A Snowball’s Chance
Three days before prom and Tressa’s working late at the snowball stand again. Since it’s a school night, she’s only supposed to be there until 11, but the guy who owns the place gives her an extra $15 cash at the end of the week for each day she stays to close everything down. The stand, not much bigger than a kid’s playhouse, sits at the edge of the parking lot of a mini amusement park called Adventure Lane, which has a Putt-Putt course and a bumper car track and a 50-foot cement lighthouse with a rotating beam you can see from the highway. It makes one rotation every twenty seconds, light dragging across the wide black parking lot like a net. Tressa stopped paying attention to it a long time ago, but sometimes when she closes her eyes after a long evening at the stand, bands of yellow creep slowly across her vision.
She swipes a sticky rag across the counter and looks across the parking lot to the park entrance, a high metal gate affixed with wooden signs warning participants that they enter at their own risk. Adventure Lane closes in an hour, but the bumper cars are still going strong and every couple of minutes, she can hear thud-crashes through the trees. The guys that come out weeknights pour airplane bottles over their snowballs and tell Tressa she looks like Kelly McGillis and other people Tressa’s never heard of, but she’ll smile anyway because the drunker they get, the more they tip.
She runs her rag along the shiny surface of the ice chipper, a top loader that makes a sound like gnashing teeth when it’s spitting out snow. When she got this job last spring, she told herself she would only keep it until she saved up enough money for a new phone, but as soon as she’d hit that goal, she found something else she needed to buy.
You get two proms at Meeker High—junior and senior. Last year, she’d bought a slinky black dress on sale at Marshalls and tucked a Ziploc bag of vodka into her strapless bra. That had seemed like more than enough for a good night, but then she ran into Leanne Christopher.
Her old friend was wearing an emerald-green ball gown with embroidered gold flowers climbing up the sides, and gold shoes to match. Her long dark hair had been curled and pinned up, and tiny pendants, also gold, hung from her ears. When she saw Tressa, she smiled and hugged her.
“You look great,” she said.
“You look great … er.” Tressa’s head spun from the heat and the music and the body-temperature booze. Lights from the dance floor circled towards them like miniature versions of the Adventure Lane lighthouse. Amid all of it, Leanne stood with her face flushed, grinning. She didn’t appear to be drunk, just happy, and Tressa’s stomach suddenly pinched with longing. She stared until Leanne took her hand.
“Come dance with us,” Leanne said, pulling Tressa towards her group of friends, whose bright satin dresses flashed under the spinning lights. Leanne would never approach her at school, but here things seemed different. She allowed herself to be pulled a few feet before she came to her senses and let go.
“I have to find my date,” she said, pulling on the itchy hem of her cheap dress.
“Next time, then,” Leanne said. “I mean it.”
Tressa turned away, but in her head, she was already calculating how many hours she’d have to spend at the snowball stand to save up for a dress like that.
At 10:10, there’s a knock on the back door. Tressa lets Ian in quickly. He is shaggy haired and sun-tanned and is wearing a shirt that says “oh dear” in the John Deere logo. The silhouette is of two deer fucking. Ian is not as stupid as he looks; he just doesn’t care what people say about him. This is alternately sexy and infuriating.
Ian takes a cup off the shelf and pumps it half full of lime syrup. Tressa can smell the sugar. It makes her eyes water.
“Can you get out early?” Ian says. “My mom’s at a church thing.”
She shakes her head. “Mike asked if I’d stay ’til midnight.”
“Fuck Mike. Come with me.” He drains the lime syrup and smiles. Even his green teeth look hot. “Say you got your period.”
She folds her hands. “I can’t. I need the money.”
Ian moves towards her, hot breath on her ear. “Baby….”
She wants to rip off his sagging jeans and push him up against the ice-cream freezer, but just then, one of the go-karters appears at the window. He is mid-30s, paunchy. He holds out a $10 bill between his thumb and forefinger.
“Sweetheart, how about some of that wild cherry? Keep the change if you can mix in a little extra.” He pulls a flask from the pocket of his pleated khakis.
Tressa nods. “Sure.” She dumps the pine-scented liquid into a cup and then pumps two shots of cherry on top. This is what she’s been hoping for all night. She rings up the cup as markout and pockets the ten.
“Great,” Ian says. “Now we can get the hell out of here.”
The parking lot is quiet. Her hands feel pruned from the ice. She wants to warm them all over Ian’s body.
