Chapter 16: One on One
The bridal shop was a bit cramped. Parker nearly missed it as we were driving through the area since it was squeezed right in between a pizzeria and an elementary school. The first thing that caught my attention as soon as we entered was that there was only one fitting room. The number of racks spread out across the shop were filled with heaps of dresses on hangers in all different colors, sizes and fabric textures that made me feel like I was being thrown into a vogue jungle.
“We tightened the back of the dress so it could flow down a bit more smoothly across her chest,” the tailor explained, placing her hands right at my waist. A wooden chopstick held her hair up in a bun, and a silver pendant hung just below her collarbone. I wanted to start wearing necklaces. Bracelets jangled loosely on my wrists, but necklaces were firm and fixed. “It’s more cinched in here, you see?”
Richel nodded, enthusiastically clasping her hands together. She wiped away at a fake tear streaming down her cheek. With Richel, water works were inevitable. “I do. Oh, Nina, you look gorgeous!”
I observed myself in the mirror: long, sleek hair swept over my shoulder; rosy cheeks; clear eyes. The shop owner and tailor had done an excellent job with the alterations. The sequins glittered along the bodice with every small movement I made, like diamonds. The beige fabric of the dress didn’t wash out my skin at all, and this was the one dress I had tried on in a span of sixteen years that I actually felt confident and comfortable in.
“Thank you,” I softly replied, smiling. I turned to the shop owner, a petite Asian woman holding a flimsy yellow measuring tape with her silver wiry glasses atop her head. She handed the tape to the tailor, who then wrapped it around my waist. “The changes look great. I love it.”
Saying this sentence out loud felt like such a giant leap of improvement for me. There truly was a difference between someone telling you how wonderful you looked versus you telling yourself. Accepting a compliment for once in my life felt freeing.
“You are very welcome,” the shop owner responded, eyeing Parker. “Is this for a dance?”
Parker, who had been dozing off while sitting on a nearby plastic chair, looked up. His eyes fell on me and he let out a low whistle. I quickly averted my gaze away from him, my cheeks warming up.
“No,” I said. “It’s for a beauty pageant.”
The tailor nodded wisely, unwrapping her measuring tape from my waist. “You are going to win, my dear.” She disappeared into the back room while the shop owner scurried off to the back counter to begin ringing me up on the cash register. Richel followed the lady at a rather fast pace to discuss more about the dress, leaving me unable to take off the dress by myself, what with the zipper being all the way behind me.
“Need some help there?” Parker asked, getting up from his seat and walking towards me.
“Um…” Richel was still idling by the counter, chattering away and probably attempting to get a bigger bargain for the total of the dress plus the alterations made. She wouldn’t be done talking for another solid five minutes, ten tops. “I guess.”
I felt a tingle jolt up my spine as Parker’s fingers brushed against the skin of my back, the zipper sliding down. As soon as he was done, I quickly turned around to face him, my hands wrapped tightly around my arms to cover up the embarrassing goosebumps that had formed. “Thanks.”
His eyes moved down to my mouth. “You’re welcome.”
“Thanks for asking me to the dance, too.” The words simply tumbled out. It seemed that whenever I was around Parker, my brain disconnected from my mouth and every word uttered was completely uncensored.
“It was my pleasure,” he replied, shifting a loose strand of hair on my forehead and tucking it gently behind my ear. “Thanks for accepting.”
Harrison’s blank expression in the hallway popped into my head once more: dull eyes and dropped jaw. His face kept hurtling back to me. “No problem,” I whispered, a small bundle of guilt growing in my conscience. The fact that thoughts of Harrison were still floating around in my mind made me feel furious at myself.
Parker stood before me now with such a hopeful expression on his face. I certainly wasn’t jumping to conclusions and claiming that Parker was head over heels in love with me; that wasn’t it at all. It was the thrilling yet fearful fact that a boy was actually interested in me for once. I had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t at all a master in the art of flirting or dating. Boys were not my expertise whatsoever. The sudden undivided attention from them was something I was trying to adapt to. How did my mother do this?
