Beauty This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

October 23, 2009
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Susan stepped into the kitchen, her heels striking the linoleum in harsh clacks of sound. She watched her feet as she walked; her glossy black shoes and neon pink toenails both reflected the harsh fluorescent lights. She had always wanted those bulbs replaced.

She had prodded her husband about the benefits of soft kitchen lighting whenever she hadn't been cramming the air between them with other fillers. The vision of him sinking into the green upholstery of his armchair, the television lighting his sour face and the blank plaster wall behind him in blue, was what painted itself in her mind when she thought of him. By now the colors were blurred, having bled together ever since he had packed up his chair, his TV, his beer cans, and drifted over to a more beautiful household, a more beautiful wife. Even her name, Christina, boasted something more alluring than a Susan. Christina, she...glowed. But that was probably because she had sunlight bulbs in her kitchen.

Susan slid her Coach purse onto the plastic countertop and set her bulging shopping bags next to it. The unflattering fluorescence seeped into her powdered, blushed, and painted skin as the stench of her fresh perm flooded her nostrils. The diamond charms on her silver bracelet scraped and clinked against the counter as she thumbed through the mail, tossing the cheap advertisements and bills aside, placing the Tiffany catalogue neatly next to her purse. The last envelope in the pile was from Ronnie's middle school. Her frown lines deepened and she tore it open recklessly enough to rip through the contents. She ignored her mistake and tugged the letter out, her wet french manicure for once far from her mind. Her eyes raced over the grades, BBACB. It was enough.

She charged from the kitchen into the tiny foyer. She kicked off her heels and did not flinch when one slammed into the front door and the other collided with the teetering plastic coat rack in the corner. The banister creaked as she propelled herself up the rickety pine stairs two at a time. She heard the pop of a thread breaking in her new pencil skirt and did not plan a trip to Bloomingdale's the next day. Her mind focused on Ronnie, the dull black hole that lolled about in his room and inhaled every spare cent.

When she made it to his room at the end of the hall, her wet new curls stood wildly away from her now shiny head. A smear of pink on her teeth between snarling lips of the same garish color made Ronnie scoff before turning back to his computer.

"Why do I send you to school, Ronnie?" she asked as she stalked slowly towards him.

"So I can get a job and buy you sh**," he replied, his fourteen-year-old mouth putting a proud emphasis on the curse word. He heard the crackle of stiff paper and looked up to see a letter sail toward him before turning sharply on the air and flailing to the carpet near his steel frame bed. He realized his mother had tried to whip a piece of paper at his head and chuckled.

"I send you to school," she answered menacingly, "because I've got this obligation, like it's my fault if you end up worthless. I waste my money there because you're supposed to win some bright future. Not a C on your report card."

"...You're kidding, right?" Ronnie ventured after silently searching her eyes for a glimmer of humor. "I've gotten a C before. Hell, at least three. Since when did you care?"

"You're stupid, Ronnie!" she yelped, blocking his logic.

He almost grinned at the way her birdlike screech bounced off the walls, but he set the corners of his lips firmly down and glanced at the paper on the floor, at the barely distinguishable letter C. His bemused gaze drifted up to his mother's face as he tried to connect the two. Her strained features did not soften. He couldn't fathom what she expected him to say.

The facebook chat box on his computer screen blinked red and made a timid popping noise. Mr. Halward's lawn mower hummed two houses away.

"I'm so embarrassed to be your mother," she added acidly, her carefully aimed final blow.

Ronnie did not drop to his battered knees and stammer tearful explanations. He did not ask how he could ever repay her -- cash or credit. He did not even look devastated.

He laughed. The twinge of incredulity twisted his voice until the returning echo seemed mocking.

"I get it," he managed. "Jeff's mom told you I called you embarrassing, and now you're trying to get back at me? Oh come on, as if you don't know you're too old and too Midwest to be playing Malibu Barbie."

"Excuse me?" she spat.

"It's like you think Dad's gonna come crawling back just because you got nice clothes. Christina's nice, ok? And she's pretty. Not plastic."

Susan's face whitened and for a moment she seemed to recede, to disappear behind the heavy makeup that was beginning to smear underneath her eyes. Ronnie's features did not move, but a remorseful ache flowered inside his chest. She, however, opened her lips before he could unlock his in apology.

"What do you know, Ronnie? You're a piece of shit." The word exploded with the same immature force from her mouth as it had from his.

He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. He stood and his limbs were heavy as he trudged across his room, his weight making the C crinkle under his toes as he made it his stepping stone. He stooped and dragged a bulging duffel bag from underneath his bed, and for the first time, Susan noticed that his room seemed oddly bare.

"What are you doing?" she asked. Her eyes flitted nervously over him and she stumbled back toward the door, planted a palm on either side of the doorframe. His shoulders slumped, each step lingered as he arrived before her.

"Ronnie," she warned. "Ronnie..."

He simply looked past her in a silence that made panic surge up into her head. He lifted his right hand toward her shoulder, his other clutching his bag tight enough for the rough cloth pattern of the handles to imprint itself into his skin.

Susan's frantic mind could not make sense of the gesture -- her own hand flung itself up and cracked upon contact with Ronnie's pale cheek.

He still said nothing, but his brows scrunched together and his nose wrinkled up in a teary face he hadn't shown her in years. He rubbed his eye with his fist and pushed past her, almost gently, and she let him go.

When Ronnie dragged his sneakers up his father's driveway, Christina dialed his mother's number incessantly, her short, neat fingernails fidgeting on the granite countertop with concern.

Susan just barely heard the phone from inside the misted shower stall. Seven shrill rings, a pause, then seven again. She sat huddled on the tiles, watching her feet try to block the swirl of water disappearing down the netted drain. Her curls fell limp and drooped into a flattened mess, and tiny water droplets clung to her nail polish. She remained under the warm spray until her hair fell straight and unteased down her back and the pinks, the beiges, the blacks had long dripped from her tired skin.

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