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Self-Improvement

I had been sent back from the city in disgrace, back to my parents’ house in the country. It was a traumatic experience. Though not as traumatic as what had preceded it.

 

My parents’ house was a squat, sprawling thing painted light pink. Elaborate grounds sank into the landscape around it. In the garden, a turquoise pool was sludged with leaves and dirt which my father hoovered every other day. I listened to the sound of it from my old room on the top floor, spread-eagled on the bed with the white crochet covers, where I thought about P and wept. I had been allowed just one small keepsake, and only that after I had really pushed for it. A passport photo of his sallow moon face. His brows knitted over his eyes. He was still the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life, six foot five and silent as a column. I wondered what would happen to him now. And yet I already knew – he had become infatuated with someone else. She was his childhood sweetheart, invited over to the house by his mother when he had gone back to visit. I had not been allowed to visit with him. The other girl’s hands, what had been done to them, looked expensive. He had shown me photos of her as if to say: look, give up all your hope. Which at least saved me the trouble of rooting around in a debased manner to find the pictures myself. He was kind like that.

 

P had been the one to ring my parents too. Soon they arrived in their roaring car, big enough to seat six. My mother cried, and my father wore sunglasses but I’m sure his eyes were watering too, with the shame. I told them once I was sat in the car that I could have taken the train, that I wasn’t a fan of all this fuss either. I could have packed up my suitcase and come back quietly.  But my mother would not think of it.

 

 

My mother implied that when I was re-released into society, things would be different – we were going to do it properly this time. No more finding your own way. The first time I left my parents, I had P, and it had seemed like a surefire thing. But complacency is the enemy of romantic love, so the magazines told me afterwards, the ones my mother bought in an effort to be helpful. It was important to keep thinking about how to shed your skin and emerge a finely-tuned, better version of yourself. The softness of a thing that had cast off a carapace.

 

I was put on a strict nutrition plan. No more protein, for example. I had always had a healthy appetite, though P had encouraged me to eat less. Instead I had just eaten in secret. Small cakes, slices of cold meats. I couldn’t help myself. All that had to stop, according to my mother. Now I was allowed only diced tropical fruits, marshmallows, slices of white bread, and a glass of skimmed milk each day for my bones. Once a week she measured my biceps and thighs with a tape to see how much muscle I was losing.

 

I was hungry all the time, but it was okay because I was encouraged to lounge. I didn’t have to do chores the way I had done before P chose me. Instead I spent a lot of my time lying on the couch in my room, watching television shows about rich men and the women who loved them. I became very invested in these shows, grew to love the faces of their blonde women, the scooped lines of their jaws, their expressive eyes. Most of all, I loved the speechless woman with her eloquent hands. All the men wanted her too, it was plain to see. Even the married ones with fantastic wives, wives with elaborate necklaces, golden teeth, other markers of love.

 

 

There were other girls in my neighbourhood. Most of them were younger than me, still waiting out their time in the suburbs. They were like lungs breathing pure air, unspoiled, preparing themselves, measuring out each day. In just a few weeks the next debutante’s ball would come, where men came to pick us like flowers, to take us away to our city lives. If we were good and interesting and beautiful, we might win their hands in marriage too.

 

There was another girl who was disgraced like me, who had found love and happiness then been discarded. Her name was K. We started to go side-by-side on our daily walks around the neighbourhood. All the girls met at 11 a.m. sharp and trotted around the lawns, the low, pastel-stuccoed houses, the swimming pools and flower beds and idling cars. In the distance, rolling hills and water. Beyond that, the haze of the city. We all wore leggings and long linen tunics. At first, the other girls gossiped about me and K, but they soon grew to treat us with a grudging respect. Love had happened to us, after all. We had seen men naked and vulnerable, and cooked their food, and watched them sleep. It gave us some sort of currency. What was it like, they asked us sometimes, and we told them it was the best thing in the world, which it had been.