“Sorry,” she says. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”
Tressa’s mom is already asleep when she comes home. She gets up at 4 a.m. to work at the nursing home, a dingy overheated place that smells like puke and collards. But her dad is still up reading—James Patterson as usual. Most nights when he comes home from putting in flooring, he’s too wired to sleep.
“Another closing shift?” he asks from his armchair.
She can tell he’s skeptical, and that’s annoying as shit because she could have been fucking Ian but wasn’t, so it’s not fair that he thinks she was anyway. It’s not fair that he cares that she’s fucking Ian because she’s almost 18 and Ian’s a good guy and they always wear condoms.
“Yeah,” she says. “Mike says I do a good job. Elaine leaves the counters all sticky and gross.”
“You get your homework done?”
“Yes,” she lies. There’s only a month left to go, and she’s not in danger of failing anything. She’s already gotten into community college, and that’s more than he ever did.
“You working tomorrow?”
Jesus Christ. It’s like she’s on trial. “I don’t remember. I’ll check my e-mail.”
Her father is silent. “Okay,” he says after a minute. “Get some sleep.”
She pads upstairs and gets in bed with her clothes still on. School starts in six hours, but she doesn’t feel tired, so she takes out her phone and pulls up Leanne’s Instagram. She’s got almost ten thousand followers, strangers drawn into the square tableaux that she posts each day: manicured feet next to an aquamarine pool, sushi filled with bright red roe, beach sunsets and Starbucks cups and pearl earrings set on a bannister.
Her newest photo shows a white hanger holding a splash of red fabric. #prom #whynot #surprise #dontpeek. Tressa holds the phone closer to her face to see each separate pixel. There’s no way to identify what kind of dress it is, but it looks red, silky, and expensive. She takes the $10 out of her pocket and sets it carefully onto the stack atop her bedside table. She lies back, pulling the phone closer and closer to her eye until all she can see is red.
Tressa met Leanne the day Tiffany had the flu that would turn out to be a baby. Tiffany was her older cousin, 16, and very pretty, who picked up Tressa from school and watched her until her parents got home. But one Tuesday, she was feeling poorly, so Tressa’s father took her with him to a big house downtown that looked like it was made of gingerbread. When they pulled up, a girl her age was standing outside, holding two Beanie Babies on thin, pink leashes. The stuffed animals, a robin and a calico cat, were brown with dirt.
“This is my daughter, Leanne.” A man who had dark hair like the girl walked across the lawn and shook Tressa’s father’s hand. “Do they want to play together?”
“I apologize,” Tressa’s father said. “Our sitter fell through. I was going to have her do her homework in the car.”
Leanne’s father smiled. “Leanne, why don’t you show—”
“Tressa,” Tressa said.
“Why don’t you show Tressa your Beanies?”
Tressa followed Leanne as they dragged the animals around the enormous grassy yard.
When they’d completed a circuit, Leanne led them onto the back porch, where a basket of more dirty Beanie Babies was sitting. She unclipped the leash off the robin and cinched it around the belly of a brontosaurus.
“We have to walk them all,” she said, “or else they’ll become obese.”
“Do your parents get mad that they get so dirty?” Tressa asked. It was so shocking to see the new toys covered in mud that she couldn’t look away. Leanne had to wave her hands in front of her face to get her attention.
“They don’t care,” she said when Tressa finally looked up. “They’re my toys, so I decide how to play with them.”
Tressa watched Leanne out of the corner of her eye. Leanne was her height, but she talked with the authority of a grown-up. As they walked in circles around the yard, Leanne told her about her old house in Chicago, her mother’s job that gave her all the M&M’s she wanted, and her idea for a machine that would suck all the blood out of a person and replace it with new blood to cure their AIDS. Tressa had a sneaking suspicion this invention was highly flawed, if not impossible, but was too entranced to say anything.
On their seventh trip around the yard, their fathers came out onto the porch, each carrying a stack of papers. “We have to go now,” Tressa’s father said. “It’s getting dark.”
“We’re not done,” Leanne said. “Can’t Tressa stay until we’re done?”
Leanne’s father shrugged. “I can drive her home after dinner.”
“We don’t want to impose,” Tressa’s father said. “Come on, Tressa.”
“It’s fine,” Leanne’s father said. “They really seem to be hitting it off.”
