Stories

The Prettiest Girl in the World – Cerissa DiValentino

I don’t bowl. Actually, I’m pretty bad at bowling, but I think that only adds layers of clarity to the analogy I want to make. An opportunity weighs in my hands, and before I send it flying, like a bowling ball speeding toward a group of pins, I’m aware that an effect, an outcome, an exchange, is bound to occur. I’m taking a chance in love by sending a heavy ball toward a group of pins that may or may not lead me into psychosis. I’m that susceptible to insanity. All it takes is one fallen pin, maybe all of them. I will unfortunately lose my mind.

*

I work in a bookstore where I battle cockroaches in the basement and lose because I’m always outnumbered, but a bookstore still, with novels written mostly by people who are dead now, because that’s what we sell: we’re used. Today is Friday, and it’s usually my day off, but for some reason, I’m here. I think a piece of me stayed asleep when I woke up this morning. I pulled the same clothes I wore yesterday over my head, stuffed my skull through another one of my many black turtlenecks and left for work before remembering that I could have stayed there, in bed beside the estranged man I fucked the night before. It’s not that I wasn’t thinking. My mind doesn’t shut up. I just wasn’t thinking about the right things. I think the man’s name is Marco. But I’m not sure.
        I have disturbing thoughts. I think about poltergeist babies that eat cat fur, old men with gnome fairies living in their assholes, dead fathers that follow their families around naked. Everyone has strange and dark thoughts. I don’t know that they’ve made peace with them, but I have. There is one thought I’ve been having for the past week though, and it’s different. There’s a young woman on a bed with a hammer, surrounded by an audience. They’re all in a large white room. I don’t know where the thought came from. I can’t even say it’s a thought. It’s more like a room that inhabits a part of my brain at all times. Whether I’m standing in the room watching her like everybody else or participating in my present life—stacking books, giving blowjobs, snorting substances through my nasal passages—the young woman is always there. She appeared one morning, sitting in her lingerie with an uncertain expression while the crowd silently stared at her. I don’t need to be in that room to understand that she never leaves. The thought comes with a door. I can open it to see how she’s doing. I can close it again and return to my life. But only once I’m reassured of her safety do I close the door because I’m concerned about this situation. I’ve resorted to Google for help:
        Girl with hammer inside of my brain
        Young woman wearing lingerie on a bed inside of my brain
        Dream that refuses to go away and comes with a door
        People living inside of my brain watching girl wearing lingerie on a bed with hammer inside of my brain
        Google insists that I’m at risk of harming myself and/or others. A suicide hotline appears at the top of my search. Google also insists that I watch some porn. Or that I’ve done too many drugs and fried my brain. Google provides me with a list to nearby psychiatric treatment centers. But I’m not thinking of harming myself and/or others. I’ve always been too timid of death to come anywhere near it. And it doesn’t feel like I’m suffering from a psychotic break. I’m still functioning. Everything else in my world is exactly as it always is, except for this minor inconvenience: this door in my brain with a woman I’ve tasked myself to look after.

