I am on my phone, of course I am. But the screams start, sudden as the sound of my own name. I look up. It’s only a group of girls, huddled by the hot tub. They lift arms, devices, as if in prayer; they still themselves before the lens, a ritual. Three flashes and again, they shriek, each omg
another post, another like, another love. They are alive in their bodies, together in their bodies; I feel their oneness inside me, like hunger.
The plate before me is empty, though. Just the rind of a bacon cheeseburger to remind me what I ate. On this white daybed. In my bikini, which is also white. Ketchup dripped down my chin, landed on my breasts, smatterings of B-movie blood I wipe with my whole hand, lick clean. I lie back, body bare and distended. I’m satiated, but the feeling always passes and the meal was freighted, like everything today, with the possibility that it might be my last.
I fish a bottle from my black and white striped bag, snap the cap, swallow a pill with spit. I suck a vape to erase the chemical taste, blow cones of watermelon smoke toward the girls. They’re cute, but each one needs a tweak to achieve true beauty. Rhinoplasty
, I diagnose when I look at one. Brow lift
, I silently suggest for another. Buccal fat pad removal
In the big pool, a woman my age props her elbows on an inflatable raft. Nearby, a child, chubby with preadolescence, slumps sidesaddle on a foam noodle. Clearly they are together, clearly they are one, both redheaded and freckled, pear-shaped bodies waved as blown glass beneath the water. The mother says something and the child doesn’t answer, just stares at the hot tub, the girls. When I was young like her, I wanted nothing more than to emerge. Out into the seen world, the world of teenagers I saw on TV, girls I followed on Instagram. Girls who siphoned attention, desire, love, with reckless ease. Girls tweaked into fantasies I thought were real.
“Isabelle,” the mother says. The number eleven between her eyebrows is so deep it threatens permanence. I touch my skin like I’m checking it’s still there. My forehead remains, pulled tight as a starched sheet and I want, for a moment, to wrinkle it. I want to become the other woman. A mother, a daughter, a purer version of myself; I want to become them all.
I swallow to melt the pill further down my throat. I suck the vape. Isabelle lifts herself from the pool. Water pulls at her swimsuit. She pads to a set of lounge chairs, wraps herself in a terry cloth robe. It dwarfs her. I lift my phone, pinch the screen of space between us, zoom in to see her better. She turns to face me and I press the shutter, smile. She looks away. Scared, maybe.
Wrapped in her towel, the mother stands, gathers her bag, ready to leave. Isabelle stands next and I stand too, so fast the world spots with blue. I blink through the blur, rush to gather my things. My phone, my bag, my flip-flops, kicked carelessly beneath the daybed. I have to squat to extract them. When I rise, I look for the woman and the girl. But my gaze lands only on a man, watching me from a nearby cabana. He’s older, sixties-ish, with his Kindle and iced tea, his Teva sandals and cargo shorts. His mirrored aviators in which I swear I see myself, gut unfurled, the burger inside adding to the paunch. I suck in for a moment. Then breathe out, let myself expand, let fat push up against scar tissue and skin, let the man look. I slip my feet into my sandals, one quick scuff, then another, and follow the wet footprints left by the woman and the girl; I follow the path they took away from me. 2.
Summer, 2017. Fifteen years in the past, the day I’d say my story starts, the start of a transformation I’m only now completing. Some chain wax center in West Hollywood and my half-naked body reclined on a sheet of butcher paper. Speakers on the ceiling spewed a pop song about fire and love. I looked up at panels of fluorescent light, a poster of a woman at a nice restaurant. Her hands were folded over the white napkin in her lap; her skin shone, concave and hairless; a steamed lobster on the table stared up at her, scarlet carapace still unbroken.
“Knees to chest,” the waxist said. She had an accented, angular voice. I held my shins as she slathered steaming blue to my labia, the insides of my ass cheeks. The room was cold, the hot wax a comfort. “Just like a virgin,” she said and patted before she pulled.
