A Natural Formula
Depending on the trauma, some people can reach a point of no return—a sort of mental holding cell—where no form of help will save them from what foulness lurks within. Angela Arnott, an alluring youth from Stratford, Ontario, learned the hard way that she could never conceal what was creeping around inside her.
It all came out, in autumn, right before Halloween. The beginning of that release started with a conversation with her friend, and a little white business card.
She was sitting at a table in the bustling food court of the mall with her friend, Nicole. They were gossiping, giggling, and glamorizing. Soon they into a girl-to-girl about certain other saucy subjects.
“So, are you still seeing him?” asked Nicole.
“Meh.” Angela flipped open a miniature cosmetic mirror and inspected her eyelashes. “I’m kind of avoiding him.”
Nicole’s jaw dropped. “Angela! But Will’s such a great guy. He’s nice, good-looking, great job, big apartment. He really likes you.”
“I know, I know. We’ll see. I just don’t have the time.”
“Not even for Will, eh?”
Angela slapped the mini-mirror closed. “It’s just one of those things, I guess. I’m just too—young. I get bored. I don’t think I’m ready for something serious.” She took her plastic fork and looked down at her uneaten garden salad. There was a lone cherry tomato sitting on top. She nudged it with her fork, over some lettuce leaves, and then simply watched as it rolled off the plate and fell to the ground. It rolled along and soon made its way among the stomping feet of the nearby crowd, got kicked a few times, and then was squished under some oblivious pedestrian’s heel, squirting its juices onto the walkway floor.
Angela frowned. “I deserve to use my youth while I have it,” she said softly, more to herself than anyone else. Then she looked up at Nicole. “Right?”
Nicole shrugged and then took a big bite of her bacon-cheeseburger, speaking only between bites: “Wish I could get guys . . . like, the ones you get.”
“You’re really not afraid of eating, are you,” asked Angela.
“Never,” said Nicole. She smiled but it fell short between her bulging cheeks. “Food is my only love . . .”
“You know, you could get a good boyfriend if you exercised a bit.”
With her chubby fingers, Nicole plucked a french-fry from its paper cup and then dropped it into her mouth. “Well, I don’t want a guy who wants me only for my looks . . . I want a nice guy . . . Someone like Will, you know . . . Someone who would be a good father . . .”
Angela nearly gagged. But then she put on her signature smile; wide and beaming with straight pure white teeth, and then looked away, deciding to wait for Nicole to finish eating before continuing the conversation—not that she really wanted to. But she wasn’t sure if it was Nicole’s sloppy eating that made her feel uneasy, or that notion of a ‘good father’.
Then Angela’s blue-grey eyes quickly caught sight of something that filled her with a dreadful desire. Her smile faded in a matter of seconds. Usually, it might have been a new designer makeup or a new gown in a store window that attracted her attention like that—but today it was something else entirely: she saw a particularly elegant-looking mother who was holding her new-born baby in a frontal carrier.
Angela found herself staring. It was the perfect picture of a healthy thin mom, as she smiled at her beautiful bouncing baby, happy together, and sharing a moment with each other. Their happiness was palpable. Angela was absorbing it, trying to get a taste, catching glimpses of their faces at different angles, and never once did she find any flaws in them. They were radiating perfection. A smooth baby’s face, not yet blemished by age or wear, or even makeup, coupled with the caring face of a the impeccable mother. But the mother. The mother was the best part; she wasn’t wearing any makeup whatsoever. And Angela could tell. She seemed to be that way naturally. Naturally! She didn’t need paints or concealers. How could someone, a middle-aged mother no less, just look that good without—product?
As Angela stared, she found that instead of a feeling of happiness for them, she was quickly filling up with a mixed poison of desire and envy, jealousy, and even sadness.
Then, in a heart-melting display of affection, the mother kissed her little one.
Angela’s face got red and her eyes started watering.
She looked back down at her plate of salad and put the fork on the table a little harder than she had wanted to. “I guess I’m scared of commitment,” she said. She tapped the tips of her hard, manicured, sapphire-blue fingernails on the table. “I’m immature. I doubt I’ll ever find the right one. I’m not a good person.”
Nicole swallowed the mouthful of food. “You’re a great person,” she said. “God, you are so lucky. Like, you are so beautiful. Not just looks, I mean. People seem to love you as soon as they meet you. Plus you’ve got that amazing smile.” She took another fry and bit into it. “I have no idea why you’re so self-conscious. You have no reason to have so much self-doubt.”
