It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I sit on the floor of my tiny studio apartment in Twin Falls, Minnesota, the city that I can’t seem to escape or even make a living in.
I had plans to go to New York after graduation. I stayed in-state to go to school so that I wouldn’t come out saddled with debt and the need to ride a stripped pole until it got paid off, like Marcie Hamlin had to do. (Is still doing? I don’t know, she actually moved to New York a couple years ago). But now here I am, sitting on this fake-wooden floor surrounded by portraits of myself that together comprise all of me, even though I’m unrecognizable in some of them.
Faces have always fascinated me, the way they twist and contort and can be soft as velvet or hard as granite in a moment’s notice. My ex-boyfriend had the sharpest planes of a face that I’ve ever seen, and his jet-black hair really contributed to this dark, sharp aesthetic he had. We broke up shortly before graduation and he moved to Florida to be a bartender for a fancy five-star hotel. I don’t really know what I ever saw in him really, except we were together for three years so there must have been something about him initially.
My problem is I’ve always been passive. A passive child, doing what my parents told me to do. A passive adolescent, listening to the screaming of my parents from my bedroom (do they think the walls are sound proof?). When it became too much, I painted faced. Their faces, mine in the mirror, watching my face react even as I sat still and stoic in the wake of their torrential outpouring of hate for one another.
It’s hard learning that you were the only thing that brought two people together.
Mom gave up first, kissing me on the cheek one morning before school like nothing was wrong, and then suddenly her car was gone and the house felt like a graveyard of both her marriage and hopes and dreams.
Dad gave up when I was in my second year at school. We’d never particularly gotten along; he made it clear I was an obligation to him before anything else and spent most of his time on the reclining cushion seat in front of ESPN, regardless of whether I was around or not. I found his stash of porn magazines when I was fifteen and took to wearing slouchy, oversize clothes around him and anything else with a penis for a long time after that, but word spreads fast when you’re a solid C cup with a tiny waist and bubble butt, and it’s not like I couldn’t not change for gym class around a bunch of other girls. Their jealousy fed the flames of the boys’ desire that I evaded nimbly all throughout high school.
Getting to college was like stepping off a jam-packed bus for the first time in several hours. Yes, lots of people knew who I was by name, but there were a lot who didn’t as well, and for once I was able to control who could and couldn’t approach me. I started wearing all black and I got a sharp undercut that offset my own heart-shaped face and soft green eyes; the boys really didn’t know what to make of me most of the time, and the girls thought I was a fashion freak and left me alone and gave me my space.
When I came back from break and realized that Dad was gone-gone this time, not just off with a friend from work motel-hopping, I slunk in and out for as long as possible before the eviction notice came, and then I just stopped going back. I packed up two large backpacks’ worth of stuff I thought was worth salvaging, and seriously considered setting the place on fire just before I left. I compromised by selling his vintage record-collection so that I could buy new art supplies and move into an apartment downtown.
That was three months ago. Fast forward and the money’s run out and my last canvas is drying in the corner, next to a picture of my parents on their wedding day. I’ve swapped their faces and given them both my eyes and the effect is chilling and symbolic and everything I could have hoped for.
The phone rings and I dive for it, hoping that I’m being called into work, but no luck. It’s just my landlord reminding me that rent is due in a week. I sigh and sit back, legs folded neatly under me, and peruse the weekend paper that I stole from my neighbor’s doorstep. I always check the Classified section in the hope that somebody needs an artist or someone to paint or draw something, but there’s even less of a market for artists than there is for part-time workers. Pro tip: they advertise like crazy but don’t actually need you, which is how I ended up working “part-time” for Pizza Hut and Subway within a week of arriving and am still only totaling about 20 hours a week.
It’s really not enough to get by.
I sigh and push my hair back out of my face and into a low ponytail. My undercut is growing out and the soft chestnut hair has a slight wave to it. My own face, small and with soft edges and curves that swell with swear words I can’t say to nasty customers, my boss, and my landlord, and that spill like a gin-and-tonic knocked to the ground by a careless elbow in bars and clubs.
Suddenly, my eyes light on the bottom-right hand corner of the paper.
WANTED: YOUNG FEMALE FOR FIRST STAGE TESTING OF NEW HORMONE DRUG. WILL BE GENEROUSLY COMPENSATED. FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT
The simplicity and “I don’t give a fuck” vibe of the ad is utterly intriguing, and before I fully realize what I’m doing I’m picking up the shitty black plastic phone again that’s connected to the apartment complex’s shitty landline and dialing the sketchy number. The 69 isn’t lost on me and I’m on guard as the phone rings neutrally in my ear.
The voice is deep and masculine and I get the impression if I could see him I’d be attracted to him.
“Hi, I’m calling about an ad for a new hormone drug that I saw in the paper?”
“Oh hey, you’re our first callback!”
“Well, that might be because the ad was really creepy and I need the money.”
“You mean you don’t have a personal investment in whether or not this new drug works? You could be helping loads of women!”
“Nah, not particularly.”
The silence drops as it always does when I deadpan and I wait for the inevitable nervous laugh or some sort of blustery response. I’m surprised.
“Nice to have some honesty for a change,” the tone is easygoing and unaffected; he really doesn’t seem to be put off that I’m doing this purely for the money and have no interest in helping other people.
“So you’ll have me for the study?”
“Sure, could you come in tomorrow at 9AM? Westfield and Chestnut Avenue, right on the corner. It’s a big office building and you’ll want to go up to the fourth floor and door 412.”
