When I was in third grade I got my first job. I helped my neighbor roll all the coins in his ten-gallon jugs into the paper wrappers he got from the bank. He had about eight containers filled to the brim with dull metal hidden the back of his basement. We could only work for an hour a night after he got home from his job and before M*A*S*H came on TV. It took us three months, my entire summer, to finish rolling those coins. He never told me the total, but I imagined it was millions. I had no concept of money and those silver disks were the closest I’d ever been to buried treasure.
At the end of the summer he gave me an envelope with seventy-five bucks worth of five-dollar bills hidden inside a rolled-up newspaper. He told me not to tell my mom what we were doing, to lie instead and say that I was helping him repaint his model trains. I asked him what he was spending his coin money on, he said he’d tell me when I was older. He left the next day without warning anyone and I haven’t heard from him since. His wife came over a lot after that, my mom would make her dinner and she’d cry at the counter. Sometimes when mom took the night shift at work the woman would sneak in through the kitchen door and hide in my parents’ room with my dad. When I asked him about it he said he was just helping her get to sleep. It made sense at the time.
Winter came and went, as soon as the snow melted the woman left too. We never talked about her again. I still had my payment hidden under my mattress when I passed my teacher selling her son’s bike at their garage sale. The sun had begun to set in the time it took me to run home to retrieve the money and back. In the same place, leaning against the tree, was my new lightning yellow bike. I didn’t bother looking at the price sticker, I just set down the envelope on the card table in front of her. Grabbing it by the worn handles, I walked it all fifteen blocks home. I didn’t even know how to ride.
The next morning, I asked my mom to teach me how to ride a bike. It was early, and she had worked a late shift; she told me to ask my dad. He was sitting in my brother’s old room where he’d moved the computer onto the dresser and called it his office. His back was to me as he whispered into his phone, so I waited. He was angry when he saw me and asked me what I heard, then told me it was mom on the phone and she was five minutes away. He didn’t hear her come home twenty minutes before.
I went onto my driveway alone with my bike, both adults in the house cowering behind excuses that deemed them unfitting to be functioning parents. The seat was awkward and slanted, I kept getting the back pockets of my shorts stuck on the end. My feet would hover over the pedals, never making contact as kinetic energy took control. A dozen times I flew down the hill before squeezing the brakes at the bottom. Then I’d sprint back up, my bike following in tow, and head down again.
It was the thirteenth time on my makeshift ramp that I collided with a mailbox after a dog ran right out in front of me. I jerked my handlebars away from the animal and into the metal, the left side of my face breaking my fall with a gash to prove it. Without a word I stood up, grabbed my scuffed bike, and walked home. Inside the house my mother was preoccupied cooking dinner. I stood, just out of her view, and watched her hum the tagline of a commercial she saw yesterday as she cut up a head of lettuce. When she finally saw me, she started to scream and rushed me into the bathroom to clean my face.
After twenty minutes of my mother changing out blood-soaked gauze and praying, the bleeding stopped. She gave it one final wash and told me I would be fine with just a little bit of foundation. I had never worn makeup before. She told me she had some in her purse and she’d teach me how to cover up a bruise tomorrow. Something about them, bruises, made me feel tough. I liked the idea of having this battle scar on display for all to see. I didn’t want to hide it.
The following afternoon we sat next to each other on the edge of the bathtub as she laid out vials of liquid skin on her lap. There was a powder and a paint that could be used to blur out even the darkest shades of our accidents. I think I zoned out for a minute, but when I came to I found myself noticing her chin was a different color than her neck. Her normal skin, grown leathery from her years in the sun, was nowhere to be found under a thick layer of chalk dust. She walked me to the mirror and started covering half of the bruise with the technique she had just explained, leaving me to finish the job. I followed her pattern of gently dabbing the sponge onto my skin—never dragging—and then covering it with powder.
When I was finished she laughed. Her skin was darker than mine and the cool-toned bruise was replaced with a tan splotch. She told me she’d drive me to the drugstore the next day to find a color that better matched my face. I didn’t know why, I had no intention of ever getting on a bike again, so I was sure I wouldn’t need to cover anymore marks. Then I looked at my mom, really looked at her. She was staring at her own reflection in the mirror. That was the first time I realized I had no say. I would be painting over black and blue for the rest of my life.
