Though she was only 8 years old, it seemed as though Laney had always known there was a long list of things that ladies were required to do that men were not required to do.
She had seen her big cousins smearing depilatory cream all over their legs at the lakehouse in summertime, fanning the rotten egg stench from their nostrils with a fashion magazine while they waited patiently for the goop to dissolve the stubborn hairs that grew back week after week. She had been with her Aunt Booty at the nail salon many times, and watched in horror and fascination as the dreamy, silent Vietnamese girls scraped the roughness from Aunt Booty’s heels with what looked to Laney like a big cheese grater, the dead skin drifting onto the towel below in big, opaque flakes.
Even Laney’s own mother, Gwen, who wore no makeup and kept her graying hair cropped close to her head, had a Sunday evening ritual of applying a clay face mask. The logo on the squat green container depicted an outline of the Alps and touted the pore-tightening properties and exclusive Swiss formula of the smooth, mint-green spread inside. Privately, Laney thought Gwen’s skin looked more or less the same after she washed off the mask, especially the wrinkled skin around her mouth which was puckered with lines from years of smoking.
Gwen had just shut the oven door on a meatloaf, and she settled down across from Laney at the kitchen table, taking a half-empty pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her hot-pink scrubs.
Gwen lit the cigarette with the Joe Camel lighter from the wicker napkin caddy and began shuffling through the day’s pile of mail. “That so?” she said disinterestedly.
“Yes,” Laney said seriously. She was making a fortune-teller out of a piece of pink stationery, folding up the edges so they formed a triangle. She wasn’t entirely sure she was doing it right. You were supposed to be able to tell the person whose fortune you were predicting whether they would live in a mansion, apartment, shack, or house, what kind of car they would drive, and which boy they would marry. Laney planned to test it on herself first, hoping to get mansion. “Yes,” she said again, selecting a purple glitter pen to start mapping out the categories. “She’s Indian.”
Laney didn’t understand what her mother was getting at, in any case, and kept on as though she hadn’t heard. “Her name is Shivani.”
“Dots,” Gwen said decisively, tearing into a Valu-Pak envelope and beginning to sort through the coupon offers.
The next day during lunch, Laney took her plastic tray, laden down with cheese fries, Jell-O, and chocolate milk and began scouting the cafeteria looking for Shivani. She found her over by the window near the back, sitting alone at one end of the table. Spread out in front of her was a brand new She-Ra lunchbox, with grapes and apple slices and slices of some kind of flat puffy bread.
“Want some company?” she asked in a friendly way, expecting that her classmate would practically shiver with delight and gratitude at the gesture. Shivani instead looked a bit panicked and taken aback, as though she was being asked to give a speech on a topic she knew nothing about.
“Yes,” Shivani said finally, giving a tentative smile.
Laney nodded firmly and tucked into the cheese fries on her tray. “Want some?” she asked with her mouth full and Shivani shook her head no, politely. “No, thank you. I’m not very hungry.”
Laney shrugged and wiped a bit of cheese from the corner of her mouth with her thumb. She looked again into Shivani’s lunchbox. The contents seemed so exotic and interesting compared the the lunches that Gwen packed for her. She wondered briefly if the grapes had come from India but decided not to ask.
“Is that…bread?” she asked Shivani, nodding at the spread in front of her.
Shivani nodded and picked it up. She pulled a tiny piece from the edge and popped it into her mouth. “Yes,” she said matter of factly. “This is Indian bread. It’s called naan.” Her low voice had a thrilling foreign lilt that was so musical and foreign it practically sent shivers up Laney’s spine. “Would you like to try it?”
Laney was ecstatic. “Sure!” she said, taking the proffered bit of naan from Shivani’s outstretched hand. “It looks so weird.” Realizing this was not quite the sentiment she meant to convey, she added tactfully, “And tasty.”
Shivani did not take offense. “My mother makes it,” she explained. “You can make it with different spices and garlic and things like this but,” she lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I asked her to make it plain for me to bring for lunch. I did not want to come to school with stinky naan that everyone will be able to smell.” She smiled.
She chewed expectantly. It was rather bland and not as exotic as she had expected it to taste. Still, it felt exciting to be eating something completely new and different that was from a whole other country. “It’s good!” she said encouragingly to Shivani, giving the girl a thumbs up. “I bet it would be real good with some peanut butter.”
Shivani smiled again at this suggestion. “I will try it and let you know,” she said to Laney.
She turned back to her own lunch tray and picked up the carton of chocolate milk, shaking it casually. “So how do you like it here so far?” she asked Shivani. “Is it real different?”
Knowing nothing about where Shivani had come from, she more or less expected that her new friend would be thrilled with the modernity of their school and its surroundings. But Shivani only looked at her lap, nodding thoughtfully and, Laney thought, a bit sadly. “Yes,” she said finally. Looking up, she met Laney’s eyes, and almost as though she could read the expectations written in them, she said softly, “Everyone is very nice.”
Laney beamed once more, inexplicably proud to be a part of a community where everyone was nice. She sipped happily at her chocolate milk, feeling that the world was a vast and fascinating place filled with good.
But later that afternoon during phys ed, she overheard two girls from another class giggling and making fun of what they called Shivani’s “moustache.” Laney didn’t really think Shivani had a moustache; certainly it was neither as dark or as thick as Michele’s, the cashier at the Winn Dixie where Gwen got her groceries. Michele’s moustache was practically as dark and thick as a man’s, and anytime they got into her line Gwen would always make a comment about it afterward. “They sell the bleach right there on aisle 8,” she might say, or, “There’s just no need to go around looking like that in this day and age.”