“Well….” Tressa’s father put his hands in his pockets. “Say please and thank you,” he told Tressa, then said goodbye and got in the car. Tressa watched him go. From the way her father said goodbye, she knew she was in for it later, but the prospect of spending more time with her new friend replaced the feeling of dread with anticipation.
When Tressa’s father’s car had disappeared down the road, Leanne’s father said, “Your dad is making our house look awesome.”
Tressa blushed. To her, the house looked beautiful already, twice the size of her own, with green shutters like a cottage from a Disney movie. Her dad’s work had always seemed so boring before, but the thought of him improving something as perfect as this filled her with pride.
“Dad,” Leanne said. “You can’t say that word. It’s embarrassing.”
“Awesome possum,” her father said, and both girls giggled.
When she got home that night, her father told her that if Tiffany wasn’t better by the next afternoon, her mother would pick Tressa up after school and she could do her homework in the office at the nursing home.
“But I want to go back to see Leanne! They said it wasn’t imposing. They really said it!”
“I’m not going to have you hanging around while I’m trying to do my job. It makes us look like white trash.”
This was the first time she’d heard that phrase. It made her think of the plastic bags from Pei Wei that got tangled in the trees behind her house. But she didn’t feel like a plastic bag. She liked Leanne and wanted to see her every day.
“You’re wrong,” she said, even though she knew she would get spanked for talking back. “You’re so, so wrong.”
To her surprise, her father didn’t rise from his chair or narrow his eyes. “Head on up to bed,” he said. “I’ll come up in a minute to tuck you in.”
She stomped up the dark wood stairs, angry and confused that he wouldn’t engage with her. It made her think that this friendship with Leanne was somehow more important than the other fights they’d had, but she couldn’t tell why.
In the acetone-scented salon, Tara and Gabbie peer over her shoulder to look at Leanne’s photo. It’s still two days to go, but there’s a Thursday mani-pedi deal, so Tressa prays that she won’t fuck hers up if she gets them done now.
“I think I saw it at Caché,” Gabbie says. “It’s got cutouts on the side.”
“She’s not going to get something from Caché,” Tressa says.
“Why not?” Tara says. “I saw a dress in there for four hundred bucks.”
Tressa pauses. She’s let her friends think she got hers on deep discount because otherwise they’d laugh at her for spending $800 on a prom dress. “Leanne would never buy something that came from the mall.”
Tara and Gabbie exchange glances so she drops it. She has to be careful how much she talks about Leanne because the girls have been getting bored quickly and Gabbie says it sounds gay. To them, Leanne is just one of a squadron of rich girls whose lives they’re content to monitor from afar. Tressa has never told them her plan to approach Leanne this year nor how much she’s working to prepare for it.
She puts her phone back in her pocket as a woman slides a bowl of lukewarm water towards her and motions for her to dunk her fingers. “What kind of polish would you like?”
Tressa pulls the bottle out of her pocket. “I brought my own,” she says. “Thank you.”
Tara and Gabbie eye the bottle. “Chanel?” Gabbie says. “I thought they only did perfume.”
“I bought it at Sephora.”
“Thirty dollars. Look, I’ll have it forever.”
“Wow …” Gabbie says. “You’d better wear it every damn day.”
The woman towels off Tressa’s hands and begins to clip away the dead skin from her cuticles, wiping the pincers off on a beige rag. Tressa watches the little pile of skin shavings grow. It’s satisfying to pay someone to remove the bad parts of yourself. She looks over at her friends. Tara’s got little white strips stuck to her own nails so that the manicurist can paint the bottom halves pink. When she sees Tressa looking, she says, “Do you think Scott will like them?”
“I don’t know,” Tressa says. “Ian never notices what my nails look like.”
Tara grins. She and Scott have been dating for eight weeks and each day she seems more convinced of his perfection. “Scott notices everything. I think he’ll like them.” She turns from Gabbie to Tressa. “My aunt’s out of town and I have a key so I can go water her plants.” She lowers her voice. “So after prom, Scott and I are going to—you know.”
“Oh my god!” Gabbie says.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Tressa says.
“Well,” Tara says, “It’s a big deal to me.”
She and Gabbie exchange looks. They’re both virgins, but Tressa’s been doing it with Ian since 10th grade. She’s pretty sure they sometimes call her a slut when she’s not around, but she pretends they don’t.