Pain flashed where the hair had been. A screaming hole I closed my eyes to slip inside. I wanted it. A womanly ritual, the hurting, my ability to stand it. One I might complain about with girlfriends, like period cramps, all of us in on the same unspoken joke, the suffering required by a certain sort of body. I thought of my mother, the vacation we took from Houston to LA two summers before. Orange light in our Hollywood hotel room and her body, squatting and squirming from the bathroom in a new cerulean one-piece. “Five decades of bathing suits and I still can’t figure out where everything’s supposed to go,” she said. “What do you think?” She turned a circle, cocked a hip, the blue suit shone and the waxist wrenched the final strip, returning me to the room.
“Baby,” the waxist said, “you like?” I opened my eyes and craned my neck to see a swath of pubic hair, smaller than a thumbprint. It stunned me, my own skin, infantile and pink; the coarse brown “landing strip” seemed somehow indecisive.
“Maybe just take it all?” I said. The waxist nodded, returned to her pot, globbed blue over the remainder. She fanned, then pulled. “What you think now?”
“What do you think?” my mother had repeated that night in Hollywood, when it was just us two in the orange light, assessing her new bathing suit. And I had been a mean girl.
“Uh, you need a wax,” I said, trying out a new voice.
Her face flushed. “Well, obviously,” she said. I buried myself in my phone. She disappeared into the bathroom, emerged in a towel. Later, while brushing my teeth, I spotted curlicued black hairs crowding the blades of her razor like weeds pushing through the shutters of a boarded-up house and felt angry in a way that made me want to be even meaner. I was harsh but she was clueless. How was she still such a little girl? Why was it my job to explain bikini lines and makeup application, lessons of womanhood her own mother died too young to impart? I learned them from YouTube, Instagram, and though my mother said she wanted instruction too, she never stuck with the rituals I prescribed. Contouring and gua sha massage, retinol and ten-step serum routines, all abandoned, as if she thought learning to care for herself would rob her own mom of the chance to rise from the dead and teach her.
“Baby?” The waxist wanted answers.
“Okay,” I said.
She puffed cold powder onto my crotch. “Baby,” she said, “You go now.”
I dressed, bare skin behind my clothes like a secret, safe with me, a pulled together girl, all the mess shorn off. A girl wise enough to identify the mess in the first place, and to fix it. I tipped using a formula my mother taught me (move the decimal point, then double it), called a car and walked out into Los Angeles. Ash on the air, and fire.
My Lyft driver was a man who spoke with fear about his teenage daughter. “Six thousand dollars to get her on drill team,” he said. “But she has to maintain a 4.0. Then she can do what she wants.”
“Smart,” I said.
“What do you do?” he asked.
I didn’t have an answer. I had only been in Los Angeles two weeks, only been a high school graduate for six. No father cared what I did or didn’t do; mine had always been absent. Rich and old, he’d left by my third birthday. But in a way, he’d given me a gift, freedom, by abandoning me. Because here I was, hustling harder for what I’d lost.
“I’m a freshman at USC,” I told the driver, a lie in the shape of what I thought he wanted to hear. We pulled up to my Airbnb.
“Be safe out there, baby,” he said. I thanked him, got out, rolled my eyes. As if he knew what was safe for girls. As if his own daughter wasn’t miserable most likely, forced onto the drill team, so lame.
The Airbnb was a room in a bungalow off Robertson, shared with three other girls—community theater kids turned Hollywood waitstaff, auditioning endlessly, whining about flakey agents and acting coaches. Girls with next to no internet presence, who wanted a different sort of stardom, a different screen. When I suggested they build platforms, use Instagram to get noticed, they thanked me, but laughed a little, snarky, like they thought social media was superficial, uncreative, a crutch. So almost as soon as I moved in, I stopped talking to them. At night, they sat around the communal kitchen table running lines, projecting and enunciating like they were already on stage. To escape them, I walked. Beyond the smoke, the air smelled of flowers. Red bougainvillea draped over balconies and looked, in the fading light, like entrails, touched with blue. I took photos for my feed, captured the LA light, the Spanish-style mansions, winding wrought iron, ocean on the air, which cooled at night to a deep desert chill I’d never felt before. All of it was so new, so utterly unlike Houston, my mother, the stale and humid library where she worked, the chronic complaints she made about her body—its size and shape and ailments—always searching for something to cure. I turned the camera to my face and spoke as I walked. “Gonna be a big staaaah,” I said and smooched the lens.
