Today’s New Voices story is “Carve” by Kaushika Suresh, a coming-of-age story following a group of eighth grade girls preparing for the Sadie Hawkins homecoming dance. From older girls, they learn the secret: “Water then soap then sugar then butter then rinse.” It will hurt, and it will work.
We look ourselves in the mirror. Gruesome and bloody. We want to be the prettiest.
Mallavika tells Kavitha who tells Rani who tells Brinda who tells Pinky’s older sister at Princeton who tells Pinky who tells us. Everybody is doing it.
Water then soap then sugar then butter then rinse, Pinky tells us. All those rules? we ask. Will it hurt? Will it work?
Yes, yes, yes.
We like the sound of that.
I saw it, you guys, Pinky says, black eyes wide and rimmed with kajal. She double taps her press on nails against her phone screen. That’s my sister.
We gather around the dimly lit screen to look at her wallpaper.
Oooh, we whisper. Aaah.
* * *
Eighth grade. We are invincible. We wear our first bras, think about touching ourselves, think about touching others.
The hallways of Herbert Hoover Middle School are lined with gaudy posters and cheap streamers advertising the homecoming dance. It is spring and the theme of our dance is Sadie Hawkins. As usual, we talk at length at study hall about who likes who. This time, none of it is hypothetical. If we feel particular, we stress the name of our boy, making it clear there are no room for trades. No take backs.
I don’t know if there’s anyone for me, Laki complains. Instead of buying her pepper spray, Laki’s mother told her once that she was too ugly to ever get kidnapped. Though we can all see this was untrue—actually, she is the prettiest among us—Laki believes her mother’s word to be God’s.
What about Sagar? we ask.
I think I might go with Sagar though, Anika cuts in.
Oh, we say. To Laki: What about Rutvik?
I think Stephen for me, Aasha says, twirling a strand of her hair.
Who? we ask. Is he cute?
Well, he’s white, she says.
We nod in understanding.
From the side of our eyes, we see Kajal doing homework. Kajal is not a girl at all with skin so dark and unbraided hair so long it moves like her shadow. She thinks she is so cool. All the boys think so too. Ishan and Neel and Rutvik want to ask her to the dance, Anika tells us in whispers.
Gayathri and Himakar are already official, so it is a given he would ask her. Gayathri’s dad is cheating on her mom and Gayathri knows and her mom knows but they don’t say anything about it and neither do we. We know Gayathri doesn’t really like Himakar, but he is her little rebellion, one her parents overlook when they hear commotion in her room or see him walking her home after school.
We remember it like yesterday: We are in Gayathri’s room, twirling on her desk chair, lounging on her bed, sitting on the yellow rug her mother bought her. We are waiting on the squelch of car tires, for Himakar to pick her up for their first date. Gayathri didn’t know about him yet. She puts on blush then dabs it off. We feel what she feels. We are on the precipice, waiting for a new feeling we have not felt.