Her collection of flesh-colored liquids in squishy tubes and small glass bottles is now a pile in a pink wastebasket that will be emptied by someone else. She looks in the mirror for a long time, fights the urge to retrieve her foundations and smother her skin with them. She grips the sink, nods affirmatively at her reflection, applies a lotion with a generous SPF and heads out.
A taxi rushes up to the curb, its tires throwing dirty snow onto the sidewalk in front of her apartment. Rita takes a step back, considers a retreat. She feels the tension spread along her jaw, but instead of yelling and narrowing her eyes or covering her face and turning away, she gives the man a cordial nod and waves him off; he nods back, brazenly examines her, and continues on his way.
As she moves, the cold air on her face becomes exhilarating, empowering. Rita wears boots and matching coat with a faux-fur lining that is black and gray like Homer, her cat. And, because Homer often breaks into her closet to curl up inside or near one of the boots, Rita’s left foot is now warmer than her right. She hurries, long legs taking long strides, as the day’s afternoon snow begins to fall.
Miranda answers the door and the two women exchange a hug. Rita fights the urge to tell her friend that she landed a job. Both women are actresses, local and usually out of work, but Rita hasn’t had so much as a call back in over a year—she’s eager to tell someone.
“It’s about time you got here. I’m starving. I’ve been waiting for lunch since breakfast.” Miranda’s smile is fixed, and she speaks through it. Whenever her teeth are freshly whitened, she smiles non-stop like this. She tilts her head slightly and reaches out her hand to cup Rita’s chin. “You’re not wearing makeup,” she says in a tone that suggests corrective action must be taken. When Rita merely nods in affirmation, Miranda stretches her lips even further, her smile lines like a pulled rubber band, and says, “Well how about that! Good for you. You look…so natural!”
Rita takes in a long, slow breath.
Vanity does not elude the intelligent, but it can work to delay acumen. Rita was always outrageously beautiful, even when she was a child. When she was fourteen she got a prescription for glasses, which turned out to warrant thick glass that made her eyes large and her self-consciousness increase. Instead of wearing them as many of the other kids in her class did (proudly, fashionably), she went without and begged her parents for contact lenses, which she knew they couldn’t afford. Because Rita is far-sighted, she often made errors when taking tests, thinking a B a D because the slight curves were just too small and blurry to notice. Once home, she’d retrieve her glasses from her backpack and spend the nights reading until sleep took hold. That is, until she was a teenager and her nightly reading became the latest issues of Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, and W: all of which were at least a month old, passed down after Miranda received her new issue in the mail. Rita had met Miranda freshman year.
“Remember when we were in our twenties and we used to go to that silly club to dance all night—what was it called? Oh, and remember that time I tried to light a shot—what was the name of that shot?—and I set my arm hair on fire?” Miranda asks after taking a healthy slug of Merlot. She checks her smile in the window reflection. “I’ve just been feeling so old and lackluster lately. I miss those times.”
“Venue. Flaming Dr. Pepper. Yeah, I remember the smell. It was like rubber, your arm.”
“Yeah, I was lucky I didn’t scar.”
Rita glances out the window, noticing her own reflection and says, “You were lucky. We both were.”
Rita pours the last of the Merlot and eyes the empty bottle, hoping Miranda will offer to buy a new one after she reveals the news. Feeling the adrenaline expand her stomach and chest, she blurts it out at last. “Speaking of luck, I got a part. Hear me, Miranda? I’ll be the narrator and star of the next ‘Call Lawyer Larry’ commercial!”
Lawyer Larry’s face graces most of the bus stop benches and billboards in Minneapolis; it’s a big job. Rita waits for the offer of a new bottle, the hug or insincere squeal of delight. Instead, Miranda smiles, the sun catching the bluish glint of her overly whitened teeth. She says, “That’s wonderful. I bet you got the job because of your scars. You should buy me some more Merlot to thank me.” As Miranda chuckles, thinking her joke harmless—just another slight—but Rita’s jaw becomes like stone. She picks up the empty wine bottle and swings.
Prison is always a little too cold and despite what she’d imagined, far too bright. But, there are regular meals and regular walks in the crisp, fresh air. Most of the inmates don’t give a shit about Rita thanks to her appearance, which is good. Her cellmate, Sandy, tells Rita she’s lovely, and that, if only she weren’t in love with a delicate little thing known as Buttons, she’d be all over that ass. This compliment is a fast track to friendship. Rita tells Sandy stories about her life outside, how she obtained her scars and how ironic it was that the day she chose to forgive was the day she became a criminal.
“We only have so much control,” Sandy says.
As Rita retells her stories they seem less real, as though they belong to someone else or they were stories she had watched on TV. The scar story leads to other stories. Despite the distance she feels from them, she enjoys the telling. She speaks about Miranda a lot, how she was the gregarious one, how they’d known each other since elementary school and hung out daily because they shared the same desire to work as actresses and become famous; and how they had aged begrudgingly alongside one another, complaining to one another, relying on one another, all without ever truly becoming friends.
Sandy’s curly brown hair hangs over her eyes, but she peers through with intense interest as Rita speaks. Sandy is an ex-banger, doing time for multiple counts of B&E. She reads steampunk paperbacks aloud at night. She reads self-improvement during the day. She urges Rita to use prison as a way to better herself, offers to be her life coach. Rita accepts. She could use a life coach.
