Tuesday
Mar122013

Dye Job

Tessa Mellas


 

On the bus to school, Lily sucks fat purple grapes through her lips. Ruth tells herself to stop staring, but her eyes lock tight on Lily's mouth. She watches until Lily catches her watching, then hops across the aisle and squishes into Lily's seat. Lily clutches the bag of grapes to her chest, snarls, "Do you have to sit so close?"

"Did he invite you yet?" Ruth asks.

"Stop asking," Lily says.

"Are you sure you're eating enough?"

"If I eat more grapes, I'll barf."

Lily's eaten nothing but grapes for a month. Chic magazine says grapes boost natural pheromones, attracting the boy of any girl's dreams. Lily's got her eyes on Bobby Litchfield, a senior with biceps thick like tree trunks and dimples on his knees. He's Lily's number-one hottie, and she's laid her claim for prom. But as a ninth-grader, she needs him to do the asking. So she's taking Chic's advice to heart. Now, it seems there might be a catch.

Ruth holds Lily's arm up to the bus window. "I think you're turning purple," she says. Lily's skin has always been pale like marble. Now, after a month of Concord grapes, it's marble with a lavender tinge.

"It'll be hot," Lily says. "I'll match my prom gown."

"You sure this is safe?"

Lily shrugs. "Like I care."

If Lily's health remains unaltered, Ruth will embark on the all-grape diet too. She wants to go to prom with Lily's brother Felix, who has green hair like truffula trees. Felix is the only nineteen-year-old junior at Crow Hill Academy. He repeated fifth and sixth grades. Lily tells everyone her brother's disabled, says he can barely read. He's done summer school six years in a row to get ahead for basketball season so he can keep steady C's and stay on the team. Ruth doesn't care. She's seen him read cereal boxes. That's enough for her. Being a good reader is a worthless talent. Felix can launch balls so they whoosh through the hoop like exhalations. He can run endless loops around their cul-de-sac, his lungs filtering infinite air. And he's got a particular talent for yelling at Lily so her chin trembles, and her voice splits apart. Ruth wants to be good at things like that.

She's in awe of the way Felix and Lily argue. They live next door, and Ruth sits on her porch roof, peering through windows as the madness climaxes in violent shrieks. No one at Ruth's house ever erupts like that. If Ruth screamed at her sister, her parents would make her walk to oboe lessons for a month. But Felix and Lily are never punished. Their mother, a psychiatrist, works late and is often away at conferences, leaving them free run of the house.

When their mother's gone, they throw parties. Lily's supposed to stay at Ruth's house. She isn't allowed alone overnight since her mother caught her in bed with Drew Krause. Not that it matters. When Ruth's parents turn in, Lily slips out the bathroom window and climbs down the tree at the edge of the porch's roof. She's back before the party peaks, tucked under the covers on Ruth's hideaway bed, so when Ruth's mom cracks the door and asks if they can sleep through the noise, Lily squints in the light from the hallway, and in her groggiest voice says, "What's going on? Is it time to wake up?"

The kids at school tell Ruth, "She's using you. She treats you like garbage." But Ruth thinks, "Not as much as I'm using her." She peers into Lily's room from the bathroom window, watches her dance to Avril Lavigne, hair swinging loose, hands levitating overhead. She watches her practice pouty looks in the mirror and strut in odd amalgamations of clothes. It's how Ruth learned to walk down the hall at school with a saunter in her step. Even if Lily ditches her most of the night, Ruth is glad she comes over so she can watch her sleep and floss and eat Cheerios one by one off a spoon. She watches the way Lily skips down the driveway, only the tips of her toes touching gravel. She watches her climb on the bus without touching the rail. And in the eighteen minutes it takes to get from their cul-de-sac to school, Ruth keeps track of the tiniest details. Like now, the way Lily checks her hair in the window. And now, as the bus takes its last turn, how she wiggles her skirt, exposing a sliver of skin. And as the bus pulls to the curb, and the first bell rings, how she lingers on that very last grape, her tongue tasting the deep dark purple before her lips spread wide to take it in.

 

At lunch, Lily crowns herself the first ninth-grader of the year to bag a prom date. She shows off her phone with Bobby Litchfield's text. The girls lean over their blue lunch trays, the only color the popular clique selects from the stack. "How'd you do it?" they ask.

Ruth busies herself unwrapping a hummus sandwich so she won't blurt the secret out.

"It's the purple thing, isn't it?" Claire asks.

"It's totally hot," Brittany says. "Is it glitter?"

Lily shakes her head no.

"You have to dish."