*

I’m on my knees on the basement floor of the bookstore, tearing open another shipment with a box cutter. When I first started this job, half-a-year ago when I moved here, I thought about my fingers whenever I picked up this slicing device. It was too easy to imagine that I might cut myself badly, and it scared me, the blood staining the pages of a bestseller. But now I rip into the box and don’t think about my skin. It scares me less because nobody is going to punish me for spilling blood. My work environment is a friendly one. My mother doesn’t live here.
        I’m not surprised, says my boss, laughing. You’ve always seemed the type to show up here on your day off. I didn’t realize I was waiting for it to happen until this moment.
        He’s kneeling on the desk beside me. The desk is covered in paperwork, lunch break crumbs, and his hairy arms. I’ve thought about his arms around me, but I don’t want to lose my job. He seems like the type to say yes to fucking me and then later saying he needs to let me go because our relationship doesn’t seem appropriate for the workplace anymore. There’s no HR here. But he might offer me some severance pay. And then he’d keep seeing me. But I need the money more than him. There’s other men in this city.
        I’m not sure what you mean by that, I say.
        Oh, come on, he says. You must know yourself a little bit.
        Not as much as you think, I say.
        You’re one of my best employees, Alice. You’re such a hard worker.
        I slip my hands into the box like I’m reaching for a baby. My arms circle the stack of books, and I pull them out carefully. I pivot my body and place them on the floor beside me. Then I repeat the process: reach for the baby, don’t drop the books.
        I know that I try my best to please everyone, I say. That’s probably why you think I’m good at this job. But I think I’m having a hard time. I’m managing but—actually, I don’t want to talk about it, if that’s all right with you.
        The book on the top stack falls anyway. Dead baby.
        You don’t like New York or what? he says. You’ll get used to the rats and—the phone begins to ring upstairs. My boss apologizes and excuses himself, then quickly walks up the basement stairs. I take a moment to check my phone and notice that I have three missed calls from Meredith. There aren’t any texts to clarify if she’s been kidnapped or she’s just bored. I call her back and the phone rings once before she picks up.
        Ciao, baby, she says. She’s chewing something into the receiver.
        Is everything okay? I say.
        She takes another bite of whatever crunchy food she’s eating, salt and vinegar chips probably, her favorite, and then says with her mouth full, I was thinking we go out tonight. Would you want to get fucked up with me?
        I’m down for that, I say. Is there someplace you have in mind?
        I can hear her licking her lips of crumbs. There’s a party, she says. Remember that guy I was screwing last month? I told you: he has three snakes tattooed across his ass. Well, his friend is having a birthday thing. Supposed to be a lot of drugs and dancing.
        I’ll come with you, I say. But I have to go. I’m at work.
        But it’s Friday. I thought you don’t work on Fridays.
        Let yourself into my place if you want, I say.
        She takes another bite. Ciao baby, she says.

*

We never really had birthday parties. We had the cake, the candles, the ceremonious singing, but only amongst ourselves: my mother, my brother, me. We never had the birthday parties with streamers and a blaring stereo and a big cake for a house full of mouths. But when my twin brother and I were turning ten, he demanded everybody at school get an invitation because being popular suddenly mattered. At least to him. And my brother was the king of our class. He’s always been king though; it was just a matter of him realizing that our mother had birthed him onto a throne. And my brother was insisting on a bowling party. She and him visited department stores together, picked out balloons, napkin colors, goodies to fill translucent plastic bags while I asked for nothing. Unfortunately, I have a track record in asking for nothing. And my mother has never been the type of woman to sit well with that. Dolls, dresses, ballerina slippers, figure skating lessons, ear piercings, makeup, money. I didn’t want any of it.
        Just be simple, my mother had said. Use your words and tell me what you want.
        I like them, I lied when she gave me gifts. But she could tell I wasn’t happy.
        There was only one thing I wanted. I just didn’t know how to tell her.
        And because I didn’t know how, I turned ten with pizza grease on my fingers. We had the  bowling birthday party. And I’ll admit: I might have been happy for a moment. My two friends and I chugged orange soda and pretended to be tap dancers in our stinky rental shoes. I was fascinated with throwing a heavy weighted ball toward a group of innocent standing pins. The numerous outcomes kept my attention like nothing had before. But it’d been the secret game I created inside of my head that intrigued me most.
        If I knock three pins down, my mother loves me.
        If I knock six pins down, my mother loves me more.
        If I knock all of the pins down, my mother loves me most.
        It didn’t happen every time, but when my secret prayer came true, I felt reassured. I spent the night flinging balls, hugging my childhood friends, squeezing their cheeks in my hands, and dancing in circles with my fingers pointed upwards. My mother was happy when she looked at me; I was smiling for once. But by the end of the night, one of my brother’s friends dropped a bowling ball on my foot and shattered three of my toes. I also turned ten in a hospital gown.
        So this is how I see it: when I send this bowling ball, this message over a dating app, this compliment shared at a bar soaring down the alley, evidently, I will come to know what is left standing, and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s me: I’m left standing. And sometimes, it isn’t. But more often than not, it isn’t as clear cut as I’d like it to be. When the bowling ball hits the pins, maybe there are three pins left standing, maybe I only knock one down, or perhaps, strike—I’ve thoroughly destroyed everything. This is another way to say:
        If I knock three pins down, I’ll cry for a couple of nights when a man hasn’t answered my texts after spending three consecutive days with me.
        If I knock six pins down, I will only have a singular anxiety attack on the bathroom floor when a man points out my ingrown hairs after we’ve fucked.
        If I knock all of the pins down—I am still trying to decide if that means I am successfully in love with someone who loves me back or if I’ve gone insane by loving someone who has devastated me. I’d think a strike would mean I’ve won, but there’s a thin veil separating what I consider victory and failure, because on the other hand, every pin is lying there on the ground, and I’ve destroyed them. And in terms of bowling, that means I’ve done something good. But in terms of love, that might mean I’ve ruined the whole lot.

