Chapter 5: Unibrow
Richel’s vanity was piled with makeup cartons of all kinds: thin tubes of smooth foundation, square and circular bottles of perfume, compact pressed powder and different shades of blush with names like Crimson Rose and Beachy Peachy. My eyes ate it up.
“That’s for later, I promise,” Richel said, smiling. My eyes pondered around her room, taking in the old record player sitting on a stand in a corner and the blue ethereal curtain surrounding her bed. It was like she was a princess living in a castle bedroom. “For now, we’re going to work on how you’re going to answer the questions they’ll ask you.”
“What kinds of questions will they be asking me?” I asked, chewing on my bottom lip. The last time I had been interrogated was by my mother. I’d been outside. I was eight. It had been my birthday. I’d waited, standing beside our mailbox, for my father to come. I waited for four hours, even after my mother said he wasn’t coming. Back then, I believed in him. I believed in a lot of things.
“Simple stuff,” she replied, stealing a throw pillow from her bed and throwing it onto the floor. She tossed me one and I caught it just in time before it hit my face. “Like how old are you, what school do you go to, what’s your favorite school subject.”
I felt my shoulders sag in relief. “I can answer those,” I said triumphantly, lying back on the throw pillow.
“Okay, so let’s begin then,” Richel declared, reaching into her purse which sat beneath her vanity and pulling out a folder. She opened it, taking a piece of paper out. “What is your name?”
Richel made a noise with her tongue, and I jumped, my brows furrowing. “You can’t just say Nina. You have to state your full name. First, middle, last.”
I frowned. “Why?”
“They want you to present yourself in a confident and clear manner,” she stated. “They want to know everything about you.”
“Like my full name?”
“Like your full name.” She waited, staring at me. I let out an annoyed sigh.
“Nina Elena Gregory,” I grumbled. Richel shook her head at me, raising her eyebrows. I sighed again, clearing my throat before declaring a little bit louder, “My name is Nina Elena Gregory.”
“Better,” Richel happily replied. “How old are you?”
“What school do you attend and what is your favorite school subject?”
“Melway High, and my favorite school subject is Math.” Answering these questions was a breeze. It was almost relaxing, even. This was what my mother endured through years and years of beauty pageantry? Questions about herself?
“What do you do in your spare time?”
I froze, my eyes widening as my brain desperately racked through its files, searching for a possible activity that seemed remotely normal and not at all odd. I thought of sports or clubs, but I had never joined any of those things. As much as I had felt invisible on the inside, I had let myself become on the outside.
“Nina?” Richel asked, looking up from her interview paper. “Are you having a brain fart?”
I shook my head, embarrassed. This question should have been easy. I should just say the first thing that comes to mind, and all should turn out well. “Um…” I trailed off, turning to my side and leaning my chin against my palm. “...put soil fertilizer in flower pots.”
Richel blinked in surprise. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“And if I don’t?”
Richel smacked a palm against her forehead and groaned. “Nina, beauty pageant contestants don’t just have part time jobs. They’re involved in various organizations and school activities. Student body, feeding the homeless programs, library volunteering.”
“But that’s what I do,” I defended. “I work at my mother’s flower shop and I take care of the flowers and plants that we sell.” I frowned at Richel. It may have sounded lame and unappealing, what I did in my spare time. But the time and effort and care that I poured into my flowers was my outlet. Each time I moved a pot into an area that would hold more sunlight into the greenhouse, or watered the growing lilies and chrysanthemums, something inside me made me grow stronger. Helping something become stronger made me feel like I could do the same for myself.
Richel sighed, putting the paper back in the envelope. “Okay. I understand that we are going to have to work with what we’ve got. We’re going to tweak some things about yourself, specifically the activities you’re involved in. But I need you,” she paused, clearly thinking carefully about how to put what she was going to say in the most gentle way possible, “to help me get you into this competition.”
I took a deep breath, running my fingers through my ponytail. “What do I have to do?”
She grimaced. “Can you get yourself into any clubs at school in the next two days?” she asked as sweetly as anyone who was asking a practically social invert for the past two years to socialize with everyone and anyone.
But don’t you want to become pretty?
“I’ll see what I can do."
“I miss one lunch, one lunch, and this is what happens! My best friend is joining a beauty pageant and is going to start sneaking around behind her mother’s back!” Faith yelled, laughing and shaking her head. Her volleyball practice had just ended, and I’d sent her a quick text to wait for me at the gymnasium. By the time I’d walked in, all of the tall volleyball girls were shoving their way outside, shooting me surprised looks.
