Chapter 9: Pretty World
“How much water are you drinking every day?” Richel questioned, her face inches away from mine. I moved away from her, taking a step back and stumbling into a shelf of skin products. Red packets of an oatmeal scrub tumbled off of their racks and clattered onto the white tile floor of the drug store we were in. The fluorescent lighting flickering in the ceiling was not helping to ease my nerves. Then, there was also the fact that Parker was flirting with the cashier by talking about Skittles. Everything about this very moment was distracting me from what was trying to be done: finding the right products for my face. We had originally been sitting at her kitchen table doing homework, or rather I was the one doing homework and Richel was flicking her thumb along her phone screen. But as soon as I’d told her I made it into the Melway round, she had gone into hyperactive mode and began incessantly asking me questions about everything. And by everything, I mean everything. She yelled at Parker to get dressed and be our chauffeur for the day, which led us to our current destination: the nearby drug store that held not only pharmaceutical supplies but also rows and rows of cosmetics, as well as office supplies in Aisle Five. I’d begged Richel for us to take a tiny detour to look at the set of notebooks, but she stayed put.
“I don’t know. Two water bottles?” I guesstimated.
“Two bottles?” she repeated in disbelief. “That’s it? You need to be drinking two liters a day, Nina!”
“Why?” I scoffed, adding a bag of cotton balls to our shopping cart. In it were already two tubs of water that I apparently needed to finish within a certain time limit; nail polish remover; and now, an oatmeal face scrub, the same red packets that had toppled to the floor.
“Because we need to keep you hydrated twenty four seven. Your skin needs to glow. Right now, it’s not exactly glowing.”
“What is she, a lamp?” a voice snorted. Richel gritted her teeth in annoyance, but I turned around, knowing full well that Parker would be standing there with his arms folded and a smirk on his lips. It was his go to stance.
“What happened to Mrs. Parker Deangelis, the cashier?” Richel shot back, sending him a sickly sweet smile. He sent the same one back to her, and I coughed to hide the laugh climbing up my throat. Parker glanced at me, in which I fumbled and pretended to be quite interested in a nail polish color called Plump. Richel gasped, running over to me and grinning. “Yes! Finally, your inner beauty pageant is blossoming.”
Parker rolled his eyes. “That is the dumbest sh-”
“Thanks,” I quickly cut off, sending a maniacal smile at Richel while shooting Parker a warning look. When I was younger, I had always wished and prayed to have a sibling. Someone to look after, to teach, to lead. That was during an age when I used to wish my parents would get back together. Seeing Parker and Richel bicker and butt heads at every second possible made me question all of that. I wondered when was the last time they had actually sat down and had a real conversation. I also wondered if their lack of mutual connection was the reason why Parker had such difficulty opening up to Richel about what was going on between their parents- what was really going on.
Parker grumbled something beneath his breath, but he ducked his head down and stalked off to the other end of the aisle. I sighed in relief. I felt like I had this duty to be the balance between them, to make sure that they weren’t always annoying one another. People can only argue for so long until it turns into real hatred.
“There’s another event coming up this week. They emailed the itinerary. Did you see it?” Richel asked, adding a bottle filled with a light green liquid labeled Toner into the cart. The most I had ever done with my face was use a bar of soap.
“A luncheon with the Top Twenty,” I replied, nodding my head. “The panel will be there, too, even some camera people taking coverage of the event. They’re going to test us on how we would walk down a stage.”
“Right,” Richel said, tapping her index finger into the air, grinning. “This luncheon is going to give us the connections that we need for you to show that you are outgoing and confident.” She gave me a head to toe look and blinked, sending me a small smile. “I know you have it in you. We just need to unleash it. Not to mention we need to find you something to wear.”
“They said something semiformal.” I paused, taking a look at myself in one of the mirror stands. The changes in my face were visible: with my hair down, it seemed that the shape of my face had changed and softened. My face had more color in it due to the blush Richel had let me keep from her vanity, and my skin had gotten softer thanks to the SPF 15 moisturizer I had started wearing on a daily basis. I was beginning to learn what I did and didn’t like in the pretty world.
I didn’t like perfume. It didn’t matter if it was a light mist that smelled like watermelon; I preferred to not wear any at all. This process had turned into a stubborn feud when Richel insisted that I pick at least one favorite scent to wear on the daily, but I refused. There were too many to choose from, and each spritz made my head spin and feel dizzy.
I did like lipstick. This one, for me, was the most surprising revelation of all. I had always thought I’d never be able to pull off the daring colors that I’d always seen women wearing on the covers of magazines or in commercials, yet when I took my first tube and applied the cream pink, I felt a soaring satisfaction flutter through my stomach. I still didn’t feel poised enough to wear it to school, but the fact that I’d put it on my own bathroom at home was my baby step.
