Not long after Erica’s mother left and Erica started wearing the wig that vaguely resembled the shoulder-length hair she used to have, her father planned a sleepover. He must have thought it would cheer her up but he had no idea how cruel fifth-grade girls could be. We had no idea ourselves.
Our mothers made lengthy phone calls, discussing the sleepover and whether or not they should allow us girls to sleep at Erica’s house with only her father at home. In the end, they all agreed but we each received a warning. My own mother said, “Now if something unsavory happens, call home and I’ll come get you.” None of us knew it would be the last time we’d go to Erica’s house.
We were excited because we knew her dad kept a stack of Playboy magazines in the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk. At my house, we only had JCPenney catalogues. I stared at them in my bedroom with the door closed, looking for nipples behind lace bras.
Erica’s father ordered pizza for dinner. The kitchen, which had been her mother’s domain, contained little food. We piled onto the sofa to watch Poltergeist with bags of microwaved popcorn on our laps. Her father stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, looking at us, or the TV screen, until Erica rolled her eyes and told him to go away.
After the movie, which scared none of us, we went upstairs to Erica’s bedroom. We made her sneak across the hall, into her father’s office, to retrieve the magazines. We divided the stack and slowly gazed at each picture—at all the round, full breasts—annoyed at the amount of actual text in the magazine. We stared and stared, wondering if we would ever have breasts so round and so full, until one of us said, “Isn’t it kind of gay for us to look at these pictures?” And none of us wanted the others to think we were gay so we pretended the magazines were all Erica’s idea and made her return them to her father’s desk.
We didn’t plan it while she ran across the hall and back, but when she returned we all understood what would happen. I don’t remember who said it. Maybe it was Annie. Maybe it was Robin. Maybe it was me.
“Take it off,” one of us said.
She looked at us for a moment, as if she didn’t know what we were talking about. But she knew. She sat down on her canopy bed and propped the pink pillows behind her back. We gathered at the foot of her bed, sitting on the pink comforter her mother had bought the year before. She reached up and slowly removed a bobby pin. Then, one by one, a pile of bobby pins emerged from her head. She slid off the strawberry-blonde wig and held it in her lap. Her head wasn’t shiny and bald like a cancer patient or like Annie’s father. There were patches of exposed scalp, uneven tufts of hair and raw, red scabs.
Now we knew: she had done this to herself. She looked down at the nest of fake hair in her hands, waiting for some sign of understanding from us.
“That’s disgusting,” Robin or Annie or I said. “Put the wig back on.”
Erica scooped up the bobby pins and went into her bathroom to do as we commanded. When she returned, her wig in place, we were all tucked inside our sleeping bags. We listened as Erica climbed into her bed, underneath the canopy that could not protect her. We heard her soft sobs. Maybe one of us wanted to say we were sorry about what we did, sorry about her mother. Maybe it was Annie who wanted to say something, maybe it was Robin, maybe it was me. Instead, we pulled our sleeping bags tight around our chins and pretended to sleep.
In the morning, we packed our overnight bags and went outside where our mothers waited along the street in their station wagons. When they asked us how it went, we each told them about the Playboy magazines. We said Erica’s father kept them all around the house: in the bathroom, on the kitchen counter, by the television. “It’s as if he wanted us to look at them,” we said, allowing our mothers to gather us up and bring us home.