“Thanks, hun, but trust me—there’s no such thing as a great person. People are fucked up, especially when it comes to relationships. You’ll never be good enough no matter how hard you try. You’re either nice but then not pretty enough for them, or you’re pretty but you end up . . . you end up . . . well, you end up just not caring by the time you’re ‘pretty enough’ for someone.”
They sat there for a moment, in silence, and Angela’s nail-tapping continued, harder now.
Nicole’s brow lowered. “I think you’re hanging around the wrong people nowadays,” she said. “You’ve changed. You’re fine the way you are. Or, you were fine the way you were.”
A cross expression came over Angela and her nails screeched across the surface of the table. “Fine isn’t good enough, Nicole. Maybe for a girl like you, but not for me. I actually want to feel accepted. I need to. I want to show everyone. I’ve had to change for it, and you would too if you wanted to. But you don’t really want to, do you? So you won’t. People are stupid, and they do stupid things so they can be accepted.”
“Look, you said you wished to get an attractive guy, but it’s not hard. They just want something. Everybody just wants something. So, just find what they want—guys want looks. They want things other guys can’t have. Yeah, I changed, I guess. I had to. I want to be that thing they can’t have. And I’m telling you now, people are stupid. It’s all about looks—a smile, a body, a hairdo—that’s what makes you a good person in this fucked up planet. Looks and money. You need to realize that. I’m telling you this because it’s going to help you later on.”
“You really think so?”
“Yeah. Humans are shallow. No one can see inside you, no one can hear past what you tell them, and even if you did everything you could to show it, they still wouldn’t notice the real you. Honestly, everyone’s got to change for that eventually, it’s just the way the world is. The one thing I even like about myself anymore is . . . is . . .” Angela’s wet eyes became greyer, and then a tear dripped out from the side. She wiped the moisture off with her palm, careful not to smudge the mascara.
“Hey, are you okay?” asked Nicole. “You don’t like yourself? Did I say something?”
“No, it’s not anything like that. There’s just a lot of things on my mind.” She pushed the plate of salad away, sat up, and instantly she seemed collected again. She started shoving her belongings into her purse.
“Ang, what’s going on? Okay, I’m worried about you.”
“Nothing’s going on.” The blue suddenly came back into her eyes. “It’s all good.”
Nicole raised her eyebrows. “Look, I know something is wrong. You aren’t thinking clearly. You’re pushing yourself too much. This new assembly job is putting a number on you. You’re juggling this big job, men, family, and then your. . .” Her voice became soft, almost a whisper. “Well, your sister.”
Angela shot a glare.
“Sorry. I mean—I don’t know. I just don’t buy all that. There are good people. There were good people. Where did the old Angela go? I just remember that happy chubby girl. We would do everything together. Remember that summer when we played through all those videogames? We just sat there at your cottage for two weeks and there was no rush or pressure. That was so much fun. Now, I feel like you’re pretending you’re untouchable or something. All you seem to care about is guys and work, and all that makeup. You’ve lost a lot of weight too, like, that’s great, but I haven’t seen you actually eating. And you don’t talk to anyone anymore about anything. I haven’t even seen you for months. Over six months, Ang.”
“Don’t worry, Nicole. I’m a grownup girl now. Gotta take care of myself. I’m telling you—people will let you down.”
“Yeah, but I mean, no one sees you. Six months? You’re my best friend. Come on Angela, you’re being stubborn again. You know what you should do. . .” Nicole rummaged through her purse and pulled out a bone-white business card. She held it up to Angela. “Here, you should go to therapy, like I did. Remember the group I told you about, from last year? I’m telling you, it’s good for anyone, even if you don’t think you need it. It’s kind of like a detox.” She pushed it closer to Angela’s face. “Just go. It’ll be good for you.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“It won’t kill you.”
Angela quickly looked around and then took the card. She shoved it into her leather purse, then got up and threw the purse over her shoulder. “I’m sure it won’t,” she said.
Nicole scoffed. “You better go. You should consider taking some time off work, too. That’s what I do when I need to recharge.”
Angela chuckled. “I don’t think so, hun. It’s too good money and I’ve got things to pay for.”
“Things I need.”
“Like those new high heels?” Nicole eyed her feet. They were a pair of Brian Atwoods, straps with different shades of blue and convincing gold buckles.
