Peter Johnson ~ Pretty Girl

So you ask, “How could any­one so drop-dead gor­geous be afraid of mir­rors?”

I was like, I’m only sev­en­teen and my face is a mine­field of pim­ples (well, maybe only one big one) and my cheeks are this sucky red, almost like a rash. All I could think of was this girl named Rose, who all the boys called “Rosacea,” and who Alex Youngblood said had lip her­pes from going down on guys.

I was telling Megan about this when there was this mega-loud bam out­side my bed­room win­dow, like our met­al garage door came crash­ing down on my dad’s vin­tage Jaguar.

What was that?” Megan asked.

I think my garage door went ker­plunk. It’s been mak­ing weird nois­es but after the land­scap­ers start­ed eye-grop­ing my mom, my dad said no more labor­ers for a while.”

My mom’s even pret­ti­er than me.

Lucille,” Megan said, “do you real­ly think a garage door ker­plunk­ing could be that loud? It sound­ed like it came from Echo Pond.”

Lucille’s the name of this Goth girl in school, who could be pret­ty with a lit­tle TLC, but she hangs out with these AV guys, doing art­sy-fart­sy projects no one cares about. One day she filmed us com­ing out of school, say­ing, “Now here are the pret­ty, pop­u­lar girls going to get their nails done.” Trish Thurber, anoth­er one of my friends, called her a stu­pid bitch, and after that, any­time a girl did or said any­thing stu­pid we called her Lucille.

It was prob­a­bly just a gigan­tous tree falling,” I said.

We live close to the coun­try club, where a few years ago a huge tree limb broke off on the golf course and almost killed Ashley Silva’s dad, which would’ve been a shame because he looks like that vam­pire dad in Twilight.

You’re prob­a­bly right,” Megan said, “but let’s talk about your face. I think it’s what they call facial stress.”

Facial stress?”

Yeah, I read that your skin can get stressed out.”

You mean like have a ner­vous break­down?”

How can skin have a ner­vous break­down, Lucille?”

I don’t get it.”

Obviously, but you can do some­thing about it.”

Like what?”

Go to the mir­ror.”

And I did.

Now look at that beau­ti­ful face, Dory. First say, ‘That’s the most beau­ti­ful face in the whole senior class. They might’ve vot­ed Sabrina Flint home­com­ing queen but no one can rock a prom like Dory Scheff.’”

Which hap­pens to be true, though I think my prom dress was what real­ly destroyed them. My moth­er had want­ed me to wear this clas­sic satiny thing that made me look like Jane Eyre, but I talked her into a Drew Jacquard two-piece dress that caught every­one off guard.

Even Megan doesn’t have the abs to wear that dress.

But what about this big pim­ple on my fore­head?” I said. “I look like a cyclops, and my eyes are so sag­gy you’d think they’re hav­ing babies.”

Please, no more about the eyes, you bitch.”

We both laughed because that’s the way we talk to each oth­er. Some peo­ple think we’re air­heads but they’re just haters, like Lucille. Megan and I both got into good col­leges. That didn’t hap­pen because we’re stu­pid. And who plans on work­ing after col­lege, any­way? Isn’t the point to meet a guy?

Now about your eyes, Dory,” Megan said. “I’ve been doing some read­ing. It’s like you got all these blood ves­sels over­lap­ping like spi­der webs, and when you’re stressed, they expand or explode, I for­get which …”

Gross.”

So, first, you need more sleep, and then you, wait a minute, I wrote it down, you got­ta ‘hydrate and exfo­li­ate,’ and use a ‘light­weight face oil with sal­i­cylic acid.’ After school we can go to Melanctha’s. That’s where my mom buys her stuff.”

My mom says Megan’s mom tries too hard to be pret­ty. That must be tough.

But I get enough sleep,” I said.

I’m talk­ing about good sleep. You’re always obsess­ing, and remem­ber, every time you obsess, more and more blood ves­sels explode.”

Omigod,” I said, want­i­ng to ask more ques­tions, but that’s when an annoy­ing scream of sirens broke the silence. By the time I reached my win­dow the noise had stopped, replaced by bright red flash­ing lights that made the cop­per weath­er­vane on top of my garage glow. I told Megan about it and she said I should check it out.

No way,” I said.

Why not? You could end up on TV.”

