“Carve” by Kaushika Suresh is 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.
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.
* * *
Us girls carve. We bite our brown lips, pull the blinds down, lock the bathroom door, tear a cloth of cotton, uncap the cream and eye the coconut oil on the counter, turn the fan on, let the shower scorch the air, shed the clothes from our bodies—too thin or too flat or folding into the wrong shapes or fat and cellulite and more fat or the first mar of stretch marks or hair down there or the weight of breasts for the first time or the unsweet smell of self (sweat, and outside: rotted petals, berry trees, wind on bark, grass weeds, dirty Earth, and inside: burner on high with the oil popping, silk of churidar, prayer and sacred ash from the temple) and what these bodies carry: softness, touch, the color pink though we could not have any of it, gossip or what people say, his face, his anger, our mothers and mothers, purses, pads, Smackers lip balm, the look of barbie dolls, vulnerability, hurt, hurt—and snap the blade from the razor. We smooth the blade between our fingers, stretch that patch of skin we chose (navel, elbow, ankle, thigh, thigh, back), and suck in.
We could not deny the skin on Pinky’s sister. Pearlescent, pretty, the blood of milk. She scabbed hard, Pinky tells us. She was so ugly, Pinky tells us. She stayed in her room forever.
When she came out: a reckoning. Her parents love her now. Boys trail after her now.
Water first. Soap. Sugar. Butter. Rinse. Dry.
Puncture, pierce, stab, bruise, cut. These are the words we learn.
When the blood clots and the bleeding stops, the wound seals. Look how our bodies care for us, we say.
To tend to our carvings, we apply a thin layer of oil to the area, cover it with cloth. Keep it dry and avoid direct sunlight.
I like us like this. In the bathroom with the lights off, you cannot tell us apart. All these bodies are ours and nobody takes anything from us. I can know what happens next and I am not scared.
Do you want to go again?
* * *
Us girls carve.
Us girls carve, and we like it.
* * *
In the weeks that follow, we go to our boy and tell him how to ask us. Sagar pulls out crinkled roses from the grocery store during Home Ec and Anika nods. Gayathri rolls her eyes when Himakar serenades her in chorus but we all know she likes it. We giggle loud when Akash and Akshay pulled out matching posters in the lunch line. Bhumi and I squeal yes.
* * *
We look ourselves in the mirror. Gruesome and bloody. We want to be the prettiest.
* * *
Aasha tells her mother all her secrets. Like, every time Aasha finds herself in a department store, she wants to steal something and once she stole a pair of gold earrings by putting them in her pierced ears and simply walking out of the store. She felt so guilty, though, so Aasha went back and placed them on a messy counter, under a pile of returns. Or, when Aasha was afraid of her period, she would ask her mom: does it hurt? What does it smell like? Does it drip all over you when you shower? She tells her mother the names of all the boys she likes before writing them in her diary. She gets close to telling her mother about the ritual. She tells Laki to text her a picture of her sister all carved. Aasha shows the picture to her mother when her mother picks Aasha up after school. “So pretty, right?” Aasha says.
“So pretty, Aasha,” her mother says, swatting the phone away and adjusting the sun visor to see the road clearly.
“I could look like her,” Aasha says.
“How? You are going to diet?” her mother asks. Aasha mentions it never again—she didn’t know her mother thought she was fat! Still, a week after her self-imposed diet, her mother catches her in the bathroom with a razor. Aasha opens her mouth to explain. Her mom waves her off. Aasha’s mother lets her carve her body and hands her the knife to do it.
Us girls use a razor but some girls like the knife, like Aasha. Laki uses her dad’s razor. Laki’s shy. She likes to carve by herself so we rarely see her doing it. Bhumi never chooses her spot. She looks at the girl next to her, picks at the same spots. Edges the razor the same direction and goes.
* * *
It’s working and we know it. We look at each other and giggle. Pinky promise, we say. Our secret.
We see Kajal watching. Like always. We walk up to her, whisper in her ear. Kajal could do with a carve, two carves, three, her whole body, really. We don’t say it to be mean. It’s the truth. We want her to remember. She turns away. We want to see her cry, but she hides her face by ducking into a classroom. The bell rings.