Ruth sits up higher. Lily made her vow to keep quiet. But now Lily's got the date, Ruth can't resist. "It's the grapes," she says.

Lily scowls. The girls live next to each other but aren't the kind of best-friend close that makes it okay to spoil stories. They are close in proximity, have been this sort of close since Ruth's mom started driving Lily to preschool after her parents' divorce. But they never had much in common. And now, as ninth graders, they have less in common still.

"Ruth's a moron," Lily says. "Thinks she's so smart. But I'm the one with the prom date. I'm the one who knows." She pinches a grape between her fingers. "It's not just any grapes. They're Norman Concord. And you have to suck the juice like this."

"What's so special about Norman?" Ashley asks.

"It's not the brand," Ruth says. "It's probably the polyphenols in the skin."

"Well, you go eat your poly-whatevers and we'll eat Norman. Trust me, girls. It takes three or four weeks, and then, you look like this."

 "Like flamingos," Ruth says. "Flamingos turn pink from eating shrimp."

"Who cares about flamingos?" Lily says.

Claire slides a napkin over her fries. "We have to start now. Prom's a month away."

"I'll try cherries so I can wear pink," Ashley says.

"My dress is blue. Think it'll work with blueberries?" Brittany asks.

Ruth wipes hummus from her lip. "Maybe. Blueberries help prevent cancer."

 "We don't care about cancer," Lily says. "We care about prom."

 

In the coming weeks, the girls stock up on fruit, all Norman brand except Ruth's. She's chosen Concord grapes like Lily. She'll replicate the experiment as close as she can to see if she can repeat the results. With herself as subject, she can take precise measurements and record symptoms. Only one problem. Her parents only buy organic produce, so the grapes are small and keep running out. Her little sister Kimmy gobbles them up. There's a store four miles away, but Ruth's bike is rusted. She needs grapes fast. Huge grapes. Bushels of grapes. Grapes by the truckload. The organic ones aren't working. Maybe the thing in grapes that boosts pheromones only works with grapes the size of a spoon. She needs to act quick.

She broaches the subject after dinner while her dad's making the grocery list.

"We need corn meal," her mother says.

"Raspberry oatmeal bars," Kimmy adds.

With the pencil still moving, Ruth adds, "Concord grapes. And they have to be Norman. Make sure they're Norman, Dad. And get lots."

"Concord grapes it is." Her father pencils it in. "But Norman uses pesticides. You know that."

"They're the juiciest though. I read an article in Healthy Living that says they prevent blood clots and reduce the acidity in urine."

"That's all grapes," her mother says. "You can get the same benefits with organic."

"Not necessarily," Ruth answers. "Since Norman grapes are twice the size, that's twice the juice and flavonoids and vitamin C."

"You can eat twice as many organic grapes if you're concerned about your flavonoid intake," her father says. "We'll drive to the farmer's market this weekend."

"But those grapes are tiny."

"Norman isn't organic," her mother says, rising to clear the dishes.

"So?" Ruth replies. She's heard Lily use this retort.

"So, our daughters don't eat pesticides," her mother answers. "End of story."

"You'd rather I eat bugs?" Ruth asks. Usually, she doesn't test her parents, but this time passivity isn't an option. "I'm serious," she says. "I'm sick of eating fruit covered in insects." She slams her fork on the table. It bounces onto the floor.

"You'll eat the food we buy or nothing," her father says. "That's final."

"I hate that organic shit," Ruth says.

"That's enough," her mother says. "You jjust got yourself a week of dish duty." She tosses the dishcloth on the table, lifts Kimmy from her booster seat, and heads upstairs.

"I'm taking a shower," her father says.

"Fuck," Ruth whispers. She picks up the cloth with two fingers. Soapy water drips. She slops it back on the table and pushes the suds around.

 

The dishes done, Ruth heads upstairs and finds Kimmy in her room trying to stuff the head on a My-Little-Pony. "Give it here," Ruth says. She swivels the head into place. "Wanna color?" Ruth asks. Coloring is quiet, and she isn't in the mood to talk. Kimmy selects a Transformers coloring book, and Ruth sits by the window that faces the Preston's driveway. A decade ago, Felix's dad nailed a basketball hoop to the garage before he left town. In the years since, Felix hasn't missed a night out at the hoop. Ruth braids Kimmy's hair, reads stories, plays ponies, anything to watch from her bedroom. She likes the way his wrists flip as the ball leaves his hands. She pulls the curtains back and watches him line up a shot.

Ruth and Lily played once with Felix when they were eight. Ruth imagines that day repeating: Felix's arms stretched to block her, his breath on her skin.

