It was surprisingly cool in the bathroom at the back of the church. The two girls had tucked themselves into the stall on the far left, the one with an OUT OF ORDER sign taped to the door. The sign was Nicole’s idea, a precaution against the nosy camp chaperones who might notice they were gone and go looking for them.
The theme for the last day of Bible camp was deliverance, or obedience, or some other –ence word. Tina did her best to look attentive and innocuous during the opening scripture reading. Sitting in a pew as far back from Pastor Rick as possible, Tina used a hymnal balanced on her knees as a makeshift table. Without looking down, Tina scrawled OUT OF ORDER in big, authoritative letters. Instead of looking at the paper, she watched the sweat dotting Pastor Rick’s brow. In the light filtering through the stained-glass window, the beads looked golden, ringing his head in a luminescent halo.
When Tina lifted the paper up from the hymnal, Nicole elbowed her and pointed to the smears of permanent marker that had leaked through onto the cover, declaring the hymnal OUT OF ORDER.
“You’re going to Hell now,” she whispered in Tina’s ear, the vibration tickling her earlobe in an itch. Tina always seemed to grow hyper-sensitive to itches and skin sensations whenever the girls were together. She also laughed at the smallest things around Nicole. The girls tried to cover their giggles behind their palms, but Pastor Rick heard and shot them a stern look in between scripture.
Tina sat on the toilet seat, back pressed against the wall. She pulled her red, scabby knees up to her chin, arms wrapped tight around her shins to keep herself in place. Nicole sat above her, perched delicately on the tank with the precision of a small parrot. She tucked her long legs between Tina and the damp ceramic of the tank. When one of the girls shifted, the skin of their legs rubbed together, and Tina’s face would glow warm just under her eyes.
“How much longer until this stupid day is over?” Nicole asked, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand. Her charm bracelet jingled against her face.
Tina peered around her calves at the watch on her wrist. The green numbers glowed in the dimly lit bathroom.
“We’ve only been in here forty-five minutes.”
Nicole groaned dramatically, her voice bouncing off the walls and the ceiling in an echo. Tina shushed her.
“Don’t shush me,” Nicole huffed, reaching over and yanking Tina’s greasy red ponytail. “You are not my mother.”
Tina reached up to grab a chunk of Nicole’s hair in return, but Nicole smacked her hand out of the way.
“And you do not touch a black woman’s hair, either.”
Tina scoffed, and a sense of mischief squirmed through her body, up and down her sternum until it rested in the low part of her stomach. “You aren’t a woman.” With a finger, precisely poised, she flicked the flat front of Nicole’s butter-yellow tank top. “You’re what my mom calls a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board.”
Nicole grinned, her small white teeth glowing in the fluorescent dim of the bathroom. She ripped a long strip of toilet paper off the roll, tore it in half, and crumpled each half into a ball which she then put down her shirt and wedged into her training bra. Sticking out her chest and pulling her tank top tight across her body, Nicole wiggled her shoulders.
“How about now? Do I look womanly?”
“You look stupid.” Tina squashed one of Nicole’s paper breasts with her palm. “Nobody would believe those were real.”
Tina looked at Nicole puffing out her chest like a proud peacock about to strut past a group of hens. The clumps of toilet paper under Nicole’s shirt looked lumpy and hard in a way that was both funny and sad.
Sometimes, Tina wasn’t sure if she wanted Nicole or if she just wanted to be Nicole, with her long, lithe body, pretty features, and infectious, slightly crooked grin that made her look older than thirteen. Instead, Tina was chunky and freckled, her arms and legs covered with bright-red specks that only got bigger and redder in the summer sun. The only thing Tina had that Nicole didn’t was breasts, great soft lumps that hurt when she touched them. Nicole wanted breasts so badly, every night doing chest exercises in hopes of stimulating their growth. Tina didn’t think they were worth the trouble.
“I bet Pastor Rick would like them,” Nicole said of her newly constructed bust. She looked mischievously at Tina from the corner of her eye. “He seems like a man who would like a big rack. He probably likes your tits since they’re fucking huge.”