“I managed to get the lady to shave off fifty bucks!” Richel hissed right by my ear. My shoulders jumped, and Parker cleared his throat, taking an obvious awkward step away from me. Her eyebrows raised in amusement at the both of us before continuing. “How good am I?”
I wrapped an arm around her waist and rested my head against her shoulder. “By far the best,” I said, grinning. “Now I’m all set, right?”
“Wrong. Tomorrow there’s one last meet up with all of the girls that will be participating in the runway walk on Friday. Each of the contestants get to have a one on one with Jane Lee.”
“What?” I screeched. The Asian woman standing behind the marble counter looked at us with wide eyes before resuming punching digits into her calculator. “A one on one conversation with Jane is something that only happens in my dreams.”
“I thought I was in your dreams,” Parker said, frowning and folding his arms. I rolled my eyes but playfully shoved his ribs with my elbow. “Is that the dress you’re going to wear to formal, too?”
There it was again: the reminder of Harrison’s staggered expression lighting up my memory. I smoothed the skirt over with my hands. The dress flowed across the floor behind me, leaving a trail of fabric and glitter. “This? This is too much.”
“Whatever, Cinderella,” he teased, then pulled out his phone to check the time. “We should get going. Your mom is probably expecting you.”
“And my two wicked stepsisters, too,” I added. “You can’t forget about them.”
Richel rolled her eyes, jogging ahead in front of us. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Alright, alright Cinderella and Prince Eric. Let’s get going.”
“You’re getting your fairytales mixed up!” I exclaimed as we walked outside into the cool breeze. Parker grabbed my hand and started dragging me towards the front of the shop. I turned my head back around to bid goodbye to the Asian woman, but she already had her ear pressed against the receiver of a telephone. Parker’s palm pressed against mine. I looked down at our hands and hoped that this could be it: I could forget about Harrison, the kiss, and that I had ever fallen for him in the first place.
I inhaled the overwhelming aroma of spaghetti as soon as I entered the household and came to a halt. Mom only cooked pasta if there were guests over. I set my backpack onto the living room floor beside the sofa before pulling my shoes off the heels of my feet.
The distant echo of people chatting in the kitchen made me freeze. It was nearly ten o’clock on a school night. Who on Earth could possibly be over at this hour? I carefully walked over towards the kitchen, and the closer I got the more I could hear a swarm of voices talking over one another with the occasional chuckle here and there. It wasn’t until I leaned against the island and turned to face the kitchen table that everything in me grew still.
Mr. and Mrs. Clarence sat beside my mom and Mr. Klein, while Harrison sat off to the side, politely nodding his head at times while he twirled his spaghetti noodles with disdain. My mother’s attempt at Italian cooking was still questionable. I wasn’t even sure how Mr. and Mrs. Clarence were stomaching it all down. Harrison stopped twirling his noodles around his fork as soon as he saw me. I moved my head slowly to my mother, who was sitting at the head of the table with ease.
“Nina,” she said, smiling and pointing to the empty chair next to Harrison. “Sorry for the sudden guests, but the Clarences came over and Greg was already here. We decided to all have dinner together.”
Like a ghost, I silently shuffled over to the chair without saying a word. I cast an irritated glance at Mr. Klein (Greg), who brushed it off with such poise that it only irritated me even more. What was he even doing here? And why was he already here? Did he come over often without my knowledge?
Harrison was burning holes into my shoulder so I turned to him. His eyes briskly darted away from mine and moved back down to his plate, where the food had barely been touched. I didn’t want anything to do with him, not right now in front of my family and his. This wasn’t the right time to discuss anything with him.
“How was school, Nina?” Greg asked, taking a small sip of water from his glass. I munched carefully on the asparagus.
“Uneventful.” There was an awkward silence before Mr. Clarence let out a loud laugh.