Tressa thinks about arguing, but her nails are already done, so she just shrugs and walks over to the rows of UV dryers. She wants to tell her friends that French tips haven’t been cool since 2010, that they look like low-rent porn stars, which is ironic because they’re both fucking prudes like her parents. When her mother found out that her cousin Tiffany’s vomiting was due to morning sickness, she told Tressa it had happened because Tiffany wore shirts that were too small. This terrified Tressa because she was always outgrowing her own shirts and everyone said Tiffany’s life was ruined now. So the next day, she wore a T-shirt she’d gotten for field day that went down to her knees, and when she told Leanne it was because she didn’t want to get in trouble with a baby, Leanne said that’s not how that happened. Leanne’s parents had given her a book about it, with a picture of a girl on the front, smiling under a big tree. It was called “About Your Body” and had line drawings of penises inside. That’s how you got a baby, Leanne said. Unless you wore condoms, or took birth control, or had an abortion.
Tressa had never heard of any of those words, but they did give her an idea. They spent the rest of the day pairing up the Beanie Babies that looked most alike, pressing them together crotch to crotch on the daybed in Leanne’s guest room.
“When they have babies, we’ll be able to sell them for millions of dollars,” Tressa said. “Because no one’s ever heard of a half dinosaur, half blue jay. And then I’ll buy a limo and drive it here every day.” Her father had been grudgingly letting her take the bus home with Leanne, but he always seemed mad about it.
“You are a freaking genius,” Leanne said and hugged her.
At the snowball stand that night, she unbuttons her polo so you can see the top lacy curves of her best bra. After the manicure, she’s only got $7 to her name and will have to work extra hard tonight to afford the hair appointment she has scheduled for the next day. When one of the bumper car regulars hands her a five, she lingers on his sweaty hand for a long moment.
“Who’s winning?” she asks.
“Not me,” he says. “Bad luck.”
She motions him forward, plants a kiss on his cheek. “That’s for better luck,” she says.
His friends oooh and it sounds like when the vice principal calls into a classroom and asks for someone to please come to the office. He lets her keep the five, and swaggers back off across the parking lot.
The next time the men return, they carry tequila in a slouchy brown bag.
“A round of margaritas, boys?” She lines up four medium cups and they all make a fuss, so she adds a fifth for herself. It’s no big deal—she’s had tequila before—and it makes them just howl when she downs it.
“I have a deal,” she says. “Ten dollars a shot.”
“Sweetheart, that’s our booze. You can’t sell it to us.”
“For me to take a shot.”
One of the guys lays down a bill on the table and she glugs the yellow liquid into a mini-cup. Truth is, she doesn’t know how much is in a shot until they say whoa! It tastes so strong and bitter that her throat closes, but she grits her teeth and forces it down.
The men laugh. “That’s a good trick,” one says.
She pours out another. The fumes make her gag. “Who’s next?”
Another bill on the table. The liquor feels like fire in her throat—blue gassy fire, like the kind under a Bunsen burner. She burps. The men laugh and cap the bottle. “She’s a good one,” they say.
“You guys out of money or something?”
“That’s enough,” they say.
“I’m not a pussy.” Her eyes are having a hard time focusing; she wishes she’d eaten dinner tonight.
“One more.” The shortest guy puts down a handful of ones. “Then you should stop.”
She puts the bottle directly to her lips. This time, the booze tastes sweet.
When Ian comes to pick her up, she’s been smoothing her money for an hour, arranging the bills so that they’re all iron-smooth and facing the same way—$65—Enough for her hair and new deodorant so her underarms don’t look all scratched up when she dances. She can hardly believe it. She kisses Ian messily on the cheek.
“You smell weird,” Ian says. “Have you been drinking?”
Tressa winks at him. “I did it,” she says.
“Congrats.” He opens the door for her. “You know, my mom’s at home, but she’s asleep….”
“Can’t.” It’s hard to buckle her seatbelt. Ian reaches over and snaps it for her, pinching her thumb in the process. “Ow!”
“Well, when do you think we’ll be able to?”
“Anytime,” Tressa says. “Anytime after tomorrow.”
Ian pulls out of the parking lot. “I don’t even want to go, really. The music, the tux…. You know that’s not really my scene.”
Tressa presses on her temples. “Ian,” she says. “Don’t ruin this.” She suddenly pictures herself standing alone in a sea of balloons. Going without Ian would be worse than going in a dress from Marshalls.
Ian stares straight ahead down the dark road. “You’re not fun when you’re drunk.”