 

 

I generally found it hard to look directly at men. They had a power and radiance that I couldn’t quite handle. It made me too sad. Most of the men lived in the cities anyway, except for the older and younger ones – the fathers such as my own who were heavily engaged in raising daughters, and the boy-children learning to be good, strong men.

 

One night I was pasting magazine cut-outs into my scrapbook by the small light of my bedside lamp, when I noticed a flicker in the dark window of the house opposite. I turned out the light and pressed myself up to the glass. Someone was moving around, probably one of the girls I walked with every day, but I stayed watching anyway. The person was tall. I thought maybe it was poor J with the large feet and the frizzy hair, who spoke constantly about the transformations she wanted to see wrought on her body before the debutante ball, who talked your ear off about them every chance she got. A light switched on and I ducked, realising then that it was impossible to see me with my light still off. When I gained the courage to raise my head again, I saw the profile of a man aged somewhere between 30 and 50. Not a son, not a father. I had never seen him before in my life. He moved smoothly across the window as if it was a frame in a film. The light turned out, and the darkness of his shape disappeared.

 

 

Mother talked about my grand unveiling a lot. They had spoiled me, been liberal and experimental, and it had failed. They must have felt like there was a lot to prove. In the afternoons we started going through the catalogues together. It was an intense bonding experience, her love for me expressed through her willingness to pay any price to ensure that this disgrace did no long-term damage to my prospects. I realised that I was lucky to have her, but found the catalogues distasteful. ‘I know you are very modern,’ Mother told me, holding my hands in her own, ‘and I know there are some men out there who like that, but have a think about it anyway.’ She was kind to me again. Sometimes we went out together to the garden, the small wooded glade at the end of it where she had buried her accoutrements, buried herself. In the city she had kept these things in a fragrant wooden box, like everyone else, but if you were taken to the suburbs you had earned the space, you had earned the right to return to the earth. It marked the acceptance and the celebration of your changed life.

 

My mother’s hands were elaborately done. She kept the remaining fingernails well-manicured, though she was not allowed to drive or operate machinery, though she could not use knives and could only eat slowly, the fork gripped painfully. I could see how my father looked at her. Like she was the only true reason.

 

 

The fashions came and went. It was all about the jawline, that year. It was subtler than the hands, which by then had acquired a sort of impractical glamour, adopted mainly by the super-traditional and those into the vintage look. Though having your hands lightly done – fingernails only – was gaining in popularity, you needed to have it redone every few months. It was risky because it hurt and bled, and they wouldn’t do it under anaesthetic. The really dedicated had their tongues done as well. I balked at that, would not even consider it.

 

During my short time in the city I had organised with other women like me, the unimproved. We had given out leaflets. Men crossed the street to avoid us, thinking us a danger, even though we were friendly. We didn’t blame them but we were sad, wishing them to be stronger and more open-minded, like P, like the other men who loved those women. Of course, in the end, P had gone for a changed woman after all. He got excited once, when my mother visited and brought a catalogue, but I threw it in the bin almost immediately after she left. ‘I love you for who you are,’ he told me then, though I could tell he was still disappointed.

 

 

I kept an eye out for the man in the house next to mine. I waited in the early morning, in the evenings and at night-time, my light switched out. It was two days before I saw him again. This time I noted his close-cropped dark hair, thin lips, his teeth chewing at them. He moved around the room awkwardly. As I watched, he turned to look right at me and I froze. He raised one hand, slowly, waggled his fingers. I raised my own back, then closed the curtains.

 

‘Who’s the man next door?’ I asked my mother at breakfast, the tall glass of milk and two vitamin pills. ‘Is he someone’s father?’

 

My mother sighed. ‘No, he’s not. He’s a convalescent. He was hurt quite seriously.’

 

My heart lurched. ‘What did they do to him?’

 

‘I’m not sure,’ she said, coming over to me with her own glass of milk. ‘But you mustn’t feel bad about it. He seems to be doing well.’

 

I pictured a gang with their nails out, their bodies full of gracefulness and blood and meat. I felt sorry for him, but also repulsed, even though he was good-looking.

