In sixth grade, our homeroom teacher brings a full-length mirror to class. He makes us get up, one by one, stand in front of the mirror, and tell ourselves we are beautiful. We are eleven, twelve. We have just eaten lunch and are in the time of day between the cafeteria and attending our last two periods. We have stains on our uniform shirts and our eyes are heavy, stomachs full. We have thrown away our pre-packed lunches to buy churros or slices of pizza. Mr. Wilson asks the girls in our class to sit on his lap when they are sad. I never do, even though I’m sad, but he does put his hand against my back as I look in the mirror and say, “You are beautiful” to myself without meaning it. I take it as an assignment, a task to accomplish and ace.
Mr. Wilson is reported and fired. He invites everyone to a going away pizza party at a local spot in town and we go, me and my friends, me and kids who didn’t even have his class but it was something to do, somewhere to be. I drink a Coke and eat a slice of pizza and take a picture with Mr. Wilson and when my mom comes to pick me up she says he looks just like Jim Carrey. She asks why he’s leaving and I tell her how he was asked to leave, the girls on the lap, the mirror. She cries in the car and doesn’t understand why I wanted to say goodbye to such a monster.
The following year, a history teacher is fired for letting girls change in his room while he watches. The girls had shaken their bodies out of their pleated skirts and pulled spandex shorts over their backsides. They had shimmied out of their tops and unhooked their bras while the teacher in the room assured them they were safe, the blinds were closed, no one could see.
Another summer. Another boy I shouldn’t be with. This time it’s Mack, the lifeguard at the day camp where I’m a counselor. During the week he sees me in my uniform camp polo shirt and khaki shorts, but tonight we’re at a party at his friend’s house. Mack has friends named Kevin and Josh and Dylan. We’re all nineteen, twenty. We drink rum and Coke and play stupid drinking games like Ring of Fire or Truth or Dare or Never Have I Ever. Mack’s ex, Kristy, is at the party and she’s in all black: leggings, a tank top, a hoodie. She’s so skinny, and even though this is the summer I get toned from carrying kids all day, from swimming, from running, from holding myself up while I grind on top of Mack, she’s skinnier. There’s a huge gap between her legs when she stands and her arms look like wires. She has a tattoo of a parrot on her chest.
We’re in Mack’s friend Josh’s apartment for the party. All along the walls, he has outlines of people’s bodies drawn in colored markers. I ask him who they are and he says friends, random people who have come over throughout the summer, anyone really. Mack goes outside to talk to Kristy and I ask Josh if he will trace me on the wall. He says I have to hold something or do something funny so it looks different than just a normal body. I see some of the figures have beer bottles titled towards their mouths, or are holding up a peace sign. I put my hands on my hips, unsure of what else to do, how to make my shape matter, but he starts tracing.
People are leaving the party and I know Mack can’t drive, so I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to drive him home and put him in bed. I’ll go to the bathroom and take off my makeup and see the cologne on his counter from Kristy that he hasn’t gotten rid of. I’ll watch his phone light up with her name over and over and him too drunk to answer, passed out while I watch her name appear again and again like a chorus.
When Josh is done tracing, I stand back and look at my image on the wall.
“How do I look?” I ask.
“You look nervous,” he says and rolls a joint.
Kristy is crying when she runs through the apartment and out the front door. A girl I don’t know follows her and they leave. I want to go home, but Mack wants to stay a while longer. He puts his arm around me and another round of whatever game starts back up again.
I look at my image on the wall and agree that she looks nervous. If only I could convince her otherwise.
Jennifer is always late to pick me up for Wednesday night Bible study. She always wears her hair in a ponytail and is dressed in slacks and sweaters from her office job she deems as temporary. We’re both living at home in the in-between time, me working at the restaurant and Jennifer at the legal advisor’s office. We became friends because we go to the same church and we are both in relationships that are going to end soon.
I am twenty-three and should be on the other side of the country, but I’m spending most of my time with Jennifer: in her car, in other peoples’ cars, at church, at the bars, at clubs, at the beach, at the pool, at her house. Her childhood bedroom is one-fourth the size of mine growing up. She has pictures tacked to the wall and Mardi Gras beads strung on her bedposts. Her Bible is underneath a mess of clothes on the floor.
We’ve known each other for three months and have built up a steady stream of conversation that flows even when we’re not speaking. It was Jennifer who told me about the Wednesday night meetings, who begged me to come and offered to give me a ride. After Bible study, we go out for sushi and end up in hot tubs with older guys whose parents live in nice condos along A1A. When we’re not together, she’s with Tucker, the guy who doesn’t love her enough, and if I’m not with her, I’m with Matt, who doesn’t love me nearly enough either. We are always trying to convince our boys to take us clubbing on Las Olas or take a weekend trip to Orlando or rent a boat in Miami and they never want to do anything except play X-Box and watch movies, go to AA meetings, call each other and go workout. We once shared a cigarette on the train tracks of Atlantic Avenue when we were mad about our boys, another conversation about how they weren’t enough, how we wanted more, and Jennifer cried a little and I didn’t know if I should hug her so I let her stand there smoking and crying.
Matt says Jennifer’s a dumb bitch, one of those church girls who isn’t really into Jesus, but just pretends. I don’t believe him though. I see how she prays. I watch her write in her journal, taking notes while the pastor is speaking. I love her hands, her delicate fingers, her long nails, the ring she wears that was her mom’s.
When I move to Los Angeles, my mom brings up Jennifer from time to time. She sees her at the mall with new friends. She says she’s still with Tucker. She thinks she saw an engagement ring on her finger, but she could be wrong. I look Jennifer up online and see her bio is still the same: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
I remember the time that Jennifer’s mom made us tea with honey. I’d never had it that way before. Her mom told us it was a reminder of how sweet life can be. “Sometimes we forget to add the honey,” she said. She’d made the tea because I had a stomachache and Jennifer still wanted to go out and it worked. It had felt like such a miracle to be cured that way, cared for, a magic potion like characters drink in stories.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches Archetypal Psychology and American Literature at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, California. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, Fiction Southeast, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine is out now with Red Hen Press, and her debut novel The Brittanys will be published with Vintage in 2021.