Since then, the closest she's gotten is the time he dyed his hair green. He filled a washbasin with concentrated lemon-lime Kool-aid, set it on the porch steps and leaned his nest of bleached hair back to soak. When Ruth and Lily stepped over him, he grabbed Ruth's ankle.

"What do you say we turn your hair green too, little girl?" he said.

Ruth froze, his hand digging into her skin.

"Right," Lily said. "Green hair on a girl who won't even get layers."

Ruth wanted to prove Lily wrong. Lily hated her brother. He told his friends she had STDs. He didn't want her crashing his parties. But they had each other on blackmail. Lily kept quiet about the pot, the beer, the parties, and Felix didn't tell their mother about Lily's reputation, the boys, the sex. Ruth commiserated with Lily in private. She'd say, "You're right. He's a jerk. You should put termites in his sneakers." But sometimes she did his homework. And that day, she almost switched sides. She wanted him to hold her leg forever. She wanted him to dye her hair green. But then Lily grabbed her hand, and Ruth conceded. She wriggled away and followed her friend into the house. Now she watches Felix from her sister's window. It's a secret she keeps from Lily, a small deception that reminds her Lily doesn't always win.

"You're not coloring," Kimmy says.

Ruth lets go of the curtain and rips back the paper on an orange crayon. Over her sister's head, she sees Felix flip the ball into the air. The green curls of his hair lift as his body rises. They fluff out and fall like wings.

 

Ruth knocks on the Preston's door. Nobody answers, so she lets herself in. "Lily?" she calls. "Lily, it's me." She hears music through the ceiling.

Saturday mornings, Lily's always in one of two places. Either on her mother's bed watching Brady Bunch reruns. Or in her room with the music blaring, door locked. If she's watching TV, Ruth scooches up on the bed beside her. If she's in her room, Ruth waits her out and cleans.

The mess at the Prestons' is always a little bit shocking, so different from Ruth's house, where nothing is ever amiss. As a rule, the girls have to march all their belongings—flashcards, bug collections, bead looms—up to their rooms at night. Their family motto is "Never go to bed with a messy house," while the motto at Lily's seems to be, "Why do the dishes if a clean dish is left? And maybe not even then." When Lily's family runs out of dishes, they use paper plates. When those are gone, they use napkins, then the least dirty dish in the sink.            

Ruth makes a game of collecting dishes from all over the house. She likes rubbing Brillo pads over sticky surfaces to make them shiny, rinsing dishes and stacking them tall. Standing at the sink with suds to her elbows, she feels she belongs in this house. And in the hour it takes to clean the kitchen, Felix often stops by for food.

Today, she has a plan and starts with the fridge. She turns over bags of moldy carrots. She looks behind beer cans and soda, a pizza box, pickles. No fruit. Ruth takes out cartons and jugs. She imagined the fridge would be bursting with grapes. Ruth opens the pickles and pops one into her mouth.

"Don't your parents feed you?" It's Felix.

She whips around. "Just cleaning," she says, with pickle still on her tongue. "Fridges are one of the filthiest places." She grabs the moldy carrots. "See." Cloudy liquid drips from the bag.

"Awesome," he says.

Ruth drops the carrots into the trash. They hit with a thud.

Felix snatches bread from the breadbox, a knife from the sink. "Turkey still good?"

"I think." She hands him cold cuts, provolone, the jar of mayonnaise. "The cheese might be bad. It's past the expiration date."

Felix slops mayo on the bread, smacks the pieces together, and rips a bite with his teeth. "Delicious," he says, and grabs his keys from the counter, heads out the door, then stops. "You don't have to do that, you know."

"I like to," Ruth says.

He shrugs. "Suit yourself."

"You going to the store?" she asks. "I have money." She pulls out a five-dollar bill.

"That'll only get you a six pack."

"I need grapes. Concord Norman," she says. "You can keep the change."

"There's a mess of them in Lily's room," he says. "Go on up. She's got a mini-fridge."

"Lily doesn't share," Ruth replies.

"Some friend," he says, and takes the bill from her hand. "If I remember." He slips it into his pocket and leaves. She watches his car shoot down the driveway, the sandwich wedged in his mouth.

Above her, the music pauses. Ruth tosses Felix's knife in the sink and heads upstairs. But before she can get there, the music's pounding again. She tries Lily's knob. Locked. But Felix's door is open. She pokes her head into his room. Black walls, black carpet, even black sheets heaped on a mattress on the floor, pictures of naked women taped to the ceiling, basketball posters tacked to the walls. A stack of Playboys is beside the mattress. She picks one up and leafs through. A piece of paper is tucked in back. A list of names, Lily's on top, Brittany, Claire and Ashley down a bit farther. Ruth's at the bottom, second from last. Beside the names are letters and numbers. Ruth knows the dates, their birthdays. And the initials are easy. B.L. Bobby Litchfield. J.A. Josh Anthony. But why the S's? Satisfactory? Smart? Slutty?

