Sarah and Her Bags (Nikki Volpicelli)

Sarah is silent, not touching her yogurt parfait, and I’m wondering if I can take a bite because I’ve already finished my turkey reuben. I’m wondering if she’s thinking what I think she’s thinking: that I’m a heifer, all 125 pounds of me. That she’s sick of dragging me around. 

“Pardonne-moi,” I say like an Intro to French idiot. She doesn’t even look up as I slip out of the booth and the tops of my thighs collide with the formica table sending our coffee cups, water glasses, plates, and silverware into protest. The loudness turns my cheeks crimson and everyone at the diner stares—even the sloppiest eaters with pancakes squirreled in their cheeks and milkshakes tipped to their mouths—like I’m the pig heading to slaughter. I make it to the bathroom and close the door with both palms. 

The mirror above the sink is scratched with hearts and arrows. Some cloudy sweep of soap or lotion prevents me from getting the full picture but I do my looks anyway. The winking Paris Hilton, the tight-lipped Olsen Twin and finally, the sleepy-eyed Nicole Richie. I pause, studying the feel of the muscles in my face. This is one of the things I do to leave my body. My body, the one that “matured” early. In fifth grade, when everyone else was caring about dinosaurs I was caring about how my thigh meat spilled out of my cuffed shorts and jiggled with every bus bump. I was busy getting my period. I was all big shirt over bathing suit at the pool party, all maxi-pad with wings at the beach. A “woman’s body” my mom told me, “athletic.” But I knew what that meant: I took up too much space. 

Suddenly Sarah opens the bathroom door so I quickly search for the lipgloss in my jeans and start applying. Behind me, she digs into the knockoff red pleather Balenciaga City bag we found at the mall last week. Scratch that, I found. It was behind a fake Louis in Marshall’s and impossible to miss. On the cover of every magazine, there it was—Nicole, Lindsey, and Mary Kate all had at least one in snakeskin gray or lime green. 

I said, “Come here, look! You need this.” And Sarah, slipping her credit card out of her thick leather wallet, bought it on the spot. $45.99, like it was nothing. She could do that kind of thing. She was twenty, a high school dropout, and the assistant manager of Bandolino shoes. She was my boss, hired me six months ago after I walked in like a scrub, having spent hours wandering the mall looking for a part-time job. I wasn’t skinny enough for Hollister, punk enough for Journey’s, sexy enough for Wet Seal. It was my last stop and a chance encounter with the girl behind the register, sparking blonde and still so kind.

“Can you carry a ton of boxes?” she’d asked. “Can you stand on your feet for seven hours straight, in heels?” To the heels part I said probably, so she shared her secret, raising her perfectly carved calf from behind the register, where she wore flip-flops. 

Soon she taught me everything else I needed to know. How to count inventory, dial into a company conference call, and where to do lines of Adderall so the cameras couldn’t see. We started hanging out outside of work, spending nights drinking and swimming in her parent’s in-ground pool, listening to her mixes of Juelz Santana and Something Corporate. She was like an older sister, the Paris to my Nicole right before Nicole got skinny and surpassed Paris in popularity. I knew befriending Sarah was going to change my life. 

But now she’s over me, I can tell. She’s been so bored all night she can barely keep her eyes open and here she is, holding the Balenciaga hooked into her elbow, right arm raised in a loose, feminine power fist and left hand digging and digging like she’s gonna find a new sidekick in there. 

Finally, she pulls out the tiniest bag I’ve ever seen and holds it in the palm of her hand like a peace offering. She lifts her fake eyelashes and looks at me, asking if I want some. 

“Will it make me grind my teeth?” I ask. 

Sarah laughs, “definitely not.”

It’s the first time she’s smiled all night so I keep going. 

“Will it make me feel drunk?”

“Kind of, but without all the calories.”

“So just good?”

“You will feel perfect. Light and fluttery and perfect,” she says, flicking the little papery blue bag. And that’s enough for me. 

Sarah turns the silver-dollar lock on the stall door then rips the bag open with two perfectly pouty, glitter-glazed lips. She piles the tan powder on top of the toilet tank and makes thin lines with the same credit card she uses to buy everything. The lines are neat and slim but the smell is so rank I can’t place it with someone like Sarah. Vinegar and eggs. I picture her holding her nose and walking by in stacked heels, not dipping her head to breathe it in. But after she does just this she hands me the twenty dollar bill and I replace her, side-saddle on the toilet, brushing my long hair to one side and back just like she did. The lines are so tiny I take two. The instant post-nasal drip is enough to make me throw up. 

I think about how the first Adderall was from Sarah’s prescription, how the beer from her parent’s fridge replaced so many dinners because Sarah taught me it’s better to drink on an empty stomach. I think about how she is definitely changing my life already and hope that one day I’ll whittle down to fit perfectly beside her. Then I can’t think myself out of it anymore, this sick feeling, my stomach churns, my mouth waters, and the thought of food or pills or beer or drugs makes me hurl. And hurl and hurl and hurl. 

I think this is the ticket, this is the thing I’ve been waiting for.
Sarah sniffed the same amount but she’s not puking pale turkeyed coleslaw or yellow Stacker lls or blue Zoloft into the toilet bowl. She’s not making a toilet mosaic, I am. I’m sweating like I ran the mile and she looks more beautiful than ever. I’m slipping down to the floor and getting smaller by the minute.

“You’ll feel better soon,” she says, and that’s when I know this must’ve happened to her before, too. I rest my wet face on the seat and let my nose drip and my stomach come back up. I only know I still exist because Sarah’s holding my stringy hair and rubbing my back. When the flesh-fold stink of the stall and all that hot harsh light falls away like snowflakes, I figure she probably poisoned me. All the Adderall, skipped dinners, high heels, big bags, Simple Life episodes, split Saladworks lead to this: I finally feel weightless. 

I see small spots collect and materialize into a screen. I see the opening credits too small to read, and in front of me I watch the body I’m not in, first a chubby little baby growing bigger bigger bigger at warp speed. I see my thighs opened like flayed chicken cutlets all pale and hairy and there’s a disembodied hand between them, so I must be fourteen. I see the top of my ponytail and I’m in my bedroom, sitting criss-cross on my royal blue rug. I must be fifteen, cutting up tabloids and carefully rounding the scissors over my girls’ tiny ankles and knees. I free them from the page and they stand on their own, line dancing to the plucky The Simple Life theme song. They step to my notebook and hop right onto the pages, next to lists of words like OATMEAL that start neat at the top of the page and go all ragged and SUGARFAT!FUCK by the bottom. They laugh at word after word, day after day, how I break and repeat. I see Nicole’s tiny pointer finger peeling off the page, directed at me. 

Sarah promised I’ll feel better soon. If I keep watching I’ll see when it all turns around. Mom always says sixteen is the worst, she said it about fourteen and fifteen too, but I think someday she’ll stop saying it. Someday I’ll start believing that the worst is behind me. I just need proof, a little glimpse into the future flickering on-screen, but before I get it Sarah rudely interrupts with a slap in the face and I’m back on the bathroom floor. Her pupils are pins and she’s yelling something I can’t hear. She’s trying to lift me by the armpits but my body is a big heavy thing that refuses to follow. I close my eyes and watch the static dots collect again like pinned-pupils, like glitter rhinestones, like paparazzi. 


Nikki Volpicelli has zero literary awards but did win “Best Personality” in 8th-grade. (Actually, it was a tie.) Her writing has been featured in Nylon, Glamour, Entropy, XRAY, and Vice. She lives in Philadelphia with her two chihuahuas, Gene and Bones, and her human, Eric.


image: M. M. Kaufman