Angela turned sideways in a feeble attempt to humble them. “And my car,” she said, “and my cell-phone, and food, and—”
“Oh yeah, you’ve been losing friends too. Daryl’s convinced you’ve got something against him, Amy thinks you’re avoiding her. And you still refuse to visit your grandmother, or call your parents while they’re away. So, what’s the deal? Like, people are starting to wonder. And you know what? All that crap you said about people just now, I’m starting wonder, too.”
Angela’s shoulders tensed. “Nicole, I just don’t have the time. I work. They need tons of overtime, I’m exhausted when I’m done, and with my fitness schedule I am literally busy every day of the week. I hardly have time for anyone. Us hanging out right now is all I can give to anyone this week—these three hours. That’s it. And I gave them to you. Alright? You. So can you cut me a break?”
Nicole nodded and looked down at her food. “It’s just we don’t hang out as much as we used to. Makes me kinda sad.”
“Well, I can’t just ‘hang out’ with people any time they happen to ask—we’re not in high school anymore.” Angela cleared her throat and brushed her smooth blond hair. “I’m sorry. Really. But now I’ve got to go, Nicole. It was nice to see you, hun, but I really do have to go home so I can go right to sleep for work tomorrow morning. Okay?”
Angela opened her arms. “Come.”
They hugged briefly and exchanged goodbyes. Nicole kept repeating how worried she was about her, but Angela assured her she was fine. Then Angela strutted away, carrying herself tall, a feigned poise, but still she looked like a fawn among fowls.
Nicole sat back down and planted her face into her half-finished burger.
A few minutes later, at the front of the mall, Angela exited the building through the large glass doors, passing by a number of store posters for Halloween, many of them for a variety of masks, and without knowing entirely why, Angela averted her eyes.
It was a cool evening in early October, and the autumn’s golden sun was setting. The days had been getting shorter—that would change her jogging and yoga schedules—and she noted that the colder weather would be an issue for her skin. She would have to buy more concealer, she decided. One more little expense. One more little things.
She hated the way Nicole had said that. She caught herself feeling slightly bad about lying to Nicole about having to leave, and then leaving her there in the food court by herself, but that feeling was fleeting; she hated having to feel bad for other people, and she’d built a sort of immunity up. Or at least she couldn’t feel it the way she used to. But perhaps what really pissed her off was that Nicole was right; after everything that happened, it really had changed Angela. It had damaged her. She was now—more than ever—thinking of ways she could cover it all up.
She had a life now. Her job took most of her time, and that helped her bury all those thoughts away. And there were other things that were just more important than feeling bad for other selfish, disgusting people; people who had hurt her, people who didn’t reward her efforts, people who were unaffected by her worrying about them or her caring for them or her suffering for them. She used to bleed for them. There were lots of other better things out there, out in the world, things that didn’t change, or scorn, or make her feel worthless. There were even things that could make her a better person again, and this time she would look good, too.
But seeing that mother and her baby earlier had left her with a familiar empty feeling. It came to her every once in a while. She was beginning to feel that uncontrollable urge for attention that she often felt, a longing for something, and sometimes it was someone, to fill that void, to validate her existence, to praise her for her qualities—if only for a moment. And after that moment, she would be well again. She would get back on with her life and drop that something or someone like an empty candy wrapper, just until she needed it again.
Unfortunately, the stores at the Fairview Mall didn’t have anything to satisfy her. Nor did she have anyone she was particularly interested in. She was already tired of her supposed boyfriend, Will. But there was still some time left in the day, and there were things she could still get her hands on before the end of the night.
She quickly trotted across the parking lot, and then got into her electric-blue Mazda 6 convertible. She started onto the highway, driving in the opposite direction of home, towards Toronto—easily an hour’s drive—where she might find some new things to help her shake that bothersome needfulness.
She realized she was starting to get tired of Nicole, too. Perhaps Nicole was just one more thing she would have to forget, bury in the back of her mind, where it belonged, and where it could never hurt her.
She turned the radio to the tune of the ‘Viva Las Vegas’ cover by ZZ Top, maybe because she loved the song, or maybe to drown out the whisperings of something which she once called a conscience.
She stepped on the gas pedal and as she sped passed traffic she mouthed the lyrics:
. . . Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire
There’s a whole lot of money that’s ready to burn
So get those stakes up higher . . .
But, unknown to Angela, a part of her would soon cause her greater and more terrible pain than anything she had tried so desperately to run away from in the past. Those ‘things’ out there in the world—the ones that she needed so desperately—also needed her. Needed all of her.
. . . Vivaaa Las Vegas!
Vivaaa Las Vegas! . . .