"What the fuck are you doing?"

Ruth spins around. "Phew, you scared me. Check this out." She hands Lily the paper.

She shrugs. "Guys rank girls all the time. So they think I'm hot and you're not."

"But the letters." Ruth points to the S next to Lily's name. "It seems like a code."

"Sexy," Lily says.

"Then why do they need our birthdays?"

Lily shrugs. "Only lesbos look at Playboy."

She goes to the bathroom and slams the door. Ruth hears water pounding the tub. She reads the list again. At the end: Ruth Hammond 7/17/98. Her birthdate is almost a year before Lily's. She started kindergarten ahead. Then more initials. F.P. Felix Preston. Her chest flutters. There's a V beside her name. Vegetarian? Valedictorian? No, V is for virgin, of course. Maybe Felix would date her if he knew she'd put out. Maybe he's worried about her age. She won't be eighteen for another four years. She couldn't legally have sex with him until then.

 

Two weeks before prom, the girls sit in the cafeteria, slightly tinted zombies. The color's subtle. They have to turn just the right way in just the right light. Claire's pink. Ashley orange. Brittany asphyxiation blue. And Lily's got lavender lips. Ruth, by contrast, is still pale and chalky like everyone else at their school. Plus, she's the only one at the table without a date for prom. Her friends have swept up the basketball team's starting line, all except Felix, who Lily says is holding out for the best piece of ass.

 "It's funny the fruit only attracts athletes," Ruth puzzles. "All from the same sport and all from the senior team. Have the boys in our class been flirting?"

"Why would we want ninth-grade boys?" Lily asks.

"I'm just saying. If it's the fruit, shouldn't all the boys be flocking?"

"Don't think too hard," Lily says. "You'll break a sweat. Boys don't like pit stains."

"Or BO," Ashley pipes in.

Ruth bites a celery stick and sighs.

"You're just cranky you don't have a date," Lily says. "Sucks for you. Not for us." Lily hoists a cluster of grapes in the air and clinks them against Ashley's orange for a toast. "Three cheers for yours truly," she says. "If not for me, none of you would have made it to prom before high school. I should get an award."

"We've thanked you plenty," Claire says, sucking a cherry.

Brittany pops a blueberry into her mouth. "My sister went to five proms. My goal is to hit double digits."

"But there's only one a year," Ruth says.

"Only one at Crow Hill, retard," Lily says. "There are proms all over the country."

Ruth goes back to her hummus sandwich. Maybe it's not the pheromones, she thinks. Maybe it's like all those turn-of-the-century tubercular women whom men found gorgeous because they looked fragile and sick. Maybe basketball players like their girls diseased.

Lily waves a yellow slip of paper. "Who else got one of these?"

The other girls pull theirs from their pockets and line them up on the table.

"I guess a trip to the guidance office is in order," Lily says. "Miss Michaels probably wants to give us her 'no means no' talk."

"I thought it was 'cause I flunked Spanish," Claire says.

 Brittany says, "I thought she was pissed I skipped gym."

"It's about prom," Lily says. "Mr. Henrik sends Miss Michaels the list of people going. She's probably worried we'll get raped. We'll go sixth period. Ruth, you're coming too."

"I didn't get a note," Ruth says. "I've got AP Earth Science."

"Tough shit," Lily says.

"Why her?" Ashley asks.

"Teachers love Ruth," Lily says. "Look at that face. No one would think to rape her."

 

When Ruth gets home from school, there are four bags of grapes on the steps. Concord grapes busting out of the plastic and huge like eggs. He remembered, she thinks. And this feels like a triumphant thing. She bangs open the door and drops her backpack. She skips with her grapes to the kitchen, spritzes them with vegetable cleaner, and rinses them off. She pours them into a Coleman cooler and plops one on her tongue. She'll eat one bag now and save the rest. She plans to slice some thin to make into slides. At school, she can look for abnormal cells under the microscope. But now the house is empty. And she's got a bag of grapes to herself.

