Tuberose

1

I don’t go to the drugstore to shoplift, I’m just killing time during my lunch break.  I haven’t taken anything all summer, since my best friend is visiting her grandparents in Iowa, and I don’t shoplift alone.  My paycheck from my summer job at Daken Aerospace is enough to buy magazines, barrettes, make-up, almost everything we’d steal.  But when I see the bottle of Christian Dior nail polish, glowing deep garnet among the beiges and pale pinks, I feel a familiar emptiness caged in my ribs, an ache so heavy I will fade away if I don’t take it. 

I pick up the bottle.  The weight of the small cylinder surprises me.  The color, Tuberose, shines a dark red, with a flash of black, a luminance of purple.  The color changes the longer I look at it.

The cashier moves behind me, a flash of a pristine white lab coat, as if she’s a doctor instead of just a sales girl.  “Buy it or put it away.”  The drugstore is across the street from Daken, and she’s always here at my lunchtime, brassy hair sprayed stiff and eyes heavy with liquid eye-liner.  She watches me as if I were scouting the place for an armed robbery.

I roll my eyes and put the bottle back on the shelf.  Waves of cloying floral perfume emanate from her.  I bet it’s Enjoli – prominently displayed on the perfume counter – and she thinks she can bring home the bacon to her dumpy boyfriend with the Tom Selleck mustache and never make him forget he’s a man.

The cashier doesn’t move.  The drugstore is cold and I wear a short brick-red dress V’d in the back so deep I can’t wear a bra.  I’ve never worn red before.  I’m not used to this dress, the way my breasts move under the thin red fabric.  The cashier looks me up and down and sniffs.  Perhaps she’s on to me, can recognize some badness I don’t know I have.   

I wander the aisles.  I have a half hour left of lunch.  I can afford to be slow and careful. 

The cashier makes a show of tracking my movements, but she flips through Glamour, licking a finger as she turns the pages. 

My heart beats faster; it pulses in my ear drums, twitches one eyebrow.  I am on a roller-coaster, the moment of equipoise when the car balances on the crest of the track.  I pick up a lowly bottle of L’Oreal taupe.  Taupe.  Who came up with that name?  So bland.  Whoever wears taupe would just disappear into the background.

In Seventeen, I read only royalty could wear red on their nails in ancient China and Egypt. Commoners would be executed if they disobeyed the rule. 

What kind of person do I want to be?  Taupe or Tuberose?

I sweep the bottle of Tuberose into my purse. 

In the mirror near the ceiling, slanted so the cashier can see shoplifters, florescent light yellows my skin.  My blonde hair, pulled back in a ponytail, is already loosening.  My lips are baby-girl pink with strawberry-flavored lip gloss. 

If it weren’t for the red dress, I’d be taupe.

* * *

My father, an engineer in Daken’s Electro-Optical Division, pulled strings to get me a job as the Assistant Microfiche Librarian for the D-4 Adams Tank program.  He calls it “Daken’s summer nepotism program.”  Assistant Librarian is a grandiose description for what I do.  Every morning, I leave my mother’s home in West Los Angeles and drive past LAX to El Segundo to sit in an office and read.  I’ve finished the summer reading for AP English – Oedipus Rex and Invisible Man – and, although I should be studying for the SAT, I’m now reading the Brontës’ collected works.  A few times a day, engineers order blueprints; I take the microfiched blueprints to the copy center to be blown-up and printed, and then deliver the blow-backs to the engineers.  The microfiche librarian quit the week before I started, so I’m not even assisting anyone; it’s just my job title to get me the lowest level security clearance.

I close the door to my office and open The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by the least popular Brontë sister, Anne.  The bottle of nail polish on my desk bleaches color from the room.  I wrap my palm around the bottle.  The glass is warm.  My thumb rubs the gold sticker, then the plastic top.  I unscrew it to smell the sharp chemical odor.  Polish clings to the brush, coalesces at the tip.

The phone rings, and I jump back.  Polish drips onto the desk.  An engineer wants a blueprint blown-up, gives me the filing number. 

The drop of nail polish is faintly sinister against the worn metal desktop.  It’s still tacky and smears on the desk.  It reminds me of blood.  Nefertiti – the most beautiful woman in the world – dipped her nails in real blood.

