“You are a hand photographer’s dream,” my guidance counselor said to me as I passed his pen back to him. “Are there photographers who only take pictures of hands?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, fourteen, fidgety, and uneasily waiting for my mother, who refused to subject me to the horrors of the school bus, to pull into the parking lot. The glottal moan of her truck’s engine would be the dead giveaway.
During the ride home, gripping the steering wheel with one hand and applying lipstick with the other, my mother prodded me about my counselor’s list of potential jobs, about college decisions I would not have to make for another two years. I decided to keep the part about hand modeling to myself.
“I don’t think I’d make a good plumber,” I said, settling my feet into the heap of used-up makeup palettes, empty Diet Coke bottles, and bar napkins. “That’s all I really learned.” I watched her swipe the pomegranate-red crayon across each lip in one hurried motion. Those days, she was on what I referred to in conversations with my friends as a Dating Binge. She never brought the men home, either out of respect for me or because they saw that mammoth of a truck, that bucket of half-functional parts with its layer of swiss-cheese rust, and decided they would not be caught dead in the bedroom of a Truck Mom (these phrases are always capitalized in my mind, perhaps an attempt by my subconscious to teach me to be pragmatic).
“You know I’ll support whatever you do,” she said, capping the lipstick and avoiding my eyes. I hadn’t forgotten the stack of college brochures on the dining room table, or the videos (all on VHS cassette) she’d made me sit through, featuring adolescents of all colors pitching the tale of their alma mater’s tape. Everything from the courses to the meals were apparently gold-crusted, and my mother would not let me forget that if I could get my act together in the next six years, cross a stage and take a roll of paper from a man with letters after his name, so would I be.
“I know, Mom.” I wondered what sorts of conversations she had with the men at the bars, whether she mentioned forgoing all of her schooling opportunities to raise a daughter. I wondered whether the men pretended to hate me for coming into the world when I did, whether they said things about me to get a smile out of her, a beautiful, selfless woman too young for such a burden. Did she tell them she chose artificial insemination so that she wouldn’t need a male partner? That she wanted to immaculately conceive a child?
The future looked like this:
A. Muscle through two more years of high school
1. Excel in all classes
a. Alternative – be disowned
2. Keep virginity (optional)
3. Teach myself to care more about college and less about stealing my
mother’s precious chili-sauce recipe (for posterity, I swear)
B. Go to college
1. See A-1
2. Lose virginity (if A-2 was followed)
C. Get a Job
a. Take up an instrument and earn my life savings playing covers on
the corner of Twenty-Fourth and Hickory
b. Accept my guidance counselor’s advice and start on a heavy
“Will you be okay by yourself tonight?” she asked. “Leftovers are in the fridge.”
“Yeah,” I said, planning to stuff myself with the dregs of Thanksgiving dinner and watch sitcoms until I passed out. With one finger, I drew a little stick figure of myself on the fogged-up window. Moist snowflakes began sticking to the windshield like liquid pearls.
I went straight from my driver’s test to my first modeling job. Mom had been dating a former Eagle Scout named Kent for the past fourteen months, and he always asked me weird questions (How many people have you kissed? What do you wear when you sleep? Do you know the best ways to avoid a parking ticket?). Mom would just laugh through her glass of bourbon instead of muzzling him, so I cherished my time out of the house.
“You drive pretty good,” said the test-giver, slouching in the passenger seat of my fresh-on-the-road 1994 Ford Taurus (Mom refused to lend me the Rustmobile before I could refuse to drive it), scribbling tiny X’s on the testing sheet. He tore the results from the clipboard and presented the receipt to me like a diploma.
“Thanks,” I muttered, not sure whether to give an acceptance speech.
I navigated the city’s side streets with the help of my GPS, following the purple digitized road, a stripe of candy on the white grid. The photo session – which, for my own sense of fulfillment, I will continue to call a job – was at a friend of a friend’s house: Margaret Bluesummers. Everyone called her Maggie Blue. She was a photographer-in-training with an eyebrow piercing and a tribal tattoo on the small of her back. Every flat surface in her parents’ house was laden with the instruments of her craft. A pyramid of photography manuals had claimed the coffee table. Layers of photos were scattered across her bedroom floor. A pile of disposable cameras, enough plastic to keep a small recycling plant busy for a year or two, lay in the gap of the half-open closet. Coils of film spilled from the corner of the bed and curled around one of the legs in an emulsion helix, and undeveloped spools had been flung into the farthest reaches of the room. Maggie sank to the floor, Indian-style. Her acid-washed jeans were split open at both knees, revealing pale eye-shaped swaths of flesh.
“Let me see your hands,” she said, heaving a camera over her eyes, positioning the lens so that I was perfectly framed.
I rolled up my sleeves and tilted my wrists forward, palms aimed at Maggie Blue as though offering tribute.
She must have been moving at a hundred photos per second, commanding my hands into all angles, machine-gunning snapshots. When I began to sweat, she toweled me off and pulled an ancient-looking Polaroid from a shoebox beneath her bed. “I want to try something different,” she said. She uncrossed her legs, pushed herself to her feet, and went to the dresser. After ruffling through her sock drawer, she produced a small red bottle, sank back to the floor, Indian-style, and slid the bottle across the hardwood. I folded my right leg over my left, mirroring her.
“I’ve never used nail polish,” I said.
Maggie uncapped the bottle and began humming a song I didn’t recognize. My nose curled at the chemical smell of the fumes. She rubbed the little brush around the glass rim of the bottle and told me to extend my right hand. I obeyed, as if taking an oath, and she touched the red tip of the brush to the spotless pink surface of my nail – cold, I was stunned by how cold it was – and I could feel the cuticles tightening, oppressed, sealed as though spot-welded at the seams, blood droplets at the ends of my fingers, marking me, symbols of some sort of pact between us. Again, she lifted her camera, and as the flash lit up like a white star, I had never felt more naked.
