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“Excuse me, ma’am.”
I pressed my finger to the page and glanced up. In front of me, a freckly, buzz-cut boy shifted his weight from right foot to left. He ground his gloved palms together. He was 11, maybe 12.
“I just got in trouble for being mean to my little sister.”
I clicked my tongue. “That’s not good.”
“My mom told me to do a random act of kindness to make up for it.”
“And I’m the recipient? Not your sister?”
He nodded, glanced back over his shoulder.
I dog-eared my page and closed my book, cradled my mocha mug, tried not to grin.
“Let’s hear what you’ve got.”
I winked at his mom a few tables away. She waved.
The boy cleared his throat. “You’re pretty old.”
I placed my hand on my chest and coughed. The mom sagged.
“I’m so sorry,” she mouthed.
I winced as he pulled out the chair next to mine. He sat, yanked off his gloves, and rubbed his hands on his jeaned thighs.
“That didn’t come out right, did it?”
I shrugged, puffed air at my bangs. “I’ve been called worse.”
He leaned toward me. “But, ma’am,” he said, “you don’t understand.”
I watched his eyes. They started at the top of my head and slid down past my shoulders.
“Your hair’s so shiny you could do a shampoo commercial. And your eyes, are they blue or green? Your fingernails’re almost black. That’s cool.”
I felt a small, wry smile begin to bloom on my face.
“I didn’t mean you’re old, ma’am. I mean, you are, older than my mom anyway. But you’re pretty and old, pretty old. Get it?”
I leaned forward and covered his hands with mine.
“I got it, sweet boy,” I said. “It’s taken me half a lifetime but I got it, finally.”
“What the heck do you need a bra for?” my middle oldest brother said, hooted really.
I whimpered and hightailed it from the dinner table to my petal pink bedroom.
“He’s right,” I told the only stuffed animal I ever loved. It wasn’t even an animal. Jot was a giant smiley face with a tee tiny body.
“I’m too flat to need a bra and too chubby to need a belt.”
Mom came in and perched on the end of my bed. “Let’s go to Sears, after I do dishes.”
I didn’t lift my face from Jot’s teeny neck. “Can I get a stretchy bra and panty set? Light purple? Like Jot?”
Mom caressed my back so lightly I barely knew her hand was there.
“Sure, honey. Whatever you want.”
I sat in the audience and watched my best friend get crowned third place in the Miss Flame beauty contest. Next to me, her mom and dad clapped so hard I wanted to hold my ears. I applauded too, but only because it was expected. I should want her to win, right? I sighed. But she’s everything I’m not. I squashed the thought down. That’s mean. It bobbed right back up like the candy bar in the swimming pool inCaddyshack. She looks like a cross between Cher and Brooke Shields. Me? Cindy Brady plus Dorothy Hamill’s hairdo equal me.
Last year’s Miss Flame handed my gal pal a daisy bouquet, nestled a twinkly tiara into her almost-black updo. I squinted at my friend. Her legs come up to my armpits and she’s a C cup. I inhaled deep then let my breath hiss out through my teeth. I’m an A.
My friend’s mom stood and snapped a pictore of the first, second, and third place Miss Flames all snuggled together. I blinked a bunch of times to make sure I wasn’t blind.
The mom turned to me. “You want a picture with her?”
I smiled, sort of. “Sure.” So everyone can look at the photo album and call her gorgeous and me cute. Cute is a four letter word.
“I want to try something,” my hairstylist said. “Don’t peek.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and waited while she fiddled behind me. What’s she up to? A few minutes later, she twirled the chair around to face the mirror. I tilted my head. Who’s that?
“Do you like it?” Tami said.
My eyes appeared buggy in the reflection. I stuck my hands out from under the fuchsia cape and reached up to explore my hair. It felt like someone else's, all soft and sleek, barely there.
“I’ve never had straight hair,” I said. “I look different, pretty.”
“Pretty?” Tami said. “You’re beautiful.”
I felt a ball of air inside me, behind my breastbone. Have I held my breath all my life? Just waiting? For someone to call me beautiful?
“You look 15 years younger,” the receptionist said. “Your kids are gonna think you’re the babysitter.”
“Bangs are the new Botox, you know,” the nail tech said.
Tami unsnapped my cape and dabbed at my neck with a huge powder puff. I stepped toward the mirrored wall, watched my breath make a silver circle. I slicked my lips with pinky brown lipgloss and smooshed them together, made a kissy face.
“You should enter that Mrs. America beauty contest,” the shampoo girl said. “I bet you’d win.”
I hovered my fingers under my eyes, to hide the crow’s feet.
“But I’m old,” I said, even though I didn’t feel it, “getting there anyway.”
Tami snorted. “You’re not old,” she said. “You’re beautiful, really.”
I turned to face her. “Will you say that again please? A little louder?” So I believe it.