I flip through a file drawer and pull out the cellophane envelope containing the microfiche, refresh my lip gloss, and then go to the copy center.

Behind the counter, copy machines suck in paper.  A girl restocks pastel-colored paper in letter, legal, and European sizes on shelves; a guy works a binding machine.  Five people work here, all under twenty-five.  They’re not part of the summer nepotism program.  I can’t imagine doing this job day after day, all year long, a job like a never-ending corridor.  But I want to work here during the summer.

The guy in charge of the copy center slouches against the counter.  He’s got sandy blond hair and the easy gait of the surfers at school, his shirt unbuttoned at the neck to reveal a shark’s tooth on a strand of black leather.  I know his name is Kyle from his security badge.  I’ve heard him talk about the gigs his band plays.  My breath catches when I see him.

He usually doesn’t pay attention to me, probably doesn’t even know my name because I clip my badge so the blank side shows, not the side with my photo and name, Madeleine Siegel.  No one calls me Madeleine anyway; they call me Maddy.

Jules twirls on her chair, a wand for applying lip gloss in her hand, the sponge stained dark burgundy.  Her blue eyeliner lines the inner rim of her eyelids, a feat I can never accomplish.  Her nails are cut short and painted hot pink, the color of overgrown tropical flowers from Hawaii.

“Hey, get off your butt Jules and take care of this pile.”  Kyle points to a stack of papers. 

“Oh, screw you, Kyle.”  Jules throws a ball of crumpled paper at Kyle; Kyle catches it and ricochets it against Jules’ ear.

I fill out the proper form in red pen, pressing it hard so the engineer’s name and the instructions reach through the three layers of carbonless copy paper.  Kyle comes over with a lazy smile.  The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up to expose tanned arms covered with short pale hairs.  I bet the skin on the inside of his arms is soft.  I ball my fists to keep from touching him.  Unlike nail polish, I can’t shoplift a guy.

“What can I do you for?”  Yes, please, do me, I think, but of course I would never say it.  His eyes flicker on my face.   

“I’ve – I’ve just got microfiches to be blown up.”  I slide the envelope over to him.  My face grows hot.  Great, just what I need.  I bet my face is the same color as my dress.

He tears the top two layers off the order form, clips them to the cellophane envelope, and hands me the yellow bottom copy as a receipt.  “Hey, nice dress.”  His eyes are bright blue, as if I’m looking into the depths of a pool on a sunlit afternoon.  His smile is an odd smile, remote, but I can’t figure out why it’s odd.

My face is even hotter.  How can I feel both embarrassed and happy that he has noticed my dress?

“Ah –” I say. 

“Just say thanks, little girl,” Jules says.

“Thanks.”  I look at the floor, at the scuffs on my red ballet flats. 

* * *

I take the long way back to my office.  Being Assistant Microfiche Librarian is not time-intensive.  Although the outside of the building blazes with light reflected off mirrored windows, the halls inside are dimly lit and long, windowless arteries with office suites opening to each side.  To return to my office, I go up staircases I don’t need to climb, pass guard stations out of my way, and wander the maze of corridors.  In the office suites, engineers bend over desks under circles of light and women type on Wang word processers.  Opening doors from a clean-rooms pour streams of light, golden against the brown carpet.

I have no idea where I’m going.  Kyle noticed me.  If my best friend weren’t trapped in Iowa, I’d shut my office door and call her, dissect the sentences he spoke to me.

As long as I have the security badge clipped to my clothes, no one usually gives me a second look.  It’s like at school, I’m even too invisible to harass.  But today at Daken, everything’s changed.  Perhaps it’s the dress.  The east entrance security guard flashes a smile and touches the grip of his gun; the eyes of a balding engineer rest on me for a moment as he rushes by.

I cross my arms over my chest.

At the end of a corridor, a door to a manufacturing clean room opens, the plastic curtain over the doorway flutters, and a figure emerges as if stepping through fog to clarity.  A child.  Like the manufacturing employees, he wears a blue jumpsuit with the Daken Aerospace logo – a red embroidered DA with a superimposed boomerang that reminds me of the Starfleet insignia.  What would a child be doing here?