When I got home, I ran my fingers under the faucet, scraping the polish into the sink with a metal nail file. Red flakes dotted the white basin like leaves on snow. Choking on the still-potent chemicals, I brought up my palms to look at them, stained red as if bleeding from twin wounds. Barely recognizing my own hands, horrified by their poisonous odor, I lurched forward and vomited into the drain.
Mom called every night. My college roommate, Leela, had spent the early months of our second freshman semester urging me to pull my head from the books and focus on something other than my history major, something extracurricular, fun, girlish. This was fair and harmless until Leela started answering Mom’s calls to our dormitory landline when I wasn’t around. Soon, they had their own inside jokes and giggled about me over the phone while I was in the same room.
It was a Thursday night in January. Sleet pelted our window. I was sitting on the throw rug, Indian-style, my face buried between the battered pages of a used Regions Beyond Europe textbook. Leela was slouched on the futon, her slippered feet perched on the Swiss ball we used as an ottoman. “Tau Phi,” she said. “Tonight.” She’d repeated the sorority’s name to me every Thursday, counting down to the time when she could finally add tonight.
Leela was from Trinidad, of East Indian descent. Her family had sent her to America, per her wishes, to become a famous film actress, but sometimes I would overhear her outside the room, dogmatizing her unhappy home life to her theatre friends. Once, she jolted awake in the middle of the night and told me she suspected her parents of sending her away in order to be rid of her. “My darkness embarrasses them,” she said.
I’d never considered joining a sorority before Leela and I attended Tau Phi’s fall Rush. Leela was stage-managing her first theatre production, an all-students adaptation of Saint Joan, and I envied her frequent cast parties, her endless queue of actor friends, her dedication to the craft. It wasn’t enough for my mother that I was on my way to becoming a bespectacled, long-skirted, stone-faced history teacher with ruler in hand – plowing through the tomes, I could practically feel my sense of humor bleeding away.
I was about to ask Leela whether the sorority was a good fit for me, whether I was too much of a rebel, when the phone rang. I sprung from the floor, kicking my history texts into chaos, and snatched the receiver from the cradle before Leela could move. “Hi, Mom.”
Mom’s voice was birdsong. “Charlotte, Charlotte, bo-barlotte. How was your day?”
“Fine. How was yours?”
“Great. Kent and I just made dinner. How is Leila?”
“Yes. How is she?”
At the sound of her name, Leela looked up from the script she’d been mulling over. I gestured to her with that hand motion you do when someone’s yapping too much.
“She’s fine. Her big play opens this weekend.”
“As if I’d forgotten,” Mom said, a soft laugh underscoring her words. “I wish you could somehow be a part of that. I’d be there to see you in two seconds flat.”
I turned to Leela, her mahogany skin blotted with light from our lava lamp, flipping pages, crossing out words, dismissing ideas with a simple pinch of the eyebrows. I realized how tightly I’d been balling my fist around the receiver.
“I think I’m going to join a sorority, Mom.” A pause. “Did you hear me?”
Her voice became softer, as though miles away. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, dear.”
Adrenaline tingled the veins in my chest and wrists. “No. I want to. Some of my friends want me to join.” At the word friends, Leela peered up at me again. Mom was quiet. “They’re taking pledges tonight, so I have to go. Goodnight, Mom.”
After trudging up the snowy walk with two other pledges and uneasily stepping through the double doors, I was instructed by several girls in black-and-red Greek print sweatshirts to hang my coat and hat on a row of toothy wooden hooks. I obeyed, as did two girls who had come in beside me. The inside of the house reminded me of a ski lodge – Mom had taken me skiing as a kid, teaching me herself, not trusting any ski instructor – with wooden walls, the smell of hickory, and a set of three raised, maroon-carpeted wooden steps in the center. Three of Tau Phi’s Big Sisters stood on the steps, and once the pledges had all gathered in the center of the room like minnows in a half-submerged net, the Sisters addressed us. The girl at the top of the stairs, a tall Sister with bleached hair and a flamingo’s neck, introduced herself as Corinne.
Something about this house, this atmosphere, those three girls standing on the steps like sleek pantheon statues, made me want to impress them, to prove something to Mom, to be a part of this, whatever it was.
Corinne made us introduce ourselves individually, and after we’d screeched our names, she gave us alternate ones, which we’d have to respond to over the course of the next week. Mine was Bitsy, a reference to my 34A chest. “My name is Bitsy,” I said after she crowned me with the moniker. No one in the room laughed.
“Now that I know you,” Corinne said, “you will get to know each other.” But there were no more formalities. The two girls flanking Corinne pulled several lengths of rope from behind the steps, divided the pledges into groups of five, and tied us together, creating a knot that might have impressed even Kent. I tried to find Corinne’s eyes with mine, tried to create some sort of drama between us; I wanted her to remember me. But her gaze was directed past the group, as if giving commands to the snow falling beyond the window. “Find your way home,” she said. “I’ll be thinking of you.”
It was a mile back to the dorms, and mine was the last stop. I tried to be chummy with the girls I was bound to, but the mood became frantic the moment we passed through the double doors and the heavy flakes moistened our bare arms. The Big Sisters did not return our coats, and we knew not to ask.
We inched our way along the ice-glazed cobblestone, shoes unequipped for the frozen inclines leading back to the cluster of dorm buildings. The other girls offered their strategies all at once. Their voices gnarled together, so I decided to take a leadership role. I took note of their names – the names Corinne gave them; they seemed eager to play her game – and remembered them only by voice. We were tied back-to-back. Emergency lights flashed along the campus road like fat blue gems.
I commanded each step with an improvised call-and-response system, and after what must have been two hours, the final pledge squeezed out of the rope. “By the way,” I said as she turned to leave me, “I’m Charlotte.” She was one of the girls who had entered Tau Phi House beside me, chattering nervously about horseback riding until the Sisters had practically torn the coat from her shoulders. She nodded, her expression indiscernible in the dark, and without answering, trotted up the walk to her dorm.