 

‘He’ll marry again,’ my mother said. ‘They always do. Bodies recover. He might end up even better than before. Cheer up.’

 

I thought about the indefinable jerkiness at the heart of him, as if there was a string someone was pulling on. Mother started cooking bacon for my father’s breakfast, cracking an egg, then another, then another into the space in the frying pan around the meat. I had not eaten meat since P loved me. There was something significant in that, I knew, something to do with my chemical makeup, about strength and the dedication to be a better person. I missed eating it, the saltiness between my teeth, those cold cuts by the light of the moon in our shared kitchen, almost as much as I missed P.

 

 

One by one, the girls went missing from our walks around the neighbourhood. One by one, they returned. Tall J had undergone several procedures. Her cheeks were hollow; her steps were small and painful. She wore embroidered gloves on her hands. I sometimes wore gloves on my own and saw men’s eyes flick towards them, but it was only a short-term solution. When J eventually took off her gloves, it would be like unveiling her naked body. It would be pornographic. My mother discussed her approvingly. Money combined with the willingness to change added up to a bright future, she said, a sum that I didn’t particularly want to think about. She was becoming less kind to me as the debutante ball grew closer. The time for me to make a decision was running out.

 

In the evenings, me and the damaged man next door had begun leaving our curtains open, our rooms illuminated. The glass protected him from me, made him bold. He pressed his face up against the glass to make me laugh. When he had first seen me laugh, seen my gleaming teeth all in a row, he made a mock-shudder, but it offended me and I closed the curtain that night. Over the following nights, he learned to restrain himself. Sometimes he took his shirt off for me, revealing his sad and fragile male body. I kept myself clothed, instead wrote messages to him on rough pieces of paper. HOW ARE YOU. GOOD EVENING. FEELING WELL? LOOK AT THE SUNSET. He gestured and nodded in return. I tore up the papers afterwards and flushed them down the toilet. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be talking to any men, much less damaged goods, yet something about the pale gleam of his face and the bony contours of his chest was appealing. In the deepest part of me, knowing that I was damaged goods too, I could admit that, actually, I would love anybody. I put my lips to the glass one evening. In the morning the greased shape of them was still there, a reminder.

 

At breakfast, everybody was silent. Soon my mother put her glass of milk down. I was eating cubed watermelon, spitting out the seeds. ‘I’ve made an appointment for you, with the dentist,’ she told me. ‘For tomorrow.’ The debutante ball was only a fortnight away. I knocked over my own glass of milk and it ran everywhere, my parents leaping away.

‘For God’s sake!’ my father shouted, leaving the room, though I hadn’t done it on purpose. I started to cry as my mother cleaned up. She refused to look at me.

 

 

It was like my last day on earth. I had failed the sisterhood, the women in the cities who still marched with their placards and handed out leaflets and scared men half to death. I wanted to be back there with them and not on the mauve pillows of my bedroom, going through the dental catalogue, weighing up my options. I put it down. The light was falling, my red walls darkening like blood. On yet another piece of paper I wrote WOULD YOU TAKE ME AS I AM. I left it in the window all night while I lay awake, but in the morning there was no reply. I walked downstairs like a woman condemned. My mother made me bacon as a rare treat, had hidden a packet of gummy sweets for me in the back of the car, under a blanket. It would be a while before I could handle solids again, so even though I felt sick I forced myself to eat one mouthful, two, more. I bit the tip of my finger, fit my hand into my mouth and stroked the enamel.

 

 

Only a local anaesthetic. Only the foggy skimming-off of my consciousness. Deep, soft lights pulsing around the whole room. The dentist’s chair was a reassuring leather. A pale-pink plastic cape was around my shoulders and down my front, as if I was at the hairdresser. The dentist was young, male, handsome, and not afraid of me. Female assistants with their own scooped-out jawlines were on hand. There were restraints at my ankles and wrists. ‘It’ll feel like I’m washing up the dishes in your mouth,’ the dentist told me confidentially, a secret for the two of us to share, but it did not feel like that. He was pulling out tree after tiny tree, and the roots had grown deep into my skull. Soon my mouth was swimming in blood. I could feel it running down my chin and onto the bib, but nobody was alarmed. The dentist was deft and experienced. He put his gloved hands very gently into my mouth to check that he had got them all, and I had the urge to bite down, so I did, but everyone just laughed. I was proving them right. I rinsed and spat the blood over and over. They packed my mouth with gauze and sent me home.