Tina felt her face become suddenly hot, like she was leaning into a campfire. She looked at Nicole’s lumpy artificial breasts and imagined Pastor Rick cupping them gently with both hands. A pang went through Tina’s chest. “Yep,” she said, her mouth pulling up on one end into a bitter smirk. “Like a pirate’s dream: a sunken chest.”
Nicole pulled out both wads of toilet paper and tossed them at Tina’s face. Tina shrieked and Nicole laughed.
The door to the bathroom creaked open, and Nicole clamped a hand over her own mouth, choking her laughter quiet. In tense silence, the girls sat completely still and listened as the woman, wheezing slightly, plunked down on the toilet in the stall next to them. As her weight hit the seat, the lid on the tank rattled. Over the course of several minutes, Tina and Nicole refused to look at each other, afraid the look would trigger an outburst of nervous laughter. The woman grunted and sighed, finally completing her bathroom visit by flushing the toilet and leaving without washing her hands.
“That was disgusting,” Nicole said once the door banged shut. Her voice sounded squelched and nasally like she was talking without breathing through her nose.
“Yeah, it was,” Tina agreed, plugging her own nose between two fingers. “And just think she’ll be using those hands to do Jesus crafts with children.”
“The unwashed masses.” Nicole waved a hand in front of her own face as if trying to shoo away the smell. Her charm bracelet tinkled happily like tiny church bells.
Tina had given Nicole the charm bracelet for her ninth birthday, the one Nicole had at the ice skating rink, despite the fact that nobody except her could skate. While Nicole flitted across the ice, her skates making a chkk chkk rhythm across the smooth surface of the sink, Tina and the rest of the guests scooted behind her, wiggling their hips in a sad attempt to propel forward. Fast and almost erratic, Nicole jumped and spun, circling the rink again and again as if she was flying. The way she seemed to skip across the ice reminded Tina of the Jesus lizard on a Discovery channel nature special, running lightning quick over the top of the scummy jungle water.
Tina stayed close to the edge of the rink with her right hand touching the wall at all times as if the contact provided any protection from falling. She moved herself carefully, her skates slipping forward inch by inch. Tina watched the advertisements printed along the walls, visible during the local hockey games broadcasted on a local cable access channel: law firms, realtors, several restaurants in downtown Iowa City with reputations better than their actual food.
Although none of the party guests were as good at skating as Nicole, the second-best skater was Lydia, a girl from out of town whom Nicole met at summer art camp. Shifting her weight from leg to leg, Lydia propelled herself fairly quickly across the rink, keeping up just enough to talk at Nicole’s back. Nicole turned her head over her shoulder to respond, smiling and laughing. Tina hadn’t spoken one word to Lydia, but it was at that moment that Tina knew she hated the girl.
It was as if Tina’s body made the decision for her. The next time Nicole and Lydia swept past her, Tina’s left leg shot out in Lydia’s path. Their skates collided, and Tina and Lydia tumbled to the ground. Tina’s hands were already out to catch her fall.
As if in slow motion, Tina watched Lydia fall beside her. Her feet shooting out behind her, Lydia careened forward, her face falling toward the ice in a perfect arc. Tina gasped, her chest constricting like she had had the wind knocked out of her. She wasn’t sure if she was regretful or simply awed by the trajectory, by the crack as Lydia’s skull met the ice.
Nicole’s mother took that moment to usher everyone off the ice for cake and ice cream while she called Lydia’s parents to come take her to the hospital for stitches. Tina was unscathed. After Nicole opened her presents, she and the guests went back out on the rink. A long pink streak marked the place where Lydia’s head had broken open on the ice. Tina skated over the spot and felt a chill inside her body. The blades of her skates rubbed away Lydia’s blood with every lap around the rink. Her shame, however, rested warm in the pit of her chest.