He stops and stares at me.  He has a normal torso, but his legs and arms are stunted, legs bowed like a cowboy’s. 

Not a child.  A dwarf.

I try to look just at his face.  To act natural.  But his forehead and jaw protrude, as if his bones fight to break free from the thin covering of skin. 

I don’t want look at him.  I know his creation is merely a genetic accident, a DNA misstep that could happen to anyone.  I should be tolerant.  But he’s gross.  He’s different.  I feel sweat in my armpits, at the base of my neck under my hair.

As the dwarf watches me, I stare straight ahead, down to the end of the hall, where it makes a sharp left. 

I’m conscious of every movement of my hips.

* * *

At five, I meet my father at his office for dinner.  He told me he was going away this weekend to Santa Barbara with his younger girlfriend and can’t make our usual Sunday lunch, but he “really really” wants to have dinner earlier in the week.  As long as I don’t have to see Greta, who asks me what music I listen to and the guys I have crushes on, I’m up for it.  It’s bad enough that she wears blouses with bows under banker-blue suits and her dark hair is cut in the shape of a mushroom cap, but does she really have to have the name Greta?  It’s the name of an East German guard at Checkpoint Charlie.

My father leans back in his desk chair studying a blueprint.  He taps a pencil on the desk. On the wall behind him, President Reagan smiles from a photograph; my father always tells me he still has a job “thanks to Reagan.”

He motions me in.  “Maddy, look at this.”  The blueprint diagrams lines linking rectangles and circles, labeled with boxy lettering.  I probably delivered the blueprint to him, the bearer of a message I can’t understand. 

“This is part of the thermal ocular system for the D-4,” my father says.  I lay my index finger on the blueprint.  The image is fuzzy, as if it were a photograph blown up too large.  I wonder if Kyle thinks of me when he works the microfiche machine.  “It senses differences in heat in objects and creates an image.  So the gunner can see at night, or, if we get into a war in the Middle East, in sand storms.”  Dad adds, “Well, that’s the idea, if it worked.”

His pencil stops tapping.  As I follow the maze of lines with my finger, I feel his gaze shift and I realize that the neck of my dress hangs loose.

I straighten and step back a little.  My face flushes again.  I’m always blushing at the worst moments.

He looks down at the blueprint.  “Your mother must’ve picked out that dress.  I can’t believe she let you outside in it; it’s not proper for a girl your age.”

I picked the dress out.”  Or rather my best friend: she convinced me the dress was “perfect for summer flirting.”  I’m sure she took the words directly from a Seventeen photo spread.  My mother doesn’t even know I own this dress; she leaves for work before I get up.

“Never wear it again,” he says.  But that just means when he’s around. 

“Can we go now?”

“Fine.”  He pushes his chair back, grabs his briefcase.

We go to the take-out Italian deli just down the street.  Usually, he takes me to sit-down restaurants with cloth napkins and slices of lemon suspended in ice water.  I order the most expensive dish on the menu, even if I don’t like it, because when my mother takes me out to eat, she purses her lips if I don’t order something cheap.  The deli just has sandwiches, and the most expensive one (prosciutto) is $6.  I have no idea what prosciutto is, although I bet it’s some gross part of a pig, but I order it, ask for extras (avocado) and a side of coleslaw.

As we wait for our sandwiches, my father glances at his watch, trying to hide his movement.  We don’t speak.  He sits on a stool too small for someone his height. 

He turns his wrist again, slides his eyes to the watch face.

“You can go home to Greta,” I say.

“Oh, Jesus, Maddy,” he says.  “That’s not it.”  But of course it is.  He puts his hands on my waist, drawing me toward him, so I stand between his splayed knees.  I feel the heat of his body.  “You know how much I love you?”  He’s trying to apologize. 

I’m uncomfortable with his closeness, his hands on me like a boyfriend’s, and he suddenly lets go, as if he’s uncomfortable also, as if he finally sees me and realizes my age. 

* * *

At home, I spread my hands out on paper towels over the kitchen table.  My mother, a paralegal, is preparing for a trial and will be home late.  I stroke Tuberose onto my thumbnail.  The first coat is streaky, slightly transparent.  One coat, another coat, darkening my nails.