My college roommate was the most feminine person I’ve ever met. She was also the strongest. On the day we moved into our dorm she lugged a pink leather trunk up six flights of stairs. She never asked for help because she didn’t need it, she was more than capable of handling it on her own.
Some of the things she did made me laugh. Like she always ordered her salad with dressing on the side and organized her closet by sleeve-length. Sometimes she would wake up before me and write letters to her dead grandmother that she hid in a shoebox under her bed. I would keep my back to her on those days until I heard the sound of cardboard sliding back into place.
Other mornings, when I would rise before her, I would slink out of the dorm without waking her and take walks through the surrounding neighborhoods. One street behind the math building had thirty-six identical houses. They all had tan siding, white shutters, and a single tree in the front yard. It was like something out of a movie where cookie-cutter families lived in cookie-cutter houses.
When it got closer to Christmas I would walk a little slower, taking my time and occasionally peeking at decorations through windows. This is where the houses changed. Some had rainbow lights and Charlie Brown figurines on their coffee tables. Others were clean and white, their tree matching their table runners matching their paper snowflakes. One house at the very end only had one decoration visible from the sidewalk: a tall light-up cross leaning against the front window. Something about its glow made my spine tense up and I wanted to bring my roommate to see it too.
The next day, after our classes were finished and the sun was set, I asked her to come look at the Christmas lights with me. Her winter coat was long and tan with faux fur around the collar. It made her look older, vintage. I never told her, but I thought about it. When we got to the street she played a Christmas song off her phone and we walked in silence. Her favorite house was one with a pink tree and a tall leg-lamp on display in the window.
I didn’t have to tell her which house I brought her to see because she stopped dead in her tracks as soon as she saw the cross. She asked me if I’d ever seen the families who lived in the houses and I told her no. I liked to make up the people in my head, give them funny names and fancy jobs. It helped keep my mind distracted from the cold when I would forget my jacket. The lights were off inside the house and the darkness gave me a sense of confidence that would be fleeting come sunrise. I walked up the window and pressed my nose to the cold glass. I didn’t have to cup my hands around my eyes to see in, the road was already enveloped in black without any lights at the end of the street. My roommate joined me at the window and, after a minute, shone her phone flashlight against the pane to get a better look.
We saw something on the table but neither of us reacted. A glimmer against the steel caught our eye but we didn’t say anything, we couldn’t. She turned off her flashlight and held my hand, she asked if we could go back to the dorm. She didn’t have her music playing on the way home, so we took the street in silence. Her heels clicking on the pavement sounded like a perfect metronome in contrast to my shuffling sneakers.
I watched her float under the light of the streetlamps. Her hair stayed perfectly in place despite the wind that was disheveling mine. There was a movie I caught the end of the night before that ended with a couple slow dancing in the street. The thought of dancing with her, holding her close, made my stomach tighten up. If her music was still playing I would have considered it, but dancing in silence didn’t have the same appeal. Her hand still sat comfortably in mine and I decided not to push it any further.
Back in the dorm she confided in me that that was her first time seeing one of those in person. She couldn’t even get the word out. Gun. I’d never been so close to one before. It was like I was watching it on display at the zoo, the glass protecting us from each other. My dad kept one hidden in his closet that he never let me see. He told me girls were too soft to hold guns and that when I was older I’d find a nice man who had his own to protect me with. The only kind of people I could imagine with guns were cowboys and police officers. Maybe it was one of them that lived in the house at the end of the street.
She was still shaken an hour later while she curled her hair at her desk, getting ready for a party at a friend’s house. It hung in meticulous curls down her back and I wondered how anyone could put so much effort into their appearance. I thought about what I would have worn had I been invited. The jeans in my drawer were not even a comparison to her shiny, gold dress. I wondered how I would look in her outfit instead. It was short and made her legs look incredibly long. She would have no trouble finding a man in a dress like that. Maybe her husband would have a gun too.
Her pampering was cut short when she let out a shriek, her curling iron had struck her jaw and left her with a red welt. I asked her if she needed any help and she told me to grab her foundation. There were two different shades on her dresser, one tan and one white. I hadn’t known anyone who needed two different colors for their skin, but she explained that she was darker in the summer and paler in the winter.