“God, it reeks in here,” Nicole said, still fanning the air with one hand. With the other hand, Nicole absently traced a phrase of bathroom graffiti carved into the metal wall of the stall. Crissy sux weinerz. “Good for you, Crissy,” Nicole murmured.
“We could sneak back to the group,” Tina suggested. “At least we’d be outside.”
Nicole shook her head, her big loose hair bouncing slightly. “No way. I’d rather sit in a poo cloud for all eternity than go out there and participate.” She scowled at Tina. “I’ll never forgive your mom for convincing my mom to sign me up.”
It was true. Tina’s mother was the reason they were both there, crammed in a stall in a stinky church bathroom.
“It will be good for you,” Tina’s mother had said when she expressed outrage at the idea of going to Bible day camp.
“We’re not even religious! We only go to church on Christmas and Easter,” Tina protested. Nicole called their type the C & E crowd. To emphasize her point, Tina slammed a kitchen cabinet. The dishes inside rattled dangerously.
“Watch it,” her mother said in a low voice that vibrated like a cello being tuned. She slipped a cigarette from her pack and wedged it in between her lips. Her blood-orange lipstick left a thick, bright smear across the filter. “I’ll talk to Nicole’s mom. Nicole can go with you.”
“They’re not religious either!” Tina yelled, feeling the fury well up inside her. Since she was a child, she’d been angry. When the anger came, it felt like a visceral itch, a sensation in her body that demanded to be noticed and wouldn’t go away until something, anything, was destroyed. Her mother assumed it was because Tina’s father left, and took her daughter to therapy where she could talk out the resentment. Tina wasn’t sure what she was angry at, or if it was even really anger she was feeling. She didn’t think much about her dad, but for all she knew, her mother was right, that the absence of a father had fucked up her psyche in some way. The only thing Tina was sure of was that she felt calmer when Nicole was there to smile and laugh and dismiss all Tina’s rage with a joke. Tina’s sense of being different, and afraid of that difference, subsided when the girls were together.
“Tina Marie, don’t you dare raise your voice like that,” Tina’s mother said, raising her own to match her red-faced daughter.
As if a cord inside her snapped, everything came tumbling down. It was a blur. Tina running to the mantle in the living room, Tina clutching one of her mother’s Precious Moment’s statuettes in her hand, Tina hurling it down onto the hardwood floor where it shattered, but in a less satisfying way than she had imagined.
That outburst solidified her mother’s decision to send Tina to Bible camp that summer.
“Mom just wanted me out of the house,” Tina said, reaching out to rub her index finger across Crissy sux weinerz like Nicole had done. “I don’t know why your mom signed you up. She’s never home anyway. Not like you’d bother her.” Nicole’s mother worked long shifts at a hospital over in Cedar Rapids.
Nicole rolled her eyes. Even when she was being obnoxious, she still looked pretty. “She told me she didn’t want me sitting in front of the TV all summer, eating junk food and getting fat. Still, she could have picked something better for me to do than praise Jesus all damn day.” She uncrossed her long legs, recrossed them.
Tina felt desire swell in her chest. I’m going to tell her, Tina thought. The adrenaline ran hot like liquor through her veins.
Nicole sighed, peeled a piece of toilet paper from the roll, and began methodically shredding it with her fingernails. Her chipped glitter nail polish sparkled even in the harsh fluorescent light. “So, what do you want to do to kill time?”
Tina shrugged, feigning apathy. She willed herself to feel calm, but the idea for her reveal was percolating. The fantasy played inside her head, and she watched it like a movie in milliseconds.
“We could play Truth,” Tina suggested. It would be the perfect way of saying it, her revelation masked as just her being goaded into it by a game.
But Nicole shook her head. “Truth isn’t fun anymore. We already know everything about each other.”
Tina nodded, pretending she agreed. “Yeah, Truth is boring.” She paused, lifted her pinky finger to her mouth and gnawed delicately at the skin around her nail. The idea swam into her head and bumped up against the gray matter, like a horrid fish in an aquarium slamming against the glass.
