This week, we lost two public figures to suicide and the news provides an apt reminder that appearances are often deceiving. The tragedies reminded me of this story I wrote about physical attractiveness hiding ugly truths.
The first time I see her, she is just a pretty girl that I hate on sight because her life is perfect. Her tan shirt-dress and nude flats are a classic, so it is her shapely legs, bare to the unseasonably cool May afternoon, that grab not just my attention, but the gaze of my co-workers. We’ve been deprived of skin for a long while, you see, as most New Yorkers are waiting for the temperatures to rise a more few degrees before we peel off our winter tights to reveal shaved skin. She walks into my Starbucks – the location I consider mine because five days each week, I spend $2.89 to buy an unsweetened iced tea that I don’t enjoy as much as I revel in the perks. Here, my early morning purchase buys me a desk in a public space, for meetings, which I am yet to have; for story inspirations, of which there are plenty; unlimited refills which I make maximum use of; and a restroom, even though you have to punch in a code to open the door. There was an incident a few weeks ago so now, their public policy is to allow even non-customers to use the facilities but I still feel weird asking for the code if I haven’t bought something first. So I am in Starbucks on a random Tuesday when Pretty Girl, as I decide to call her even though many have worn the crown before her, walks in. Her hair is either chemically processed or heat straightened but she wears it slicked back and gathered in a cool chignon at her nape, so the small coiled hairball almost disappears in the upturned collar of her dress; the skirt is belted to reveal a small waist and the structured folds dance on her exposed knees as she shifts from side to side, waiting her turn at the coffee bar, the stiff fabric made to ripple with the energy emanating from her.
I should be writing, not people-watching. I am working on the great Jamaican novel – that I wasn’t born in this country status disqualifies me from writing the great American one, but I’ve become increasingly more excited and proud about being a Jamaican author since Marlon James became a Man Booker winner and Nicola Yoon sold a book about a disenfranchised teen on the cusp of being deported back to her native Jamaica and garnered the attention and sales that landed her on the bestselling list. Their stories keep me dreaming even when I’m not writing. Dreaming, although I can’t pin down a story I want to tell, or speak in a voice I am comfortable being judged by since everyone knows my stories aren’t fictional, no matter how I market them.
So I am writing, but I am also reading the stories unfolding in front of me, holding casting calls for a main character whose appearance will inspire me into making up a story that represents her. So when Pretty Girl walks into Starbucks and stands close enough that a delicate floral scent wafts out of her demure décolletage, and floats before my nostrils, I recognize the scent I used to wear when I too, felt like a young, pretty New York starlet. Romance by Ralph Lauren. I click Save on my computer and settle back, sucking on my green straw, and watching her live the dream I aged out of a few years back.
She orders a green tea Frappucino, which I have wanted to try for so long but have never taken the plunge. One, because it costs double my usual drink and doesn’t come with refills, which means I will be paying twice for my usual privilege – where can you rent a corner office for under three-dollars-a-day and if you can, why would you increase your own rent? I am close enough to the counter that I can hear her order, can almost read her thoughts, dawdling as she is, perhaps trying to decide whether she wants to add the Almond Biscotti ($3.45) or a blueberry scone, my choice if I was asked to weigh in, and not only because it’s a bigger snack and costs a mere $2.95. Fifty cents isn’t much but over a week, each half a dollar adds up to cover another drink. I’m not cheap… okay, maybe I am, but I am also broke and entranced by people who seem to have more expendable income than I do.
She weighs the cost, or the calories, and eventually sidles down the brown and white speckled granite-lookalike tabletop to collect her drink, unaware or uncaring about my attention. It is altogether possible that she can’t see my eyes follow her, and so wouldn’t know to expect or avoid my stare.
She’s pretty, I think. From this angle, she’s prettier than I remember ever being, no matter how my ex boyfriend reassured me, told me “but you’re prettier than she is” when I would point out pictures of girls I imagined could take him from me, if they ever wanted to try. When I lost him, it wasn’t to one of them but it didn’t prevent me from obsessing about the possibility while we were together, neglecting all the while the elephants that had taken up residence in our lives.
Pretty Girl was just the latest in a long parade of girls I assumed had realities as perfect as their appearance, girls with natural hair that curled perfectly when they wanted and stuck out straight like the aftereffect of an electrical shock when that was their desired style. Pretty girls whose busts filled out the lace bras that decorated the skin above flat stomachs. Pretty girls with thin, brick-colored thighs so their summer short-shorts separated to form a V right below the crotch, but whose calves were thick enough to sport anklets above low-cut socks. Pretty girls whose perfectly manicured nails kept the demure, pink polish way longer than I had ever gotten mine to survive days tap-tapping my keyboard as I wrote down my dreams and nights of washing dishes that paid for the freedom to live the dreams. Pretty Girl was all those things and I watched her collect the green beverage and take a stool where she could peer through the window as she sipped, scrolling her phone with her single perfectly tipped index finger, pausing to push back the single lock of hair that had escaped to frame her perfectly cool and cute, face.
Thirteen minutes later, she walked out, phone to her ear, gesturing to the wind as though conjuring an image I couldn’t see. I followed her confident stride until she rounded the corner and disappeared into the crosstown abyss, a patchwork of brownstones and apartment buildings in various shades and stages of redesign, housing the new residents that had turned my neighborhood into a gentrified community that I was barely able to afford now that it had gotten trendy. I should have hated Pretty Girl and others like her just for that fact but I couldn’t summon the bile, so full was I with envy.