Everything I was doing in preparation for the Melway Pageant was being taken in increments. I still felt like I was teetering on the edge of something I couldn’t quite explain, not even to myself. I felt like someone was going to snatch this away from me, tell me that I was foolish and insane for even trying to become the person I wanted to be. That change was impossible for a girl like me.
Parker was walking towards me with something in his hand. He dumped it into the cart before leaning against it and turning to look at me, winking. I peeked inside, then bit the inside of my cheek to keep myself from grinning. Richel was still talking, running through ideas of possible dresses that I could wear to the semi formal luncheon. I was still on the fence when it came to heels, but we were working on it, “it” being me walking back and forth on a hardwood floor without tripping.
There was, unfortunately, still plenty of tripping occurring.
When Richel finally took a breath in her speech of What Do You Want To Wear? was done, she frowned and took out the teal graphic notebook Parker had stuck into the cart. “Nina, I thought I told you not today. Get this on your own time.”
Parker snatched it from her hands and plopped it back into the cart. I raised my eyebrows at him, letting out a small laugh. “I’ll pay for it. Let’s go already,” he gruffly replied, stretching his arms out.
Richel narrowed her eyes in suspicion at him, which I couldn’t blame her for doing. Parker had been acting especially kind to me lately, and it was beginning to give me the willies. He just didn’t seem like the type of guy to act nice without being given something in return.
And I was not about to give Parker Deangelis anything whatsoever in return, which I was sure I had made clear the night I pushed him away and refused his drunken kiss. Boys. Richel’s phone suddenly rang on full blast while we were waiting in line, and the blonde cashier Parker had been flirting with earlier jumped while she was counting his change. The coins in her palm fell, scattering on the floor. She scowled at Richel, who was now too busy yapping excitedly away on the phone. Parker rolled his eyes, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet and pulling out two twenty dollar bills. He handed them to the girl, who brushed her fingers a little too purposefully along his wrist as she reached to take the money from him. I fought the urge to snort in disbelief.
“Dad, I miss you,” I heard Richel mumble into the phone speaker. “When are you coming here?” There was a prolonged pause, and I could tell that Mr. Deangelis was making up some long excuse that, knowing Richel, she would easily gobble up and believe. It didn’t take much to get someone like Richel to trust you. Parker suddenly took my arm, wrapping his fingers around my palm and placing the graphing notebook into my hands. The cashier’s eyes widened as she looked between Parker and I. I wanted to explain to her that there was nothing going on, that Parker was just being Parker and I was just Nina, but even then she wouldn’t be able to understand because she didn’t know us.
What did catch me off guard, however, was the way she looked at us. The way she looked at me, as if to say “Of course.” Of course someone like me would be his girlfriend. From her eyes, I was a pretty girl. What she didn’t know, though, was that I wasn’t. Not originally, not by birth, and not deep down, in my gut and in my heart and mind. That was a baby step I had yet to conquer.
I flipped the page to start a new problem in my Math textbook but was instead met with a loud smack as a plastic bag filled with Chinese takeout plopped onto my book. I blinked in astonishment before looking up to see none other than Mr. Klein. A queasy feeling crept into my stomach.
“Mom,” I called out, but Mr. Klein put up a hand, chuckling.
“This is for you, Nina,” he said, sending me that charming British smile of his. “You’ve been working hard here at the shop, and your mom tells me Chinese takeout is one of your favorites.”
I slowly opened the plastic bag and took out the mini carton filled with chow mein and two large eggrolls. I rummaged through a wad of napkins to check out the receipt and how much he had spent on it, but it was nowhere to be found. I was certain he’d pocketed it as part of his plan. This chow mein and egg rolls was probably less than ten dollars. Mom used to tell me stories of how my dad would get them bags and bags of Chinese takeout back when they bought their first apartment together and were completely broke, before I was even in the picture.
“Greg,” Mom said, coming out of her office in the back room. Her hair was parted to the side today and her waves were still intact from the dinner she’d gone out to the previous day with her sister downtown. “Hello.”
“Hi, Flora,” he replied. They both stared at one another for a moment, and I looked back and forth between them before clearing my throat and opening up the carton of food.
“Thank you, Mr. Klein,” I interrupted, sending him the brightest smile that I could manage. “Do you work at a Chinese Bistro?”
“Nina…” Mom said uncomfortably, but Mr. Klein merely laughed it off, straightening his tie.
“I work in London, but my company is running a small business campaign over here for a short time period. I bought my workers lunch today, and we happened to have some extra leftovers.”