* * *
Bhumi says in the voice of the little girl inside us: I don’t want to, and we snap our carvings to a halt, knees jutted, thighs dripping, navel skin bared.
Duh, we tell her like the movies. Nobody wants to.
But then why do we like it? Bhumi asks.
If you don’t want to carve, nobody’s forcing you, Aasha says, rushing the words out. We look at Bhumi then the exit then Bhumi again.
It’s not that, Bhumi replies, busying herself with her blade, etching at an old scab.
Prove it, Laki says.
Yeah, we echo. Prove it.
We act like we don’t see Bhumi shudder just like we act like we like it and we watch her make measured cuts on her right thigh before digging and scraping and tossing dark skin to the dirty floor. Pick it up, we say, and she picks it up. Toss it out, we say, and she throws her dribbling skin in the trash.
* * *
Sometimes we talk through it and when we don’t, I still hear what we are thinking. When it works, we know we will be beautiful. We apply consistent pressure, cleanse with water.
We bring our carvings to the mall, the nail salon, Gayathri’s birthday party. We feel the brown of the crust during pop quizzes, against the sticky vinyl seats on the bus ride home, under the sound of Sun TV blaring Hindi soap operas in the background.
We grow our skin. We do not dare pick at the scabs.
* * *
We flush at the same time. Kajal is waiting me out, biding her time in the bathroom stall until I leave. I know because I wait longer.
She slinks her door open, stomps to the sinks. In return, my footsteps are gentle: I am saying sorry to the blue tiles for her disregard. We are in the forgotten bathrooms near the science classrooms.
I pick the sink next to hers. She presses the soap dispenser twice. I press mine once. Gently, she turns the knob for the hot water, then the cold. She taps her foot while waiting for the temperature to regulate and I can tell she doesn’t like it I’m so close. The secret is I don’t like it either.
I flick the hot water on, drench my hands. Froth. Foam. I smack my palms against each other. I’m so impatient. The water might turn too hot any second. As I spread my hands under the sink, I watch her in the mirror and pretend she is watching me too. The water turns and I singe my hands. We wiggle our fingers under the dryers and head to the door.
“You, first,” we say. I sound out her name in my mouth.
“No, you,” I say. Before she does.
“No, you,” she says. I want her scared. I want to be the best. I leave so I don’t do something stupid.
* * *
We barter with our gods.
On Saturdays, we are at the temple. For a dollar fifty, we can buy yesterday’s Prasādam. For five dollars, we can buy a coconut and have it blessed. After, when our Appas crack it open, we get the biggest slice of white skin. We know it tastes delicious before our teeth rip into it. For ten dollars, we can buy into the puja. We get a plastic bag filled with a garland of jasmine flowers, two sticks of incense, and beetle leaves. We offer all this to the priest, who takes all those things, offers them to a mound of granite carved into Ganesha or Parvati or Shiva.
The priest removes the deity’s clothes, washes them, then hands, then mouth. Takes a moment to offer the deity a drink. Bathes the deity with water then milk then yogurt then ghee then honey then sugar. We stand in a crowd of attendees, watching. Water, again. Water, pray this time. Fruit water, flower water, turmeric, ash.
The last cleanse. Dress and adorn. Offer: all those things, apologies, devotion, light.
Once, I see Kajal at the temple. I watch her and watch her. I watch her pretend she doesn’t know me. Does she think she’s better? I want to ask her.
I head to the bathroom.
* * *
We get naked. We take turns. We bleed.
The swelling, the drainage, the reveal.
We didn’t know how much we could hurt. Everything happened with our permission.
* * *
I carve in a hurry, like someone else is looking. Like I didn’t like it. Water, soap, sugar, butter, rinse. Press, in, quicker. Us girls, a prayer. I wanted everything then. I slice in, scrape around, push. Blink, tear, press. More, more, more. I was a giver. I loved the sound of it. Only we could hear.