In the weeks that followed, I finished the story collection I was writing, satisfied that I had disguised my life with made up names and overlaid identities. I was finally sending the document to print, crouching over the MacBook Pro that contained every dream I had ever dreamed, so fearful that I would lose it, that I packed it into my bag when I approached the counter for a refill of my coffee drink. I had switched to a decaffeinated beverage, and not only because the recent price adjustments meant the roasted brew cost less now than my usual tea. Aside from the drink change and my position on the cusp of learning whether my fiction had a chance of being accepted, aside from that, everything else was the same. In the second pocket of my book bag, my phone vibrated an alert, that went unacknowledged, at least for now. I was focused on the words that would represent me – my reality or my dreams.
Someone was trying to get the door open. Push, the strange man occupying the round table next to mine offers. He is a regular too, appearing almost daily, dressed in his own summer uniform, a camouflage narrow-brimmed straw hat perched at the very front of his head, a stretched out dark brown or faded black t-shirt, its neck stretched past its elasticity, and khaki shorts, brown boots inlaid with orange vinyl, and various shopping bags that do not explain his daily Venti drink purchase. Is he a bag man? A near-vagrant with a win-for-life lottery windfall? The opening bars to Skee-Lo’s song plays and I reach for my phone to text my ex boyfriend. The one I shared my life with for several years before we realized the present wasn’t enough for us and we wanted a security that neither of us felt willing to offer. But he is the only one who would understand my obsession with this song. I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller. The familiar lyrics pipe through the room without recognition from any of my co-patrons. Either they don’t understand or don’t share the desire for the greener grass. I am still rifling through my bag for my phone when I see her struggling to hold the door open for a muscled man to come in. He is wearing athletic sweatpants and a gray t-shirt that isn’t supposed to fit as tight as it does. The cotton fabric follows the ripples of his stomach. She follows him into the room. Pretty Girl. She isn’t heavily made up but her eyes look older somehow. Darker. Like her eyelids are straining against a weight they weren’t meant to carry, her cheeks puffing as they try to help.
She doesn’t seem so pretty today. In fact, I might not be instantly suspicious of her. She isn’t attractive enough to garner my instant dislike. I might not recognize her as Pretty Girl except that she is wearing the same dress, the tan fabric now bearing a stain on the shoulder, like someone hugged her and left a spot of makeup as a souvenir. Or like a spot of blood has been smudged in a failed removal. Her hair is still smoothed back in the same style, and the dress she now wears layered over wide pants, covering her legs. Remembering my earlier sighting of her, I wonder whether she no longer wants to show her perfectly shaped legs, choosing instead to hide them with pants that don’t fit the way they would if she was a celebrity and had a stylist since they sag where they shouldn’t and aren’t wide enough to accentuate the waist I admired just under two weeks prior. She orders something – today, I am too far away to know what – and he stands behind her while she waits. They don’t speak. They merely stand close to each other, until she collects the cup of oatmeal – a cheaper item than my usual, but not even its low price is enough to tempt me to try (even I have limits). She perches on a stool, then peels the plastic covering off the spoon and takes the first taste. He leans over where she is sitting, the same stool where, before, she looked out at the world, but now seems separated from it, his mouth on her ear, her face expressionless, as though ignoring not just him, but everything that is outside of her and the cup’s mushy offering. She holds the cup askance and he spoons some onto his tongue, straightens up, then leans over to say something else to her. She doesn’t give any hint that she is listening or hearing his words.
He turns back to the counter as if to order something but changes his mind, leans toward her again and says something. I should covet their relationship, shouldn’t I? Here is proof that Pretty Girl has Goodlooking Guy, one she doubtless shares a life with, someone to eat breakfast with, even if it’s purchased cereal, but something about their interaction doesn’t inspire envy. Goodlooking Guy smoothens the back of her dress, his wrist bulging with some fitness tracker or other, even from across the room, I can see his forearms bulge with the movement. For just a moment, and from afar, they are the picture of intimacy as he whispers animatedly in her ear and she moves spoon from cup to mouth and back again, mechanically. Without warning, he yanks at her chignon, pulling her hair back so her head touches her collar. You understand? His voice booms.
Suddenly, they have the attention of everyone – the office-building supers (baristas) and cheap renters (customers like me). He looks around, remembering where they are, maybe, releases his hold on her and stalks out before anyone can react with anything other than the disbelief that must be on my face, and everyone else around me, except I can’t look away long enough to notice. He pauses to stare at her when he is on the other side of the glass, the menace on his face evident even through the slits of glass not covered by the advertising decal.
The long pants make sense now. The stylish three-quarter sleeved shirt-dress keeps her feminine even while it conceals the evidence of a man who doesn’t regard her body with reverence.
I long to rewrite Pretty’s story to capture this ugly face of truth. I think about Pretty Girl long after she spoons the last of her oatmeal out of the cup and rubs the side of her face like she is nursing some kind of wound. I am still considering the ugliness that Pretty Girl is living with when she walks out, her giant purple bag in tow, and disappears under the scaffold that announces yet another building development project. Maybe no one has it all, no matter how much stuff their tote bag can fit. That Pretty doesn’t bring pretty love and that if I had to choose between pretty and love, I’d choose different next time.
Copyright 2018 by Karen Wright
The above is an excerpt from an ongoing creative writing project which will probably be heavily edited in the future. Please do not copy or otherwise share this content.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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