“Tomorrow night,” she says, taking his arm. “Tara’s got her aunt’s whole house to herself. We’ll have the limo drop us off there, after.”
Ian shrugs. “Okay,” he says. “Whatever.”
The next morning, she wakes up with the $65 stuck to her bare legs. She remembers climbing the stairs, but not flinging her pants across the room. She goes to the bathroom and takes two Tylenol and drinks water from the tap until she feels like a balloon. It’s 10 a.m. In three hours, she’s meeting Tara and Gabbie for hair. She stumbles back into bed.
As soon as she closes her eyes, the door opens.
“Don’t go back to sleep,” her father says. “Remember the grout?”
“No,” she says, eyes still closed.
“Last night, you promised you’d scrub it before grandma came over.”
She does remember something like this. Her father had been sitting in his chair, book closed. She remembers holding her breath so he wouldn’t smell the tequila.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says. She can’t tell if he knows she’s been drinking or if he’s just tired and grumpy like he always is. She sits up in bed, trying one last tactic.
“It’s prom today,” she says. “I already got my nails done.”
Her father presses his hands against the sides of the door, starts to speak, and then pauses like he’s trying to decide which of the many speeches he’s going to lead with.
She pushes herself up in bed. “Fine,” she says, before he can begin. “Fine, I’ll do it now.”
When she meets Tara and Gabbie at the strip mall salon, her hands still smell like bleach. She’s wearing a button-up shirt and inspects her nails as they wait for their names to be called. Her ring finger on her right hand is chipped, but not too bad. Gabbie asks if she slept okay.
“I slept great. It was the waking up that fucked me over.”
“Are you sick?” Gabbie asks.
“How come you went drinking without us?”
Fortunately, Tressa is called to the chair before she has to answer. She sits down and closes her eyes as the stylist sprays her scalp with foam. She’s asked for something natural and classy and hopes that is enough description to get what she wants. Her forehead throbs each time the stylist pins back another chunk, but she breathes through it. Almost there, almost there.
They meet the boys at Gabbie’s parents’ house at 6 p.m. It has a wraparound porch that is peeling but long enough to fit everyone plus their dates, so they all line up along it while the parents snap pictures below. Humidity rises from the overgrown lawn, which buzzes with insects. The dogwoods and azaleas have long since bloomed, but sprays of root beer–colored irises sit in planters on the steps. Tressa positions Ian in front of them so her dad can get a photo of her pinning his boutonnière.
“You look nice,” Ian says. He slides the corsage onto her wrist. She feels stiff, covered in polish, hairspray, foundation, and glitter. Inside, she is screaming with excitement. She’s done it. The cameras click away and all the guys complain that it is taking too long, but she just keeps grinning. She’s done it, and she wants as many shots as possible of her looking perfect.
The prom’s being held at the school because, a few years ago, some kids destroyed a hotel bathroom at the Hilton and there isn’t any other place close by that can fit that many people. The guys that messed up the bathroom are long gone, and the banishment seems unfair like everything else. Tressa runs her hands over the smooth leather of the limo as they enter the carpool lane. At least they’re doing this right. Ian keeps squeezing his arm around her, but she’s too nervous, neck clenched from holding it so straight, fingers tight, praying for nothing to crack or peel before they get in the doors.
A red carpet has been set up from the parking lot to the entrance, and as they walk it, Tressa hears thumping music coming from inside. After a long dinner at the Cheesecake Factory—not her first choice, but at least Ian paid—they are perfectly fashionably late. She smiles as Ian holds the door open to the foyer. The hall has been dyed tropical with pink lights and green drape—birds of paradise flowers hang from the sconces.
“This actually looks pretty good,” Ian says.
Tressa is surprised too: the team of ditsy girls who run Student Council barely seem like they could pull off a bake sale, let alone this. She runs her hand down the front of her dress.
“Come on,” she says, and pulls open the double doors to the gym.
The pounding music immediately burrows into Tressa’s aching head. A dance floor has been set up and then immediately segregated, black kids dancing with black kids, white kids with white. The Student Council congas in between, squealing and hugging each other, shoes flung in a pile in the corner.
Tressa scans faces, looking for Leanne and the red dress. She’s not dancing, or sitting at the paper-covered tables, or taking photos in front of the backdrop painted to look like a beach. Her stomach begins turning and she reaches for her phone—surely something cooler can’t have come up. Surely this won’t all have been for nothing. Then they all hear sirens.