She heads upstairs with the cooler and climbs out the bathroom window onto the roof. She leans against the house, letting the brick warm her back. She can see into Lily's room. But it's empty. She sinks down under a canopy of leaves and rolls a grape on her tongue. A folded pamphlet in her back pocket pokes her. She shifts her hips to retrieve it. It's the bulimia pamphlet Miss Michaels gave her. Ruth reads the words in bold: binging, purging, laxative use. She told Miss Michaels she didn't do these things. The other girls got pamphlets on anorexia. Miss Michaels said they were pale and hadn't been eating much at lunch. She told them if they didn't eat enough, their hair and teeth would fall out, and their brains would rot. Lily kicked Ruth under the table, and Ruth spoke up. "Actually, Miss Michaels," she said. "We've all been eating healthy meals with lots of fruit since fruit stimulates the intestinal muscles and absorbs nutrients into our blood."

Miss Michaels smiled, said, "Ruth, I know you're eating. But I'm worried about your friends. Girls your age should eat two thousand calories a day."           

Ashley snickered. Brittany stifled a laugh. Ruth watched Lily's chin tremble. She'd seen this before. When the community players did The Crucible, Lily got the lead because she could cry on cue. When asked how she did it, Lily said she imagined how her friends would feel if she died. It started with that quiver in her chin. Then she sniffled and wiped her nose with her hand. Miss Michaels handed over a tissue. "I feel misled," Lily said. "When the nutritionist came this winter, she told us to eat boatloads of fruit. She kept saying 'an apple-a-day,' and we figured why not two or five or eight?"

Her voice broke apart, and she started to cry. Miss Michaels touched her knee. "It's not that fruit is bad," she said. "But you have to eat more than that."

"You don't understand," Lily mumbled. "I just want to be pretty. The boys are always staring, and I feel so ugly."

"Oh, honey," Miss Michaels said. "You're not ugly. Not even close."

"Don't try to make me feel better," Lily said. "I know I'm hideous. I feel like a midget. No, a leper." A tear lingered on her cheek.

Ruth stood, and her chair hit the floor. "If you're a leper, I'm a mongoose," she said. "And this mongoose is going back to class."

Now Ruth wonders if Lily is mad. She knows Lily didn't need her at Miss Michaels' office. She just wanted to prove that despite Ruth's brains, Lily ran the show. But Ruth was the one who had found the Chic article. She didn't even get credit for that. She crumples the bulimia pamphlet, and stuffs a grape in her mouth. She bites, and juice slides down her throat. She lets the next one sit on her tongue. It presses against her lips. She turns another one over in her hand. Then with a fingernail, peels back the skin and sets a scrap of it on her palm. It seems normal. She examines the veins on its flesh. She peels more skin, uncurls the purple film on her hand. Dark juice pools onto her skin. She licks it. It tastes like fruit. But the crease on her palm stays purple. She licks it again and checks her tongue. The tip of her tongue is stained. Deep, dark, almost black. Grapes don't dye your tongue, she thinks. Not like that. Could they have dyed the fruit? She'd heard about oranges being dyed, the peel infused with color, but never grapes.

The light flicks on in Lily's room, and Ruth ducks behind the tree. She wipes her hands on her jeans. She watches Lily take her dress out of the closet. She rips off her shirt and jeans, wiggles the dress over her head and adjusts the cups. She struts, watching herself in the mirror. The gown is violet and crisscrosses in back. Below the straps, the dress scoops down, showing the hollow groove of her spine. And for a moment with purple seeping into her tongue, Ruth forgets to bite or swallow or breathe.

 

Miss Michaels sends letters to the girls' parents, saying they need to watch their daughters' diets. Their parents make them eat balanced meals. At school, the girls mourn the loss of the fruit that made their skin glimmer radiant colors. All but Ruth. Ruth is ebullient. Her parents didn't get a letter. Miss Michaels doesn't think Ruth has bulimia, not even that. They think she's so good and sweet. But the joke's on them.

She's eaten nothing but grapes for a week. She and Felix have a deal. Ten bags of grapes on her steps every Thursday. Money in his locker. In exchange, she writes his essays for the rest of the year. She told her parents she needs to stay late at school until the science fair to prep for the state competition. She gets rides home with Mrs. Keller who lives across the street and teaches aerobics in the gym. Ruth's mom saves her a plate of food, and Ruth dumps it under the compost. When her parents go to bed, she blends the Norman grapes with water and food coloring. She sips it through a straw and scrubs her tongue before bed.

No one suspects. And already she senses a change. If only she wasn't behind. The other girls have been eating fruit two weeks longer. And although their parents make them eat broccoli at home, their skin still glows with the complexion of berries. Plus, they've already got dates for prom. Ruth is afraid the grapes won't work their magic by then. Prom's less than a week away, and it's all the talk.

"What color do you think my corsage will be?" Claire asks on the way to gym.