With a few delicate touches of her sponge, the mark on her jaw had completely disappeared. I told her the story of my bike accident and how I hadn’t worn makeup since. She laughed and said she wished she could say the same. Her skin had been caked on since high school because creating a blank slate was easier than explaining accidents. Especially when they weren’t hers to defend. That’s when I noted I hadn’t ever seen her clean face, only the pattern she was so used to drawing on.
She finished her makeup with a touch of blush and smiled when she was done. Why wouldn’t she be happy, it was another flawless picture. I stared at her reflection in the mirror on her desk until she got up to leave. Grabbing her coat once more, she hugged me goodbye and told me to wait up for her.
Four hours passed, and I found pointless chores to focus my attention on. I dusted the bookshelf and put away a pile of laundry that had been consuming my floor. When she finally bustled through the door I was halfway through folding the towels. Her hair was tousled and frizzy, her makeup in dark streaks down her face.
I tried to ask her if she was okay, but I couldn’t get the words out before she started to sob. She dropped herself onto her desk chair before she started grunting and ripping off her coat. Her hands couldn’t reach the zipper on her dress. She tugged at the band around her chest until it tore open and she could fold it down. Then she was quiet, only the sound of her erratic breaths could be heard in the room.
I don’t know if she knew I was watching her, it was kind of dark and I don’t think it would have mattered. She stared at herself in the mirror until her breathing returned to normal and the tears stopped. In a moment her hands delved into her makeup bag and pulled out her foundation. Her sponge gently dabbed over the black marks under her eyes and within a minute she was back to the girl from before the party. Maybe a little more on edge. She grabbed a hairband from her desk and tied her deflated curls back out of her face. Then she changed into a different dress, a blue one, and left without a word. In the morning she told me the party was lovely and apologized that she got home too late to see me. We never talked about that night again.
Whenever my dad would shout, a thick vein would appear on his forehead. Starting at the end of his hairline, it would travel diagonally to his eyebrow, never faltering until his tirade was through. My brother caught the worst of it the night after his college graduation. We went to a fancy restaurant uptown that had carpet on the walls. It was just us, our parents, and the guy I had to pretend wasn’t my brother’s boyfriend.
Our orders had been taken, we sipped our drinks and discussed the future. Whenever my dad would mention my brother settling down with a nice girl his boyfriend would glance anxiously at me. Dad never noticed, he was too busy making himself at home in my brother’s new shoes.
The conversation turned to politics when my dad had his second glass of whiskey before dinner. Nothing good could come from the topic no matter how you spun it, so I scanned the building to look for their bathroom. I excused myself from the table and made my way across the room, my fingers tracing lines on the walls as I walked. That’s when I saw her.
She had long black hair tied in a braid down her back and a brown leather jacket pulled over her uniform. One look, just one second to jut her chin out towards the backdoor and beckon me to follow. It was cold outside, colder than I remembered and I was upset my jacket was still at the table. She was a waitress, had been for five years, her boss was a dick, but the tips were great. At least, that’s what she told me. Her back was leaned against the brick wall of the building and I stood across from her, watching her movements. She was very sure of herself, no hesitation in her actions. I liked looking at her.
Her hand dove into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. It had gold paper on the edges, the pack my mom had hidden in her raincoat was red. She held one out for me and I shook my head no. I had to watch the time for my family. She asked me to stay out with her until her cab got there and I did. I leaned against the wall with her neither of us spoke, but it wasn’t awkward. Her cab pulled up a minute later and before she left she squeezed my shoulder. I wish I wouldn’t have been so nervous, or thought to ask for her name, but it was too late, and the cab had already driven away by the time my head was cleared.
When I got back to the table my dad was standing, his hands grabbing at the ends of his hair, his face bright red. My mom was crying but it was softer and didn’t mess up her makeup. My brother sat there, stone faced, his hands clutching his boyfriend’s underneath the table. Now the attention was on me, my father turned and jabbed a finger at my chest. He asked me if I knew. I looked at my brother and he shook his head just slightly. I told my dad no.