I balled the rope in my numb hands and walked the rest of the way to my building. Through the lobby window, I could see Leela curled in a cushioned chair near the elevators, flipping through a script. I flung the rope onto the slick cobbles, wrung a stream of melted snow from my hair, and swiped my campus ID through the little slot on the door. When I appeared, Leela looked up from her script, her blackish eyes fixated in concern, as though she’d been watching for me every time she’d heard the click of the latch. My eyes wandered from hers to the clock hanging above the closed snack counter. Twenty to one. I looked back at Leela. She silently stuffed the script into her shoulder bag, walked over to me, and ran her perfect hands along the reddened, frost-nipped skin of my arms. When she had apparently deduced that my condition was not life-threatening, she took my hand and led me to the elevator, the snow still falling blue behind me.
I slept through my classes the following morning, dreaming of the black wool coat I’d left at Tau Phi House. It had been a gift from Mom, a hand-me-down she’d saved for my college days and which I’d originally planned on leaving in my closet as a dust-magnet, but it kept me wonderfully toasty and seemed, somehow, to hold in its very fibers my most vivid memories of Mom – dumping water on my head from a watering can when I was three, teaching me to smother burgers with her special chili sauce, arguing with my uncle about how to handle the fact that my birth was the result of a sperm donor and that I’d never have a father – temperatures, tastes, smells, even the conversations seemed sewn into that coat.
“Ask for it back, then,” Leela said, placing a bowl of steaming broth alongside me on the nightstand. Nursing me fit conveniently into her class schedule, but guilt swam laps in my stomach. I hadn’t told her about being bound to four other pledges like lassoed game. She only knew that the Sisters had made us walk home without coats, which still seemed excessive to her, but I suspect she’d have otherwise never let me see them again, despite the fact that my joining a sorority was her idea. She may even have blamed herself.
I decided to change the subject. “I’m not that sick. You don’t have to bother with me.” A pile of used tissues lay on the nightstand near the bowl. Behind them, a thermometer that hadn’t displayed a number less than 101 all day. Leela regarded me doubtfully. “I have a workshop. Don’t move while I’m gone.” She patted my head, slung her bag over her shoulder, and vanished out the door.
I obeyed. Three hours into a TV Land marathon, the phone rang. I lifted the receiver from the cradle with three fingers, thinking it too early for Mom’s call. “Hello?”
“Hi, Bitsy.” Corinne’s voice, like water from a bathtub faucet. “I’m glad you made it home safely.” I remained silent, giving her the floor. “As you know, all of our new pledges are being assigned a Big Sister. I am going to be yours.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” I said, still lying in bed, on the verge of a yawn.
“You don’t sound like you appreciate it, Bitsy.”
“Oh. I do.”
“Good. This is what being my Sister will be like. You’ll answer the phone when I call. If a Sister needs something, you’ll deliver it.”
“Sounds easy enough.” I tried to sound cavalier.
“And you won’t interrupt me when I talk. I have three other calls to make. Not all of us are lying around today. What are you doing, sleeping?”
I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. This was my trial, my test of discipline. I could not, under any circumstances, let the knot unravel. “No,” I said, “of course not. Just tell me what else I can do for you.”
“Study up on your history.”
“It’s my major. I think I’m pretty good on that.”
“The history of Tau Phi, Bitsy. I’m going to ask you some questions about it next time I see you.”
“And if I get them right, you’ll give my coat back?” It had come out on its own. An unjumpable gap formed in the conversation, same as yesterday with Mom.
“I don’t know what coat you’re talking about,” she said after a few seconds. “I have to go. Keep your cell on, even when you’re in class.”
I stayed on the line, waiting for her to hang up first.
“Oh, and Bitsy? I need you to clean Tau Phi House this weekend. You’ll be working from nine to nine on Saturday.”
Saturday would be Leela’s opening night, and Corinne knew. Maybe I could chalk it up to my illness. Convince Leela I was too sick to go.
I rolled off the bed, rooted my feet on the fuzzy rug Leela and I had picked from a towering rack at Huck Finn’s Warehouse, and peeled away my baggy shirt, which was damp with fever sweat. In the shower, with scalding water pounding my back, I peered down at my braless chest. Boyish and boring. Even standing here alone with my body, uninhibited by clothing or the eyes of others, I felt vulnerable, unfeminine. I flopped my soaking wet hair over my eyes.
It was midnight when the phone shook again, and my fever still hadn’t broken. “Bitsy, we need beer.”
Leela, a light sleeper, stirred beneath the warm-colored hills of her sheets.
“Find a way.” She hung up. I hadn’t mentioned the fever or the lack of a coat, which Corinne still possessed, figuring my age would be a deal breaker, but even the law was no object for Tau Phi.
I shoved myself from the stiff mattress, mumbling as I ruffled through the pile of clothes at the foot of my tiny dresser. My head throbbed at the temples. I threw on what felt like my corduroy pants, flung my night shirt onto the pile and shrugged into a tee. As my eyes adjusted, I could see Leela sitting up in bed, watching.
“Is everything okay?” her voice rumbled with sleep.
“Yeah. I’ve got a Tau Phi thing.”
“You can’t go outside. Your fever.”
“I’m feeling a lot better.” The knot in my stomach grew to the size of a fist. Lying to Leela felt violent.
“At least take one of my sweatshirts.”
I felt my way to her closet and grabbed a black hoodie from where it hung on the corner of the door. “Thanks.”
She snuggled back into her sheets and breathed deeply. I imagined myself plopping down next to her, safe from the lacerating cold.
Corinne’s bed in Tau Phi House was covered with girls. All three wore purple sweatpants, arms wrapped around their knees. “How did you get the beer?” Corinne demanded of me as I set the twenty-four pack at her bare feet. Techno music blared from the speakers behind me. The lights were dimmed and warm; a Christmas wreath set with Tau Phi in cinnamon sticks hovered over the bed.
“I asked some juniors to get it for me.”
“Boys or girls?”
One of the other girls whistled. “I wonder how she convinced them.” Her voice was shrill.