Gabbie says, “Jesus, those sound close” and over the slow song, the sound begins to rise. Everyone looks around and Tara says, “Do you think someone passed out?” The boys crush their weed deeper into their pockets.
People begin to spill off the dance floor until it is empty, disco lights peppering across the tiles. The DJ calls them all to come back, but no one listens.
Ian takes Tressa’s hand and they’re one of the first pairs out the doors, pushing into the lobby and past the security guards. They are some of the first to reach the outside, stepping clear of the swinging doors, and they are some of the first to see the fire truck pull up, and the doors open. Leanne jumps out. She is wearing red silk pajamas.
Tressa just stands there because this feels like a hallucination. But out jumps Leanne’s friend Meghan, and her exchange student Christophe, and Meghan’s date Brian, and Leanne’s boyfriend Michael, and they’re all wearing pajamas—tailored, shiny, red pajamas.
A crowd has gathered at the doors and it sounds like someone’s set off a bomb of laughing gas. Michael takes Leanne’s hand, and they wave to the gathered crowd. Christophe blows kisses. Leanne isn’t even wearing an updo; her hair falls to her shoulders in fresh-washed waves. Photos flash like they would on a real red carpet, and Leanne and her friends make their way towards the school. Tressa feels as if she has swallowed something sharp. When she looks at Ian, he’s laughing.
“Fucking classic,” he says, craning his neck around the crowd. “I can’t believe it.”
Tressa plucks a satiny petal from her corsage and rubs it hard between her fingers. She sniffs; it stinks like cheap perfume. “Classic,” Ian keeps saying. She wants to go back inside, but no one else is moving, so she stays put as Leanne comes closer and closer. Soon, Tressa realizes she is heading straight for them. She steps aside, but Leanne grabs her hand.
“I love your dress,” she says, face flushed.
Tressa pauses. “Thanks.”
“I mean it,” Leanne says. She is beaming. In her ears are silver studs that Tressa recognizes. They’re in the shape of cats.
“Nice earrings,” Tressa says.
Leanne reaches up to touch her ears. “Oh yeah,” she says, and grins. “Want to come inside?”
The crowd is pressing them towards the doors, but Tressa shakes her head. She should have known better. She has messed up again. “No thanks,” she says, and backs away until Leanne has passed.
After a few minutes, Ian pulls Tressa back inside. Leanne and her friends have disappeared onto the crowded dance floor, which has begun to jolt in time to frenetic music full of empty spaces where curse words used to be. Through the crowd, Tressa sees flashes of cuffed satin as they twirl across the floor. Ian begins to grind behind her; she can feel his erection rounded and soft through his tuxedo pants. He locks his hands around her waist and she knows she should feel sexy, but all she can think of is Leanne’s cat earrings, wondering if she wore them on purpose, or if she even remembers the fight with Tressa the day that she got them.
Leanne’s father had agreed to take them to get their ears pierced after they’d both turned 12 since Tressa’s parents had finally given her permission. She and Leanne could hardly stand it; it was exciting and terrifying and, most of all, hilarious because they were pretending to be sisters, because your parents had to sign for you if you were under 18.
Leanne had gone first, clutching the ratty teddy bear as the associate drew marks on her lobes with felt-tipped marker. “It doesn’t hurt at all,” she kept telling Tressa as the piercing gun pressed through her skin. “Not at all—ouch—not really at all!” They’d both chosen tiny silver cats, a joke about their failed Beanie Baby experiment, and Leanne’s shone brightly under the florescent lights as she slid off the chair.
Tressa swallowed and handed the sales associate nine $5 bills. “Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”
“Do you have four more dollars, sweetheart?”
Tressa bit her lip. This was the extent of her birthday money. She had a roll of quarters at home, but it was only half-full. “I thought it was forty-five dollars,” she said.
“Here.” Mr. Collins handed the woman his credit card. “My treat, ladies.”
“Thanks, daddy!” Leanne said, both hands patting at her shining ears.
Tressa looked from Leanne to her father, feeling a coldness spread through her stomach like she’d swallowed a chunk of ice. The money she’d brought felt heavy in her hand.
“You ready to go?” Mr. Collins asked.
Tressa stared down at the purple carpet. “I changed my mind,” she said. “I’m too scared.”
“Tressa!” Leanne said. “You’re never scared, that’s why I went first!”