* * *
We walked through fire to get here: Anika tells her parents she is going to Pinky’s house and Pinky tells her parents she is going to Anika’s house and our parents are not the type to check. Bhumi’s dad thinks she is at the Model U.N. meet. He waves her out the door without looking at her in that black dress. (Parents do not watch when we are doing everything right.) Laki sneaks out her apartment window; she slides down four floors of fire escapes and switches her sneakers for strappy heels. Her sister says she will cover for her but she won’t. She will get jealous like girls do and snitch. We tell our parents everything, everything they like to hear. We zip up our dresses, steal our mothers’ purses, and slink out the door hiding our shimmering eyes, our glossy lips. Gayathri walks out of her house with her date on her arm. Aasha sticks her lipstick in her bra and borrows our blush after she changes in the second-floor bathroom with the handicap stall.
* * *
The bathroom smells like Victoria Secret’s Love Spell. We take a picture, the light from our phones bouncing off the mirror and onto the gummy pink linoleum tiles. We squint at grainy images and like them only if we look good, never mind the others. One more. Pout in this one. No, like this. We don’t know how to smile like we are dressed: the type of girls who use tampons and wear bikinis to the beach.
Off-white porcelain sinks fill with mascara and tweezers, sparkly eyeshadow and blush, crumpled up tissues used to blot brown lipstick, cotton swabs and cherry lip gloss. We talk about what we always talk about, except not this time.
I feel it coming. We feel restless so we decide to carve. We wash our body parts with water then soap then sugar then butter then water then paper towel off. We take out our blades in synchrony. I don’t like feeling like the only one. We pull at our special spots and push.
* * *
I leave first. Kajal is outside the bathroom with a smirk on her face. You look like a boy, I want to tell her.
I want to tuck my hands into the strands of her hair. I bet it would be like touching the girl on the blue bottle Parachute Coconut Oil commercials: forbidden, godly, photoshopped. I want to take away the unreal parts of her.
She steps towards me. Looks me in the eye like we’re playing truth or dare and I feel pretty, like the girls in the movies. My skin burns. I want to carve again. She steps closer. More, more, more.
I kiss her first. Before she tries to. I want to win.
It feels weird. I forget how to breathe. When I tug on her hair, she presses into me. It’s all her fault and I’m jealous. I pull away. I want to slap her like she’s my sister. I want her to braid my hair, lazy fingers like my mother.
* * *
I hear footsteps on the stairs. It will be the head chaperone and behind her, the hoard of them, pushing open the girls’ bathroom door, faces aghast at the sight. Girls, their blades discarded, girls, their carvings ablaze against the air, girls, their skin on the floor like old rumors. Girls, destroying themselves first, girls, and their anger, seething and sacred. Girls, girls, girls.
The principal, when penning the incident report, will only then recall the state of the bathroom, the running sinks and stained mascara, strewn shoes and eyeshadow palettes, the trash can filled with used makeup wipes and, he shudders, dried blood on paper towels. After he is shuffled to Herbert Hoover Middle School in his evening clothes on the night of the dance, he will take a deep breathe before unlocking his office door and ushering in girl after girl after girl. When he calls each girl’s guardian—girl next to him, phone on speaker—he will try not to think about the beads of blood trickling from her onto the newly upholstered office chair and he will think instead how foolish, strange, crazy girls are.
But in front of me now is Kajal. She turns away like I bet her she would disappear if I turned off all the lights. I could always tell she cared too much. She walks past me and out of sight. I stand there and watch her hair soaking in the fluorescence, unable to quit bouncing. I imagine all my carvings gone. I imagine her carved. I imagine us if we were white. It would be so easy.
* * *
Back then we wanted moments the movies told us to want. Us sitting in the middle of the cafeteria. A Bollywood musical. The rain and the kiss. The scene right before the credits.
In the end we would be carved, all perfect and formed. The rest would follow: cherry red lips and blushing pink cheeks, boys and boys, our fathers and then our mothers. We would know how to do things: touch and talk, listen and ignore. We would lather our sunscreen on and on, we would be so careful not to let our hard-earned skin burn. We get everything we want. We like it like that. Look at us, dripping in new flesh. Raw white, beautiful. Our bodies peeled, no crusts. Look at us. Us girls.
Kaushika Suresh is an Indian-American writer. They are the non-fiction editor for Black Warrior Review and their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland and Roxane Gay’s The Audacity. They are currently at work on a novel about gossip, girls, and existing between cultures.