With my luck, some guy will be dead, and instead of film­ing that, the cam­era­man will zero in on my cyclops pim­ple. Then a news­cast­er will ask, ‘Young lady, did you know the deceased?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, it was Mr. Gladstone. By all accounts he was an ace golfer and first-class per­vert who eye-groped me every morn­ing I jogged by his house. It makes sense that he’d stran­gle his gold­en Lab, then turn a gun on him­self.’”

We both laughed, but as it turned out, it wasn’t very fun­ny. The next day at school we learned that some­one had shot Alex Youngblood. I mean, he was dead. I felt so very weird, like I was a part of it. Just two weeks ago at Luke Kelly’s par­ty Alex start­ed kiss­ing me under this gor­geous Japanese maple tree.  He want­ed me to give him a hand job and I said no, but if I had, we would’ve been a thing for a while, like he was my boyfriend, and every­one would’ve been ask­ing me how I felt about him get­ting shot.

But instead, we were told, like every five min­utes, that coun­selors were avail­able in the audi­to­ri­um if we felt depressed, though no one was rush­ing off to see them. Alex wasn’t the kind of boy you’d miss. I mean, he nev­er paid much atten­tion to any­one but him­self. Still, I want­ed to find out who killed him, and I was dis­ap­point­ed when the police didn’t ques­tion me.

By the time school end­ed, I was more tired of Alex than when he was alive, so I wasn’t very hap­py when my moth­er start­ed in about it. We were sit­ting on the patio sip­ping iced teas. She want­ed to know what the school said (“Dunno!), if the police had any clues (“Dunno!”), and if I was afraid to go out at night now (“Really?”).

So you’re say­ing, young lady, that you have no feel­ings about the shoot­ing of a boy you grew up with?”

I just don’t have any feel­ings about it right now,” I said. “Maybe I’ll be sad lat­er. I heard that can hap­pen.”

I didn’t believe that but my mother’s been in ther­a­py since she was born, so I know what she likes to hear. I often won­der what she com­plains about to her shrink. How she got a vari­cose vein after my broth­er was born? How her Pilates instruc­tor had an attack of appen­dici­tis and was replaced by this real­ly obnox­ious Latino woman named Magdalena?

Well, I’m here for you, Dory,” she said. “Do you hear what I’m say­ing?”

Well, yeah, I’m right next to you. How can I nothear?”

But my moth­er wasn’t done yet. “I’m try­ing to decide whether I should call Alex’s moth­er.”

You’re what?”

Well, I’m on three com­mit­tees with her. She’s a nice woman, and we planned to push you and Alex into dri­ving the Mobile Cloak van this sum­mer.”

She was refer­ring to this van our church sends out every week that’s loaded with clothes for the home­less. I tried to pic­ture Alex and me hand­ing out clothes in the kind of neigh­bor­hood we’ve only seen on CSIepisodes. I believe it’s impor­tant to know who you are, and dri­ving the Mobile Cloak van isn’t Dory Scheff.

Why don’t youdo it with me?” I said.

You should have seen the pan­ic on her face. “Because that’s not my job. I just orga­nize the trips.”

Yeah, because you don’t want to do the dirty work, I felt like say­ing. You don’t want to fold or pack the clothes or talk to a bunch of smelly peo­ple with no teeth. I’d like to lay that truth bomb on her, but I’ll prob­a­bly be doing the same thing in fif­teen years. That’s what all her friends do, just so they can hold char­i­ty balls and see them­selves in Rhode Island Monthly.

I don’t mind bring­ing in canned goods,” I said. “I don’t mind the secret Santa stuff, either, though I can’t see some poor girl from South Providence walk­ing around with an Ocher Dior bracelet with­out get­ting mugged. But I already did what you forced me to so I’d get into a good col­lege.”

That’s not why our fam­i­ly does com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice,” she said.

The only com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice Dad does is tip­ping his cad­die.”

I could tell she was angry because she kept mov­ing her glass around on the patio table, which made an annoy­ing screech­ing sound.

From the day I start­ed high school,” I remind­ed her, “you said I need­ed to get ‘cre­den­tials’ for a ‘pre­mier’ col­lege. I had to play a sport, join a few clubs, and do com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice so peo­ple thought I had a social con­science.”

I don’t think those were my exact words,” she said.

I was going to call her on that, but, for­tu­nate­ly, she seemed done quizzing me about Alex, so I didn’t have to think about him again until an hour lat­er when Megan called to say there was going to be a vig­il.

When?” I asked.

Tomorrow night,” she said, “At Alex’s. You think we should go?”