"I dunno," Lily says. "Let's ask."

They detour through the cafeteria. The lunchroom is already decorated with balloons and streamers. The boys count a stack of twenty-dollar bills.

"How much you got there, boys?" Lily asks, her pack of slightly faded girls by her side. "Better be two or three hundred. I'm worth at least that much."

"Why would they give you money?" Ruth asks.

Felix hits Bobby's shoulder. "Dude, you told her?"

Bobby shrugs and grabs Lily. "Coming for some pregame action?" he asks.

Felix kicks him under the table. "Knock it off, ass wipe."

"Claire wants a red corsage," Lily announces.

"I want blue," Brittany says.

"You get what you get," Felix replies.

Ruth watches him eat spaghetti goulash with his hands. The tips of his fingers are greasy orange. He glares at his sister. "Shouldn't you and your posse be in class?"

"We have gym," Ruth says.

"Ah, gym," Felix says. He brushes green hair from his forehead and licks his fingers. "What about you?" he asks. "You going to prom?"

Lily snickers.

"Not exactly," Ruth says.

"If you're interested," Felix says, "limo comes at seven."

"Me?" Ruth asks, her cheeks turning red. "You want me to go?"

Lily glares at her brother. "She's your trump card? Trust me, that won't pan out."

"Carnations okay?" Felix asks.

"Carnations are cheap," Lily says. "I'm glad my date doesn't eat with his hands." She sulks out of the cafeteria, her flip-flops hitting the floor with angry slaps.

The girls follow her into the hall. "I don't believe he asked you to prom," Ashley says.

"Well," Ruth answers. "We are neighbors."

"Do you have a dress?" Brittany asks.

"You know you have to wear a thong, right?"

"I wonder why he asked you," Claire says. "You haven't been eating Norman fruit."

"Actually, I have," Ruth says.

The bell rings, and they hurry to gym. Lily and Ruth have lockers in the same row. Ruth turns her dial to thirty-four, then two full times around to the left. "You don't mind, do you?" she asks.

"Why should I care?" Lily says. She rips her bra over her head and glances at her A-cup breasts in the mirror. Her nipples are purple. She pulls a sports bra over her head and shoves her feet into sneakers.

"I don't know," Ruth says. "You just seem upset."

"Not at all," Lily says. "It's just—I didn't expect you'd want to go."

"Why?" Ruth asks. She turns toward her locker to change her shirt.

"You've never even kissed a guy, Ruth. You know Felix expects you to suck his dick."

"Just because that's all you think about, doesn't mean he's like that," Ruth says.

"You're right. My brother's a goddamn prince."

Lily slams her locker and turns around. "Why do you think Claire and Ashley are going? You think Brittany's suddenly hot because her earlobes are blue? There's a bet to see which basketball player can get blown by the youngest prom date. You saw the list."

"Then why would you go?"

"Because I like to win."

 

The conversation runs through Ruth's head the rest of the day. When Señorita Gonzales asks, "¿Como se dice potatoes en Español?" Ruth almost says penis.

After school, she skips her work in the lab and goes home to practice on a banana. Drool drips down her chin. She thinks about it all night. Doing homework, she sticks herself with a pen. Taking the compost out, she walks into the screen door. She calls Felix and cancels their date. She says her grandfather's diabetic, and the doctors have to cut off his feet. She'll be at the hospital all weekend. She can't go to prom. "Maybe next year," she says.

"Whatever," he says, and hangs up.

Ruth wonders if he'll tell Lily. She knows Ruth's grandfathers are dead. She dials the Prestons' number. Maybe she could say she was joking. As soon as it rings, she hangs up. She runs upstairs to the bathroom to see if Felix is in Lily's room, spreading the news. She shoves open the door. Her mother's in the tub.

"Oh, sorry. I just need floss," Ruth says. But she doesn't turn away from her mother's breasts, the wide areolas the color of plums.

"Since you're here, you can grab me the razor."

Ruth snatches it from the sink and hands it over. Then she rifles in the medicine cabinet.

"Floss is in the drawer," her mother says.

"Oh yeah," Ruth says. She wraps a piece around her fingers. In the mirror, she watches her mother soap her legs. "I got asked to prom this year," she says. "By a junior."

"Oh?" her mother says, not looking up.

"I told him I couldn't go. Since it's so close to AP exams."

"Isn't there a freshman dance at the end of the month?"

"That one's lame," Ruth says. "No one goes." She weasels the floss between her molars. "Lily's going to prom," she says. "I feel bad ditching her."

"I hope Sharon's talked to her daughter about sex."