“I’ll bet Bitsy likes it rough,” the third girl said, as if she knew something about me. I’d never been in the same room with her.
Corinne laughed. “Is that true?”
I nodded. What could I have said? Sex is a foreign language to me?
Corinne bombarded me with trivia about the founding of Tau Phi, which I knew well after one sitting with the internet. One of the Sisters suggested I do push-ups. With my skin still seeping and my head in a fever-induced whirl, there was no way. If Corinne gave the word, I’d have to break character and quit on the spot.
“That’s a nice sweatshirt,” Corinne said, ignoring her friend. I was still wearing Leela’s hoodie, emblazoned with her high school’s blue and pink.
“You can’t have it,” I said immediately. This stopped them in their tracks.
Corinne shot me a knowing leer. “I don’t want it.”
“Sorry. Knee-jerk reaction. I’m not feeling well.”
“Take it off.” This was not a request, and I did not argue.
I shed the hoodie and let it drop over the case of beer. The girl who had made the comment about my liking it rough had already popped one of the bottles and was slowly sipping as she watched me. I could see it in their eyes: they knew I had taken control of the rope situation on the first night. They knew I thought I was smart. Defiance was what they wanted; my disobedience would be their victory.
“The shirt, too,” Corinne said. She tied back her bleach-blond hair as though preparing to teach me a lesson.
I removed the t-shirt. I wasn’t wearing a bra. The three of them laughed, percussing even the pulse-pounding music.
“I sure gave you the right name, didn’t I?”
I forced a half-smile, pretending to laugh along with them. Corinne produced a partially empty wine bottle from somewhere behind her, and it became clear to me that the Tau Phi trio had done plenty of drinking before I’d shown up. The beer run had only been another test of loyalty.
Corinne uncorked the wine, pushed herself from the bed, and stood at least three inches taller than me. She smelled like sweat and paint thinner. “You might want some of this,” she said, lifting the bottle to my mouth. Remaining steadfast, I parted my lips without a word, my bare skin now layered with goosebumps. Corinne tipped the bottle, and I swallowed the brook of wine until she pulled it away. “Good.” She brought the bottle to her own lips and drank. My nerves pulsed. The taste of poison ripened in my throat.
One of the girls pulled a digital camera from her backpack and tossed it to Corinne. She aimed the lens and snapped a quick shot of my naked torso. “Does this bother you?”
“No.” This time, I was telling the truth. I had been comfortable in front of a camera ever since my guidance counselor had praised my hands, ever since Maggie Blue had objectified me two years ago. I was always the only kid who didn’t moan during family holiday photos, and my cousins often ragged on me because of it. I took photos of myself every month to assess my growth, my dimensions, my aging process, to better understand the design, the changes, how every bone fit together, the precise contours of skin wrapped around muscles. Every single time, I stripped down to nothing but skin and hair, spreading my arms and legs, a Y above a V, just like the little stick-Charlotte I’d fingered into the foggy passenger-side window of Mom’s truck when I was fourteen.
“Fine,” she said, begging for a reaction. “Then do something. Look mean.” I bent forward, leering at Corinne like she had at me. The girls on the bed laughed into each others’ shoulders. Corinne wasn’t laughing. “Meaner.” I extended my fingers like claws.
This went on for an hour. Corinne nearly filled her camera’s memory card with photos of me: grinning, growling on all fours, standing upright with my hand on my hip like a comic book character, kneeling topless on her bed like a trophy, like a big corduroyed cat, like something she’d conquered. The music pounded on without pause, beating against the walls of my skull, boring the fever into me like a power drill. When the girls laughed, I laughed with them.
Corinne tossed the camera back onto the bed and snatched the wine bottle by the neck. “You’re a good sport, Bitsy.” The other girls pounced from the bed and forced me to my knees, as if to punctuate everything we’d done, to let me know we weren’t friends quite yet. Corinne then took a mouthful of wine, bent over me, and sprayed a fountain of red into my face.
Leela knew I’d be missing opening night, but she didn’t know the reason. I tore myself away from cleaning Tau Phi House to make the reception, smelling like dust and pine. During the twelve hours of cleaning, which had involved hauling laundry baskets, dusting every flat surface in the house, and scrubbing floors armed with nothing but a tube of toothpaste and my fingertips, the girls told me their own initiation stories. Other Sisters had made them sit on Coke bottles for hours at a time, answer questions about Tau Phi’s history while doing pull-ups, and bathe in vinegar on their busiest class days. I felt for their humiliation, but nothing seemed to compare to what I’d been through at Corinne’s spidery hands. Whatever her next trial was, I’d meet it with claws drawn, answer the phone on the first ring, worship her if I had to. The domination game was just that; when the week was over, she and I would be real sisters.
I jogged through the ear-biting wind, ambled up the steps of the performing arts center, and heaved the door open. The air inside was sugary and warm. Leela, standing on the carpeted steps leading to the main theatre, was dressed in a black suit and clutching a bouquet of white roses. Guests picked shyly at refreshments and commented on the acting in Saint Joan. A girl with a mask of white makeup and two red dots in the corners of her eyes slunk by, saying “Excuse me” as she passed. A small train of students followed her out the door; I figured she must have been Joan herself, dodging her new fans.
Two male professors, both crisply dressed and one of whom I recognized as the chair of the Theatre department, shook Leela’s hand and kissed her on the cheek. Witnessing Leela’s triumph, watching her ascend the yellow-hued steps, a palette of gold, I became rooted to the tiles, determined to remain an observer, to allow her this moment, to let this scene play without me.
I followed her at a distance, climbing the coil of golden steps as the two professors descended them. Leela stood at the refreshment table, accepting muttered congratulations from folks walking by. Across from her, a boy with gelled hair and glasses, clad in a black hoodie and unconsciously stirring a carrot around a cup of ranch dip, did his best to engage her. She laughed with him, their conversation hidden from me behind a wall of wordless chatter. I managed to make out “Congrats,” and when he leaned over to kiss her cheek, she kissed him full on the mouth.
Leela never saw me.
