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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Jaime

Jaime

In Adam’s fall we sinned all, the old rhyme says, but sometimes Jaime believed that he had shouldered an unfairly large portion of that burden. He was sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, just a few feet from the sign forbidding people from doing so, talking morosely about some horrible experience in his life while Jaime listened attentively and finished off the last of her gelato. It was pretty chilly, a November kind of day, and he thought her silly for bothering with ice cream; her nose was already red from the weather, and her ears–only the tips of which were visible from under her grey knit cap–were also red, contrasting sharply with the little white earring studs she wore that day. As Jaime spoke he avoided looking at her, feeling that staring off into space would make his words seem all the more dramatic, as though he were speaking through that un-self-conscious fog of memory that dimestore novelists often have their more dramatic characters speak through. Jaime also knew that looking at her would distract him and break his mood: even in her present half-frozen state Jaime was by far the most beautiful person he’d ever known, and the sight of her dancing eyes would only make him happy, and happiness was not the effect he was going for here. Happiness would ruin the mood.

With the carefully mannered and thoughtfully articulated cadences of someone who wants to be taken seriously, Jaime spoke. “It would be easier if I knew what I wanted, then maybe I could figure out how to get it. But I feel like I’m just floundering about, rudderless. I miss who I was, but even more so I miss the prospect of being what I wanted to be.”

Through a mouthful of waffle cone Jaime replied, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” She stood and dusted herself off, munching as she walked over to the trashcan to throw away her wrapper. And with that the matter was settled. Jaime was always quick with a comment, and being so vastly superior to Jaime intelligence-wise and otherwise-wise, her comments often had the effect of shutting his self-deprecating musings up. She moved quickly, with the easy gait of someone that knows and understands herself, and when she spoke she did so in her sleek and pleasantly lilting voice that served as the perfect conduit for her wit, which always roared.

“You’re in Italy, homebelly,” she offered when she returned, “cheer up a bit.” She extended her hand to help lift him from his illegal perch and he took it, dusting off his rear after standing. They made an unlikely pair, the coincidence of their names notwithstanding. Her eyes were blue and her hair mousy-brown; his were the other way around. Though he towered over her, his evident lack of self-respect diminished his stature somewhat; Jaime often called him the littlest giant she’d ever seen. She herself was rather small, especially in relation to him, though she adamantly insisted that she was of average height.

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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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