It immediately struck her as such a fabulous plan that she could hardly wait to carry it out. But first she would have to get Gwen to agree to let Shivani come over. Normally she didn’t bother asking to make plans like this, because Gwen didn’t like to have a lot of commotion around on the weekends. But later that evening as Gwen was quizzing her on her spelling words, Laney decided to broach the subject.
Gwen rattled the spelling ditto in an irritated way. “Laney, no,” she said, shaking her head. “You know I don’t like a lot of kids around making a ruckus on my day off.”
“But Shivani is real quiet,” Laney told her mother pleadingly. “And she’s new to our country and I really want her to feel welcome.”
Gwen reached for her ashtray. “Does she even speak English?”
Laney sighed impatiently. “Of course she speaks English, Momma,” she said. “Please? I promise I’ll never ask you for anything again as long as I live.”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Where have I heard that before?”
In the end, Laney was able to get Gwen’s permission, after promising that they would not play records real loud or make any paste or slime in Gwen’s kitchen. Shivani seemed surprised and flattered to be invited, and though it sounded like her father had needed even more impassioned coaxing on the idea, a date was set for that Saturday at noon.
She cleaned her whole room, plumped up all of the pillows in the den and sprayed the whole house with lavender AirWick air freshener. But the big project she had in mind she thought would best be carried out in the bathroom.
When Shivani finally arrived, Laney took her hand and showed her all around the house, quietly, so as not to disturb Gwen who was napping. “I’ll meet her when I meet her,” Gwen had said over Laney’s objections turning out the bedroom light and shutting the door firmly against the day. She introduced Shivani to their dog, an old grey terrier named Marty, and to the betta fish in the tank. Then she showed her the backyard, the playhouse, and where they watched TV.
At long last she led Shivani into the bathroom, where she had laid out a nail polish kit, some old lipsticks that Aunt Booty had given her, some hairbands and barrettes, the Swiss clay face mask, and a dainty little glass bowl filled with liquid.
“Ta-da!” she said as Shivani looked everything over. “I thought we could play beauty shop!”
“Oh,” said Shivani, clearly a little mystified. “All right.” Noticing the bowl on the tray, she pointed and asked, “What is that?”
“Oh, that?” Laney said casually. “That’s bleach.”
“For your clothes?” Shivani asked.
Laney laughed. “Well, yes,” she said authoritatively. “But you can also use it… you know.”
Shivani tilted her head quizzically. “I don’t understand this.”
“You can use it for the hair on your face!” Laney said brightly. “That way people don’t make fun of you for having a moustache.” At this Shivani’s hand went to her upper lip, almost instinctively. “It’s no big deal,” Laney hurried on. “My mom does it all the time. Everyone does. You just… bleach it.”
Shivani looked down at the purple bathroom rug, frayed and soft from years of use. “I do not think this is good to do.”
“I’ll help you!” Laney said hurriedly. “I know how to do it. You just put your face down in there for a minute and then it wipes right off. Really!” She picked up the bowl and held it outstretched in both hands.
The scent of this much bleach was intense up close, a smell that was somehow completely clean and foul all at once. It was a smell that crinkled the inside of her nostrils, a smell that seemed suddenly to her to be so very… American. It brought to Shivani’s mind a memory of a rest stop bathroom somewhere on a highway, on a trip heading south with her parents from New York City to a new and unknown life. “Don’t let your bottom touch the toilet seat,” her mother had said firmly, unwinding the scratchy toilet tissue and spreading it out before she would allow her to sit and do her business. “There is no telling what diseases these people may carry.”
Shivani took a deep breath and plunged her face toward the liquid. But just at that moment the door opened and Gwen stepped into the bathroom, rumpled and wan from sleep. The intrusion startled Laney and she dropped the bowl of bleach, soaking the purple bathmat and splashing droplets onto the legs of Shivani’s red corduroys.
“What the hell, Laney?” Gwen said loudly, startling the girls. Shivani stood stunned and unable to move, but Laney burst into tears.
Gwen shook her head as if to shake the sleep from her skull by force. “What are you doing in here with this bleach?” she asked, trying to take a more moderate tone.
“I was just trying to help,” Laney sobbed. Now she would be in trouble for ruining the bathmat and worst of all, those girls would go on making fun of Shivani for being different, for something she couldn’t help. I’m not like those girls, she thought angrily to herself. I’m nothing like them at all.
Gwen looked around the bathroom. She took in the bleach and all the beauty products, and her daughter’s tearstained face. And this other face, this foreign face, this solemn face and she saw her bright brown eyes, long shiny hair, thick brows and olive-toned skin, the fine, dark hairs above her lip. “None of us gets off easy,” she thought. “None of us are immune.”
She pulled out a plastic trash bag and, with uncharacteristic gentleness, folded up the soiled bathmat and put it inside. She took the tray of beauty products and accessories and the green tub of Swiss face mask and slid them all into the trash bag, too.
She wanted to stretch a hand out to them both, to stroke their cheeks and smile sweetly into their eyes, those clear, hopeful eyes that had not yet seen pain, had not yet known disappointment, had not yet been opened to most of what it would mean to be a woman in the world—and yet knew somehow, instinctively already, that who they were and who they would be would somehow, some way, not be enough. You are so beautiful, she thought. You are both so very beautiful.
Instead Gwen tied the trash bag at the top and slung it over her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” she said gruffly. “Just go play.”