“I got an interesting package in the mail,” Mom said over the phone. “It’s addressed from you, but it’s not your handwriting.”
“Don’t open it,” I said, my voice echoing around the corners of the dorm. Leela was on the futon, her hand linked with Tommy’s. They were both watching me.
Tommy, the boy from the Saint Joan reception, had apparently been in love with Leela since their first day of classes together, and every time I came back to the dorm, I was treated to riveting tales of loaded dialogue in the arena theatre and tangled hands in the dining hall. Tommy sometimes spent the night, and would always leave gobs of blue toothpaste in the sink.
“Whatever you say, Charlotte-schmarlotte.” Mom was using her singsong voice. But then she went quiet.
“Tell Mom I love her,” Leela called. Tommy looked at her curiously through his thin-rimmed glasses, and it was a real curiosity, not the judgmental it-must-be-a-thing-girls-do look I always got from Leela’s male leads when they’d turn our dorm into a blackbox.
Mom didn’t laugh. Something was wrong. My thoughts immediately pointed to Kent, that perv. What had he done?
“Are you okay, Mom?”
My chest knotted up again. This was ridiculous. Mom never shirked an opportunity to spread her abiding cheeriness, her exuberance for us girls, the lucky one percent of the world who got to go to college, me, little Charlotte with the flat chest and the half-hearted history teacher dreams and the eighties hairdo, and Leela, the beauty, whose talents were already achieving reward, who may have been a better fit for Mom’s daughter than I was, despite only knowing her by voice and still photos. But now she wouldn’t talk to me. Had I relinquished my ability to interlope when I’d resigned to quietly observing that gorgeous scene at the reception? My resignation was somehow spilling into my talks with Mom.
The possibilities looked like this:
A. There’s actually nothing wrong with Mom
1. I’ve misinterpreted her silence; In eighteen years, I have not learned her
mannerisms or speech patterns
a. I am swamped with guilt: I barely know my own mother
B. Mom splits with Kent
1. I’m thrilled, but must pretend I’m not
a. I am swamped with guilt: my mother is lonely again
C. Mom has invited Kent to move in with her
1. I don’t want to think about this, even in retrospect
D. Kent has proposed to Mom
1. She has accepted
a. See C-1
2. She has declined
a. See B-1-a
E. Mom’s truck has finally died
“Mom, do you need help with something? I can come home.”
“No, it’s fine, dearest. I just miss you. We can talk when you’re here for winter break. I need to guinea-pig you for a new spice cake recipe I saw on the food channel.”
She was lying. Not about watching the food channel – she frequented the late-night shows, and when I was home, the voice of that fat TV cook with the frosted hair often punctured my dreams in the next room over – but about nothing being wrong: her voice had gone hollow.
“Kent is making a stir fry,” she said. “I have to get going.”
“Okay, Mom. I love you.”
The phone rang again as soon as I placed the receiver on the cradle.
“Yeah. It’s me. Sorry.”
“We’re having drinks down at Larson’s. It’s mandatory.”
“Oh, so you can pour wine on my tits in public this time?”
Tommy had stopped listening to whatever Leela was talking about and was gazing at me with the face of an owl.
Corinne’s voice remained frustratingly calm. “Nothing like that, Bitsy. You’re going to be a real Sister in two days. I just thought you’d like to drink with the girls before you tell your mommy.”
My mommy? What was I, six years old? Mommy sounded so specific. I’d never mentioned my parents to Corinne; there was no way she could have known I only had one, unless she’d had reason to find out. The package Mom received in the mail, addressed from my school in someone else’s handwriting – from Corinne?
The package must have contained my topless photos. Corinne’s final act of revenge for my talking back to her. And she still had Mom’s coat.
“What’s going on?” Leela asked after I’d hung up.
“I’m getting some drinks with my friends,” I said, my hand shaking. Leela frowned, her beautiful ochre skin creased with doubt. It was the same face I made when Mom lied.
The chairs in the hospital lobby were made of cold metal. It didn’t help when the automatic doors whirred open and shivering visitors brought the cruel wind in with them. I curled up in Mom’s coat, the black wool hand-me-down I loved so much, nursing my gauze-wrapped left hand. Leela stood at the information desk, discoursing with the receptionist, a pretty blond who looked like she should have been on the cover of a fashion magazine, not staring at a screen all day.
Tommy sat next to me, his eyes searching the floor for an ice-breaker. My fingers would not move.
The girls in Tau Phi House hadn’t protested when I’d walked in and reclaimed my coat. Corinne’s orders, I’d told them. Cloaked in wool, I’d walked to Larson’s, the only tavern in town that didn’t mind sliding a draught to a college freshman. The two girls from the wine incident were planted on bar stools, pandering to Corinne, who sat between them, sipping something from a brown bottle. When I hit her, the bottle dropped to the floor, rolling underneath a high-top table and spilling a trail of beer. My fist snapped her nose the second time.
The clicking of Leela’s heels awakened both Tommy and me. She reached for my good hand and pulled me to my feet. “It happened off campus,” she said, “so if Corinne doesn’t report you to the police, I don’t think anything will happen.”
I didn’t care. I just wanted Leela to ask me if I was okay, to lead me into the elevator and tuck me into bed like she had after Initiation.
Silent, we made for the door.
“Gonna keep your hands to yourself from now on?” the blond at the desk called after me.
For a split second, I had the compulsion to deck her with my good hand. I didn’t answer, but couldn’t help thinking that my hands, after all they’d touched, after all the ways in which they’d been captured, no longer belonged to me.
“My body isn’t mine,” I said to my first talent agent. “That’s how I look at it.” I knew how she would respond. In her mind, this was my way of selling myself, of convincing the agency that my body was theirs to dress and photograph as they would, but it was less perfunctory than she may have assumed. This was the truth. I had done nude modeling for art classes during my final two years of college, which to me was a form of translation. When you translate text from a different language, the work becomes yours. When my skin was converted to graphite, my moles to dots on paper, a real self, an original version, ceased to be. When I am dead, translation is all you will have.