“Harrison said the same thing,” he chuckled, turning to Harrison, who simply nodded. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. He had a lot of nerve to be sitting at my kitchen table in my house when just earlier, he hadn’t said a single word to me during the unraveling of Parker's spring formal ask.
“Have you asked her to the dance yet?” Mom said, popping a spoonful of peas into her mouth. Greg was staring at her like she was the sun and moon combined.
Harrison opened his mouth to answer but I beat him to the punch. “I already have a date to the dance, Mom.”
Greg grinned, and Mrs. Clarence brought her hand to her chest. Mom, however, was in no laughing matter. “This is breaking news. Who is it?”
She blinked, settling her fork down onto her plate. “Your senior buddy?”
I nodded. She shot me a suspicious look, her eyes flitting back and forth between Harrison and I. Harrison was a little too focused on his food now, shoveling piles of spaghetti into his mouth and chewing them down like a madman. “Yep. He asked me. Today,” I emphasized.
Mom cast a sympathetic glance Harrison’s way. If she knew that he’d been acting like a confusing idiot to me, she wouldn’t exactly be pitying him. “That’s great, honey.”
“When is this dance of yours, Nina?” Greg asked. His plate was clean and he was dabbing lightly at his mouth with a napkin.
“Friday night,” I replied, purposely stabbing a meatball hard with my fork.
“That’s too bad,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s when the event I’m hosting will be.”
“What a shame,” I muttered, coughing under my breath.
“Yes, I’ve even invited the Clarences,” he said, raising his glass to them. My lips twitched.
“Really? All of them?” I asked, eyeing Harrison. His head was still ducked down. I was certain it was because of the death stare I’d sent him earlier.
“Harrison can’t come since it’s the night of the formal,” Mr. Clarence answered. “So it’ll just be this beautiful lady right here and me.”
Mrs. Clarence blushed and I couldn’t help but look at them with fondness. Greg was a woman’s dream, sure, with the British accent and his charming mannerisms. But could he take care of my mother’s heart? Could he promise not to break it?
I picked uneasily at the remains of my spaghetti, unsure as to why I felt such an unsettling feeling forming in the pit of my stomach. The fantasy of my parents magically getting back together and falling in love again had died long ago, so that couldn’t be the reason as to why Greg made my blood boil. It was mainly how he had snuck his way into our house so easily, charming my mother and (surely he was the one) giving her that ridiculous charm bracelet.
It was how he had succeeded at doing all the things my father failed at.
“We should get going. It’s late,” Mrs. Clarence said when she looked down at her watch. She placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “I hope you have a wonderful time at spring formal, Nina. I’ll make sure to take pictures of Mr. Klein’s event for you so that you can at least catch a glimpse of what you missed out on.”
I nodded, smiling and leaning in for a quick hug. “Thanks.”
“See you later, kiddo,” Mr. Clarence said, offering me his fist. I bumped it, laughing. Everyone was putting away plates and scooting in their chairs to move out into the hallway. Harrison was the only one left in the kitchen, still sitting at his seat. I stood there for a moment, staring at him. Every part of me wanted to scream at him and question why he had kissed me in the first place if it was all for nothing. Another part of me wished I could push past it all and simply forget.
When he still didn’t budge, I sucked in a shaky breath and turned around to at least bid his parents out the door.
I stopped, my heart thudding through my ears. He wrapped his fingers carefully around my wrist, almost as if he were checking my pulse, before turning me back around to face him. It’s funny how you can know a person for years, spend practically every waking moment with them, only to come rolling back to square one: strangers, timid, afraid.
“Are we okay?” he asked.
The slap sounded across the kitchen cupboards. In my head, it shook the ground and broke the windows. My palm stung a bit as I brought it back down to my side, trembling.
“Do you honestly think that we are okay after you kissed me with no proper explanation?” I blurted out. “Do you expect me to be okay with seeing you in the hallway this morning walking with Leslie, as if the kiss never happened?”