*

The image of the woman isn’t clear. She’s someone I think I might know, but I can never place it. Her features are too blurred for me to make a concrete correlation. I only know that she’s beautiful because I can hear how the crowd thinks of her, and maybe they are far more equipped to see her clearly than I am. They think of her as this beautiful little thing with a potentially violent little thing: her hammer. Their thoughts are interconnected with my brain in a complex web. I don’t know how that works. It’s as if these people birthed themselves from the tissue of my brain, like a tumor. But I can’t hear her thoughts. All I can do is look at her face for clues.
        I’ve considered that I’m a pervert. It’s possible. My brain also might be making all of this up. But I really didn’t ask for this. And it’s not that I want her to do anything sexual with the hammer. I think we’re all wondering, including myself, how it got there in the first place. This woman, this hammer, this bed, these people, me. It’s as if we’re all waiting for someone to give a stage cue but nobody feels confident enough to give a direction. I’m sure this is why I left my apartment this morning, trekking through the cold of late December, to my job on my day off. I refuse to give her, or anyone, a direction. Right now, I’m a bystander, coming and going through the door, wondering what might happen next. I refuse to say anything, to push the image in one way or another, but there is one pervasive thought that I have about her: I want her to get what she needs.

*

On my way to the subway, I smoke a cigarette. The sun has already set. The streets are dark and pale. The type of darkness that aids a criminal. The lampposts have come to life. Office windows bleed florescent lighting into the city. But none of it is enough. Teenage girls will be swiped from the streets and stuffed into vans. Weaker men will be murdered for their money. Sedated babies will be tossed into dumpsters. I distract myself from the fear by checking on the young woman. She’s running the hammer over her body, but not in a seductive way. It’s as if she’s playing a game of hot and cold to navigate what the audience wants her to do with it. But when I look at them, it’s clear they are giving her no reaction. When I look back at her, it’s clear that she’s confused. And still, nobody says anything. I want to ask her why she doesn’t just say what she’s thinking. If she’s wondering how they want her to use the hammer, it’s as simple as that: asking. They’ll give her an answer. She crooks her head and narrows her eyebrows as she moves the hammer to a different spot on her body to say, What about here? Should I hold it here? They give her nothing. I have a feeling we’ll be stuck like this for a while, so I step away, close the door, toss the last of my cigarette, and decide to check my phone instead as I enter the train station.
        There’s a selfie from Meredith with a text underneath that reads—Tonight xx. She’s wearing a mesh body suit with a pink push up bra underneath and matching pink bellbottoms. Her blonde hair has been heated into loose curls, and she’s already applied her makeup. I zoom in on her winged eyeliner. She’s finally mastered a clean wing. But from the dull redness around her eyes, I can tell that it took her a few tries to get it right. I think she looks perfect.
        Then there’s a text from an unknown number. The message reads—you’re out of toilet paper darling, with an emoji sticking its tongue out. I scroll to the top of the messages to figure out who this person might be. This doesn’t take me long; there aren’t many messages. I see a text that I sent with my address. I gather this is someone I met via the many dating apps in my phone and that this must be the man from last night. The first text reads—this is zack, let me come over? This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong. But I wonder who Marco is then. That’s a great name. I should fuck someone named Marco.