I don’t have a choice,” I said. “Alex and I were almost a thing.”

But you said you didn’t give him a hand job.”

It’s about intent, Lucille. Everyone knows he thought of me as a long-term thing. The least I can do is pay my respects.”

Do you know what you’re going to wear?”

What’s the tem­per­a­ture sup­posed be?”

Very hot, maybe even eighty at night.”

I could just kill you.”

Why?”

Because I’m total­ly con­fused now. Like, there are a bazil­lion pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Whatever you do,” she said, “I wouldn’t attract atten­tion to your­self.  Kids will think you didn’t care about Alex, and you know how a cer­tain Lucille and her friends will have fun with that.”

Oh, screw them.”

Well, then, I guess it’s time to pil­lage our clos­ets and make a state­ment.”

Sounds like a plan.”

After I got off the phone I took our Golden Retriever, Bella, out to pee, then fin­ished a final project for his­to­ry class on the Vietnam War (like who cares, it was so long ago). At about ten o’clock I end­ed up alone in my room. It was so hot all I wore were panties and a bag­gy white T-shirt I bought in Cancun.

I felt depressed and lone­ly. I don’t know if it was the heat, or Alex, or maybe just the headache I had from going through all my clothes. I felt some­how that it was very, very impor­tant to choose the right out­fit. I’d prob­a­bly nev­er know any­one who’d get shot again. Girls like Lucille think my life is easy because I’m rich and pret­ty but they can’t grasp what it’s like to be con­stant­ly stared at and judged. Even my dad’s friends get uncom­fort­able around me, and more than once I’ve caught them star­ing at my ass. Gross! Being pret­ty, you get used to that kind of atten­tion, but you know that if you stop look­ing gor­geous for two sec­onds, you’ll van­ish off the face of the earth faster than that lit­tle girl in Poltergeist.

When I get ner­vous like this, I mas­sage some Jasmine Vanilla oil into my tem­ples and try to think of good things, like my prom gown or the time I set the 6thgrade record for sit-ups. When that doesn’t work I reach for a tiny vial of my mother’s Ativan she thinks she’s mis­placed. It didn’t take long for me to real­ize it was going to be an Ativan night, so I popped a pill. When my heart stopped its hyper beat­ing, I closed my eyes, try­ing to bring back the image of my prom gown and the way every­one stared when I jogged into the audi­to­ri­um, my tits bounc­ing like two hap­py pink bal­loons. It was like my date didn’t even exist.

As it turned out I decid­ed on a green paper-thin linen mid-length Coachella-style dress for the vig­il. I real­ly want­ed to wear white short shorts and this super cute Charlotte Russé silk cro­chet-trimmed deep V-hal­ter top but it all seemed too dar­ing, and Megan con­vinced me the boys would think I was “dis­re­spect­ing” Alex. Personally, I think she was afraid guys would be star­ing at me instead of her, though I had to admit she looked great in her sheer white cot­ton slacks and pink strap­py chif­fon tank top. All those don­key kicks have paid off.

Alex’s house was this huge man­sion on a road that bor­dered the golf course but also looked out onto the bay, its front lawn only a hun­dred yards from the beach. Megan and I arrived there right as can­dles were being hand­ed out and lit. Looking around I was sur­prised to see kids Alex nev­er would’ve hung out with, espe­cial­ly a group of geeky boys who always have a stu­pid opin­ion on every­thing, and who had tried to start a Dr. Whoclub, which was based on a TV show old­er than my grand­moth­er. When they gave me a fly­er, I said, “Dr. Who?” and they all laughed. At first, I was furi­ous, until I real­ized that in ten years I’d be hir­ing them all to cut my lawn or unplug the toi­let. All these smarter-than-thou haters can get by in high school but even­tu­al­ly they end up own­ing com­ic book stores or work­ing at Shaw’s and talk­ing about Walking Deadepisodes while munch­ing on Sugar Puffs.

Besides the Dr. Whocrew, there were about six pock­ets of the usu­al do-good­ers, along with some jocks Alex played foot­ball with. One of them was Campbell McVeigh, who was laugh­ing and pass­ing around a joint.  I had to smile when I saw him.  Just recent­ly he had tried to devir­ginized me but couldn’t put his thingee on. It wasn’t going to hap­pen any­way, but now he won’t even look at me, prob­a­bly because he’s afraid I’ll tell some­one about it. It’s kind of awe­some hav­ing that pow­er over a guy.