He stayed silent.
“Do you?” I asked again. My throat was tightening, the kind of burn that occurred because you knew you were about to cry.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Nina, I’m so sorry. But I’m not with-”
“I really don’t want to hear it right now, Harrison,” I said, wrenching my wrist out of his grip. “Please get out of my house.”
He stared at me for a moment, and I almost forgave him right then and there. But what was the point? He still didn’t get it. He was still going to attend spring formal with Leslie. Leslie was still his girlfriend. The moment he walked out that door, I had to forget him. I would erase every part of him from my memories, and the purple octopus sitting on my comforter in my room would be the first thing to go.
The hotel lobby was fairly empty with a few pageant contestants idling about, and the only sounds that could be heard were the whirring of the coffee machine refilling someone’s mug and the clacking of the front desk attendant typing away at her keyboard. There was a banner hanging above an arch by the conference room that read: “One on One with Jane Lee!” Paparazzi vans were already parked outside, and the spectators stood near bushes with cameras held up to expectant eyes.
“Stop blinking,” Richel muttered under her breath as she brought the mascara wand closer to my eyelashes. But it was like an instantaneous reflex: as soon as I saw that death machine coming at me, I blinked. Richel groaned. “Nina!”
“I’m sorry,” I sighed, scratching the top of my head. “How about I do it? I can do my own mascara now.”
She cocked her head to the side, smiling. “Okay. Give it a shot.” She handed me the compact mirror and wand. I settled comfortably in my seat before lifting the wand to my lashes, brushing them through until my lashes were thicker and longer. Makeup was seemingly an art, something I never would have imagined it being. When I finished, Richel clapped her hands to her mouth, her eyes tearing up. “I am so proud of you.”
“For knowing how to apply mascara?” I laughed.
She shook her head. “For more than that,” she giggled, shoving me lightly on the shoulder. “For letting me be a part of this. A part of your transformation.”
I ducked my head down, letting my hair fall as a curtain between us. The Melway pageant was coming to a close so near and soon. I wasn’t even certain if I would make it to the next round, much less make it to Florida.
“You know, when I first met you, you thought you were ugly,” she said. “Do you remember that?” I nodded. “Do you still feel like that now?”
“Sometimes,” I honestly replied, handing the tube of mascara back to her. Then a thought came to mind. “Can I ask you something?”
“Before, when we started this whole pageantry undertaking, you said I was already pretty. Why did you say that?”
“Because it’s true,” she said. “You were pretty then, and you’re pretty now. Regardless of the physical changes you’ve gone through, you’ve always been pretty, Nina.”
Before she could say another word, the woman clacking away at the front desk called my name. Richel sent me a thumbs up, much like Parker would if he had actually come inside the lobby rather than wait in his car. I rubbed my lips together one last time to ensure that the lipbalm would stay in its place before getting up from my chair. The front lady motioned for me to come to her, so I rushed over towards the counter with quick feet. She took off her headset, clearing her throat.
“Miss Lee specifically requested to talk with you first,” she whispered. My eyes widened.
“Me?” I asked. She nodded. “But she’s not even here yet.”
“She’s actually already in that room. She came in through the back to avoid the press.”
My mouth hung open in shock. The fact that Jane had requested to speak to me first first, out of all the other contestants,was a questionable move. Did she want to eliminate the weak weeds in the very beginning? Or was this a favoritism tactic?
Either way, my hands shook as I took tentative steps towards the conference room door. Taking a deep breath, I turned the knob. There was no long oak table, no chairs, not even a single legal notepad in sight. Instead, Jane sat on a dark brown sofa wearing a pair of cutoff shorts and a teal colored hoodie with purple flip flops. She pushed a pair of round black glasses up the bridge of her nose, and her legs were in criss-cross position. This was not the Hollywood starlet I had seen on my TV screen. This was an everyday young woman.