“I’m not sneaking around…” I said, biting the thumb of my nail. Faith downed a water bottle, then pulled another one out of her neon green gym bag and opened it, throwing the cap somewhere behind her. I needed someone to rant to with all of the craziness behind the scenes, and I needed to rant specifically to a girl. There are certain things you want to share with a girl because you know she’ll get what you’re trying to say, and in this lifetime, Faith was my only option.
Faith raised her eyebrows at me, pulling the water bottle away from her lips. “You told your mom that you can’t work today and tomorrow because you have a school activity to attend to.”
“I do have an activity to attend to, though,” I insisted.
“Yeah, a beauty pageant interview!” Faith scoffed, shaking her head in disbelief. She took a seat on the floor and began taking off her black Nikes. “I don’t understand why you can’t just tell your mom, Nina. She was in a beauty pageant too. She could help you out rather than you having to turn to dumb blondie Richel.”
“Richel isn’t all that bad,” I defended, folding my arms. But even I knew that being with Richel was all about tolerance. She had her shining moments, and then her pushy instances. “She wants to help me.”
“With what, exactly?” Faith asked, standing up and shimmying her feet into her slippers and taking her hair out of its ponytail. It fell into waves just below her shoulders. She stopped tousling her waves when she saw the look on my face. Her eyes softened. “Nina?”
I swiped a tear that was slipping down my cheek, turning the other way, towards the volleyball nets. A white volleyball sat just beside the pole of the net. “Am I pretty?”
I whirled around. “Am I pretty?” I asked.
Faith blinked. “Yes.”
“No,” I shot back. “I’m not. I’m not pretty.”
Faith swallowed, placing an arm around me, but I pulled away from her. “Nina..."
“I want to join this pageant so that I can prove to everyone that I can be just as pretty as my mom,” I said, then choked back on a bitter laugh. “I know it sounds delusional, but I am just…” I sniffled, swiping my nose against the sleeve of my jacket, heading towards the white volleyball with a sudden anger. “I am just so tired, Faith. I’m so tired of having people constantly compare me to my mother and tell me that I look nothing like her. That I’m ugly, like my father.” I threw the ball over the net, hard, and it came bouncing off the wall over the net back at me. My first instinct was to hit it with the palm of my hand. It sailed over the net. “My father who abandoned us, who abandoned me, and has the nerve to invite me to his daughter’s birthday.” When the ball rolled back underneath the net, I picked it up and hit it again, hearing the satisfying smack of my hand against the rubber, releasing an anger that so badly needed to be released. “He doesn’t even care about us anymore; he’s too busy with his real family. I just want to prove to people that I am pretty. That inside me is a pretty girl.”
“Miss Gregory,” a voice called out, bouncing off the gym walls. I let the ball drop to the floor, turning my head to the right. Faith stood up suddenly, clearing her throat.
“Coach,” Faith said, surprised. “I thought you headed home.”
“I did,” Coach Tracy said, still eyeing me. “Or rather I was, but then I realized I left my personal volleyball behind.”
I felt my face turn hot and I extended my arm out to give the ball back. “I am so sorry, I was just-”
“Have you ever played volleyball, Miss Gregory?” Coach Tracy asked. Faith’s brows furrowed in confusion as she shot me a dubious glance.
“Um… no. No, I have not.”
“Never been on a team before? Ever?”
I shook my head. “No.”
She shook her head, walking towards me now. “You have a strong arm there,” she said, patting my arm. I sent her a weak smile. “Have you ever considered joining our team?”
My eyebrows shot up. “What?”
“Huh?” Faith added.
“We actually need an extra player on our junior varsity team at the moment,” Coach explained. “Martha is out for about a month and a half because her family took a spontaneous vacation to Alaska.”
“I would’ve chosen Hawaii,” Faith muttered.
“What do you say?” Coach asked, sending me a winning smile. “We have practice two times a week. Our next game is this Friday, a home game. It could be fun for you.” She nodded her chin towards the ball that was still in my hand. “Looks like you need an outlet.”
“I have an outlet,” I said, but thinking about it now, watering flowers was only a small benefit to tame what I was feeling inside.
Coach shrugged her shoulders, retrieving the ball from my hands. “Just an offer.”
“Can you get yourself into any clubs at school in the next two days?”
“Count me in,” I declared loudly. Faith’s eyes widened to the size of saucers in the sky, and then a grin slowly broke out onto her face. She sent me a thumbs up, her mouth hanging wide open. Coach nodded wisely, then turned to Faith.
“Let her borrow the extra pair of knee pads in your locker. We’ve got practice again on Thursday. And welcome to the team, Nina.”
I smiled, watching as Coach Tracy walked out of the gym with the ball balanced on her hip. Faith let out a whoop, running in circles around me.