I hold my hand out.  As I move my hand, a bar of light runs down the center of each nail.  My nails don’t look like they belong to me.  They are purplish-red-black, almost too dark for the paleness of my skin.  This is a color for nights at the disco.  For nights in the bedroom.

* * *

I sit outside the employee cafeteria, empty lunch bag crushed beside me, alternately reading The Tenant of Wildfall Hall and glancing at my nails.  I watch my nails catch the sunlight.  A throat clears and I look up, embarrassed.

It’s the dwarf. 

“I’m Bobby.  Bobby Ruben.”  He holds his hands before his face, making a frame with stubby fingers to look at me, as if he were a director in some cheesy movie.

“What’re you doing?”  According to my father, the world is full of predators.  Be careful, he’d say.  Of cars pulling over, of stopping at a gas station at night, of my friends’ fathers.

Bobby climbs on the bench beside me, using muscular arms to pull himself up, and sets a back-pack beside him.  His head is almost level with mine, but his feet dangle.  He wears Dr. Martens scuffed at the heels.  He seems only a few years older than I.

“I’m a photographer; I go nights to the junior college.”  He asks my name and I tell him “Madeleine,” because it sounds older than my nickname.  I shiver as his sleeve brushes against my bare arm.

“You know,” he continues, “I’ve been watching you.  You have a nice look about you.  Casual school girl, yet . . . grown-up.”  He pauses.  “That nail polish is . . . magical.”

“Thanks.”  I feel the heat of his leg close to mine.  I pull the hem of my plaid skirt over my knees, and try, without being obvious, to move away from him.  But I also smooth my hair behind my ears and hope eating hasn’t worn off my lip gloss. 

My father would not approve of my talking to him.

“You would photograph well.”  He leans closer. 

“I don’t.”  All those horrible school photos, skin washed out because photographers set the light for the black kids.  Half smiles that do not promise a mystery, like the Mona Lisa’s, but reveal only awkwardness.

“You’ve never been in the hands of a good photographer.  Like me.”

I can’t help it.  I start to laugh.  Put my hand over my mouth to keep it in.  Perhaps he’s serious.

“Laying it on a little too thick?” he says.

“Just a little.”

“But would you let me take your photo?”  He holds his palm out towards me, like an actor blocking the paparazzi.  The life line on his palm is deep and long.  “Wait, you think I’m a slime.”

From his backpack he pulls a small portfolio bound in black pleather and places it in my lap, heavy against my legs.  I flip through the pages.  A quick succession of images in black and white:  lanky teenagers standing on a corner, children shot from low angles so they appear to be giants.  And then a series of nude women.  I stop at a photograph of a girl my age.  She stands naked in a darkened room lit only by a long rectangle of light running from her head to her feet.  Her breasts are heavy, her waist small, pubic hair pale and wiry.  She looks straight at the camera defiantly, with a knowing smile. 

I pause at this page.  I can’t seem to go on. 

“She’s lovely, isn’t she.  She modelled for a class.”  His eyes slide toward me, and then away.  “Every woman wants her photo taken nude.  She just says she doesn’t.”    

“I don’t know about that.”

He turns the pages of his portfolio.  “Except you.  I guess.”

I picture a dark bare room, a leaky faucet dripping, my shirt unbuttoned.  “Make love to the camera, Maddy.”  He snaps photos, but I can barely see him because of the bright light in my eyes.  I’ll catch a glimpse of a Playboy a few months later – in the oil-stained hands of my mother’s car mechanic, or some snickering boy at school would show it to me, or my father would storm into my room demanding an explanation.  My body bare on the glossy page.  How would I look?  Who would I be?  I feel that slight exciting sensation between my legs, the same ache I feel when watching actors make love in movies. 

He flips to the photos of the kids.  He probably lay on the sidewalk to get these images of children playing kick-the-can and basketball, bodies filling the frame, distorted and elongated.  “Unexpected angles open up so many layers of meaning.”

He sounds like the art students at school.  Everything they say is so pretentious.

“Will you model for me?”

I stand up, shaking.  My father would freak out if I trusted some guy I didn’t even know to take photos of me.  “I’ve got to get back to work.”