Tina’s voice sounded tinny and far away as she blurted it out. “Maybe we can practice kissing,” she said, her gut deflating. “You know, so we’ll know what we’re doing when we start dating boys.” Her voice put the emphasis on boys. Even to Tina, it seemed like a creepy proposal, and with such a bizarre cover that entirely negated her revelation. The words hung in the air between them, hovering like a horsefly that wouldn’t leave. Tina looked down at her shoes, suddenly interested in the laces, wishing that the words would just drift away.
“Um, I don’t think I want to do that,” Nicole said carefully.
At a distance from herself, Tina tried a breezy giggle, as if none of it mattered, as if she really did just want to practice for boys. “It’s cool,” she said without looking at Nicole. “It was a dumb idea anyway.”
The awkward pressure dissipated as Nicole cleared her throat and recrossed her legs. Leaning over, she dug a fingernail into a scab on her knee. Delicately, almost clinically, Nicole peeled away the rust-red strip from her skin, exposing the oozing red world beneath it. Flicking it from her fingernails, Nicole dropped the scab on the floor where it landed perfectly centered in the middle of a small square of grungy turquoise tile.
“So,” Nicole said, her voice light once again, “what are we going to do about lunch? I’m starving.” Tina looked up at Nicole. While Tina’s cheeks were still glowing like leftover coals, Nicole had moved on, changed the subject entirely. It felt as if, for Nicole, nothing had happened. A surge of shame and disappointment and rage swirled in the pit of Tina’s stomach. She itched for acknowledgment, any notice that, yes, she was there, and that she was the way she was.
Without answering, Tina hopped up off the seat of the toilet and unlatched the stall.
“Where are you going?” Nicole asked.
“You said you were hungry,” Tina replied. “Let’s go.”
“What’s gotten into you?” Nicole asked. With deliberate motions, she unfolded herself and climbed down from her position on top of the toilet tank.
The flare of anger pulsed dangerously inside Tina, stopping her from answering. Instead, she threw open the stall door, banging it against the wall. The sound felt louder, sharper in the small space.
Without looking to see if Nicole was following, Tina threw open the door to the bathroom and marched down the hallway to the small kitchen where fellowship and senior dinners were held.
As she stomped across the church, Tina reveled in the action, the movement. She felt the air against her warm cheeks as she propelled her body in the space. Her arms, her legs, all moved freely in motion. She knew this beauty as change, and an intense joy curled itself around her heart.
Her feet felt light as she trounced into the kitchen. She threw open the door to the small, antiquated refrigerator and peered inside.
“What are you hungry for?” she asked Nicole. Tina pulled out a huge glass platter of turkey and cheese hors d’oeuvres wraps, each one a tight spiral. A sheet of plastic wrap covered the food, crinkling under Tina’s hands. “Want some of these?”
A tingly smile threatened to break Tina’s face. With pleasure, she realized that nothing would ever be the same, that nobody, not even Nicole, could ever quell the fury inside her.
Nicole gaped at her, her eyebrows knit in the kind of guarded look you’d give a crazy person. “We can’t eat those. They aren’t ours.”
Tina laughed. “Everything is ours.” Balancing the platter in one hand, Tina peeled back the plastic wrap, plucked a wrap from the bunch, and popped it in her mouth. The flavor, the texture, everything danced together in a synaptic explosion of taste. Tina chewed, rolling the food around on her tongue a bit before welcoming it down into her stomach. One after another, she shoved the wraps in her mouth, smearing mayonnaise across her lips.
“Tina,” Nicole said in a soft voice. “We can’t.”
The newfound freeness of Tina’s body took over and she watched her arms lower and wrench up, flinging the platter up into the air. The platter careened upward and then back down again before crashing to the floor and shattering. Shards of the glass platter and the wraps exploded across the floor in a loud, delicious sunburst.
Tina looked down at the kitchen floor, at the mess of glass and cheese and mayonnaise. She marveled at how it would never fit back together again, would never be as it was.