“This is crazy! You’re going to be playing sports now! You’re going to be physically active in something other than running the mile!”
“Gee, thanks,” I mumbled, glaring at her.
Faith laughed, placing her hands on her hips as she tried to catch her breath. “First your beauty pageant and now this. How are you going to keep up, champ?”
I laughed, rolling my eyes. Things were looking up. Perhaps I could turn pretty in fourteen days after all. Perhaps I wouldn’t be such a lost case.
“Stop blinking!” Richel exclaimed, sighing frustration as she swiped away a bead of sweat sliding down her temple.
“I’m trying,” I said, looking up again at the ceiling.
“Tomorrow is your interview; we have to get your look just right,” she explained for the fifth time. “They don’t want you wearing any makeup for your head shots but obviously that isn’t going to happen.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, picking up a pair of tweezers and moving them towards my eyebrows. “Every one of those girls, including my cousin, is going to be wearing at least some hint of makeup. It’s an unwritten rule.”
“I’m horrible at unwritten rules,” I commented, scooting my head away from her hand. “What is that… death trap?”
“This is an eyebrow tweezer so that I can fix this unibrow of yours,” she scoffed. My hand flew self consciously to the skin between my eyebrows.
“I do not have a unibrow; take it back,” I demanded.
“You don’t have a unibrow,” a voice said from Richel’s doorway. I turned around. Parker leaned against the wall, arms folded, a permanent smirk etched onto his face. He looked like he wanted to cause trouble; every movement he made was a red flag.
“Get out, Park,” Richel seethed.
“Why are you telling her she has a unibrow when she doesn’t?” Parker questioned. “And you say I’m the mean one in this family.”
“You are the mean one, and the horrible one, and the troublesome one. So please, get out before you break something in here.”
He snorted. “Nothing in here is even worth breaking. Not even the Coach purse you have hidden in the back of your closet.”
She gasped, feigning throwing the pair of tweezers at him. “You are such a little twelve year old snoop!”
“Actually, I’m seventeen. We’re twins, remember?” he said, then turned to me, smiling. “Hi Nina.”
“Hello,” I shyly mumbled. He leaned forward with his shoulders in a way I’d never seen a boy do before.
“Don’t listen to my twin. She’s a bit of a nut job.”
“Park, I’m serious, if you’re not out of here in ten seconds I’m going to-”
“I just swung by to check on Nina and make sure you weren’t smothering her to death.” He turned his attention to me, scanning my face. I felt myself squirm. “You look great.” He saluted us goodbye before walking loudly down the stairs. I heard the door slam shut, and then the sound of car tires screeching out of the neighborhood. Richel let out a breath, huffing.
“Why couldn’t I have been an only child, or at least have been blessed with a little sister?” she pleaded, looking up at her ceiling. She turned to me. “He’s right, though. You don’t have a unibrow. I was just saying it in hopes of getting you to stop moving your eyelids like a crazed schizophrenic.”
“Hey, schizophrenia is not something to joke about,” I warned her.
“Neither are unruly eyebrows,” she said, clicking her tongue in disgrace. “When was the last time you plucked these babies?”
“I don’t really like to pluck them,” I mumbled.
“What?” she practically yelled. “Oh my goodness gracious, Nina, eyebrows are the focal point of the face. They can bring together an entire look; you won’t even need to wear that much makeup if your eyebrows are bangin.’”
“Banging?” I asked, completely lost when she had said the words focal point.
She shook her head again. “Let me go to the kitchen to get an ice cube.”
“An ice cube?” I asked. She ignored my question, turning to walk out the door and quickly jog down the spiral staircase. I sighed, blowing a chunk of bangs out of my eyes. I took a look at myself in the mirror, the last time I would ever see this Nina again. The next time I’d look in the mirror, I would be looking at Pretty Nina. After Richel was done with me, I’d be one step closer to redeeming myself.
By the time I got home, the sky was turning the color of the skin of peaches mixed with orange slices. A breeze was running through the air, and I let the sleeves of my hoodie swallow my hands whole. Jogging up the walkway, I could hear sounds of laughter and tinkering glasses in the kitchen. I jogged faster, finally reaching the door, and then I stopped. I pressed my hand against the knob, my fingers wrapping around the cool metal. Then I took a breath and opened the door.
“Nina, is that you?” Mom called from her place by the stove.
“Yeah,” I replied, walking towards the dining room. I turned to Mrs. Clarence. “Hello.”
Mrs. Clarence was just gawking at me, not even bothering to cover up her astonishment.
“How was your school activity?” Mom asked, still stirring whatever was inside the boiling pot. Steam rose from it, and I could smell a hint of basil in the air.
