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A girl stands on the runway, surveying the room with dark wide eyes and sticky red lips. She realizes, a little belatedly, that her makeup looks strikingly similar to what girls wear on Halloween when they dress up like French Maids, but she cannot bring herself to care. She walks amidst the flashing lights of cameras and the jeers of the crowd, breathing in the hot air that collects around her despite the chilly atmosphere. In reality, the jeers are only applause, but standing up on that stage makes her feel like eye-candy. Instead of fashion agents and reporters she sees middle-aged men at the foot of a strip club stage. With every flash of the camera she blinks, coordinating the lights with every part of her body; stepping with each blink and breathing with each step. She pretends that her even breathing is the only thing that keeps the thin order in the room. This responsibility calms her, because it makes her feel that if it was not for her strength, the married business men would very quickly become single. It is not much, but it is something….
The announcer follows her journey to the end of the runaway, reading of a list of names that are not hers. His voice sounds like the music of a horror movie: loud and foreboding and final. When she reaches the End, she knows how it will go: she’ll stand stiff and fake sex, pursing her lips and twitching her eyebrows to the pulse of the clicking cameras. She’ll stand and they’ll watch her and love her and hate her, remarking that her dress is both fashionable and too tight, because it allows them a straight shot of her ribcage. They will notice her swollen feet and presume that she had eaten a Snickers bar beforehand. The thought that the shoes, the most unnatural damn shoes available, simply do not fit will not cross their minds, because in the Fashion World models are manikins and plastic cannot feel discomfort.
That is why, when she finally makes it to the End that will never truthfully be the end, she’ll make her face form beauty so that no one will know the difference. Because there isn’t a difference. When she stands up on that stage the person she is ceases to exist and she becomes nothing but the dress. The Dress. And those damn Shoes. That’s why she took the job, after all; every girl on that runaway has this single reason for being there. Each of them has simply realized that facing the flashing cameras is better than facing the lonely glow of the television in your empty apartment; that it is better to have too tight shoes than to be kneeling in front of the toilet as you vomit and realizing that you are alone.
She had been told that she was beautiful since the day she was born, although she never really started paying attention to those words until the day she turned seven, when she did not have enough money for the candy bar she wanted. She had earned ten dollars in her allowance that week and she had already bought herself a new outfit for her doll. That left her with exactly seventy-five cents, which was five cents shorter than what she needed for a candy bar. The man at the counter told her that since she was such a pretty girl, he would ignore the tax and give it to her anyway. She hadn’t realized it at the moment, but from then on her perspective of the world had changed as she grew up, she realized being pretty could get you a lot more than candy. Her mother, who tucked her into bed every night until she was ten, explained this advantage as something she needed to remember she had, because some day she would grow old, with gray hair and yellowed teeth, and no one would pay her a second thought. It’s a pity, she said, that the great gift of beauty is given to the young, when it takes them so long to realize they have it. What a waste, her mother told her.
But she didn’t waste of second of it, once she realized what she had. She pinned pictures skinny motels and ugly old women to the front of her refrigerator, reminding her in case she forgot that the refrigerator was best kept closed. She snuck into her mother’s bathroom to steal eyeliner, slipped packages of laxatives into her purse at stores and followed the fashion trends in magazines religiously, insuring that her skirts were always short enough and her tops appropriately tight. By the age of sixteen, she had her system down. Every morning, she looked into her mother’s eyes to see if there was a hint of pride in them, a sense of smugness that her daughter had already figured it out, but each day she saw nothing. This rejection eventually became another part of her routine: each afternoon, she would simply give up and eat anything she could find; by every evening, she would look in the bathroom mirror and sit in front of the toilet and simply resolve to try harder.
She first modeled in the safety of her own bedroom, taking picture in her mirror of her face at different angles, searching for the side of her face that flattered her the most. When she had friends over, they would take turns holding the camera, each one secretly trying to ruin their friend’s photo, so that theirs would be the best. It was a sick game they each played: whining about their looks and their fat bodies when the really believed that each girl in that room was uglier than themselves. She preferred it much more when she would have a boyfriend over and she could pose for him; he would take picture after picture, unable to believe his luck. It was this adoration that she lived for. She could make it, she figured, if she lived from salad to salad, from morning skin care to night pore treatment, from spandex fad to short-shorts craze. If she woke each morning ready to live to each of these moments, then she could get through. It was all the moments in between, the moments where she was alone and she had time to ask herself what the hell she was doing that were the times that she wanted to quit. But they were also the thoughts that fueled her more, because she believed that she could eventually fill all the gaps-- with a treadmill, with a kiss, with a smile from a stranger. All these moments were what she had been told made life worth living.
And she truly believed in that.
When she makes it to the end of the runaway, she stares out into the crowd of jeers and realizes that this is simply another moment, another space of time that she wonders why she’s standing where she is. She listens for the praises-- the whistles or the catcalls, by they never come and in a second it hits her: this is not a strip club, as much as the men in suits sweat at the sight of her. She is the Dress-- this is all they needed her to be. Knowing this was meant to be freeing.