        On Tinder, I make a bunch of left swipes as the train pummels toward my apartment. The man sitting beside me, bundled in an oversized Northface jacket is watching me swipe. I can see his reflection in the window across from us, him looking down at my lap. Maybe he’s looking for himself, hoping that his profile might appear. What a love story we’d be. Two strangers both in search of romance match while sitting beside each other on the subway. I’d hope that if we did, he’d have the guts to turn to me, and say, That was me. Where are you heading right now? It makes me wonder if the man sitting beside me could be the father of my future children. I saw his reflection. Nicely kept facial fair, light eyes, broad shoulders. I almost convince myself that I should say something to him, like Are you feeling what I’m feeling? We could be lovers. But when I look up at his reflection again, I notice that he’s closed his eyes. Then the subway comes to my stop, and I get off. I know I will never see that man again. And for some reason, I feel like I’ve lost something.
        I walk home in the dark, checking over my shoulder and staring into the windows above me. There’s a man wearing sweatpants and a crop top in front of his stove. An expensive cat in the window, licking its paw. And a couple. The man is clasping something at the back of the woman’s neck. A necklace, I realize, as she holds her hair up and then looks down and touches her neck once he’s fastened the back together. She kisses him. I used to sit on the floor with my legs crossed as my mother prepared for her various boyfriends to come over. She’d pound back wine, powder her face, smother her lips in gloss, and then, if she was being nice that night, she’d offer to do mine. Those were the best nights. Her fingers so close to my face. But it always ended the same: my brother and I staying up to hear the bedframe slam against the wall and the mysterious buzz of what I now know to be a vibrator. And then the fighting would happen.
        My brother would say, I think they’re in love. But even then, I knew better.
        Before everything was ruined, her boyfriends would see my eyelids flushed in blue eyeshadow, my lips coated red, and they’d kneel down to meet my baby face, and say, Well, aren’t you just the prettiest girl in the world? I’d known it wasn’t true. My mother noticed when I gained weight, remarked on my acne, my body odor, my split ends. Meanwhile, my brother remained untouched. He was perfectly dimpled, ambitious, charming. There’s a voice ingrained inside of me that I cater to for the most part, unknowingly; and it’s my mother. When I had to buy a belt after living in New York for a few months, I called my mother to tell her.
        That’s fine, she’d said, giving me no satisfaction. But did you hear about Mr. Barter? That man from down the street. He was having an affair and got another woman pregnant. Wife shot his whole dick off. Seems a bit much.
        I don’t know what my mother would say or do that led each of her boyfriends to leave with the capillaries in their faces redder than ever, but I assumed it was because they each wanted her for themselves. After my father committed suicide, she must have declared that nobody would ever have her in the way he did. I understood that when my mother said, Seems a bit much, that she’d considered the question—could I ever shoot a man’s dick off for sleeping with another person? She’d decided that she wouldn’t because it meant that my mother had to care enough about a man in the first place. And that man hung himself from our swing set in the backyard when nobody was looking. The only penis she might have ever shot was withered, decomposed, returned to the earth.
        Perhaps this is what those men were in a rage about: my mother would never care about them enough to shoot their dicks off. I partially resented her for it, because I liked to lie to them, to myself, and everyone in between and have the chance to respond: I am the prettiest girl in the world! But at least when I was younger, there was still a sliver of hope that I might be pretty enough for a man to love me, too. Or better yet, for my mother to love me like she loved my brother.