“It was great,” I lied. “Coming along really well.”
“Ira, you’ve gotten so quiet,” Mom laughed, turning around to face Mrs. Clarence, and then her eyes fell on me. Her eyebrows shot up, and she dropped her wooden spoon into the pot. “Nina…”
I blinked. “What?” I asked, but I knew exactly what. If I squinted just enough, I would be able to see the reflection of myself in the pot cover settled on the kitchen counter beside our rack of spices. In the reflection of that pot cover stood a girl with sleek, straight hair. She had just the right amount of flush in her cheeks to make her look alive and glowing; she had surprisingly long eyelashes that she never even knew were on her eyelids and oh wow had they always been that long? And she also had different eyebrows, defined eyebrows, ones that weren’t just random globs of hair on her forehead, but curved lines that did indeed soften her round face shape. It was me. It was pretty me.
“Is that Punches who just arrived?” Harrison hollered. I could hear his footsteps stomping down the stairs. My heart was pounding, and I was afraid to turn around. When he reached me, he swung an arm around my neck, pulling me close to him and giving me a noogie. “Where have you been? I was up in your room and… hey, your hair’s not in a-”
He cut himself off immediately when his eyes landed on my face. I stared at him. He stared right back at me. His eyes were just burning into mine for what seemed like forever, what I wished was forever, and then he stepped back and blinked rapidly. He even had the audacity to rub his eyes.
“Honey…” Mom said, a smile slowly spreading out onto her lips. And then the fire alarm went off. A loud, incessant and shrill beeping noise. My first instinct was to cover my ears; the ringing was so loud. My second instinct was to look over at the stove and, lo and and behold, the pot was emitting too much steam to be called just steam anymore.
“The pot, the pot!” I heard Mrs. Clarence shout through my muffled hearing. Mom quickly reached her arm over the pot to turn off the stove, but pulled her arm back when she realized the steam was too hot. I sighed, realizing I had no other choice but to uncover my ears. I reached my arm over the pot instead, and a burst of water bubbled up and spat onto my arm. I winced, but continued to reach for the button. Mom rushed over to the fire alarm to punch in the four digit code that would turn it off. All the while, with hot water landing onto my arm, Harrison was speaking to me.
“What?” I asked, focusing on quickly getting my hand through the smoke and hitting that number. He spoke again, yet I still couldn’t hear a word he was saying. “What?” I made one last attempt, jabbing my thumb hard against a button, relieved when I found it to be the off button to the stove. The fire alarm stopped ringing, to the relief of my ears.
“You look different!” he yelled, right into my ear. I covered it immediately, shooting him a glare and squeezing my eyes shut. I had a headache. Mom and Mrs. Clarence ran over to me. My arm had bright red splotches on it, and I winced when I tried to lift it up and examine it at a closer angle. Harrison seemed out of breath and was still looking at me.
“Ira, help me look for the first aid kit in the bathroom, please?” Mom asked, shooting my arm one last concerned look before rushing out of the kitchen. “And Harrison, run Nina’s arm under some cold water, quickly.”
Harrison nodded, placing his hand on the small of my back and guiding me towards the kitchen sink, just beside the stove. I peered inside out of curiosity. A black burnt wooden spoon and what appeared to be an attempt at spaghetti noodles with, as I’d presumed, a few basil leaves. Harrison turned on the sink, gently wrapping his fingers around my wrist. I winced, pulling my arm away from his grip.
“Sorry,” he said, taking my arm again from a different area and leading it towards the cool water. I felt my shoulders tense up at first, then relax as soon as my arm was hit with a light splash of cool water. I sighed, bringing my hand closer to the faucet.
“Where did you go?” Harrison asked.
“To Richel’s house,” I quietly replied, worried that my mother might hear. “My interview with the panel is tomorrow.”
“Oh,” he said, then lapsed into silence. I turned to look at him and again was met with his brown irises. Even under fluorescent lighting, I felt like his eyes were melting butter. “You look…”
“...pretty?” I finished for him, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear with the hand that didn’t feel as if it were on fire.
He cleared his throat, turning the lever for the cold water up a bit higher. Mom walked back into the kitchen with the first aid kit.
“She’s fine now, Harrison,” she said, and Mrs. Clarence began pulling out an array of band aids, gauze, and packets of an ointment gel of some sort. Harrison turned off the sink right as he looked away from me, moving his gaze to the floor. His cheeks were flushed, and I felt my heart skip a beat. I felt woozy; I felt a power I hadn’t known I possessed. If becoming pretty in its first initial stage was already having this effect on him… what more could becoming pretty do?