I felt the back of my neck heat up in embarrassment. Leftovers. He worked in a business company. In London.
“That is very thoughtful of you,” Mom cut in, sending me a glance that clearly meant we would be having a serious conversation about my rude implications later at home. Great. Something for me to look forward to.
“Excuse me, how much does this bouquet of flowers cost?” a boy asked, holding a large cluster of roses in front of his face. My brows furrowed. As soon as the customer placed the large bouquet onto the counter, my face fell into a grin.
“Well, stranger I have never met, this bouquet is twenty dollars,” I said, leaning against the counter and smirking.
“Nina, that is way too outrageously expensive.”
“I thought you said you never knew my name, Harrison,” I laughed, shaking my head and grabbing the flowers from him, placing them into a bag and opening the till drawer.
“And I thought you said you had never seen me before in your whole life,” he shot back, nudging the side of my face lightly with his knuckle. We grinned at one another. He took a peek behind my head, his eyebrows raising. “Who’s Mr. Right?”
I turned around, observing the way Mr. Klein reached into the refrigeration section to hand Mom a pot she had been reaching for. She laughed, nodding her head at him and replying to something he said, probably some clever stupid pick up line. I rolled my eyes, handing Harrison his change.
“He’s not Mr. Right,” I said through gritted teeth, glaring at them from afar.
Harrison put up both of his hands, his eyes widening. “Woah, woah, take a chill pill or else you might punch someone.”
“His name is Greg Klein.”
“Like the underwear company?”
I shot another glare in his direction, and Harrison sealed his lips shut, gesturing his hands for me to continue.
“He’s here on business terms, but it’s obvious to any human being with eyes that he’s taken a liking to my mom,” I continued, scoffing. “Not that that’s uncommon, but with him being here only temporarily… I just don’t think it’s a very wise move for a business man such as himself.”
Harrison tapped his chin, looking up at the ceiling before his eyes flew back to me. “So, you don’t like him then?” he asked.
I sighed, taking a bottle of flower spray and heading into the back room to spray the potted plants we had in the back room, sitting accordingly on their shelves. “I never said that.”
“Oh, please. It’s written all over your face,” he snorted, folding his arms and balancing the bouquet of roses beneath his chin.
“I’ve never said a hateful word,” I pointed out.
“Yet,” Harrison added, and I stuck my tongue out to him. The front door bell rang and in walked Faith, wearing a light jacket and yoga pants with flip flops. I threw my hands up into the air, laughing.
“Is today a visit-Nina-at-the-flower-shop day?” I chuckled, taking off my apron to greet Faith at the counter. She couldn’t stop biting her nails, a nervous habit she had picked up during exams last semester. “Are you okay?”
“Tomorrow is our volleyball game at Trinity,” she said while gnawing away at her index finger. Harrison wrinkled his nose in distaste at her before setting his flowers down onto the counter. My face fell, and I smacked my palm against my forehead.
“That’s tomorrow already?” I groaned, squeezing my eyes shut and slumping against the register. A chunk of hair fell from my ponytail, which only made me feel even more mentally exhausted. I felt like I was crashing down trying to balance the world on my shoulders: work at the flower shop, school, the beauty pageant, and now volleyball.
“Yes,” Faith said, placing her hands on her hips. “You don’t have anything pageant related tomorrow, do you?”
I placed a hand over her mouth, my eyes widening. “Dude! My mom is just over there; she could hear you!” I hissed, my heart racing. It was bad enough I was having trouble giving my mom excuses as to why I hadn’t been able to work as much at the shop. “No, I don’t have the luncheon until the day after the game. The thing is… I’m grounded. I’m not allowed to go anywhere after school. I’m supposed to come straight here.”
Faith’s face crumpled and she took a deep breath. “We need you tomorrow, Nina. We won’t have enough players on the team; we could be disqualified without you. Think about Michelle!”
“What am I supposed to do?” I whispered, sending a small smile to a customer who had just walked into the shop, looking at our week’s latest arrangement of flower specials. “Hello!”
The customer nodded at me before resuming looking back at the flowers. I pressed my hands against my cheeks, forcing myself to take a deep breath. “I can’t deal with this right now, Faith, but I’ll figure something out, I promise.”
“Figure what out?” a voice asked. The three of us jumped and whirled around. Lo and behold, there stood my mother, who had an amused smile on her face with her arms folded into one another. She had put her hair back up in a ponytail, and Mr. Klein seemed to be nowhere in sight, which was a relief for me.
“Um,” I stumbled, racking desperately through the files in my brain for an excuse, any excuse, really. I shot Faith a discreet panicked look, but she seemed to be just as lost and frozen as I was. Luckily, Harrison wasn’t.