“You can wear anything you want.”

Perhaps the nail polish makes me bold, because the words coming out of my mouth don’t sound like the Maddy I know.  “Or nothing at all?”  It comes off flirty and confrontational.  I’m not used to either.  I will myself not to blush again.

He shrugs.  “Your rules.”

“I don’t think so.”  I turn my back on him.

“Just think about it,” he calls after me.

I pretend not to hear him. 

* * *

But I think about him, imagine myself posing like that girl in Bobby’s photograph.  I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror as I climb out of the shower, or pause at my reflection in the windowpane.  And he didn’t necessarily want me to pose nude.  My rules, he said. 

On Friday morning, I peek into my father’s office.  Good, he hasn’t left for his little weekend tryst with Greta yet.  He sits tense over blueprints, his back to me, rubbing his neck with one hand.  His hair is streaked with gray.  A photograph of him at age fifteen hung in our hallway (before my mother took it down when they separated), dressed in a baseball uniform.  I’d thought he was cuter than most of the guys at school. 

I’d dreamed the night before that I was kissing him, and then his image, as unsubstantial as a shape-shifter, had shifted to Kyle, and then to Bobby.  I woke twisted in sheets, sweaty.  I couldn’t fall back asleep for hours.  Now, I was scared that, somehow, my father could see my dream, that image of us kissing might spring up between us like a hologram. 

“Dad?” 

He swivel around to face me.  “Not now, Maddy.”  The creases in his forehead have deepened.

“Mom wants the check.”  I shift my weight from one foot to the other.  “It’s late.”

“I know it’s late,” he snaps, pushing back his chair.  Its legs rasp against the bare floor.  He scrawls his signature on a check.  A photograph of me, taken before a ballet recital, stands on his desk.  I’m six years old and wear a pink tulle tutu, a paper flower almost as big as my head fastened to my hair. 

He holds out the check and I reach for it.

He grabs my wrist.  “What color is that?”

“Nothing,” I pull my hand from his, stuff the check into my pocket.    

“Let me see it.”

I hold my hands out.  I read a story when I was younger, about a china doll whose red-painted nails would grow at night to impale anyone who slept in her room.  I think of my nails spontaneously growing to pierce my father’s heart.

“Isn’t this color a bit . . . adult?”

I shrug.

“I wish you weren’t so eager to grow-up.  You need to take it off.”

He wants me frozen in time, like a butterfly pinned behind glass.  He’s scared of what I might become.  Or what he might become.  Suddenly an intense anger blurs my vision and my breathing grows ragged.  I take a deep breath.  “I’m not taking it off for you.”  Before I run out of his office I turn around and say, “Have fun with Greta this weekend.”  I almost spit.

Back at my desk, I pull out the employee list and search for Bobby’s name.

* * *

Bobby’s house – or rather his parents’, because he’d told me he still lived at home – was the last on a cul-de-sac, a quiet ranch house in Torrance, not far from Daken.  Instead of a lawn, small white rocks cover the ground and bricks surround skimpy rosebushes.  I wear a t-shirt and jeans shorts; my backpack contains the red dress.  I hesitate before ringing the doorbell.  Bobby opens the door so quickly that he must’ve been waiting close by and stands aside to let me in.  His knees are knobby under the hem of his shorts.

I follow him down a hallway with avocado green shag carpeting, past the living room where a middle-aged man smokes a cigarette and watches a Dodgers game with the volume set too high.  Bobby doesn’t introduce me to him but leads me into the garage.  He walks with a rolling gait.  I took a cruise with my parents years ago, before the divorce, and I adjusted my steps’ rhythm to the swell of the ocean.  Bobby moves with that same rhythm.

The garage has been converted into a studio – some lights, a backdrop.  A long table against the back wall holds an enlarger, canisters of chemicals, trays stacked and empty.  A clothesline is strung above a gleaming industrial-sized sink.  The sink and the table are set low to the ground, about two and a half feet high.  I took photography last year at school; I remember bathing exposed paper in chemicals and watching images slowly form from nothingness.

He pulls a high stool in front of the backdrop, points to a full-length mirror mounted on the wall, and tells me to get ready.