I had reason to believe I could touch stardom, and the money that came with it, as a model on Instagram. This is what I’d told my mother, how I’d sold her on my move to LA. Instagram was a business opportunity, a new frontier for entrepreneurial youths like me, youths with initiative. College stifled that sort of thing and I had read online that even rich kids were taking gap years to experience the real world. I had read that student debt was shackling my generation, condemning us to the same hardship I watched my mother weather, month by month, a running list of questions: which bills needed paying, which she could put off, what could she forego. Travel, therapy, dental work. The real world, shrunken by lack. But technology was wide open. It was where the money was. Influencers with one hundred thousand followers earned a thousand dollars a post, easy. Two hundred thousand followers equaled paid vacations to five-star resorts. Almost foolish, to want to do anything else.
I was fourteen when I received a phone of my own, but I already knew how to use it. The first thing I did was save Leah’s number under the contact “BEST FRIEND FOREVER.” My mother’s I saved as “Mommy,” which I still sometimes called her. The second thing I did was start an Instagram account, gather followers with hashtags and selfies that accentuated my youth, the teeth that took up half my face when I smiled.
My mother said my smile belonged to the grandmother who’d died before my birth. “You look so like her,” she would say and gesture at framed photographs, old black and white images of the beautiful mother she’d lost too soon. It was a source of pride for my mom, to have produced a child to carry on the legacy of her own mom’s bright smile. But she was wrong. I was prettier than my grandmother ever was. I was special, destined to transcend the small lives of the women who came before me; I was deserving of DMs from Instagram scouts, brand offers to “collab.”
The only message I replied to, spring of my junior year of high school, had all the markings of a scam. It was, instead, a fluke, a job modeling festival wear for a brand called Hippy Baby, based in Austin, a job for a girl with management, a comp card and portfolio. But someone had fallen through, someone had said rush
, some scout plucked me off Instagram and said I had a “trademark smile,” all teeth. I was seventeen, barely licensed. But I drove my mother’s car the whole way, I-10 to I-71, three hours through wildflower fields to a loft downtown, a photographer named Eric, his nameless assistant, who was a girl my age. They rearranged my body like furniture, both frustrated that I was so unpracticed. “Where do I change?” I asked after the first outfit was shot and they said, “Wherever,” like I should know. In the room’s middle, I bent to pull up bikini bottoms, or to drop them, and imagined my asshole puckering in the air conditioned cold, how they would see it too. If they did, they didn’t say. They didn’t care about my asshole, just my ass itself, just the outside.
“You’ve got a butt,” Eric told me when he finished shooting. “But you’ve got a gut, too.” He said nothing of my smile.
“I’m keto and I love it,” his assistant said. She was friendlier once the work was done. And yet I left alone and hungry, just the photographer’s voice in my head, the word gut
When the pictures posted I catapulted from 6,000 to 20,000 Instagram follows, earned $4,000. So much growth, so quickly. Like the solution to an ailment I hadn’t known I suffered, a power I’d known was possible, but hadn’t anticipated would be easy to claim. So easy, the number of dollars in my account, the number of people at my fingertips, all of them wanting, waiting for solutions I might offer, products I might sell, power I might promise. When I hit 20,000 I screamed and jumped and took a selfie, trademark smiling, proving to myself how happy I was. But really, I was thinking of what more I could make for myself, what more I could make for my mother, now that I was backed by a number that would continue to grow if I worked at it, leveraged my number for a bigger, better number. Leverage was how empires were built, the walls of a well-made house high and thick and every bill paid on time, everyone inside healthy and safe. I subscribed to Business Insider
, spent hours reading beyond their paywall. I learned that persistence is an essential quality of successful entrepreneurs. Gut
, I thought when I took selfies. Keto
, I whispered when I opened the fridge. It felt like a promise Los Angeles could help me keep and I begged my mother for a trip. Finally, when summer came—my seventeenth, her forty-eighth—she agreed. We flew from Houston to Los Angeles for Star Tours, studio tours, the Hollywood Sign. We stayed three nights, walked for three days up and down Sunset Boulevard, Melrose Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, in and out of amusement parks: Universal Studios, California Adventure, and the newly opened Fairy Tale Land, our favorite. Afterward, I imagined graduating high school and returning to LA. And now here I was, returned.
Copyright © 2022 by Allie Rowbottom. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.