 

 

I wanted to walk along the streets of the city and search for P, to go to the house we had once shared and hammer on the door. I wanted to leave him pieces of bloody gauze like proof, like a gift. I wanted to tear up the shrubs on the lawns of the flat houses of my neighbourhood and spit blood into the pools. I did bloody my parents’ pool, going in gauze-less after dark. It was the night of the operation and everything was still tender and excruciating. By the underwater lights I watched dark threads spiral out through the water, dilute and disappear. I would argue in the morning that I thought the chlorine would be good for it.

 

When I rose to the surface, the convalescent from next door was sitting on one of the loungers. He could tell I was safe to be around, now, from my jawline. I sat next to him. He took my hand in his hand, my fingernails cut short, dropped it. ‘Do you ever think about getting rid of these?’ he asked. I shook my head. ‘Well, I think it looks good when they’re gone,’ he said. He put his hand on my wet knee. He was older than I had assumed him to be, but his face had a shrunken, babyish aspect that disturbed me. I moved his hand off my leg, wanting him to go home but unable to talk yet. He took off his shirt and tried to lean his whole bodyweight on me. I slapped at his face, making sure my short nails were hooked out as far as they could go. The effect was instantaneous. He jumped up and made a quiet lowing sound. ‘Don’t you care about how you could affect me?’ he whispered. There was a very faint mark on his face. ‘You could set me back months.’ He cried and left the garden, shirt trailing from his hands, but I didn’t feel even slightly bad about it. I lay wetly on the lounger, occasionally sitting up to spit a mouthful of blood into the pool, until first light.

 

 

By the time the debutante ball rolled around, I was almost completely healed. My mother had secretly commissioned a pair of high-end golden veneers for me to wear on special occasions, and a flower-patterned, soft mouth guard for sleeping. I didn’t wear either to the ball, though. My gums were still too raw. I dressed in a knee-length gown of buttercup yellow taffeta, silver heels glued with iridescent glitter, my hair in a simple chignon so that my transformed face could do the talking. My cheeks were hollow, their curve accentuated with blush. My father drove me to the venue, the golf club, which had been decked out with streamers, disco balls, red carpets. Pink-suited waiters took around trays of weak Buck’s Fizz that hurt to drink. The girls huddled to the sides of the room, pressing their backs against the walls to get the best view of the men when they entered, which they would do soon. I scoped out new and changed hands, walks, but mostly faces. All of us safe now, all of us known. Our power attenuated. I wondered if the convalescent would be at the ball, but decided probably not. Perhaps that was my fault, but it was difficult to care or feel the remorse I was supposed to.

 

In the bathroom, there were many girls fixing their hair or retouching lipstick. We did not acknowledge each other. I applied some shimmering gloss and felt disturbed by the sight of my maw in the mirror, the gums a deeper red and exposed. I opened it wider. Get used to it. I had been drinking soups through a straw and already my taffeta dress was looser than it had been a month ago. There was limited mirror space. The girl next to me leaned in closer too, putting on mascara. Our faces were all collapsed like those of dead people. Another girl nudged in. The lights surrounding the glass illuminated our waxy skin. Perfume rose off our hot limbs. The dark holes of our mouths were visible beneath our makeup and elaborate hair. I placed a peppermint in my mouth and shut my lips, tight. I allowed the girls patiently waiting behind me to take my space, letting them preen and brush, avoiding their own eyes, their own reflections.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

's fiction has appeared in Granta and The Stinging Fly, among others. She was the winner of the 2016 White Review Short Story Prize and the Virago X Stylist short story prize. Her debut novel, The Water Cure, is published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK and forthcoming from Doubleday in the US.

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