She stumbles as she leaves the End, but no one gasps, so she doesn’t believe that anyone saw it. She wonders for a moment if she ever really tripped, or if her mind just trembled from the realization that she has been the Dress since she turned seven.
When she’s off the stage and behind the curtain, she sighs and rubs the back of her hand against her eyes. Her mascara sticks her eyelids together for the briefest of moments and after the second that she opens them, she turns her head around the room, locates the bathroom and quickly hurries to the safety of its walls.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered into the neck of–– It was Will, wasn’t it?
She felt his smile against her shoulder and he pulled her closer until her face was smothered against his chest. She stretched her toes against the mattress, feeling the muscles move through her legs.
“Me too, Pretty,” he said, his voice much too loud in the quiet bedroom. She flinched, the movement small and unnoticeable, but she realized that with this movement something changed. She ran her hands through his hair and pushed impossibly closer to him, wanting to drown in the greed he felt for her, wanting to forget that she ever doubted herself.
He started running his fingers up her back and she sighed against him, the small movement reminded her of pulling up a zipper on the back of a dress; of small buttons at the top that were impossible to undo by yourself.
“What’s wrong, Pretty?” He asked her and she sighed quietly.
“Nothing,” she said, refusing to meet his eyes, instead, she focused on the gentle curve of his mouth. She needed to leave her work at work, she thought to herself, but it was hard to separate yourself from your life. But his mouth was such the perfect distraction; soft and small, it curved slightly upward like he was constantly smiling at her.
“Bullsh**,” he said and he had begun uncurling himself from her. She felt the prickling of tears form in her eyes at the rejection, as he pulled his head away from her hands. “You always do this.”
“Do what?” She said, but her voice was faint, almost like an echo. She racked her mind, but she could not even remember when she had last been with Will….
“Do what?” He echoed to her, his voice harsh, his volume loud against her ears. “Jesus–”
“I’m sorry, Will.”
There was a moment of complete silence. She felt it cut through her like a needle stabbing her skin as it altered her dress. Like a cloud of thick air, she felt the “in between” moment closing in on her; suffocating her.
And then he had torn himself away from her. Sitting up, his eyes had sought her in the darkened room and for some reason, she couldn’t look away. His eyes were harsh, harsher than his words had been and this time she wasn’t able to trick herself into forgetting they were angry by focusing on the fact that they were looking at her.
“It’s Bryan,” he said. There was something shaking in his voice that she didn’t recognize. “My name is Bryan. I know you have a bad memory, but I thought that even you could remember a name after a month.”
She simply stared at him. A month? What was a month in her world? A month was five pounds lost– seven, if you were lucky. A nervous laugh bubbled in her chest. She wanted to explain to him that a month was nothing, but she couldn’t find the words.
“You’re messed up,” he said, pushing himself off the mattress and grabbing his shirt off the floor. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it… after everything I’ve put up with these last weeks, you think I would have. Do you like tricking people, my Pretty?”
The pet name is spat from his mouth and in this moment, she regrets that she ever asked him to call her that. She could remember things now; she was getting them in flashes. With a pang in her chest, she remembered his car, the earrings he bought he, the movie they saw the night before. It was only a month, she told herself again, but at this time the argument didn’t feel as strong.
The slam of her apartment door was his familiar goodbye. She wanted to believe that he would come back again this time. Her mother once told her that beauty was like a magnet.
She excepts the flowers after the runaway show even though she cannot see the face of the person who gives them to her. She excepts them with a smile because she knows the show was a success; that she wore her dress well. It is this smile that is photographed and that will appear on websites and in the tabloids, and the comments on them would be nothing but compliments, because her smile does not offer them anything else.
She still smiles when she walks in to her apartment, even though it is an “in between” moment of silence. She turns on the television and her eyes skim over the fridge that is lit by the flickering light of the Atkins commercial. She tells herself to think of old age and of being alone and tries to ignore the stinging feeling inside of her that tells her being old isn’t quite unlike what she’s already living.
Beauty is youth, she tells herself. And you are young.
She does not think of anything else until she reaches her bedroom. Her bedroom is a closet, with clothes hung on hangers over the walls and jackets tossed onto the floor. She picks random outfits up with a gentleness one would pickup a child and begins putting each one on; layer after layer they cover her skin, until it is no longer a fashion statement but a safety net. The warmth of each garment makes her sweat; she looks in the mirror and realized this is that she would look like if she was fat and for some reason that she will not remember in the morning, this idea does not make her eyes burn.
“Tell me something,” she whispers to the mirror, but she knows it will not answer her. She wants to stand there forever, looking at herself in her ugliest beauty; she realizes that she has never felt more real than in that moment. Slowly, the heat of every layer she wore becomes too much and she is snapped back to herself. She breaths out, trying to ignore the voice in her head that asks her what the hell she is doing.
With shaking hands, she begins to undo each button and tie until only the first outfit remains: short, smooth dress that clings to her bony body. She falls back into her bed and stares at the ceiling, vaguely noticing that the garment that remained is a see through gown and that in the light from the ceiling lamp, her pale skin glistens.
“You’re pretty,” a voice whispers back to her and she cannot tell if it is her own or not. She breathes out and closes her eyes, telling herself that either away, it is true.
And that is enough.