*

When I get home, Meredith is sitting at the kitchen table with whom I presume to be Zack. They’re eating Lucky Charms and smoking a joint together amongst piles of books, junk mail, and a recent pregnancy test I forgot to throw away. The air is thick with smoke and the pungent smell of weed. My roommate isn’t home. But then again, she never is—she has a boyfriend now. My bedroom is in the kitchen, separated by French doors. They’ve been left open. I can see how the bed is unmade, the floor covered in magazines and dirty underwear. Meredith is wearing her attire for the night. Zack is wearing the hand-me-down robe my mother gifted to me last Christmas. Seeing it reminds me that Christmas is next week. I still haven’t confirmed with my mother that I’d be coming home for the holiday.
        Hello, darling, says Zack, as if we know each other.
        Alice, your nose is bright red, says Meredith. You need to dress warmer out there. Any news to share with the class? She spoons a mouthful of marshmallows behind her lips and then takes a drag from the joint before swallowing.
        I want to tell her about the man on the train, but I don’t because I didn’t think I was at some level of intimacy with Zack for him to call me darling and remain in my apartment all day. He might feel betrayed by my brief affair, and I don’t want to cause a scene. I head for the fridge and remove a beer. I open it with my teeth, as if I were an animal, and then close my eyes and take a long swig. No news, I finally say. I think I’m starting to lose my mind though.
        Oh, everyone’s a bit insane, darling, says Zack. What’s that saying? All the best people are. You should let yourself have that. Good for the self-esteem.
        I nod like I’ve considered what he’s said, but what I really want to say is—Does anyone know why there’s a man in my apartment wearing my robe and calling me darling? But instead, I thank him. I finish off my beer and leave the bottle in the sink.
        You better start getting ready, Meredith says, finishing her bowl of cereal. She makes a gesture to take Zack’s bowl too, since it’s been finished, but he shakes his head, stands and brings both bowls to the sink and begins to wash them. From behind his back, Meredith locks eyes with me and clasps a hand over her mouth to stifle her laugh. I mouth the words: I know and grin back at her. She mouths the words: I love you. I know she’s going to make this easy for me.
        We’re heading out soon, says Meredith. And I have some private things I need to talk to Alice about. Do you mind getting your stuff together?
        He places the clean bowls in the drying rack that I’d found on the street and then leans his back against the counter to face us. He closes my robe tighter around his torso. I’ll be out of your hair, he says. I’ve clearly overstayed.
        Oh no, says Meredith, That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that I’m having some problems. I always have problems. And my therapist says it’s important to confide in the ones I love. Otherwise, I’ll end up institutionalized. And Alice is the only one I trust in this city. I’m a very paranoid person, Zack. Don’t take it personally.
        I should work on trusting people less, says Zack. But that’s my problem.
        He heads toward my bedroom to gather his things. As he passes me on his way out, dressed in yesterday night’s clothes, he kisses me on the cheek, and I thank him for coming because I remember how good he was at sucking my toes. When he’s finally gone, Meredith and I can’t stop laughing.
        Was any of that true? I ask her. It sounded like you were describing me. Minus the therapist. I should probably get one.
        Just the part about you being the only one I trust, she says. I wouldn’t think any of that sounded like you though. Why do you need a therapist?
        I need to dance, I say. I think it’s just stress. Maybe I’ll fuck someone better later.
        But the truth is that I’ve seen far worse from men than one that waltzes around my apartment wearing my robe and cleans my dishes. Most men tell me to call them Daddy, penetrate me as deep as they can, tie me up with the bungee cords they use on their bicycle racks, and then never text me back. That used to make me sad. Sometimes it still does, but I’m grateful that I’ve grown accustomed to the many ways men disappoint me, starting with my dead father. So, c’est la vie. But I wish I was in love. 