"They cover that at school," Ruth says. "Every year."

Ruth drops her floss in the trash. She goes to the window and parts the blinds. Lily's room is dark.

"Maybe when Lily hears you're not going, she'll change her mind," her mom says. "Proms are disappointing. You girls could have a sleepover instead."

"She already bought her dress," Ruth says. "But I'll tell her." She lets go of the blinds. "Gotta do homework," she says, and scampers down the hall.

In her room, she turns on her laptop and searches Google. She always finds answers online. She scans an article about fruit dye's effects on mice. An ad for citrus gift baskets. Then bingo. A wholesale catalogue of juice and wine supplies. Under food additives, vials of dye. She uses her mom's emergency credit card to order, checks overnight shipping. Then, Order Now. And bing. A purple complexion in a bottle. Lily would never think of that.

 

Two days later, a package comes in the mail. A shoebox size. Ruth sneaks it up to her room and rips through the paper. Packing peanuts spill out with four vials of dark purple dye. She divides them up. Three days until prom. One a day. One that night. She will be purple whether or not she goes. Prom's not about the actual dance, she thinks. It's about how you look in the pictures. She can join her friends at the after-party next door. When they see her skin, they will know that Ruth can do magical things.

She stays home the last two days of the school week. A migraine, she says. Her mother tells her she's working too hard, and Ruth solemnly nods her head. Alone in the house, she sips diluted dye, and pees lavender streams.

The Saturday of prom, she stays in bed most of the day. She studies AP notes, does shots of purple dye, and scrubs her tongue. Her mother checks her temperature before bed. "I feel much better," Ruth says. "I got lots of studying done."          

Her mother kisses her head. "You look a bit blue," she says.

Ruth smiles. "Probably just the light."

When her parents' room goes dark, Ruth sneaks downstairs and finds an old bridesmaid dress in Kimmy's costume box. It's magenta and dotted with sparkling stones. Her mother wore it in a wedding. Ruth pulls up her hair and paints her nails. She waits on the porch roof for the limo to return from the dance. She eats the last of her grapes. A week's worth of antioxidants stir inside her, and her tongue is numb from the sweetness of the juice.

She watches Lily step out of the car first. The light from the moon turns her arms an ethereal blue. Felix helps Jenna Hayes climb out. Ruth knows her from band. That could have been me, she thinks, if not for Lily. Lily knew the blowjob thing would freak her out. Ruth watches Lily go into the house, her shoes tucked under her arm. When she comes back, she's wearing flip-flops and carrying wine coolers, two per hand.

By midnight, the Prestons' lawn is filled with cars. Girls turn cartwheels. Their skirts billow over their heads.

Ruth watches her friends on the Prestons' porch. She stays out of sight. Brittany and Claire sing Hannah Montana songs. Lily leans against a pillar, with a crate of grapes at her feet. She dangles fruit over her mouth, bites off three in a row. She washes them down with wine cooler, a berry blend. "Fuck a balanced diet," she says. "By morning I'll be purple again."

"Where'd the boys go?" Brittany asks. "Maybe I should look for Blake."

"So you can fuck him?" Lily says.

"Maybe."

"He left an hour ago in Shannon Murphy's car."

"That skank." Brittany throws an empty bottle into the grass.

"She rented a hotel suite," Lily says. "Jenna and April went too."

"Help me find Josh," Claire says, and drags Brittany up. Brittany grabs Ashley's hand and the three of them link arms.

"I'm staying here," Lily says. "Bobby went for beer. I'm watching out."

The girls skip away, and Lily stares at the lavender spheres of her nails. Ruth's been waiting to catch her alone. She wants to tell Lily she got it wrong, to say she's not afraid of blowjobs. She's not a naïve little twerp whom Lily can boss around. She pulls up her dress, slings a leg over the tree, and climbs down.

When Lily sees her, she smiles. "Ruth, where have you been? You missed it. It's over. You don't need to dress up now."    

"I came to see you," Ruth says. "Look what I did." She holds out her arms.

"It's makeup," Lily says. "You didn't have time to do it for real."

"Go ahead. Try to rub it off. I ordered Norman dye. You're not the only one with tricks."

Lily shrugs. "What does it matter now? You don't have a date. We're out of boys." Lily sinks her teeth into a grape the size of an eyeball. "Oh wait. You came for me." She laughs and spits grape on the ground. "I saw you on the roof. I know you watch me. I know you didn't go to prom with Felix because you want me instead." Lily stands, but her dress catches her toe. She hits the ground, and her skirt flips over her thigh. Ruth can see her underwear. Lavender with little blue moons and stars.