“Yeah, no problem. So, what exactly is the compensation?”
“$2,000 and whatever side effects the drugs cause.”
“See you tomorrow.” His tone is amused, and I can hear him begin to speak as he puts the phone down on his end, but I can’t make out the words.
I return to my most recent painting for the rest of the afternoon, playing with the shading and the lighting but maintaining the semi-panicked expressions that they wore on their faces even on the happiest day of their lives.
What a fucking joke.
For dinner, I slouch down to a corner store and buy a microwave pizza and a dark beer, which gives the cashier pause when he’s ringing me up and trying to decide whether or not to hit on me—most frozen-dinner-gals pair themselves with a box of Franzia or a StrawberRita.
He decides to let me be.
I eat my dinner and drink my beer on the stairs, where I can sort of hear the television from the landlord’s room downstairs. He’s watching Wheel of Fortune and, as usual, all of the contestants are idiots.
I finish my dinner, go back into my room, and get ready for bed, quietly changing into my soft cotton boy-shorts and a soft gray tank top. My skin is porcelain white against the gray, which hardly any marks—not even a freckle. I used to hate my skin because I thought it was essentially transparent but over time I’ve come to appreciate it; it makes me look fragile and uncertain and forces me to exercise facial expressions I might not otherwise. Like disgust, anger, blankness, and irritation. I curl up on the ugly blue duvet I bought from Goodwill for four dollars and go to sleep almost instantly—I’ve never been the insomnia type of artist.
The next morning I realize I have no idea what to wear. I’m standing in front of my tiny closet in a matching bra and panty set (my only matching set, for the record) and I’ve got goosebumps along my arm and still no idea what to wear. A dress? Jeans and a T-shirt?
In the end I opt for yoga pants and a slim-fitting, sky-blue tank top that brings out my eyes and shows off the curve of my breasts, which swell over the top of the shirt with more playfulness than I could ever exhibit myself. Right before I leave, I line my eyes in brown eyeliner to naturally make them look fuller and larger. I don’t really know what to expect, but I want to be prepared.
I ignore the stares and ogles on the bus, as usual, as it creaks and snakes its way around the city. Occasionally I lose patience and swipe a glare over a man who’s about to miss his bus stop, or a husband who thinks his wife isn’t looking. She is, and so am I, and I don’t appreciate feeling desired and detested at the same time. I get off two blocks early just because I’m sick of feeling like it’s my fault I’m beautiful and haughty.
The office building is easy to locate and the room easy to find as well. No one stops me or interferes as I make my way up; it seems like a normal amount of people working a normal 9-5. When I enter room 412 though, I get the distinct impression that I’ve left the office building and entered another, more strange place. I don’t feel unsafe, exactly, but right when I walk in I see two massive fish tanks lining the walkway in. Tropical fish in a hue of rainbow colors swim and sway in the water as I pass, and there is a receptionist now, a young, lanky man in a blue button-up shirt that’s only a few shades darker than my tank top.
“You must be Kelly.” He smiles easily, flashing a small dimple.
“Yeah. You must be the receptionist.”
He raises an eyebrow, taking in my attire and the set of my jaw. “I’m guessing you came here on public transport.”
I raise my eyebrows in response. Who are these people?
Another man comes out of the room behind the receptionist and greets me, shaking my hand firmly. I immediately recognize this one as the one I spoke to on the phone, the way his eyes linger over my body the way mine linger over his tells me that he made an assumption about me based on my voice as well.
“If you’ll just come on back here, we’ll get the paperwork sorted and get down to business.” His eyes don’t leave mine on that last part of the sentence, which I appreciate.
I follow him, Jake, I think is who he introduced himself as, into the back room, and accept the clipboard and pen he offers me. The paper has more information about the drug I’ll be taking; apparently it’s for women who aren’t producing enough milk for their babies. The idea behind the study is to take women who aren’t currently lactating and see what degree, if any, the hormone supplement has on them so that more accurate dosages can be prescribed for lactating mothers according to their norms pre-baby. Makes sense, I suppose.
I fill out the required information and accept the drug when it’s brought in, and oral tablet that’s a violent shade of violet.
“Should take about fifteen minutes to kick in, so I’ll be back soon. If you don’t mind lying down, that will allow us to see the effects immediately once we come back in.”
“Sure.” I stretch out on the doctor’s table, breathing slowly and calmly. My chest is too big to see over without raising my head, but I feel certain that Jake cast another look at me as he exited.
After a few minutes I feel a strange sensation around my lower abdomen, like a warming in my belly after eating ramen. I take a breath and watch my chest rise and fall; everything is normal. My mouth is starting to taste a little odd; not bad at all, almost sweet. Of my own volition, I sit up, and immediately the door opens a crack.
“Kelly? Remember we need you lying down.”
I hadn’t realized the men were just standing outside and that the window must be one of those special examination windows they use for experiments. Obediently, I lie back down.
The next thing I feel is a tingling across my chest, that spreads and then settles like a soft vibrating sheet over my breasts. I swear I can feel them swelling, growing warm and hot at the same time, and just then the door opens and three men come in—Jake, the receptionist, and another man I’ve never met but I’m assuming is on the drug trial team. I give them a jaunty smile even as I internally gasp at the sight of my chest literally expanding before my eyes. The receptionist begins jotting notes frantically on his clipboard, but Jake just surveys me quietly.
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