Troublemaker – Cora Lee
March 7, 2023
My boyfriend’s wife was a remarkable beauty. She came into my mind when I was driving, or cutting clumps of wheatgrass to feed to the juicer at work, or lying in bed at night. Her name was Bianca, which was a name that could only belong to a beautiful woman. I was scrolling through her Instagram page when a text from Sukie interrupted me. “Thought of you today. I backed up into a car and drove away without leaving a note.” What the fuck does that have to do with me, I wanted to know. “Just seemed like something you would do,” she responded.
Bianca was really put together if you know what I mean. She looked like she got expensive haircuts without wondering if it was “worth it.” I stalked her regularly on Instagram. She was 46, so she did not use social media in the same way as my generation. She did not maintain a curated yet “effortless” internet persona, she did not come up with witty, ironic captions. Everything she posted online seemed to be in earnest. This made her even more fascinating to observe. She posted very rarely––tasteful photos of herself on special occasions, a flower arrangement on a dining table, a sunset. Her and Lucien in formal attire, his arm around her waist. There were no thirst traps or photos of comical vanity license plates. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a bad photo of her. She had a photogenic smile and a clear, expressive face. There were lines at the edges of her mouth and eyes, but she carried them with a grace that made me envy her even more. There was a timelessness to her.
Sukie said I was obsessed. “I think you’re fucking the wrong one,” she told me, lying splayed on my bed. Sometimes it was a challenge that Sukie was such a knockout. She was too self-assured to be daunted by an attractive woman, and I couldn’t make her understand. I’d grown accustomed to the fact that for the entirety of my life, my best friend would be “the hot one.” But Sukie said I was “the bad one,” and that this was better because I had cultivated it all on my own. I loved her for that.
I checked Bianca’s page every other day but of course I did not follow her. I did follow her husband. Lucien did not follow me back, which made sense, since he was cheating on his wife. But I noticed that he did watch my stories, where I posted pictures of myself in skimpy outfits and screenshots of funny text messages from Sukie. There was something soothing about emphasizing the difference between me and Bianca. When I was feeling like a brat, I would go through his feed and double-tap old photos he posted, so he would get a notification and feel a jolt in his crotch by being forced to think of me when I wasn’t around.
Sukie didn’t approve of my romantic exploits, which were often what she considered “bad ideas.” I rarely approved of them myself, but I was more interested in the thrill of sexual tension than in finding true love. I already had Sukie, so what did I need a genuine romantic relationship for? With boyfriends I always became a worse, more paranoid version of myself. Any time I dated a guy seriously, I became convinced he would leave me for a girl with a good FICO score or a RoombaTM or something. Deep in the pit of me I knew I didn’t want that for myself, but I couldn’t help feeling there was another way to be a person in the world, and that it may end up better than whatever I had going on. At least I didn’t have to worry about Lucien leaving me for someone like this, because he was already married to her.
I was 19 years younger than my boyfriend and his wife. I worked at a juice bar, which is how I met Lucien in the first place. Being the 27-year-old juice bar employee already felt ridiculous, so I wondered how it felt to be him, and to be fucking a girl who works at a juice bar. And it wasn’t just a regular shitty job, either––I had to wear an orange visor and matching t-shirt during my shifts. Most of the customers were the type of women that I revered and feared: yoga bodies, bullet journals, juices full of vegetables instead of fruits. I understood that they were individual people each with their own troubles and desires and complexities, but when I stood behind the register, I compared my life to theirs as if they were one homogenous entity. It wasn’t fair to me or them, but that didn’t stop me.
Lucien was a regular. He was the kind of guy who was just going to get hotter as he got older. He was fit in a non-threatening way. He wore a watch that seemed expensive and he looked like he had a Roth IRA and a plan for the trajectory of his life. He ordered juices that had names like “Royal Sunrise” (carrot, beet, tangerine, wheatgrass), or “Green Machine” (kale, cucumber, celery, wheatgrass). But Lucien stood out from the other male customers. He put his phone away when he got to the front of the line, unlike the men who had full-on conversations via Bluetooth while I stood there and waited for them to mouth their orders to me. Lucien had a way of looking at me that made me feel like we were both in on a joke. After hours of fake smiling and customer service voice, this was more intense than having a gun pointed at my head.
