Kate Thinks She’s So Special
Just look at your hair. That’s what that little voice inside of me says when I walk by my old bedroom mirror. Just look at your hair. I push at it and try to pouf it up a little, get some action into those bangs, but they’re too long. It’s all out of shape. I barely spend any time on it, really. Instead, I run my fingers across the crack in the mirror’s cherrywood frame. I shouldn’t have thrown my brush at it. Stupid, wrecking my grandmother’s old treasure like this, an antique she kept on the wall above her dresser. I used to stand on my toes to try to look into it, although all I could see was the top of my head, stray brown hairs desperate to get away from the tight ponytail behind me. At least I didn’t break the mirror itself. Imagine my luck then.
I’m unpacking a little faster now that I’ve decided to put most of the stuff straight into the dirty clothes. Most of my clothes seem kind of baggy on me, so frankly I don’t much care when they get clean. All the clothes these days, smack dab in the middle of the ’80s, with their overpowering shoulder pads and overall hugeness, could go right into the trash for all I care. The current fashion is so oversized (like the music). I feel like I’ve been unpacking the entire two days I’ve been home. It’s making me feel so tired.
“Forget that stuff—come and eat,” Maria calls me from the kitchen. Maria, my “oldest” friend, as they say (Maria dislikes discussions of age, her age at least), is fixing some healthy concoction for us in my kitchen. I go in there—my God, she’s cleaned the place, too—and I watch her slice carrots, her long dark hair in her eyes.
“You could lose a finger that way,” I tell her.
“Be careful, or I’ll put someone’s eye out.” She points the knife at me as she follows the mothering routine.
“Really, you’d be so pretty if you’d just get that hair out of your face,” I tell her.
Maria was the first one I told about testing positive. She had sat there a minute, then responded, “Well, your mother should be happy—you’ll be seeing lots of doctors.” I rely on Maria for such comments. We’ve known one another since we were twelve, back in the innocent 1970s, unbelievably. A lot of men under the bridge, Maria always says.
She’s got some dripping wet (but never sandy) spinach leaves and watercress, and some bizarre-looking brown lumpy soup. Maria must be on a diet again. Since I’ve given up dieting, I know the gooey carrot cake sitting on the sink must be all for me.
“I can’t believe you actually got something with sugar in it,” I say. “Are you feeling okay? Maybe you should get a blood test or something.”
“Ha-ha. I missed your birthday. I’ll never forgive you for not coming back in time so I could humiliate you about turning thirty.”
“Thirty,” I say, running a finger through the icing. “I thought it would be better than this, at thirty, you know?”
“Thirty sucks,” Maria says. She hands me a freshly blended carrot smoothie drink with a bitter smell.
“Can I at least eat the cake first?”
“Such a baby,” Maria says.
I cut a piece of cake and take a bite, letting the icing rest on my tongue. It’s even sweeter than Maria probably thinks it is. I drop a few crumbs on the pink-tiled countertop.
“We can’t take you anywhere,” Maria says.
I had left town about seven months ago, taking a leave from my position in our esteemed History Department. (I’m on the American side, and there are sides.) I didn’t make a big secret of things, since I hate the idea of people discovering something about me behind my back, but I’m sure they all talked about me anyway. I’m sure Maria tried to get them to shut up. (She’s on my side.) Rather than worrying too much about it, I packed up what I needed and visited friends across the country: Arizona, then New York City, then Syracuse, where my other college roommate (who used to snip at Maria’s hair while she slept) has gone back to graduate school. We spent plenty of time sitting around and telling stories while generally maintaining a healthy attitude about mind-enhancing drugs, which you really need on a trip like that.
Still, I was relieved to get back to my grandmother’s four-poster bed and my little chicken-shaped salt and pepper shakers. The first day back I just walked around and around my apartment touching things, caressing them, even though they were a little dusty.
Now Maria and I collapse in the living room after our hearty dinner—I only finished half the cake, even though it really was a small cake. I did drink all of that thick orange stuff, which shows the extent I’ll go to for a friend.
“So come with me to the party tomorrow night,” Maria says.
I’m sprawled across my ugly old tweed couch, one of my very favorite things in life. It’s so perfectly worn in, and you can’t get it dirty. I have my prized collection of plaid pillows all around me. Most people would call the pillows ugly, too.
“What?” I ask Maria.
“Oops,” she says, “were you sleeping?”
I’ve caught her. “It’s eight o’clock. You think I’m four years old?”
“I’d never give you credit for acting more than two years old,” Maria says, back to her old self.
“I’m a little jet-laggy,” I say.
Maria gives me a look. “You’re probably just at death’s door.”
Maria’s sitting in an old soft armchair I know she greatly prefers to the couch, which she says comes off in little balls all over her clothes. The huge pink chair is so old, it’s almost back in style.
“God, let’s talk about something other than you,” Maria says.
“Okay, I’ll give. What party are you talking about?”
“I’m sure there was an invitation in your mail. Ever read your mail?”
“My eyes are so weak,” I kid her, flailing my arms around in front of me.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s a Westside party. All the politically correct people who’ve taken over all the rent-controlled apartments will be there.”
“I have a rent-controlled apartment,” I brag.
“You think you’re so special,” Maria mocks me. “That’s what I tell everyone, ‘Kate thinks she’s so special.’ ”
“See, there’s just nothing to talk about if we don’t talk about me.”
“Anyway, the party’s for that cause, God, what is it? Environment for Tomorrow, or Tomorrow’s Environment—I forget.” Maria picks up some of my mail off my grandmother’s mahogany coffee table and looks at the envelopes.
