The following is an excerpt from JUSTINE: A Novel by Forsyth Harmon.

The Walt Whitman Mall’s exterior walls were engraved with poetry. It looked like a huge tomb. I followed Justine through heavy glass doors, out of the wet heat. The concourse was dark and depressing and smelled like pretzels. In the Victoria’s Secret display, a girl in a floral-embroidered peach silk bra and panties stood at a window, fingers resting on the sill, looking out intently. The room glowed warm and blurry behind her, pink satin sheets shimmering. In the Ralph Lauren display, a girl carried a soccer ball across a deep-green sports field in orange heels, long blonde ponytail flagging after her. Two bare-chested boys flanked the Abercrombie entrance. They sprayed cologne at us.

The Bloomingdale’s beauty department was cool, bright, and gleaming, with shiny black-and-white-checkered floors and gorgeous grids of every color eye shadow: metallic blacks, oranges, and greens like butterfly wings; silvers and opals like something from outer space; flat chemical pastels like conversation hearts: call me, kiss me, love me. A woman worried over a small, round, lit-up mirror, blending a different shade of olive concealer into either cheek, checking one side of her face, then turning her head to compare it with the other.

Justine picked up a bottle of Polo Sport. “Did you know,” she asked, nodding at the model’s face on the perfume display, “Bridget Hall only has an eighth-grade education and a weakness for red meat?”

Bridget looked as though she’d just reached the mountaintop after a long hike, almost perspiring, shrugging off a sweatshirt to reveal a tight tank top underneath, the letters “USA” stretched across her chest. Justine dropped a set of keys to the floor, then bent down to pick them up and slipped a bottle of Clinique Happy into her bag. My chest got tight. I hadn’t expected that. I looked around at saleswomen behind the counters, cameras affixed to the ceiling. Justine shook her head and linked her arm with mine. I watched our feet cross the black-and-white-checkered tile, matching my step to hers. It made me feel like I was with her—like I almost was her—like I was free to enjoy the thrills of her exploits while being exempt from their consequences. We rode the escalator up arm in arm. I tried to slow my breath, my heart.

Justine browsed swimsuit racks with brisk efficiency, occasionally pausing to look at something more closely. When she found something she liked, she handed me the hanger. Soon I had a whole armful.

“Ten items,” she told the fitting room attendant, waving me into the little room after her. I sat on the stool in the corner and counted eleven hangers. She pulled her dress over her head and dropped it to the floor, naked except for underwear. She didn’t need a bra; that’s how flat her chest was. I sort of hunched a little, hiding my own. I held my breath as she sorted through the hangers on my lap, settling on a Calvin Klein string bikini. I watched her slip it on in the three-way mirror. I think she liked me watching her like that, maybe even needed me to do it. I stared at the gap between her thighs, my body buzzing. I crossed my legs, popped two pieces of Trident. She peeled a security tag from the bikini bottom and stuck it under my stool, her chest in my face. She held the bikini strings at the nape of her neck.

“Knot them?” she asked, turning toward the mirror again.

I stood, nose even with a trail of fine ashy hairs at her nape, and tied a bow, then patted it lightly, touching her neck. We smiled at each other in the mirror. She put her dress back on over the bikini and we walked out of the fitting room like nothing, giving friendly nods to the attendant, but everything was loud, bright, and weird, like some kind of incandescent version of the mall.

Patent leather shoes shone on a multitiered display like sweets on a tray. Justine grabbed a black Mary Jane and shook it in the salesgirl’s face.

“Nine,” she demanded.

Our feet were the same size. We sat and waited on a mauve velvet bench. I tucked the bikini strings into her dress. She took her shoes off. So did I. We put our feet side by side. Mine were wider, toenail polish still chipped pink from junior prom. Her toenails were painted black.

The salesgirl brought out a pebbled navy-blue box with “Prada” gold-embossed on the top. Just the box itself was beautiful. Justine removed a shiny black shoe from its white felt bag and slipped her foot inside, buckling the thin strap at her ankle. She raised her leg. We admired it.

Once the salesgirl had disappeared in back, Justine put my sneakers into the empty Prada box and pushed her old lug sole Mary Janes toward me. Her breath was hot in my ear as she whispered: “You wear my shoes.”

It felt intimate, sliding my feet inside. We leapt up, me in her shoes and her in the new ones, and left the department store arms linked. Passing back out those heavy glass doors into the humidity, I felt lit up and invincible, like when you catch that bouncing star in Super Mario. I felt nothing but my heartbeat.

We drove along Jericho Turnpike, past Jiffy Lube, Petland, Tattoo Lou’s. Some Hondas and pickup trucks pulled out of the Saint Francis parking lot, others into the Taco Bell drive-through, arms hanging from windows, cigarettes dangling from fingers.

I drove Justine home. Her street was lined with shabby split-levels, the shingle stain, shutter color, and lawn maintenance level varying but the layouts all the same. As we pulled up to her house, it started to rain. The potted plant on the stoop was dead. The metal number 7 on the front door was missing a nail and hung askew in a way that made me sad. Inside, the house was quiet and underlit. There was a woman sitting in the kitchen. I assumed she was Justine’s mother, but she didn’t look up from her newspaper as we came in.

Justine curled her fingers around the iron banister and started up the stairs. What beautiful calves she had, long and narrow. Her new black patent leather shoes clacked against each uncarpeted step. I felt like I was following her into a dark trap.

Justine’s walls, comforter, and furniture, the phone sitting on the hardwood floor by her bed: everything in her room was white. None of her personal belongings in sight, the room looked medical, sterile—I even smelled rubbing alcohol—with the exception of maybe a hundred magazine pages taped to the wall above the bed. There was a girl sitting in a shopping cart full of bowling balls for Guess, her long, dark, messy curls hanging to her waist. A hunched, eerie little blonde with heavy-lidded eyes posed in a shiny white trench for Jil Sander. Another one with a high forehead did a high kick in heels for Versace. In a Calvin Klein ad, Christy Turlington wriggled into a pair of jeans, a few strands of hair falling across her face.

“Christy Turlington weighs fifteen pounds less now than she did in high school,” Justine said.

And then there was that image of Kate Moss in the same string bikini Justine was wearing under her dress.

A notebook sat open on Justine’s nightstand. The handwriting was all caps, tiny and neat. It read: “Tuesday: 3 containers Dannon Light fat-free strawberry yogurt: 300; 8 oz. low-fat ground turkey: 300; 4 oz. Häagen-Dazs raspberry sorbet: 150.” And that was it: 750 calories. On the opposite page: a line chart, tracking her weight over several days. I didn’t want to look too long. I felt a little sick. I sat down on the bed and the sickness mutated into a kind of nervous arousal. Justine straddled the only other seat in the bare room, a small stationary bicycle in the corner. She tucked her long feet into the stirrups and rested her skinny forearms against the handlebars like a praying mantis.

JUSTINE is available for purchase, here.

Excerpted from JUSTINE: A Novel by Forsyth Harmon. Published with permission of Tin House. Copyright (c) 2021 by Forsyth Harmon.

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