*

While I’m applying blush to my nose, the young woman is still on the bed, still moving the hammer around. A man from the audience steps forward and calls out, I’d like to see you fuck it. The rest of the audience looks at him in unison, and then back to her in unison. I don’t move. She looks at the man. I watch and don’t say a word as she looks back down at the hammer. I want to know what she’s thinking. When she looks toward the audience again, I can finally start to see her face more. Her eyes are like mine, round with dark lashes. She’s crying, but her face is stoic, absent of emotion. Part of me wants to steal the hammer from her and slam it into the man’s head, but I should be careful. I don’t want to overstep. This belongs to her.
        The man retreats to his original place amongst the audience. The woman doesn’t move.
        Meredith appears behind me and places her hands on my shoulder. She squeezes her face next to mine and smiles. Our contoured faces crowd the small mirror on my desk. We look like we could be lovers. Not long into our friendship, I started posting pictures of Meredith to my Instagram, one of us kissing on a blanket in summer. People from high school slid up on my story and said, Your girlfriend has nice tits. Your girlfriend reminds me of Gigi Hadid. Your girlfriend has a better face than you. I understand that Meredith is conventionally prettier than I am. That’s never bothered me. But then my brother called and asked—Since when do you have a girlfriend?—and I knew I needed to reassure everyone that she wasn’t my girlfriend. I told them with more confidence than I was used to, as if it should have been obvious to them that she wasn’t, as if they were idiots for thinking she could be someone I’d love. I was proud. My lying skills had become refined, shaved down to immaculate and convincing proportions. 
        I started to avoid Meredith the week after people started referring to her as my girlfriend. I didn’t answer her calls. I thought about deleting some of the posts, especially the one of us kissing. But I thought that might make my lies appear faulty, and me, insecure. People might’ve assumed we broke up, that’s all. But people might’ve also thought I was ashamed. In the end, I never deleted the pictures because I didn’t want to hurt Meredith’s feelings. And I liked looking at them. Then one day she called me while I was at working at the bookstore. I’d just started the job and was standing alone in the basement, surrounded by shipments with a box cutter in my hand. I don’t remember how I ended up slicing my finger. There was no blood, but I could hear my mother’s voice: Alice, you idiot. Alice, you klutz. Alice, I made that body. I decided to pick up the phone. Meredith immediately said, Want to watch a movie tonight? I’ll paint your nails with the polish I just bought. It’s purple. I told her that I’d really like that.
        I watch Meredith pinch my cheek in the mirror. She says, Why aren’t you just the prettiest girl in the world?
        I pivot to face her and ask, What did you just say to me?
        Meredith tightens her eyebrows and looks at me like I’ve hurt her.
        I asked how big Zack’s penis is, she says. Don’t be mad at me.
        I’m sorry, I said. It wasn’t that big. Five inches, if I had to guess.
        She frowns, says she has to take a shit before we leave, and then skips off toward the bathroom. I get dressed into a cropped turtleneck sweater that reveals my belly button, low rise jeans with a thong pulled over my hips, and my leather trench coach to hide all of the places I’ve exposed myself. I’m spritzing myself in perfume when my brother calls unexpectedly, as he does. I hover my finger over the screen and try to make a decision before the call ends. I decide to pick up.
        Hey, he says. You on the other line?
        His voice sounds raspy, like he still hasn’t quit smoking cigarettes behind our mother’s back. I don’t know what she’d do if she discovered that he’s also been blackening his lungs. Those precious, pink lungs. She might sigh to be sympathetic, rub his shoulder and say, Dear, you have to stop this, in that cooing voice she’s reserved just for him.
        I’m here, I say. What’s going on?
        Tell me what you want for Christmas before I buy something you don’t want. Every year you don’t tell me. Or maybe I don’t ask. But I got you that record player last year. You still have that thing? I thought it was cool. Bluetooth. Velvet case. I thought, This is very Alice. There’s a five-year-warranty, by the way. Let me know if it breaks on you. What do you want for Christmas? Don’t tell me nothing. You still there?
        I want to ask you something, I say.
        I could buy you a blender. How does that sound? With multiple settings.
        Do you think mom treats you differently?
        What are you talking about? In comparison to who? 
        Anybody. But me, I guess.
        I mean—he coughs to clear the gunk in his lungs—she’s a good mom, Alice.
        I imagine myself wearing a knight’s armor and theatrically slaying my brother while he sits on his throne. And then I shiver at the thought of seeing the inside of my brother’s neck because my mother is a bitch. I try not to blame him for accepting the kindness she bestows on him. I like when people are nice to me, too. But it would have been nice to hear him say, You’ve always deserved a crown, too, Alice. Meredith reappears from the bathroom, tugging the waistline of her bellbottoms upward. She smiles at me from across the room and then raises one eyebrow to say, Who cares about you enough to call when the sun’s gone down? I didn’t know anybody did, but me.
        I have to go, I say to him. I’m going to get fucked up now.
        Since when do you get trashed? He says.
        I say, I’m trying to make myself feel better, and then I end the call.
        Meredith is leaning her head against the inside of my doorframe. She doesn’t accuse me of making her wait. She doesn’t tell me that I’ve betrayed her. She has a soft look in her eyes, like two pillows yearning for me to come rest. Then she says, Are you ready to go have some fun? And I realize that it’s true: I really am beginning to lose my mind.

