing girl in Petaluma. I stood in front of the self-serve pastry case, clutching a handful of spare change. There was just enough for a chocolate cake donut, glazed with icing. Swathed in waxen tissue, my hand hovered over the spread for a few seconds, and clamped down like a claw over the one I wanted.