3. In Which Our Heroine Decides to Change, and Then Decides to Not

3. In Which Our Heroine Decides to Change, and Then Decides to Not

So one beer led to another and in the morning Erica felt like death but worse. Her head hurt and her mouth was dry and she was pretty sure but not entirely sure but still pretty sure that there was some kind of food under the covers with her. There were vague memories attached to that feeling. Late night pizza delivery, too tired to eat, I can eat in bed no its fine then I can just roll over when I’m done. Oh good God there was most of a slice of pizza in the bed.

She stripped the sheets and dumped them into a laundry. Erica didn’t have extra sheets, so these would have to be washed today, and since she had to work she was going to have to drop them off at the expensive cleaners across the street. Which, she decided, was a fitting punishment.

The pizza slice wasn’t quite stale yet, and before putting in the trash she had a serious thought about taking a bite, but then she saw her blouse hanging on the back of the chair–the blouse that Mr. Handsome Man had criticized so unfairly–and in that moment a wave of strength and determination came over her. She dropped the pizza slice in the trash, and then grabbed her blouse and did the same, and then took the bag out of the trash can and walked through her living room and into the hallway and dropped the whole thing into the laundry chute.

And then sprinted back to her door in order to stop it from locking her out.

It was five-thirty in the morning and even if she was awake for all the wrong reasons, she was at least awake and ready to start what would be the first day of a new life.

Through a fog of nausea and headache and the curious sensation of being both full and hungry at the same time, Erica got herself ready. By seven she was fully dressed, and that included spending extra time going through her clothes to determine what actually looked decent. Her pickings were slim, but eventually she settled on something. The remainder of the clothes, a depressingly large chunk of her wardrobe–none of it expensive but in aggregate quite a bit of money–she threw in a heap on the floor. She would deal with it later.

On days when she was rushed, she would stick something in the toaster–bagel, waffle, Pop-Tart–and then eat it on the way to the subway. On days when she wasn’t in a hurry, she would stop at the diner by the subway and treat herself to a fantastic diner breakfast, where everything was enormous and drenched in an extra layer of love and butter. Today, however, she was earlier than ever, which meant that she had time to really think about what she wanted.

What she wanted was to be a three again. Love and butter wasn’t going to get her there.

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Me and the sea

Me and the sea

For years I believed that I loved the beach because everybody I knew loved the beach and insisted that I did, too. They longed for it and sang its praises and daydreamed about escaping to the beach, and not just in the cruel dead months of winter. Like Basho longing for Kyoto even in Kyoto, my family and friends would lie on the sand and do nothing except celebrate their being on the beach.

Some waxed poetically: all life begins in the sea, be it the primordial waters of our newborn planet, or the smaller sea of our mothers’ wombs.

Others more prosaically celebrated not being work.

Still others took pleasure in showing off their bodies, or observing others who showed off their bodies, or both.

Too young to appreciate poetry, have a job, or experience the thrill of public near-nudity, I simply agreed, and insisted that I loved the beach and hoped that nobody would press me further on reasons why.

Reasons not to love the beach were obvious: sand. Sand in my shoes, sand in  my hair, sand in my body somehow, sand all over the potato chips.

And salt. In my eyes, in my mouth, and eventually enough would work its way into my skin to make my nipples hurt.

And the sun. Burned skin, a lot of squinting, fighting for shade or else gallantly giving it up.

And the sea. Relentless, punishing the shore and those along it, concealing threats like sharp rocks, angry crabs, and deadly currents.

And in later years, when we moved far and the beach became accessible only for a weekend a year, I listened as everyone around me lamented their fate and long for the shore, but I stayed silent, content to be dry and cool. In time I was on my own to plan my vacations, and I finally began to admit to those around me that the sea simply didn’t pull me the way it did others. Although everyone was shocked, it was a relief to be able to admit that.

But that wasn’t the whole story.

I do love the sea.

When I was nine years old we lived on the twenty-first floor in a building whose lobby opened directly onto a clear strand of Atlantic beach. I had a bedroom but I preferred to sleep on the couch because I could leave the door to the balcony open and hear the waves down below. The salt and sound engaged all my senses, and my body, though I lay still on my side, struggled happily to find equilibrium amidst the shifting of the currents, reacting to the phantom memory of the water.

Those nights are among the most precious of my memories.

This past weekend we went to the beach for a wedding and rented a little cottage just a block from the shore. The days were consumed with wedding activities, and when we weren’t doing those there was obligatory socializing with relatives who had come from far away, and meeting people who were now, however tenuously, new relatives.

And I spent most of the time waiting for the moment when I could escape and walk the block to the beach by myself, and walk along the strand, quiet and alone.