Look who else is here?” Megan said.

She was talk­ing about Patti Rizzo.

What’s the con­nec­tion there?” Megan said.

Probably just anoth­er slut Alex hooked up with.”

Well, at least we know who’s going to be the eye can­dy tonight.”

I tried to stay calm but I was fum­ing inside. I had spent all day pick­ing out an out­fit that would make a state­ment with­out dis­re­spect­ing Alex’s vig­il, and then Patti shows up in a sim­ple white, almost trans­par­ent hip­pie dress, sep­a­rat­ing her­self from every­one else, so you have no choice but to look at her. Everyone says she ditzy but I don’t agree. She posi­tioned her­self per­fect­ly on the high­est part of the lawn, so the breeze off the bay blew her long, curly blond hair behind her like she was pos­ing for a Vanity Fairpho­to shoot. To make it worse, the house’s flood­lights struck her from behind, mak­ing her glow like that exot­ic Elf queen in the Hobbit.

I stood there for a moment, tak­ing in the scene, while the jocks con­tin­ued to act up. Everything seemed a tee­ny bit sur­re­al, like maybe the breeze had blown a mar­i­jua­na cloud our way. It was then that my worst night­mare bumped into me: Lucille Gorski (what kind of last name is that?) and her boyfriend, Marty Scanlon. They were lug­ging their cam­eras, obvi­ous­ly intend­ing to film parts of the vig­il.

I’m out­ta here,” I said to Megan.

We blew out our can­dles, hop­ing that might make our exit invis­i­ble, but Lucille wasn’t going to let that hap­pen.

And what brings the pop­u­lar girls here tonight?” she said, point­ing the cam­era about three feet away from my face.

It’s not even on,” I said.

Omigod,” she said. “Like you’re total­ly right. What a mega mis­take. I just shoul­da stayed home and paint­ed my nails or mega obsessed about the col­or panties I was going to wear tomor­row.”

We don’t talk like that,” Megan said.

Marty Scanlon laughed, then said, “Let it go, Lucille.”

Totally, Marty. No prob­le­mo.”

They start­ed to walk away, but I was mad now. I thought of every­thing I went through to be there, only to get insult­ed by a dwarf with short uncombed brown hair, who was wear­ing black Levi’s, a white T-shirt, and black Converse bas­ket­ball sneak­ers (Can any­one say, “Ellen DeGeneres?”).

You know what you are?” I said to her.

She turned, and it was clear she was inter­est­ed. “No, what am I, Cinderella?”

It was one of those big moments in life, but I couldn’t think of any­thing to say.

Come on, Lucille, let it go,” Marty said.

No, I want to know what Cinderella thinks of me.”

All these ideas flut­tered through my mind, but what popped out was, “You’re a Lucille, that’s what you are.”

Marty and Lucille seemed baf­fled by my com­ment, but Megan knew what I meant. “Yeah,” she said, “You’re so, so Lucille.”

That got us both laugh­ing until we noticed kids were look­ing at us like we were crazy, so we decid­ed we’d had enough of mourn­ing, and about a half hour lat­er, I found myself alone in my room, still unable to shake the image of Patti get­ting all that atten­tion with­out even try­ing to be pret­ty. Frustrated, I went over to the mir­ror and began to work on my pim­ple again. As I cleansed and scrubbed it, I kept think­ing about the vig­il, angry that I’d gone. Life’s weird. You try to do some­thing nice but end up real­iz­ing why it’s best to stay away from death and sad­ness and peo­ple who will prob­a­bly strug­gle their whole lives just to buy a nice car. I know how bad that sounds but you can’t save the world, and haters can bring you down faster than a zom­bie virus.

After I cleaned the area around the pim­ple I rubbed in the oil Megan and I bought at Melanctha’s. It real­ly worked, and I made Megan promise not to tell any­one else about it. I know that’s sucky, but beau­ty is part­ly about secrets, and you can always share them lat­er, maybe in ten years when we’ll all have crow’s-feet and toe­nail fun­gus, and be mar­ried with kids, and our lives, gasp, will be basi­cal­ly over.

~

Peter Johnson’s poet­ry and fic­tion have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Rhode Island Council on the Arts, along with The James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Paterson Prize. His new book of prose poems, Old Man Howling at the Moon, was just pub­lished by MadHat Press, and an anthol­o­gy he edit­ed, A Cast Iron Aeorplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry (MadHat), will be pub­lished in the fall of 2019.