“What do you want me do?”

“Take your hair down.”

In the mirror, my face is pale.  I unlatch my barrette and comb my fingers through my hair, loosening the curls.  I pass a pink lipstick across my lips, and turned to find Bobby watching me, one camera mounted on a shortened tripod, another around his neck.  The one around his neck is larger than a 35 mm, and when he holds it, it makes his fingers appear even shorter.

From the living room, Vin Scully announces a home run.  I sit on the high stool.  “Just relax,” he says, looking through his eyepiece.  The brightness of the flash momentarily blinds me, then leaves in its wake circles of residual light.  He asks me to lift my head higher, to adjust my position, and I soon feel it’s natural to sit here under the light, having him move around me.  Then he says, “Did you bring a change of clothes?”

It would be so easy to reach inside my backpack.  I take a deep breath and grab the bottom of the t-shirt.

“You don’t need to do this,” he says.

I shrug the t-shirt off my shoulders and step out of my shorts.  “I want to.  Don’t you want me to?”

“I’m not going to stop you.  I’m not crazy.”

The heat of the lamp on my shoulders.  I’m wearing the black lace underwear I stole.  I unfasten my bra.  I hear a click as Bobby presses his camera’s shutter.  Then I slide my bra and panties off and sit down on the stool, self-conscious now that I am naked.  Bobby uses his hand-held camera.  It covers his face; the lens the eye of the Cyclops.

I don’t tell Bobby that he’s the first man to see me naked.  “The light’s so bright.” 

“Sometimes light can be an object in itself.”

I close my eyes.  A slight breeze as Bobby moves around me.  When he blocks the glare, the shade of red on the inside of my eyelids deepens.  I move according to Bobby’s low-spoken instructions.  I hold out my arm, or bend a leg, or stretch my neck to turn my head away from him.  I feel the heat of the lamp spread through me, moving through veins from my shoulder to the crook of my arm, to each fingertip and from my neck to my breasts.  Fire down my legs.  I am aware of every part of my body, my breath a little fast, each toe and finger separating, and I never felt so free, so alive, as if the darkness I see and the heat I feel liberate me.  And everything feels so beautiful, and my body is truly mine.

I imagine lips against mine, an insistent tongue pushing into my mouth.  I kiss those lips back.  Images darted through my mind – Mr. Rochester, the photo of my father at fifteen, Kyle. 

The television audience cheers. 

I open my eyes.  The glare of the lamp takes me by surprise.  Bobby is close to me, light reflecting off the lens of his camera.  His dark hair falls over his protruding forehead.  The mirror across from me reflects a body I don’t recognize, gleaming in the light.  The body looks so adult, so ready.  The image scares me and I realize I’m naked.  I feel a chill, a draft along the surface of my arm and stomach.  Bobby says, “What’s wrong?”  I cover my breasts with my hands and said, “Please turn around.”  My voice catches.  My vision blurs with tears.  I will not cry in front of him.

Bobby turns from me.  “Are you crying?”

“No.”

I pull my clothes on so I won’t have to see that body in the mirror and walk out.  As I pass the living room, his father doesn’t look up, leans forward as the players run around the bases.

Bobby’s voice echoes behind me.  “Wait, Madeleine.”

As soon as I get home, I take off the nail polish.  It takes almost all the nail polish remover I have left. 

* * *

I avoid taking the long corridor where Bobby works, change the time I take lunch, and don’t return the messages he leaves.  I just do my job: read another Brontë novel, Violette, memorize vocabulary from a thick SAT workbook, take microfiche to the copy room, and pick up the blown-up blueprints rolled like clubs.  Kyle always has a smile for me; I just smile back and walk away.

And then, the start of school has snuck up on me, waiting like gray smoke hanging on the horizon.  I’d thought I’d come into my senior year transformed, changed, almost an adult.  But instead, it’s just the same old me.

My last week of work, I go to the copy center to pick up blueprints.  Jules sees me at the counter and yells into the back room, “Hey, I need those D-4 blow-backs, stat.”  Today, her eyeliner is green and her eye shadow pale purple, her nails blood red.