Leela moved out of our dorm after freshman year. She got an off-campus apartment with Tommy and two actress friends; I told myself that it had nothing to do with not wanting to babysit me any longer. We still saw each other in the dining hall, but an invisible force always repelled us, some unknowable energy that would never allow us to rebuild our foundation. She would get a certain look on her face, in the telling corners of her mouth, which said she was measuring me, weighing the possible outcomes of saying what she was thinking. I would stare, waiting for it, begging for it, but she would pull her herself away, gather her food in a takeout box, and run to rehearsal. The one time she called, I was at a History Club get-together, sipping punch and shooting the breeze with professors. She didn’t answer my call back. After graduation, she stopped calling.
Freshman year, home for winter recess, I’d received the news about Mom’s cancer. For three years, she went in and out of chemo, in and out of remission, gallivanting around amusement parks with me one day, having fancy dinner/movie dates with Kent another, lying on her back in agony the next, unable to communicate. Whatever she had was intermittently shutting her body down, one organ at a time, and even at her worst, she begged me to let her stay home. Eventually, she couldn’t leave the house at all. Kent had good insurance from his job in construction, but it wasn’t his responsibility to pay for Mom’s treatments. I was Mom’s progeny; I was supposed to take care of things now. I set up a space for her in the living room so that she could see the sun go up and down. I had long since steeled myself for the process of caring for her, but every day held a new trial. Some nights were quiet; others, I could not ignore the smell of decay behind the countless air fresheners, no matter how many blankets I hid beneath.
“I already have something scheduled for you,” said my agent, Addison Rose, flipping through a green notebook. She was six feet tall and wore glitter on her eyelids. Her office was decorated with brightly colored hanging plants and motivational posters set in frames, which commented on different parts of female anatomy and why we should be proud of each.
Over the course of our first three interviews, I’d told Addison plenty about myself: most important to me, she knew about Mom’s protracted illness. More important to her, she knew about the photo shoot with Maggie Blue, my refusal to wear polishes or makeup or glitter; she knew about Tau Phi and my regrets about Leela and the way I’d smashed Corinne’s face. I told her I’d need to do this job while working mornings as a teaching assistant in a high school history class, and she told me she was fine with it by dismissively flicking her hand. She knew I’d be quitting two weeks later to do modeling full-time.
My first job with Addison was a spread in CatPulse, meant to flaunt the sex appeal of skinny women. The panels featured my pale freckled body on the sapphire shores of Maine, striking poses meant to look nonchalant, as if I were just hanging out on the beach. The only photo in which I acknowledged the camera was a ground-up closeup of me in a red and blue two-piece, goggled with giant black sunglasses, bending forward with my hands on my knees, smiling into the lens with my teeth slightly parted. You’re happy to see the viewer, they told me. The photo was Mom’s favorite. But whenever I was changing a bedpan, spoonfeeding Mom yogurt, or listening to her cry from my bedroom, I could not for the life of me figure out how I ever made that face.
“You always look so sad,” Mom said the night before my second big shoot with Addison representing me. She said it as though she had no idea what I could be upset about. “I want to see you smile.”
I went to the bedroom closet, scraped up a copy of the latest CatPulse from the fifteen Mom owned, tore my smiling face from the spread, rolled two strips of sticky tape, and hung myself alongside the living room window.
Addison floated about the studio, orbited by a gaggle of clipboard-toting women, all with their hair tied back. She adjusted curtains and lights, all the while spouting my list of demands – which she’d invented herself – as though I were a scepter-wielding dignitary. After two shoots, I could see that any attempt to change her mind about this would be ineffectual: Addison’s zeal, more than my talent, was going to pin me to the map.
Our studio space was two sheets of white canvas, one on the floor and one hung along the far wall, strung on all sides with six-inch marquee bulbs. I waited, tightly wrapped in a cream-white towel that had been softly heated. At another flick of Addison’s hand, I stepped barefoot onto the floor canvas. A technician fiddled with the T-connectors, and the bulbs on the floor popped to life, illuminating me. Another technician ascended a fiberglass stepladder and tilted the ceiling lights at my face, and the space became a wall of white-hot flame. I could no longer see Addison, the technicians, the cameramen, or myself. “Look alive,” a male voice said.
“Ever done a nude shoot before?” another voice – soft, familiar, feminine – spoke from behind me.
“Yeah,” I said without turning around. “People drew me in college. Art classes, you know?”
“That’s all a big jerkoff,” the voice said. “I bet the boys got hard.”
“I wasn’t paying attention to that.”
“Look left.” The male voice again. I obeyed, and the legioned snapping of shutters followed.
I felt a hand on my hip, then more flashes appeared behind the white blaze. “Don’t worry,” said the female voice. “Nobody’s going to see anything in these photos. After we drop the towels, we’ll be covering each other up.”
After nine or ten flashes, the male voice commanded us to lose the towels. It didn’t feel like nude modeling; it didn’t even feel like the Tau Phi torture. My body ebbed. There were only voices and splendor, the flashes like stars behind clouds. I unwound the knot at my clavicle and let the towel go. Immediately, there was the crumple of its twin behind me. The stars lit up at once, a full sky.
“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered to the female voice. I was really talking about Mom, but I knew the voice would interpret it as Rookie Model Syndrome.
“Don’t worry,” the voice replied, fluid and disarming. “It’ll be like we’re protecting each other.”
Beyond the glow, there was a gasp that sounded like Addison, and the stars came on again, quickly burning out with their soft hiss. Hairless arms snaked around me and a gentle hand settled above my navel.
“I can feel you,” I said, “but I should tell you that the body you’re touching isn’t mine.”
“That sounds like artsy bullshit.”
“I’m serious. My hands left me years ago. My chest was lost in a fountain of wine. I expected you to understand; you’re just a voice, too.”
The stars lit up, this time not in unison, but one by one then two by two. “I believe you,” the voice said, subdued by the hissing.
The male voice rang behind the glowing clouds. “Do what we talked about.” I hadn’t talked to anyone about anything. Addison had given me the location of the studio and my dressing room, I’d slipped out of my clothes and into the towel. Before I could express my confusion, the arms loosened and feathery hands glided delicately to the slight cushions of my chest. I gave a short breath, and the stars spread across the sky as the hands cupped me more confidently and the skin of a woman’s cheek brushed my neck.
No one had ever touched me this way.
“I think you occupy this body a little more than you think,” she said. She could feel me shaking. I did not indulge her with an answer.
The shoot went on, the stars aflame, the stars gone.
Mom begged me to sleep in her bed that night, but I shied away, irrationally fearful of catching whatever she had – this, I suppose, proved that my body and I were still linked by some kind of connective tissue, however formless and undefinable.
There were days when Mom refused to use her hands, when she seemed unable to move them. Some days her feet wouldn’t work, or she couldn’t blink her eyes. Her body was abandoning her.
On the way to Addison’s office, I received a call from Kent. I clandestinely squeezed my phone between my shoulder and ear, checking the rearview mirror for cops. “Kent?”
“I’m heading down south with my brother for a few days. Did Elizabeth tell you?”
“No,” I said. “Mom hasn’t said much of anything today.”
“She probably forgot. Tell her I’ll see her soon. You – you take care of her.”
He had more respect for me than this: he must have known that I knew. There was no trip south, no excursion with his brother, no excuse – he was leaving Mom and never coming back.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Doesn’t seem like a good time to travel. Mom could really use you this week, especially in the mornings when I’m working. She loves having you around.”
A pause. Behind his voice, wind rushed past truck windows. “I know,” he said. “But we talked about this, me and her. She wanted me to get away for a little bit.”
“Sure she did.” The next pause lasted through an entire stoplight. When the bottom bulb glowed bright green, I stomped the gas. “Is there anything you want me to tell her?”
“There are a few things she should know – “
I severed the connection and hurled the phone against the passenger side window. Something rose from the back of my throat, a scream that could only have come from a voice with no body.
“This will be the greatest spread in the history of Anti Pinup‘s publication,” Addison said, waving the proofs of my recent photo shoot.
“I give up,” I said, slouching into the oak chair in front of her gargantuan desk. I slid a hand through my hair. “I’m just done.”
“Oh, Charlotte,” she said, hanging the proofs on a mini clothesline, sauntering around her desk and placing her hands on my cheeks. “You are the greatest client I’ve ever worked with. Do you know how many clients I’ve had?”
“Fuck you. I don’t care.”
I avoided her face. I knew she was looking upon me for what I was: a child.
“Is it your mother?” she asked, her voice as steady as ever.
“It’s always my mother. How long have you known me?”
“Not very long, but I’m trying.”
I took her by the wrists and yanked her hands from my cheeks. She went back to the clothesline, unclipped my photos and tossed them onto my lap, then clasped her hands anticipatively in front of her.
There I was, topless, bony, cavalier, with another thin woman’s arms coiled around my chest. Her hair was brown and bushy; red dots sat in the corners of her eyes. I stared at us, at our connected skin. In one photo, her head rested against my neck.
“You were perfect,” Addison said. “We designed that shoot to be spontaneous, but it was like you already knew each other.”
“She’s Joan of Arc,” I said. “You booked me with Joan of Arc.”
Addison didn’t know what I meant, but it didn’t matter. We discussed what the spread was going to convey: Anti Pinup‘s angle was to battle the popular claims linking skinny women and anorexia. I’d seen photo spreads of women with guts and D-cups in revealing lingerie, coupled with beach shots of women whose ribs were visible through their skin. This is sexy! read the captions on the left. This isn’t! read the ones under the girls who looked like me. I wasn’t as thin as they were, but I hadn’t gained weight since tenth grade, so I was a shoo-in for Team Skinny.
“Do you have Joan of Arc’s phone number?”
“The other model.”
“Why do you want it?”
“We went to college together. She was friends with my roommate.”
“She can only be contacted through her agent, just like you.”
“Does her agent want skinny women to be popular too?”
She fiddled with a button on her skirt. “Charlotte, I don’t want you to think of the other models as real people. That may sound harsh, but a large part of your strength lies in the innocent, almost celestial way you perceive the people around you.”
“I’m not just playing a character.”
“That’s exactly what we want everyone to think.”
Maybe she was right. What would I do with Joan of Arc’s phone number? Try to hang out with her? I wanted to feel like the rockstar, the superheroine, the Graphite Greek, not an inconsolable knee-hugger at the end of my rope.
When I got home, I could see a gray silhouette in the driver’s seat of Mom’s truck, which had been parked in our driveway and separated from its ignition key for months now.
“Mom?” I swung the driver’s side door open.
“Hi, dearest. I wanted to pick you up. It’s cold outside.”
“It’s fifty. And you’re sick, and on drugs, and exhausted, and supposed to be – “
“I’m supposed to take care of you.”
“Come on,” I said. I lifted my mother’s arm over my shoulder, fighting her. I pulled the front door of the house open, holding it with my foot, hauling Mom’s disintegrating body, which now weighed downwards of ninety pounds, inside. “Come on,” I repeated. “Baby steps, okay?” She dragged her feet, which were bare, across the rug, and I carefully lowered her onto the sofa. “I’m going to close up the truck,” I said. “You stay put.”
I allowed myself a few breaths of fresh air. The truck door hung open, its musty smell inviting me in for a break. I plopped onto the front seat, and with the back of my sleeve, wiped my cheek where it was streaked with Mom’s drool.
Across the seats, on the passenger side, was another me. The truck’s perpetually fogged windows hadn’t been washed since I was in middle school. It was me – or what once represented me, my likeness, drafted onto glass by my fourteen-year-old finger. Translations of me were everywhere, but this was closest to the real thing. My touch was still here, my oils imbued in the glass, my arms wide, welcoming whatever would come, my face spread into a smile, before Leela, before Tau Phi, before nude photo shoots with Joan of Arc, before Mom’s sickness. My eyes were dots, created by the whirl at the tip of my finger, my identity etched in them. No pinup of my ever-evolving, fluorescent-lit body could match this, not in a thousand years.
I slipped my cell phone from my jeans pocket. A little chip was notched in the red paint from where I’d launched the phone at the car window. I wondered if Leela still had the same phone number. I worked at the chip with my thumb while attempting to burn up my fear of calling her.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but I finally settled on a text message.
Leela, can we talk?
I didn’t bother to identify myself. If she still existed at the other end of this number, she’d know.
The response was immediate.
who is this?
Charlotte, from college.
No punctuation. No capital letter. No indication of tone. Nonchalance inherent.
If you’re anywhere near the upstate area, I’d like to meet.
I ground at the chip with my nail again. Red flakes decorated my fading jeans.
I almost hurled the phone again. I’d done nothing but tear open a dried wound. As I plunked the phone back into my pocket, leaped from the car seat, slammed the door, and began making my way back to the house, I felt vibration against my thigh.
Will you actually come or will you get in a fight and forget me
My thumbs had never typed so fast. I’ll definitely be there.
The magazine editors said great things. Things I didn’t deserve, really. The Maskless Face of Photo Art, one said. As Real As Girls Get, said another. When I saw my own mug in those spreads, that carefree body flinging its freckled expanse across beaches, prancing through wet fields, hanging out in the yawning doorways of vine-choked castles, sitting on the waxed roofs of antique cars, waving from the apexes of Ferris wheels, ascending mountain trails, modeling copious lines of petite wear, it all seemed so intentional, so premeditated, but how could I have known that my refusal to wear makeup or have my appearance digitally edited would make me such a novelty? “What makes you more real than other models?” an interviewer with a Spanish accent asked me during a piece with Elite Petite. I hadn’t expected this, and even if I had, the Real Girl was sans a Real Answer, so I replied, “We’re all real. Some of us just come with icing. Me, I’m the cake batter.”
The dessert reference was my bread-breaking with the other side. A few months down the road, I did a beach shoot with Yvonne Petra, a plus-sized model famous for her elaborate makeup. In a spread entitled Batter and Icing, we sat under a beach umbrella, heels in the sand, toes skyward, our arms looped around the backs of our knees, eyes locked as though we were new besties. The accompanying interview about healthy lifestyles was a hit. Neither of us bagged a pile of cash for it, but I think we both felt a little bit closer to ourselves. I let Addison think it was all her idea.
I looked happy in those photos.
When I met Leela, I was crying. She must have suspected the tears were for her, but that morning, emerging from dreamless sleep, I’d been treated to notes of song. I allowed the music to fill the space behind my closed eyelids, striving to generate dreams, illusory heaths where I could interfere, change things, go beyond object and observer, take imperishable form. But I never fell back to sleep.
Rising from bed, I followed the song to the kitchen. Mom was standing at the sink, singing.
Leela and I met on the corner of Twenty-Fourth and Hickory in a parking lot overgrown with weeds. The town had planned to erect a strip mall on the lot, but the money hose had run short and the mall never sprung up. It was public parking now. The deadened lights stood tall and hopeful, as if wishing to protect something, to illuminate someone.
Leela’s hair had grown to her shoulders. When I pulled into the lot, she was standing outside a new-looking car with the orange sky framing her. When we hugged, it felt formal, not as safe as when we lived together.
“I used to come here when I felt sad,” I told her.
“That’s the first thing you say to me?” she released her grip. “How have you been, Charlotte?”
I answered every question with a question. I did not want to be interviewed. She wiped my cheeks and asked me about Mom, but we didn’t reminisce until the ride home. She and Tommy had broken it off, she said, when she’d realized their relationship had been based entirely upon infatuation, and later (on his side), worship. They’d remained in the shared apartment until a third actress friend replaced him.
By the time we reached the driveway, stones crunching beneath the tires, we’d come to an impasse in conversation. Leela leaned her head back and closed her eyes as if listening carefully to each pebble popping under the rubber.
“Mom woke me up singing,” I finally said after leading Leela around the yard in relative silence. “She’s sleeping now, but maybe she’ll be up for talking later.”
“I hope so.”
“How are your parents doing?”
“We haven’t spoken. They don’t approve of my acting.”
Leela smiled her perfect smile, one of her many perfect smiles, lips allowing the slightest peek at her top teeth. She sat on the edge of the hammock, eyes scanning the row of lilies rimming the driveway, her knees turned toward one another, her powder-white palm cupping her cheek. She was wearing tight designer jeans and yoga sandals with flower-shaped straps, like black roses sprouting from the cracks between her toes. She slipped a digital camera from her pocket and aimed it at me, the index finger of her non-cheek hand poised above the button.
I didn’t say what I was thinking.
“Be in a picture with me,” she said. There were no photos of us together, not even from college, no evidence that we’d ever even met.
“After,” I said.
“Then come sit. It’s like you’re afraid of me.”
When I brought my weight down beside her, the hammock dipped in the center and pushed us together, thighs touching. For years now, I had dreamed of how Leela would understand how I’d been cut from skin and muscle and nails, how it might all make sense when I said it aloud – I had never bonded with my body, never allowed anyone to introduce me to it.
But I only managed one word – Leela’s name – before she kicked my feet from under me. She tipped us backwards and we tumbled through the air on the hammock, keeping each other aboard with arms curled around waists and fingers latched around seams. The sky soared above us, yellow-red. Leela’s hands were liquid. Her laugh, birdsong. I could smell her peach shampoo and feel her laughter vibrating in my skin. As we flew, as I stared down at the cacophony of legs, feet, trees, sky, I felt something unfold in the pit of my stomach. I saw her lift the camera above us, tilting the lens towards our faces, fixing her mouth in a grin. Eyes tight, I clung to her.
Leela snapped a photo. Snap, snap, snap.
Richard Hartshorn is the recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Our Stories, The Dirty Napkin, 751, and other publications. He lives in New York State.