Tressa bit her lip. “I’m scared,” she said again, and felt her eyes begin to prickle with tears. She felt the way she’d felt when she farted during the writing test, flushed with embarrassment as everyone looked at her and smelled poop. Her lips began to shake and she couldn’t take her eyes off the white plastic bag that held Leanne’s ear disinfectant. She thought about it dirty, caught high in the trees. White trash.
“Don’t cry,” said the associate.
Leanne tried to take Tressa’s hand, but Tressa stuffed it in the pocket of her jeans.
On the ride home, she picked at her fingernails and stole glances at Leanne’s tiny silver studs.
“Maybe next week you’ll feel braver,” Mr. Collins said. She met his eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Maybe,” she said. But she knew she wouldn’t have the money next week. And even when she did, she wouldn’t have enough for ice cream after, or a movie, or roller-skating, or cheese fries. As long as she was friends with Leanne, she would always be beholden to her or hold her back from doing what she wanted to do. “Thank you for the ride,” she said when they pulled up outside her house. She didn’t say see you later because she was already sure that she wouldn’t.
The Tylenol is wearing off and her head hurts. “I’ve got to go,” she tells Ian and steps quickly towards the door.
When she reaches the hallway, it’s quieter, mostly teachers laughing together as they snap photos of each other in their dresses and suits. She moves quickly towards the end of the hall and only stops when she feels Ian’s hand on her arm.
“Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t feel well,” she says.
“Where are you going?”
“Home,” she says. “It’s not far.”
He crosses his arms. “Don’t ditch me,” he says. “That’s not fair.”
“I said I don’t feel well.”
“You look fine. Great, in fact.”
Tressa looks down at her nails. In the dark, Chanel looks like Sally Hansen, and every time she sees her fingers, she feels stupid. She should have known she would never be good enough for Leanne. She shouldn’t have even tried.
“If I’d known you were going to flake out, I wouldn’t have rented this goddamn suit,” Ian says.
“Sorry,” Tressa says. “I’ll give you money for it. I don’t have it now, but—”
“Jesus,” Ian says. “Not everything has to be about money!” He takes her hand in his. “Please.”
Tressa swallows. It would be nice to live in Ian’s sweet, stupid head. He’s smiling at her now, taking her hesitation as a victory, pulse in his thumb pounding fast to the beat of the muffled music.
Tressa lets go. “Sorry,” she says. “I’ll see you later.”
He doesn’t say anything, just stands there and watches her walk away.
She stumbles home from the school in the dark. It’s only a mile, but her strappy sandals dig into her heel on one side and her toe on the other. She limps, but does not take them off. It’s not enough to have money for just one night; she’ll always be the girl who grew up outside the beltline, in a house with plastic siding, numbing her hands on the snowball machine for a meager allowance. Her life seems short, laid out like that. She feels old suddenly, bone weary despite having barely danced at all.
She cuts through the strip mall where the smell of Chinese food hangs in the dense air. A few kids huddle under one of the streetlights, but they ignore her as she limps down the sidewalk towards her driveway.
It’s dark behind the mall, but she can see their side window lit up yellow. Her father is up reading. She runs her hands through her hair, which has already come out of its curls, and opens the front door.
Her father stands up from his chair. “You’re home early,” he says. “Are you okay?”
“Just tired,” she says. “It was a lot of fun.” She laughs and can’t tell if it just sounds hollow to her.
He closes his book. “It’s really the end of an era, isn’t it?”
She fingers the strap of her beaded purse. “Yeah,” she says. “Maybe.”
He smiles at her. “I got some great pictures from earlier. You want to see them?”
“Okay, you know where to find me.”
She crosses the room, careful not to let her heels mar the polished floor. Their house is full of cheap things, but her father laid the hardwood himself and this she knows is worth something. She goes up the stairs, but pauses at the top, wondering if she should say something like, you were right, or you were wrong, because years ago, her father tried to tell her how the world works and now she feels like she’s lived in it long enough that she understands. But she doesn’t. She walks to her room and sits on her bed in her long, shiny dress, pulling up Instagram on her phone. Leanne’s only posted once today, a selfie of her and Christophe in the back of the fire truck, puffing out their cheeks like they’re full of marshmallows. She pauses for a moment before hitting the like button. Maybe Leanne won’t see her name in the list of all the people who admire what she’s done. But maybe she will, and that thought is enough to let her set the phone down and close her eyes. Her satin dress is soft and still cool and after a few moments, her head finally begins to clear.
Hannah Thurman lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her short stories have been published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel.