“Mother,” she said. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
She hunched forward, arms folded across the curvatures of her eighteen-year-old frame like a cream based sauce. Mother, stretched and tweaked into ageless perfection, held her pocket mirror outstretched, reapplying a scarlet satin to her lips.
“Oh, my darling. You will be.”
The clinic’s matte walls and muted whiteboards reminded the girl of chemistry class.
“Krypton is a noble gas, Kelly,” the teacher repeated, tapping his ruler from one blue chart to the next. She grinned like a kindergartner at snack time, and stared at the deep wrinkles and wiry, grey hairs in both his nose and ears.
The nurse’s cat print scrubs covered everything but her doughy, round face. She placed a latex hand on Kelly’s back, and directed her into a room of full length mirrors. For the first time, Kelly examined the hand drawn lines and circles that patterned her petite frame. They appeared tribal, almost Pict, against the ivory skin and ashen hair.
As the surgeon had sat attentively etching these figures across her body, the marker’s chemical scent spiced the air. It pulled Kelly back to her seventh birthday party.
“Why don’t you have cake?” a small redhead asked, twisting a pipe cleaner into a circle.
“Mother says that sugar is for bottom feeders,” Kelly answered, glittery glue smeared across both cheeks.
“But it’s your birthday!” Another Disney-themed friend squealed in protest.
Kelly couldn’t admit that she had never tasted cake or even icing, nor was she certain of what they looked like.
“At least I won’t be a fat gorilla like you!” she screamed.
A moment later, Mother entered the room of tiara crowned girls with a tray of sliced celery. Her eyes locked on Kelly’s cheeks.
“Look what you’ve done to yourself!” She screamed. “I told you to be careful!”
The little redhead burst into sobs and went home early. Birthday cake wasn’t mentioned again.
“Just a moment, dear,” the nurse said. “I’ll grab the camera.”
Spinning slowly in the mirror, Kelly traced the strokes that extended down her backside and thighs.
Mother still lagged behind in the eggshell room, tapping out rapid texts with perfectly rounded fingernails.
“Trouble at the office,” she whined. “We’ll have to arrange a cab for you, darling.”
When friends at school had asked Kelly if she was afraid, she would reply with a straight back, “only of the scars”. The scars that, because of her youth, the surgeon assured her would heal beautifully. Little flesh memories that she knew would never disappear.
“The sculpting will certainly define your posture.”
Mother finally appeared in the doorway, phone still in hand.
“Daddy called. The island is booked.”
Barbados, that promised land of celebration. The white sand and translucent sea, a paradisiacal post-surgery triumph. It was the place her mother, then a country girl turned airline stewardess, had met Daddy the investment banker from Manhattan.
“Mother, where did Daddy go?”
Thirteen-year-old Kelly, newly upon womanhood, had found Daddy’s marble globe in the garage with his clothes and cigars. He’d been on vacation for two months, and Mother was in recovery from another procedure that pulled her skin tight and flattened her stomach. She laid on the couch, hand across her forehead.
“Put that thing away,” she snipped.
Kelly spun the world in protest. “I got a B+ in geography. Maybe I’ll be a pilot one day. Or an explorer.” Her nail drew around the cape of Africa.
“You’re much more suited to being a mother and wife,” Mother said softly, extending a cold hand towards her daughter. “Like me.”
Kelly pushed the globe as far back on the coffee table as she could reach. “I’m hungry,” she vacantly offered.
“There are carrot sticks in the fridge. Always remember, Kelly: Daddies like their wives thin.”
The camera’s flash left little, green spots in Kelly’s vision. The nurse nodded as she scanned quickly through them.
“Your face is never shown,” the nurse promised with kind eyes.
“Darling, they need me,” Mother announced. “A twelve thousand square foot Tuscan villa has heated up.”
Kelly watched her pull the steamed, wool coat over her sloped shoulders. An arm gently flipped up and grazed Kelly’s eye, causing it to sting and water.
“I’ll see you at home.”
“Okay.” Kelly flashed a weak smile. Mother placed a hand on her shoulder and lightly squeezed.
“Be brave. It only goes up from here. ”
The nurse handed her a paper robe and led Kelly into another room with fluorescent lights and covered trays.
“It won’t be long, now.”
Kelly stretched her body across the sheeted bed. On the wall hung a print of Monet’s garden, with blended strokes and imagery. She thought about the graphs and tests she’d be shown after failing another reading test.
“What do you see here?” A spectacled psychologist held up a sheet of green splotched paper.
“Green ink,” she answered.
Kelly enjoyed books, especially those with vivid illustrations. She could manage a few chapters, but got lost in the thick, twisted text of classics like Great Expectations and Tom Sawyer.
“It’s Daddy’s side,” Mother reassured her after leaving the psychologist’s office. “His mother and aunt were both simple minded.”
While traveling the world on business, Daddy sent Kelly little treasures in the mail. These included a beautifully carved Italian piano, her very own leather riding boots (though she did not ride) from Spain, and a lovely gold bracelet from India. He called her his “peach”. Mother always said peaches were far too sweet.
“Son of a gun.”
Kelly sat up to find a woman fighting with the tie on her open paper gown. Her molasses skin and bright, white teeth shone like moonlit seashells.
“Are you my surgeon?” Kelly asked, conscious of her own absurdity.
The other woman chuckled.
“No. Are you mine?”
Beneath the robe, a long, curved scar flashed from the spot where a breast had once existed. The woman snapped it shut and moved closer. She calculated Kelly’s drawn lines and circles, as Kelly curled her toes around the bed’s metal bars.
“What are you doing here, baby?”
“Stop being a baby,” Mother had quipped above the hospital bed. Kelly fell from the monkey bars at recess, and sat cradling her freshly cast arm, tears still running down her face.
“I don’t have time for this.”
Daddy had left in the night two days prior, and Mother’s usually infallible hair was unwashed and matted.
Under the molasses woman’s gaze, Kelly felt a familiar embarrassment return.
“I have physical inconsistencies.”
The woman laughed, this time much more deeply. It was a heavy noise that started in her stomach and spilled up, over her lungs. Kelly quickly realized she’d never heard a laugh like this before, and felt her own mouth curve into a grin.
“You should be out chasing boys, baby. Or letting them chase you.”
She blinked and stared at the soft lines above the woman’s brow.
“I will,” she said.
“Mrs. Lewiston? You’re supposed to be in room six.”
The nurse in the cat print had returned. Mrs. Lewiston placed a hand over her braided head.
“Which room am I in?”
“Those drugs stew up your brain!”
Mrs. Lewiston shuffled out and mumbled something that made the nurse giggle. After closing the door, Kelly was reclined back into the bed as another nurse pressed a stethoscope to her chest. The intravenous’ pinch summoned a temporary sting.
“Just relax, dear. This will all be over soon.”
The anesthetic waves pulled her into a pleasant pool of apathy. The lights grew darker, and Kelly dreamed of palm trees, seashells, and flight.
JJ Tattleworth lives in the great city of Toronto and, as well as books, collects military memorabilia.