I have been described as having an “unusual beauty,” which is what men call it when they can’t figure out why they want to fuck you so bad. Men would say to me, in the throes of passion, “You’re kinda sexy,” but there was always that word “kinda” there to dilute the compliment. But even for a girl like me it’s easier than you think to seduce a married man. It just takes eye contact and shit talking. Every time Lucien came in I showed him a little attention, accumulated details about his life. When he said he was from Chicago I raised my eyebrows and said, “Let me guess. A suburb outside Chicago,” and he laughed more than was warranted. I wanted to occupy a corner of his brain and it seemed like it was working. He came in every day. How much juice can one man drink? Finally he buckled and scribbled his number on the merchant copy of his receipt.
I texted Sukie. Nothing in my life felt real until I shared it with her. “Congrats,” she said, “on your next train wreck.”
Lucien had me saved in his phone as Cox Cable Customer Support. Sometimes, just to stir up a little trouble, I would call him at odd hours––not midnight, that would be too simple. Something like a Sunday morning at 9, when he was probably having my favorite kind of sex, lazy morning sex, with his beautiful wife. I imagined him spooning her from behind and burying his face in her expensive haircut. I wanted Bianca to say, “Who would be calling right now?” or better yet, see his phone screen and silently try to make excuses in her head.
We were a bit of a cliché and I was alright with that. Most of the time we just had sex, but when he was sentimental he’d take me out to dinner in a part of town where he’d never go with his wife. He would order for me, which seemed incredibly old fashioned but also sort of erotic. On those nights, I would wonder what excuse he gave her, and what she was doing, and whether she believed him, as I poked my fork into chunks of swordfish.
He did not like it when I asked him questions about Bianca so I had to only do it rarely and make them not sound nefarious, only curious. I waited until after he came, panting and damp in the backseat of his Range Rover. “What does your wife do for fun?” I wanted to know. He turned away and pulled his Ralph Lauren boxers back on. “Something’s wrong with you,” he said.
I had told him I was not on birth control but he came inside me all the time anyways. Sukie said he must be an adrenaline junkie. I would tell him I needed forty bucks for the day-after pill but then go get it at Costco for seven. I was waiting in line when Sukie texted me “You getting Plan B?” She always knew where I was, like a guardian angel. We shared iPhone locations. “Get me one too,” she added a moment later. Neither of us had a Costco membership, and without one there’s only two things to do there: buy alcohol or use the pharmacy. I turned to the woman in the white coat behind the counter. “Actually, could I have one more of those?”
I did wonder if Bianca had an idea of what was going on. Did she not notice the influx in her husband’s juice bar expenses or wonder why he’d started “going to the gym” right before dinner? If she ever went through his phone or computer I’m sure she’d find evidence of me tucked away somewhere. The videos he took while he was inside me, the photos I sent him during my lunch breaks. If she was any ounce the psycho that I was, she would have looked through the users who liked her husband’s posts on Instagram, and she would have noticed that I came up again and again. One night I commented “Lovely!” on a photo he posted of them on their anniversary. Lucien deleted the comment within ten minutes and I thought he would be mad at me, but he texted me later that night saying, “You’re being very bad,” which could only really be a good thing.
On Saturday night, I met up with Sukie to go to the Midnight Room. They had a new bouncer—a young girl wearing a black tube top sitting on the stool outside the door. I could see her belly button ring dangling over the hem of her pants. She hardly looked old enough to enter a bar, but the way she sat with her legs spread was commandeering. She looked at my ID and then at Sukie’s. “Wow,” she said to Sukie. “You look sooo young. You do not look 27.” Since when, I wondered, was 27 not considered young? Maybe I needed to recalibrate my idea of what youth was, as I too was 27, and thought of it as an extension of 21, still saying I was in my “mid-twenties” and using that to justify why I did not have my shit together in any meaningful way.
She turned to me, assessing me for a moment. “Like, I don’t know, you just look 27, you know.”
I don’t think she even meant it as an insult. She turned to the next couple in line, unaware of the havoc she’d unleashed inside me.
At the bar I stared into my gin and tonic. “It doesn’t even matter,” Sukie said, “What’s wrong with looking the age you are?” Which was not actually the response I wanted.
Beautiful women always love to pretend that beauty constructs don’t exist, as if our value in society isn’t based on how supple and barely legal we can look for as long as possible. I told Sukie to shut up, but I rolled my eyes and smiled, as if to say I was joking, because I didn’t want to both look old and ruin her night. But on the inside, I pushed the bouncer’s comment around and around in my head, as if I were Sisyphus and this was some punishment for something bad I’d done. Sleeping with a married man, maybe. Or lying on my timesheet.