Rita writes her father and mother, her sister, and even Miranda—whose letters are promptly returned, the guards tell her. She wears glasses in her cell, but has to remove them on the walks to the quad. As she walks with Sandy, she begins to draft her next letter in her head. She is living a life of letters, a life that exists in her past and future. She writes to herself even, and to Sandy.
In her cell, with the backdrop of steampunk plots or Zig Ziglar mantras and the faint but constant smell of clay, Rita reads each letter she receives in turn. There are not many, a few from family and Sandy, but she holds them to her heart. She folds them into swans and frogs, origami being an art she is teaching herself.
When Rita writes Lawyer Larry to explain why she’d never shown up for the commercial taping, he responds immediately, asks to visit.
“I had to meet you after that five-page letter you sent. You are an intriguing woman! You seem to have the best inside-life imaginable. You make it sound like a Zen retreat in your letters,” he says enthusiastically. He offers to represent Rita, even offers to take in Homer, whom her mother is threatening to take to a shelter. She takes him up on everything. Larry renames the cat Larry Jr., with Rita’s permission, shows her pictures through the tough plastic when he visits. They plan her release, but it turns out that Lawyer Larry is not the best lawyer in town.
Pushing his manicured hands through his thick hair as though striking a pose, Larry insists that they do his next commercial together; and since Rita is behind bars, he says they should exploit the setting. “This will open me up to more funded work, which will make taxes less of a bitch at the end of the year.”
He arranges for the footage to be shot in the quad, with Rita in handcuffs. Her line: “Wrongly imprisoned? Call Lawyer Larry! He’s a beast.” Then, to close out the commercial, there is a roar.
The commercial airs in her lunch wing on a Friday, the day the weekday guards are in their best moods, and it immediately makes Rita a sort of prison celebrity. She is adored after this, and detested in equal measure. In response to those that see her as a threat now, Rita merely allows the confrontation and, if necessary, takes off her glasses and beats the shit out people. It’s only necessary. She gets beat, too, of course, but it doesn’t matter here. It’s just part of the routine. It just adds to her time.
When Larry tells Rita that she needs to declare bankruptcy, she does. Her home and possessions are liquidated on the outside, but before everything is taken, she instructs her mother to hang on to her jewelry, her faux-fur coat and her boots, which are to go to Larry Jr.
Miranda is in the courtroom, looking precious and self-consumed. She has spent thousands of dollars of family money to properly address the small mark Rita left on her cheek and pull the rest of her skin back and up while she was at it. She’s very particular about her doctors as, she said, her mother always had been. Miranda’s mother and father have enough money to pay Miranda’s way through life along with her children and their children; for this reason, she’d never taken the cheap route, would never have considered it. Yet, it had been Miranda who bought the at-home chemical acid peel that ravaged Rita’s face.
“I hear it’s just as good as the procedure I got, and it’s only a couple hundred dollars. Youth will be my gift to you,” she said. She had gloves and a sort of spatula thing. And Rita had trusted her because she knew her friend’s intentions were good, and she did need help—an edge—now that she was aging and finding less and less work. Miranda had promised she knew what she was doing, said she’d watched YouTube videos, and it was simple. It had been her birthday present. When it started burning, she said that meant it was almost done.
Although she still doesn’t think it was purposeful, the outcome of that day, Rita feels no regret. In fact, she feels her body tense and, despite best intentions, longs for a redo, another empty bottle of Merlot. She isn’t so much mad at her friend as she was the world. She wants to create a little more equality, balance the playing field, and she wonders if many of the inmates have the same motivation. She takes a deep breath in through her nose, the way Sandy taught her, thinks, Breathing in, I am breathing in the moment. This is only a moment. This is not me, this is my anger. Breathing out, I am breathing out the moment.. Her appeal is rejected.
Time takes time, but it passes. It is needed. Rita hasn’t looked at herself in a good mirror in years. The only image she has of herself is the one in that commercial years back and the warped view allowed in prison. The day of her graduation, her exodus, she is offered a full-length mirror that is not dark and cloudy like shiny stainless steel in the cells. She smiles at it as widely as she can. She reenacts her part in the Lawyer Larry commercial, roaring at the end. Her lips are still chunky at one corner, and the skin around the right side of her mouth is withered. Her smile tilts down; the path of the chemicals that thinned and reddened her cheek leads to her temple and spreads like splits around her eye. She looks into herself, looks beyond.
Rita is released six years after entering the institution, during which she earned a two-year degree. She gets a job working for the very organization that helped her earn her degree, wherein she writes grants and spreads the word that inmates can turn everything around. She writes Sandy, who was released but reentered in a matter of months. Sandy responds, explaining that she couldn’t live on the outside without Buttons.
Rita walks her old neighborhood in tennis shoes and a warm, puffy black coat. As she passes her friend’s home, she apologizes and forgives aloud. The wind responds, a sharp and exhilarating blow.
She sees that the small French restaurant is now a small Italian restaurant. A slice of pesto pizza—advertised on a sign outside—sounds heavenly, so she sits to order, works on her latest grant and allows the well-seasoned crust to soften on her tongue. Eyes wander her way. Rita is used to people looking into her as though she is a mirror. She smiles, welcomes stares, writes, and enjoys each bite of her pizza.
Jen Knox teaches creative writing at San Antonio College. Jen’s writing was chosen for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 list in 2012 and won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for short fiction and Global Short Story award in 2011. Her work can be read in Bluestem, Gargoyle 58, jmww, Narrative, Short Story America, Superstition Review, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Thumbnail Magazine, and elsewhere. Her website is here: http://www.jenknox.com.