At last the wedding was over, and the bride and groom went away, and the relatives old and new soon followed. My parents plopped down and admitted they were too tired and happy to do anything but sit, and so I excused myself and took the short walk in time to watch the sun slip off the glassy sky and disappear to the other side of the earth.

I walked along lazily until it was dark, trying to live in this moment and that other moment from years ago, even on the beach longing for the beach.

Because I do, after all, love the beach.

Mandy Everett

In 1983, Mandy Everett was the most beautiful girl at J.H.S. 104, and if she wasn’t the most beautiful seventh grader in all of Manhattan then she was certainly on the short list. The blessings of her genetics played only a small part. She was possessed of a grace and humor that separated her from the crowd of her peers, and when adults referred to her as a young lady it was meant as a high and very apt compliment. If there was a flaw to her it was the understanding that Mandy lacked a certain gravitas, that she was doomed to forever be a beautiful little girl, too precious to be taken seriously. Her beauty would unquestionably rob from her certain opportunities, but this seemed a minor quibble barely worth mentioning. In the jostle of the school hallways she stood apart and above without being aloof, and teachers and students alike, her friends and peers most especially, loved her so much that they couldn’t begrudge her superiority. She was luminous, and only the most bitter of us minded at all the way that she made everyone else seem drab.

And in comparison to her we were all as drab as the disfigured pigeons that pecked at the crumbs on the playground behind the school. Was there a boy who wasn’t too clumsy an oaf to be worthy of her? We could understand why the girls all fawned over certain boys, and didn’t doubt that most of the boys in the neighborhood would grow to be fine men, but when we thought of them in relation to Mandy we could see them only as squeaky-voiced rodents, unable to complete coherent thoughts and always smelling slightly of sweat and junk food. The girls fared no better. In the shadow cast by Mandy Everett the girls of Stuyvesant Town and Gramercy were all lumpy twits, differentiated from the boys only in their ability to keep their mouths closed while they breathed and by the fact that they smelled better most of the time.

I was among the lumpiest of those twits. A time-traveling mirror might have been able to tell me that in time I would grow to be a perfectly normal woman with a strong Germanic build and little to be ashamed of physically; a more sensitive appraisal of myself at that age might have noted that my brown eyes were pretty and alert and gave my face a sort of sweet playfulness. Looking back at pictures I see a pretty girl, and I love her for all that she was and would someday be. But I remember being her, too: of being blissfully unaware of myself in one moment and then suddenly flung into the profoundest despair at the sight of my thick arms or the hair that never worked in any style. And I kicked myself then and I kick myself now for feeling that way about how I look, which after all isn’t even bad, when I have so much else to be proud of, but so it is.

I wasn’t fat, but my body kept growing in proportion to itself from my toddler years on, so my stomach remained soft and my arms kept a roll on them until well into my teenage years. I was a good singer, but I sang low, lower, I felt, then a girl should sing. I couldn’t dance for shit and had no idea how to dress myself. The haircut I received at Astor Place when I was nine I kept until I was nearly twenty because I couldn’t picture it any other way, even though it made me look like I’d scalped a hound dog and put the prize on my head.

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1. In Which Our Heroine Learns a Terrible Truth

1. In Which Our Heroine Learns a Terrible Truth

It’s not that she forgot, but that she really wanted to forget and did her best to, so as eleven o’clock rolled around Erica went out of her way to find ways to get involved in her work, to find something that would sweep her up so completely that she would–whoops, would you believe it’s already twelve-thirty? I guess I missed my appointment! Oh well, I’ll reschedule for next year.

She tried cleaning out her inbox, but remembered too late that she’d already done that a few weeks ago when she was trying to forget about the dentist. So she called her mom, who was always exasperated about something Amelia was doing or had done or was talking about doing, but her mother was on her way to do “djoga” and couldn’t talk but would call her later to ask about her appointment, okay?

She went to the cafeteria but Marjorie wasn’t in on Tuesdays anymore and the lady who took her place didn’t speak any language Erica could fake so that was no use.

She reviewed Elizabeth’s vouchers but they were all in order, and Mr. Larson was going to be in meetings all morning. By about eleven-thirty she was getting desperate and decided to call Amelia directly. After all she had done for that little twerp over the years surely Amelia owed her at least this much, right?

“Ellie, what’s up?” her little sister said over the phone.

“Nothing, nothing,” Erica stammered. “Just…checking in. What are you up to?”

“I’m in the middle of class, dummy. Can I call you tonight?”

Shit. Now she probably would call tonight, and unload all of her craziness at a time of day that was entirely useless. And then her mother would call and insist that Erica repeat the entire conversation verbatim, and ask all sorts of speculative questions that nobody could answer except Amelia, and of course Amelia would never tell her mother those things. Where did we go wrong with that girl? she would finally ask.

So the evening was ruined, and it still wasn’t noon.

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