We grabbed our coats off the backs of our seats and no one said a word. My dad slapped down a few bills on the table right next to our plates of uneaten food. On the walk out, I made sure to walk near the walls, so I could feel the fabric under my fingers once more. Just in case it was the last time.
But it wasn’t the last time. I went back to the restaurant, years later, with my husband and other nameless men from his company. They were presenting awards and giving speeches about how far they had come in just a few short years. When my husband told me about it he didn’t ask, just gave me a time to be ready. I wore a long, green dress that looked like the one my Holiday Barbie wore.
He ordered a car to drive us so we both could drink but he told me he’d be keeping an eye on me and to pace myself. I was not the one who needed to be watched, but I wouldn’t argue with him. Not on his night. The car had smooth leather seats and a dark partition between us and the driver. It made me feel classy, like a Kennedy, and I wanted to enjoy my moment in the imaginary limelight. My husband gave me a rundown of how he wanted the night to go before we were even on the same street as the restaurant. Which men to avoid and which ones to deliberately mention how much he spent on my dress.
I laughed and asked if he was serious, he said of course. These men played dirty and he would use anything he could to one-up them. All I was to him was an accessory, something to show off in front of his coworkers. But I loved him. Sometimes it was just hard to remember that I did. I asked him if he would rather I just staple the price tag to my chest and the look in his eyes told me he had had enough.
In a second his hand struck the left side of my face, his ring connecting with my jaw. Neither of us spoke. I stared ahead at my reflection in the partition and tried to focus on steadying my breathing. The girl in the glass was unfamiliar, I did not claim her as a version of myself. Her chest was red, blotchy, her eyes welling up with tears. A faint red line began to form on her cheek. That girl was broken, weak, I would not be her. I couldn’t be.
When the car pulled up to the restaurant my husband got out first and was greeted by a man with a black tie and curly white hair. He held out his hand to help me out of the car. As I stood next to him, he leaned close to my ear and said he could direct me to the bathroom without being seen. My husband walked inside without saying a word.
The walls were painted a soft white, no trace of the red fabric left. Yet still I touched them softly as I made my way through the restaurant. I saw the back door I had gone through all those years ago with the waitress, I thought it might be nice to see her again. When the man and I arrived at the bathroom I asked him if she still worked there. I didn’t have much to go on, just a vague description of her leather jacket and cigarettes. He apologized and said he had only just started and hadn’t met the full staff yet, then excused himself back into the main room.
The bathroom had paintings of cherubs on the ceiling that seemed to watch me in the mirror. I set my purse on the sink and tore through it to find my foundation. I had two bottles, one light and one dark, and a powder. The mark on my face was getting more noticeable as the red was fading into purple. I grabbed my sponge from my purse and gently dabbed the makeup onto my face.
In a few moments my skin was back to one color. I stared at my own reflection in the mirror. My face just a slightly different shade than my neck. I couldn’t remember the last time I went out and didn’t first completely paint my face. Too many marks had appeared on my skin over the years that made it difficult not to.
A woman rushed into the bathroom and asked if I was nearly finished. My husband was on stage accepting the first award of the evening. She smiled and told me I should be proud to have such a successful husband. I nodded and said I was and that I loved him. I loved him. I loved him. I loved him. If I said it enough times to myself I started to believe it. The door swung back open a second after she left, and a different woman took her place. Her hair hung off to the side in a braid as her skinny fingers shook as she tucked a pack of cigarettes into her back pocket. She stopped for a second as if she recognized me before dipping into a stall. But she didn’t say a word if she did.
I put my makeup back in my bag, smoothed my hands over my dress, and followed the first woman out to the dining room. Perfect women clutched their hands tight to their perfect husbands. I glanced around the room at the happy couples. How many of these women had to draw on their own faces before coming out tonight? I’m sure all of them. And if you asked any of them about their husbands they would smile, say how much they loved them, and then nonchalantly mention how much their dresses cost. It was a role that we had perfected. It was a role we were never allowed out of. We loved our husbands. We didn’t have a choice.
Em Mingus is a creative writing major and Spanish minor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. After graduation her plans are to focus on a career in fiction writing and even dabble in translating. In her spare time she enjoys watching Jeopardy reruns and hanging out with her dog, Muffin.