Her eyes lifted from her phone screen and she grinned, patting the cushion beside her. “Nina! Come in, come in.”
I let the door shut softly behind me before shuffling my way to the sofa. I sunk into the pillows, my shoulders loosening a bit. “Hi.”
She burst into laughter, startling me. Without the lighting or the makeup, Jane seemed more at home and comfortable with herself. “Do me a favor and let out the breath you’re holding in. I’m not here to interrogate you, promise.”
I did as I was told, releasing the pent up anxiety within me and laughing, as well. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”
She took off her glasses and used the hem of her sweater to clean the lenses. “We have ten minutes. I know that’s not a lot of time, but that’s why I wanted to speak with you first.”
I brought my knees up to my chest, slipping off my flats and letting them rest beside the legs of the sofa. “I was wondering why you did that.”
“You remind me a lot like myself when I was your age,” she said. “I was fifteen when my face was criticized on the Internet. Do you want to know what they said?” I blinked, unsure as to whether or not this was rhetorical question. “They said that I looked like I had the body of a twelve year old boy.”
I felt like a blow had plummeted through my stomach. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “I felt horrible. I’ve always been fairly short, not exactly the curviest person on the planet. After that, how I looked became a big problem for me. I felt obligated to look my best at all times, even if I was just heading to the mall or going Christmas tree shopping with my dad. It was this giant cloud of pressure looming over me.”
“That’s awful,” I whispered.
She nodded. “It was awful. But do you know what I realized?”
She sighed, leaning her head against the sofa cushion. “That I still feel exactly the same way.”
My eyes nearly bugged out of my head. Jane Lee, Hollywood starlet, felt ugly? “Jane, that’s crazy. You’re one of the most sought after young stars of this entire generation. You’re successful, you have a great career-”
“Yet I still wish I was taller,” she cut in wistfully. “Why do you think that is, Nina?”
“I really want to have an intelligent and thoughtful response, but I honestly have no clue.” This whole revelation of someone so beautiful feeling ugly had my mind going in all different directions. “You can have any guy you want. You’re admired by so many people. Why do you wish you look different?”
“Because pretty is a process,” she stated.
I chewed on my lip, twiddling with my thumbs. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“Learning to feel pretty doesn’t happen magically on its own. It’s a series of steps that you have to go through on your own. You can date all the people you want or have a million admirers, but at the end of the day you have to look at yourself in the mirror and be happy with what you see without all of that excess.” She patted my hand. “Nina, you are so much more than your mother. I’m not saying you’re prettier than your mother; I’m not even saying that you’re ugly compared to your mother. I’m saying that your worth measures beyond your physicality.”
My eyes were growing wet now, and I sniffled. A sob was racking up inside my chest. “How long does this process take?”
“There’s no finalized date,” she admitted. “Every once in awhile, you’re going to feel small and insignificant. You’re going to wonder why your thighs touch, or why your hair isn’t tamer. And you’re going to wonder why certain people don’t notice you the way you wish they would.”
She gave me a knowing look, and it was almost as if she knew about Harrison. Which was, of course, impossible since Jane and I were strangers to one another. But something told me she was talking from experience.
“People are going to pick apart at your looks your whole entire life. But you shouldn’t let opinions dictate the way you look at yourself. Don’t form these ridiculous standards or ideals in your head, Nina. Be the person you want to be, not who you’re supposed to be.”
I smiled, squeezing her hand and swiping at my eyes. “Have you ever considered moving to Melway to become a therapist and leaving behind the acting life?”
She let out a laugh, pulling me in for a hug. “If it ever comes down to that, I’ll let you know. Maybe we can even be neighbors.” When we pulled apart, she adjusted my hair and I pushed up her glasses for her. She wasn’t the Hollywood starlet on my TV screen. She was just Jane. We were just two girls living different lives on the same planet. Sitting in this room cross legged on the sofa, Jane and I weren’t too different after all.