“Why do you care anyways,” Sukie said, “You’re twenty years younger than what’s-her-name.” But that was it—the only thing I had on Bianca was my proximity to adolescence. And when that was siphoned away, I wouldn’t be a threat.
The last sip of my drink was hiding among the ice cubes. I sucked it up and locked myself in the graffitied bathroom. When I pulled my shirt up over my tits to take a pic in the mirror for Lucien, I held my phone in front of my face to block it from view. I didn’t want him to see my skin losing its youth. Plus, if they had an argument tonight, and Bianca wrested his phone away from him and saw this photo of me, I didn’t want her to wonder why her husband was cheating on her with someone less attractive, which was something I had wondered about myself.
I crashed at Sukie’s that night. The room felt stifling and I could not mute my brain long enough to fall asleep. I shifted out of Sukie’s bed and padded into the bathroom. All her skin care products, her creams and serums, were arranged in a row on the counter. Maybe the answer was here. I picked them up one by one, turning them over in my hands, reading their descriptions: “firming,” “collagen-boosting,” “age-defying.” It seemed like I’d been missing out on some crucial aspect of womanhood. I stuck my index finger into a tub of overnight moisturizer and smeared the fluffy white cream across my forehead and cheeks. This was doing something, I told myself. I took a picture of each label and tried to put the little bottles and jars back how they had been. I turned the light off and crawled back into Sukie’s bed.
A Monday morning seemed as good a time as any to hit the mall. At Sephora, there was a door greeter, who smiled and welcomed me in. She was wearing the all-black Sephora uniform. Her face looked airbrushed of any imperfections, but this was real life. I smiled back.
The first step was to acknowledge the staff. Not so effusively that they remembered me, but enough that I seemed neutral and unafraid. I’d been at this for a while. Also, I never asked where a certain product was. That made it seem like I came in for something specific, and it would be more noticeable when I left empty-handed. I meandered through the store, smiling and nodding whenever I encountered the contoured face of an all-black clad employee.
I opened my phone. I scrolled through my photos. Hydraulic acid serum with added collagen. Supergoop lotion SPF 40. Witch hazel facial toner. I searched the shelves for exact matches. I tucked the lotion under my arm. It was better not to walk around with items visible in my hands. I moved to the next aisle, which was empty. I squatted down in a feigned search for something, my purse resting on the ground beside me. I casually, discreetly, transferred the lotion from under my arm into the depth of my bag. I found the eye cream in the next aisle, and then the serum. I repeated my act, my practiced casualness. I was getting greedy. I wanted the whole routine. I wanted steps, structure, order in my life. I wanted a smooth, clear complexion and for someone to be surprised at my age.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
The voice came from behind me to the right. I did not turn around. My heart sank into my gut. A hot flush bloomed across the surface of my skin. On my left appeared those black employee slacks, a flash of darkness in my peripheral vision. I turned a bottle in my hands, as if debating, as if I were remaining calm because I had done nothing wrong. I was simply a customer. A woman browsing products I might be compelled to purchase. I pretended to read the label of the lotion I was holding.
I wondered if there was a Sephora jail, a little cell in the back where they’d cage me up while we waited for mall security to arrive. Or maybe they’d take a mugshot that would hang in the break room, and all the girls would look at it and think, “She really looks her age.”
Except that the black pants walked straight past, headed to the voice behind me on the right. I waited for a moment before standing. My legs felt bloodless. No one was looking at me. Sometimes I do believe in God, just a tiny bit, and I’m certain that I’m his favorite little troublemaker.
I returned the stem-cell hand and body lotion to the shelf, calmly. I glanced over my shoulder at the woman who I’d thought had spoken to me, who I thought had caught me, but who had only been summoning assistance from a staff member. My pulse stopped slamming for one second. Of course it was her.
Bianca was gesturing at the shelf, explaining something to the employee who was nodding attentively. Maybe she could feel my stare, because she turned her head and her gaze passed over me. I waited to see recognition in her face, any flicker in her expression that would clue me in that she knew who I was. But her face remained impassive and she turned back to the woman in front of her, her lips still moving, forming words that I did not hear.
In the parking garage, my heart still bucked inside me like an engine misfiring. I needed to shit. I tossed my purse on the passenger seat and put my hands 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, trying to reorient myself. I reversed out of my spot. I heard a sound, like one loud, commanding knock on the back of my car. I snapped my head around. There was no one there. I had just backed into the Lexus parked across from me. I scanned the garage for witnesses but found none. I put the car in first. I drove away.