“Faith, Nina and I are planning on going shopping tomorrow for spring formal attire,” he explained smoothly without a single eye twitch. “It’s coming up soon. I know Nina is grounded, but do you think she could come out for a couple of hours just to pick an outfit? I need someone to let me know if I look fat in a suit and tie.”
Mom smiled but then sighed, shaking her head and looking down towards the ground. “I don’t know, Harrison.” She paused, and I crossed my fingers behind my back. “As long as you two aren’t going to any more wild and crazy parties and getting into fights…”
Faith squealed, clasping her hands together. I kicked her foot and she fell silent. Mom shot her a suspicious look, but Faith sent her a meek smile. “Thank you, Mrs. Gregory,” she mumbled, fiddling nervously with her thumbs. My mom sighed, smiling and nodding her head, then turned to me.
“Don’t make me regret this decision of mine, Nina,” she warned, patting my cheek with the palm of her hand. “I just don’t want you to become a crazy rule breaker, that’s all. I want you to be able to talk to me about anything, be honest. Okay?”
I gulped. The guilt was clawing at my insides, but something inside me was shoving the truth away, forcing it to stay hidden in the dark. “Okay.”
She turned to Harrison. “And you, have you thought about asking Nina to that school dance?”
My heart leaped up to my throat, and I averted my eyes to the ground. Mothers sure could read their daughter’s hearts… just not their minds. The fact that Harrison was going to spring formal with Leslie after all was still something I was trying to get over. A small, silly part of me had been hoping that somehow with all the changes that I’d been undergoing and all the work Richel had put into me would make a difference. Changing physically wasn’t entirely what I thought it was going to be, and there were certain things that couldn’t just be handed over to me like gifts. Getting asked to spring formal by Harrison was one of those unreceivable gifts.
“A little,” Harrison said. My head snapped up, and Faith shot me a wide eyed look, clearly startled. Mom nodded her head towards the roses sitting on the counter.
“Are you planning to do it now…?” she trailed off, folding her hands together. When Harrison didn’t budge, clearly stumped as to what his next move should be considering the fact that he had a girlfriend who wasn’t me, my mom broke into laughter, lightly ruffling his hair. “I’m only messing with you, kid. Just make sure the three of you have fun tomorrow and bring Nina home by a reasonable time. Also, try not to come home with another busted lip. Your mom had a heart attack.”
Harrison scratched the back of his neck before chuckling. “Got it.”
Mom sighed, smiling and walking out the back door to head on up to the greenhouse. I let out a breath I hadn’t been aware I’d been holding, then turned to Harrison with grateful eyes. “Thank you,” I said, smiling.
He shrugged his shoulders, throwing an arm around me and pulling me in for a hug. “That’s what best friends do.”
Faith cleared her throat and I slowly untangled myself from Harrison’s unexpected embrace. “If you two are done now, Nina, don’t forget to bring your knee pads tomorrow and a lot of water. You’re going to need it. I hear Trinity has been working extra hard at their after school practices for this game.”
“I will. Thanks. And Faith?”
“Yeah?” she asked, turning around before she stepped out of the shop and headed on home.
“Deep breaths. The game is going to be great tomorrow. Tell Michelle that she has nothing to worry about,” I reassured her. She sent me a small, soft smile, then pushed open the glass door, the bell above her tinkering. Harrison lifted up the roses off the counter, saluting me.
“I’ve got to head home, Punches. Mother dearest has put me on a leash since the fight with that loser.”
“Parker, you mean?” I corrected. Harrison rolled his eyes, waving his hand into the air. He leaned towards me, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Good luck on the game tomorrow. I’ll be sure to come.”
I felt my spirits lift up. “Really?”
He nodded. “I’ll get Leslie to drop me off.”
My smile faded and I shifted uneasily on the heels of my feet. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea considering she hates me at the moment.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She was just mad about the situation I got myself into, which I made sure to explain wasn’t your fault. All mine.”
I lightly punched his arm. “Good. Because it was. You need to take some anger management classes.”
“Any therapeutic suggestions?”
“Oprah or Dr. Phil, for sure,” I teased, and he laughed, shaking his head. He stared at me for a moment, and it felt like we were back in that summer, when he’d said things would be easier if it was just me and him. Did he still remember those words? Did he still believe that?
“I’ll make sure to look into them,” he chuckled, then gestured to the flowers. “Guess I’ve got to drop these off at Leslie’s house. It’s our two week anniversary.”
I strained a smile, nodding my head. “Alright. See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.”
After he left, when I was alone at the counter playing with buttons on the register I mumbled to myself, “By the way, before you go Harrison, I love you.” Just to hear what it would sound like out loud.