This is a short list submission for the ROSA Award.
She places her shoes next to the door so she can slip them on as she leaves. She polished them yesterday; a pair of black Nine West pumps her mother got her two Christmases ago, telling her that they looked professional but not too expensive – you want to show them you’re not cheap, but that you still need the job. She turns from the shoes.
Her hair isn’t done. She combs her fingers through her curls. Unprofessional, she thinks and plugs in her straightener. She can’t remember who told her that curls were unprofessional, but she hasn’t ever been to an interview with her natural hair.
She swipes her foundation over her skin as the straightener warms. The makeup is cool at this time of morning, and her bathroom light is the sole indicator of life in the house. She stands bare-skinned in the light, covering the inconsistencies in her skin tone. No more dark spots, no blemishes. Smooth. Like a CoverGirl, she tells herself, and lines her eyes with black and her lips with pale pink gloss. She picks up the straightener and begins ironing out her curls. One by one, they fall flat.
In her bedroom, she rolls a pair of new Control-Top nylon stockings over her legs as the first gray rays of dawn break through her shades. The morning light casts shadows in slices down her calves. She stands and breathes in to pull the thicker top fabric over her stomach and hips. The fleshy bump below her navel telling of too many late-night snacks disappears.
She places a padded bra over her breasts. It was on sale at the mall and is supposed to maximize where it matters and minimize where you don’t want it to matter. Her fingers find the two clasps in the back, and the metal hooks pinch her skin before finding each other.
Her blouse slides over her shoulders next – a plain, crisp, white blouse with plastic buttons. She takes care to align the buttons correctly and when she finally unclips her black pencil skirt from its wire dry-cleaner hanger and pulls it up her waist, she tucks her shirttails into her waistband and turns sideways in the mirror. She stands on her toes, tosses her hair in front of and then behind her shoulders. She sucks in her stomach further, smiles, assures herself that employers see appearance before credentials.
She slips into her shoes and leaves.
The man behind the desk asks her the standard questions. She tries to be charming without seeming flirty. Where did you go to school? Previous employment? References? She answers, legs crossed, and the man thinks she looks like a girl he slept with once.
They finish talking. He thanks her for her time. She thanks him for the opportunity. She will be called if she is needed, he says – if the college degree she earned two years ago will be of use, if she will look good behind the front desk of this big firm. Her heels click on the marble floor as she leaves through the glass double doors.
Her mother calls after she returns to her apartment, after she has just finished a dinner of instant noodles and coffee. Her mother asks if she wore the shoes, because those shoes show intent, you know, and she wonders if she has intent at all. She can still feel the hardness of the marble under her soles as her mother warms the phone’s receiver with advice on how to survive in this world. She shifts her feet uncomfortably.
She puts her heels away in the back of her closet and flexes the arches of her feet. They ache as the muscles stretch, just as they ached as a child when she took her pointe shoes off after ballet class. And just as she did after ballet, she sits now and peels off the layer of false skin created by her stockings.
She stands flat on her smooth wood floor and unzips her skirt from the side. It slides down in a ring around her feet, and she steps out cautiously, as if not to disturb the delicate folds of black fabric. She opens a dresser drawer and extracts a pair of men’s shorts; they are her favorite. She slips them to the bulge in her stomach and their waistband juts subtly.
From the same drawer, she pulls a wrinkled t-shirt, one she got for free when she played in a charity volleyball game in high school. Her fingers release the buttons on her blouse and without thinking, she lets it, too, fall to the floor in natural folds. It will wrinkle, she knows. Her bra springs forward when she unclasps it. It lands on top of her blouse.
The t-shirt doesn’t fit, but it never did fit. She registered late for the game, and they only had extra-larges left. She wears it anyway. Its cerulean color has faded to pale blue with washes.
She passes the mirror on her way out.
It has begun to rain outside. Her eyes smudge. Her hair winds around itself. She exhales long. It’s true, she thinks. She has no intent. She starts to run.
And standing on their front lawn, two children look on. And they wonder why—
She has no shoes.