"Lily, your panties are showing. Lily, get up."

Lily grabs Ruth by the ankle. "Not 'till you kiss me."

"I came to see Felix."

"Bullshit," Lily says. "You came for me."

"Let go," Ruth says. She tries to shake Lily off, but she holds on tighter. Ruth drags her toward the porch. She kicks her leg and wrangles free.

"Don't leave," Lily cries from the grass. "Ruthie, I feel so sick."

"You shouldn't have had wine coolers," Ruth scolds. "Sugar induces nausea." She grabs Lily under the armpits and pulls her to the steps. "Lean over your knees," she says. "Take deep breaths. How many bottles did you drink?"

"A lot," Lily says.

Ruth wipes grass off Lily's cheek and feels her pulse.

"I know you love me," Lily says. She pushes her lips against Ruth's. Her lips are soft and tinged with the sweetness of grapes. Ruth kisses her back.

"I knew it," Lily says, breaking away. "You're a lesbo. Wait 'till I tell the girls."

"You started it," Ruth says.

"I was just testing."

"I could tell Bobby."

"Go ahead," Lily says. "He would love ..." She laughs, and chokes on a burp. Ruth hears vomit rise in Lily's throat. She swallows it and slides to the ground. She curls up in the grass, and her hair falls in the dirt. "I'm tired," she says.

"You can't sleep," Ruth says. "That's the worst thing you could do."

Lily smiles. "I can do whatever I want."

Ruth props her up on the porch and slaps her cheek until Lily opens her eyes. Lily tries to push her away. Ruth takes Lily's chin in her hand and uses her mother's voice. "Listen to me, Lily Marie Preston. You're going to sit here just like this and stay awake until I come back with water and food."

 

In the kitchen, the refrigerator shelves are filled with beer. The grapes feel heavy in Ruth's stomach. A pain shoots through her head. She shifts beer cans from side to side, searching for food. Usually the fridge is full of take-out containers. She'll take anything. Pizza. Eggrolls. Noodles. She finds half a sub and rips off the foil. She smells turkey and mustard. She bites through the bun. She hasn't eaten solid food in a week. The flavors feel good in her mouth. She stands in the light of the fridge and chews.

"You want something, little girl?" She jumps. Felix stands in the doorway. He's not wearing shoes.    

"Lily's drunk. I'm getting her something to eat."    

"Testing to see if it's spoiled?"

Ruth swallows the mush in her mouth. "I should get back. She didn't look good. You guys have crackers?"

"She's blacked out before," he says. He takes the sandwich from her hand and sets it down on the counter. "You don't have to take care of her."

"She's my friend," Ruth says.

"Right," Felix says. He takes her hand and licks her finger. "Mmm. Mustard." He licks it again. "How come you never have any fun?"

"I do," Ruth says. "I—" Then, Felix's mouth is on her lips. Ruth breathes through her nose. He smells like beer and cigarettes. When he lets go, Ruth unclenches her toes. Felix takes her hand and leads her into the other room. He sinks into the couch and pats the cushion beside him. He's still wearing the pants from his tux. A white T-shirt on top. "Sit," he says.

Ruth crouches on the edge of the cushion. She looks around the room. "Where's Jenna?" she says.

"I sent her home. She's kinda dumb." He slides close. "You gotta tell me," he says. "Did they cut off his feet?"

"What?" she asks.

"Your grandpa. I've been wondering. When they did it, when they cut off his feet, how did they stop the blood?" He presses his lips to hers again. Their teeth hit. She feels his tongue. "You ever touch one?" he asks. He takes her hand and guides it through his zipper. Her fingers course through wiry hair. Ruth feels the warmth of his body. He pushes his pants to the floor, rips his shirt over his head. Ruth stares. He has the same pale stomach as Lily, the same belly button popping out like a knob. Ruth stares at his penis, erect and angled. She didn't think it would look like that. He takes her hand and wraps her fingers around it, guides her up and down. The skin rolls and stretches. He moans softly and clutches her arm. "There you go," he says. "Now lick the tip."

Ruth does as he says. She presses his penis to her lips and sucks gently, caressing the flesh with her tongue.

Outside the noise of the party gets louder. Ruth looks out the window. She hears sirens. A bottle breaking. A car door slamming shut.

Felix grips her arm tighter. "Don't stop," he says. His fingers dig into her skin.

Ruth brings his penis to her lips. Over his shoulder, she sees Lily in the doorway. Red lights flash behind her. She's biting her lip. Ruth knows that look. It's the look she gets on her face before she cries. Ruth holds her breath, closes her eyes, and lets the sirens fill her head.