Kyle lays the blueprints on the counter, rolls the paper into a tight cylinder, and snaps a rubber band around them.  I push the carbons of the order forms toward him.  He flips through the stack with a calloused thumb.  He must play guitar.  Magazines always warn of getting involved with musicians, musicians who travel a lot and have groupies, musicians who have no money.

“Smile.”  He smiles, teeth bright.

“Huh?”

“You look prettier when you smile.”

I can’t tell if he’s complimenting me, or if it’s something a guy says when he wants to be a jerk.  I choose to believe the former.  It’s my opening.

“I can’t believe summer’s almost over.”  Totally lame thing to say.

“There’s always Indian summer,” Kyle says; I’m sure he’s thinking of surfing the hottest days of the year in September and October.

“Well, I’ve got school and the stack of college brochures my mother’s been saving for me.” 

His lips twitch.  I’ve said something wrong, broken some rule I don’t even know.

I want to prolong the conversation as long as possible.  “Hey, my name is Maddy.”   

Kyle’s lashes are blunt and so blond they are almost transparent.  They are not attractive.  His smile doesn’t reach his eyes.  I don’t think his smile ever did, it was a fake smile, one for appearances.

“Look, I don’t care what your name is.  You have some stupid made-up job during the summer while we work our butts off and make minimum wage.  Then you go back to school.  You’d never talk to someone like me in real life.”

I feel very small, as if I’m looking at myself through the wrong end of a telescope.  I take a step back.  I open my mouth, then close it again.  I want to tell him classmates work at Kinkos Copiers during the school year, but I don’t think that will help.  They’re going to college.

“Don’t forget your blueprints.”  Kyle shoves them at me.  I grip them so tight the rolls bend.

Jules says, “You don’t need to be such an ass.  She’s been mooning after you all summer.”

My hands shake.  What kind of person will I be?  “She’s right.  You’re being a jerk.” 

I expect him to apologize.

“Welcome to real life,” he says.

* * *

The roll of blueprints slaps against my legs as I leave the copy center.  A tight ball sits in my chest and I can’t cry it out.  In the lobby, near the guard station, Bobby stands in a crowd of men.  He’s laughing at something, a joke, I imagine, one of those jokes men tell about women and sex.  Or something about me.  I have no choice but to pass him.  I straighten my back and look in a clean geometric line over his head to the end of the hall, and walk on.  Bobby says something about a movie.  I feel his eyes on me.

At the end of the hall, Bobby calls my name.  I turn around.

The dwarf stands before me.  His eyes are deep brown.  “Madeleine?”

“Yes?”  I choose the tone popular girls at school used, secure in knowing how much condescension could be delivered in a syllable.

“Hey, I’ve developed the photos,” he says.  “They came out great.”

I see myself, reflected very small, in his eyes.  “Get away from me,” I whisper.  He recoils.

I’m surprised that I can feel so much hatred.  Could find so much satisfaction in being cruel. 

* * *

When the in-house routing envelope thumps onto my desk, I know what’s inside.  I weigh it in my hand and look at the routing list, where my name is written in an unfamiliar handwriting slanted to the left.

I unfasten the envelope and slip out sheets of paper wedged between two pieces of stiff cardboard.  Black-and-white photographs printed on matte paper.  I fan the papers out in my hand and deal them out on my desk in a large square, like a tarot card reader.

My shoulder and the graceful arc of my neck; the inside of my elbow, slightly bent, the crease a delicate fold, and the veins pale under the palimpsest of the skin; the slight curve of my waist and the navel’s dimple; the length of my leg off-center in the photograph, a dancer’s leg, shot from near the ground to appear even longer and more shapely; my fingers long and slender and clasped around a foot.

How beautiful, the parts of my body floating and magnified, strangely luminescent.  I hold out my hand and compare it to the hand in the image.  The fingers, the tension of the tendons, the scar from roller skating, all the same.  I feel heat infuse my body, run through my veins. And I see an image slowly develop out of darkness, coalesce to a luminous form.  My own beautiful body. 

Photo By: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

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About Author

Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters in a house that once was a meat locker. Her short fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Tin House Flash Fridays, the New Orleans Review, the Mojave River Review, and WhiskeyPaper. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody.

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