BY JESSICA GROSS
She wore her beauty like a shawl. It was not only protective, but extrinsic to her, inconstant. Certain days, she could feel its tight hug: she walked the streets powerfully, strutting as if she were in a music video. Other days, she was naked. To walk the streets in this manner would have felt absurd, as though she were a small child enacting the part of a heroine. These days she felt afraid.
This was not a change she could will. Some days the shawl would appear unbidden: a gift. She would wake up filled with light; she’d look in the mirror to find shapely cheekbones, flushed skin, gemlike green eyes. She could feel only grateful, try to keep the peace, to believe this was a permanent state of affairs, or anyway try not to frighten it away.
But the next day, for no reason at all, she would awake rotten, sludgey. In the mirror, she would find these same features grotesque: the eyes too small, the cheekbones disappeared under flesh now clearly sallow. She couldn’t smile right anymore: yesterday’s glamour, today’s sneer.
It was on a good day that she met Timor. She stood on the subway platform, her posture claiming space, her hair flowing in the wind. Sooty belch of wind from the train, no matter: in this mood it could well have been a sea breeze. She could feel eyes on her, saw men glance twice as they passed. “You should stare,” she thought. She was chosen, full of grace.
So in the subway car, standing in high-heeled boots with her hand on the pole and her hip out, she returned Timor’s gaze with equanimity. On another day, it might have made her so uncomfortable she slunk to the other end of the car. Today she could handle quite anything.
“Hello,” she said, offering him a smile as though it were a favor.
“Hi,” he said — a bit shy, he was. She held so much power. She stared him in the eyes, smiling only slightly, until he, grinning, looked away. It was a game; she was the victor.
Timor could not look at her again for two stops. She was headed to her grandmother’s apartment, where surely it all would dissipate, hard as she might cling: the light would leak out of her; she would be empty, formless, a spill. But here, now, she was impervious, all-powerful. He looked up at her again.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“T-timor.” Again, the slight grin. “Wh-what’s yours?”
“Are you scared?” she said. This could have come out kindly, but it did not. It was spat fire. Timor blinked rapidly, then looked down once more. The grin was gone.
The shawl slipped off far before her grandmother’s, before Timor even left the train.
Jessica Gross, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, is a fellow at LABA and editor of the LABA Journal. This short short story was inspired by LABA’s discussions.