*

The house is full of people when we arrive. They are lounging over the couches, their limbs like mangled vines. They are sitting on the counters with their legs crossed or dangled like children. Or they loom in corners, filling the place with noise. We slide against other bodies until we’ve found the stash of alcohol on the dining room table. We start chugging underneath the disco lights and then dance as if we have no bones in our necks to techno beats. Meredith slings her arms around my shoulders, and I place mine around her hips. Somebody screams, and the room cheers, and that’s a relief, because I thought the scream might’ve come from my woman with the hammer. As Meredith twirls me in circles on the axel of her hand, I open the door to see how she’s doing. The hammer is shaking in her hands, her knuckles gripped hard around the shaft. Her bottom lip is pulled tight, and her face is red. But the audience is just watching her, quiet and unmoving. She’s thinking, feeling. Processing the damage. I cave—Just do it, I whisper. Kill them all. Then I slide out of the room, afraid that they’ll reprimand me for giving a stage cue, and one that particularly risks their lives, but for once, I leave the door open. Just in case she needs me.
        The rest of the night slams down a tunnel like a train. Soon enough, we’re loose and slurring our words, giggling, and sharing coke in the bathroom with two men we’ve spent the past hour taking shots with. I recognize one of them from a dating app. The other one that Meredith thinks is cute has an army buzz cut and reveals to us that he stole the sunglasses he’s wearing. His name is Will. He’s clearly drunk, already on the coke as he rambles about what that would do to his image if anybody found out. The rest of us are standing around the powder on the granite sink, but Meredith is sitting on the edge of the tub with her legs crossed. She knows what she’s doing, her tits look particularly perky and full from this angle. She looks at me and winks.
        The other man, Oliver, snorts a line and then says, Will, nobody here cares to condemn you. Just shut the fuck up.
        How do you two know each other? says Meredith, pointing between Will and Oliver.
        We’re roommates, says Will. He’s messy as hell. Not me though. I do my share.
        There’s a girl living inside of my head, I interject. We’re kind of like roommates, too.
        They all look at me but don’t speak. Go on, says Meredith after a moment of silence.
        Well, she has a hammer, I say. And there’s an audience around her. They’ve been inside of me for a week. It’s been okay for the most part. But if I’m honest, I’m really scared for her. Somebody told her that they want to see her fuck the hammer. And I don’t think she wants to. I can hear what the audience is thinking. But for some reason, I can’t hear her thoughts. I can tell she’s sad. And angry. And scared. I want to save her. But I’m afraid of making it worse. I’ve never saved anybody before.
        Jesus, says Meredith, Are you sure you’re okay? Like, actually okay? I can call someone.
        I look at her like I might die.
        You’re a freak, says Oliver. I like that about you.
        Meredith frowns at me and says, Alice, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re in pain.
        I frown back at her. You know me more than anyone, I say. Then, I throw a bowling ball by kissing Oliver’s neck and we find ourselves in somebody’s bedroom because he wants to fuck. I try not to think about where Meredith is being fucked. There are frames on the wall with a bunch of baby photos. I ask Oliver to get on the bed while I stare at them. Both parents have a cheek pressed to the baby’s face in one photo. And the baby is trying to smile, as if it knew this was a photograph; it looks directly into the camera. I strip off my shirt, toss it to the ground. I keep my back to Oliver and wonder who this baby has become.
        Come suck me off, says Oliver. But I ignore him.
        I decide that I come from an ugly family that’s afraid to look at hard truths. As a result, I don’t think my baby could ever be happy. Somehow, it would know everything that’s ever gone wrong from the day it was born and before. How my father killed himself because he was tired of battling his depression. How my brother refuses to see the differences in the way we’ve been raised. How my mother drinks and sleeps with men to absolve her feelings of loneliness and unsatisfaction. The baby would know that all I’ve ever wanted was for my mother to love me more. And that I’m my parent’s daughter: an ugly whore that wants love but doesn’t know how to keep it. And my baby would know, by extension, that it’s an ugly whore, too.
        Come on, freak, says Oliver. I don’t like to wait. Get over here.
        I finally turn to face him, but when I look at the bed, I only see the young woman. She’s looking at me with the hammer in her hands. The audience has filled the corners of the room, and they’re looking at me, too. Then she opens her mouth wide and screams, Stop, stop, stop, while she looks me in the eyes. Her voice forces me to stumble backwards. But I encourage her, and I’m not sure why—Yes, I whisper, Yes. Take them all out. It happens quick. The woman stands from the bed, hammer in hand, and walks toward me. She stops inches from me, and then, as if it should have been obvious, but it wasn’t, I realize I’m looking at myself.
        She says, The trick is knowing you have to say it out loud. Then she puts the hammer in my hand and leaves through the open door. I watch her disappear from the room. Everyone else follows behind her, leaving one by one through the door until the room is empty. The quiet swaddles me like a blanket. When I open my mouth and scream, it’s as if I’m doing it for the first time. I’m only a few minutes old and someone has placed me in my mother’s arms. In a few years my first words won’t have to be: Love Me. Instead, I’ll say: Mom, because when she looks down at me, she says: You are the prettiest girl in the world.