“Tomorrow’s Environment at Today’s Prices,” I say.
“Yeah, Everything Must Go! You don’t have to donate money or anything. They just want to show you some pictures of the Earth rotting and serve you dumplings.”
“Hmm, rotting earth,” I say, imagining the smell to be a little like that orange drink. “Will they give us samples in little bags to take home?”
Maria rips open one of my envelopes. She reads a letter, then tosses it on the floor. “You didn’t win anything,” she says.
“No kidding,” I reply. I put my arm across my forehead and sigh deeply. “I’m just too tired for parties,” I say, faking it.
“Spare me,” Maria says.
“I just got back, practically.”
“Perfect timing,” Maria says stubbornly.
“I can’t go to parties—I have a disease,” I say.
“I have a pimple, and I’m going.”
I think about my piles of laundry. “I have nothing to wear.”
“I’ll loan you a dress,” Maria says seriously, which produces a loud series of laughs from me. I’ve always been the thinner, less-endowed one.
“One size fits all,” Maria says. “It’s one of those granny-type things, long and loose. Hides all those unwanted jutting hipbones.”
“Was it expensive?” I ask. Maria nods, so I consider it.
“Remember when we all wanted jutting hipbones?” Maria asks.
We find the party in an old warehouse at the little Santa Monica airport. Converted warehouses, they’re called, but I can’t see where much conversion has gone on around here. The walls and floors are whitewashed, although not recently, judging from the black smudges here and there. Bright white lights hang overhead, the kind that blind you if you look right into them. For decoration, someone has planted some scraggly trees in round white pots. Video monitors scattered here and there show whales swimming gracefully through the polluted seas. You can hear that whale music, whales crooning, all through the room.
“Whale sounds,” Maria says. “People always give more money when they hear whales crying. I think I read that in Harper’s.”
I’m a little cold. My coat looked so God-awful over Maria’s Victorian dress that I left it in the car. The dress is really nice—red with gold flecks in it, kind of a cross between a hippy dress and a flapper dress. I rub my arms a little.
“The food will be hot,” Maria says.
Since I detect a note of genuine concern, I grab Maria’s hand. “I’m cold. I think I might go into a seizure or something,” I kid her.
“Fuck you,” Maria says, snapping out of it.
“Okay, well, I am hungry,” I say.
Maria drags me off toward the food. A very tall, very bleached-blonde woman blocks our way. The worst part is, we know her.
“Alix,” Maria greets her with no specific tone. Alix is in the Communications Department all the way across campus, so you’d think we’d never run into her. This, however, underestimates her wingspan.
“Kate, how have you been?” Alix asks with a deadly serious voice. She pretty much ignores Maria.
“Fine, Alix, and you?”
“Me, oh, no. I mean, how’ve you been with, you know?” Alix’s whispers are almost drowned out by whales screaming for one another.
“Everyone knows, Alix,” Maria says. “You don’t have to whisper.”
“Oh, that’s so wonderful that you’re telling people. Good for you,” Alix says.
“How’s your hair?” Maria asks her, but Alix grabs my arm and pulls me toward a group of people dressed in deathly pale clothing.
“We were just about to eat,” I say, but Alix is off and running.
“Everyone!” Alix calls to her people. “This is Kate. She’s, well, tested positive, and she’s telling people.”
The little crowd applauds politely, and each person shakes my hand, lingering a bit too long for effect and introducing themselves. I turn to Maria, who’s shocked and not hiding it.
“You planned this, right?” I softly kid her again.
“I couldn’t possibly,” she mumbles back through her shock. “But you know I’d do anything for you.”
I say hello to the group and try to get my hand back. These people have awfully cold hands, seems to me.
“Let’s just walk away,” Maria says.
“I can handle it,” I say.
“Oh you’re one of those women we’ve read about,” says a woman who calls herself Beryl.
“She’s a statistic,” Maria answers her.
“Right,” says this Beryl. “It’s great that you’re here tonight. Will you be speaking?”
“Oh you must speak,” says Glen, a lawyer who mentioned his firm’s name, but who listens to that sort of thing?
“No, no, I’m a guest,” I say. “Just like you.”
“Babe,” Maria whispers in my ear, “you’re entertainment.”
“We were just about to get something to eat,” I say, “so if you’ll excuse us—”
“You should write a screenplay,” Alix says. “You’d be very hot. See that guy in the Armani? He’s an agent. I’d love to introduce you.”
“Maybe later,” I say. I cannot get past these people.
“You really should write something, you know, before, well, before—” Alix says.
“Before dinner?” Maria asks.
“Before I bite it,” I say.
“Oh!” Alix looks stunned, but recovers quickly enough. “Oh, a joke—what a sense of humor! Beryl, Kate has a sense of humor!”
“Wow,” Beryl says, hands clasped before her as if in prayer.
“This is so great of you, Kate,” Alix says, putting her hands on my shoulders, trapping me. Then she kisses me on the cheek. A whale cries loudly somewhere over my head.
“Oh yes, good for you,” Beryl adds, then she kisses me, too.
“I think I may cry,” Maria says dryly.
“I’m crying on the inside,” Alix whispers not too softly.
I free myself from them. “Well, bless you all,” I say, not too thrilled.
I start to get away but that lawyer guy traps me between himself and Alix. “Kate, that fellow in indigo over there? Ken Farell. He’s running for city council next fall, you know, and well, we’re having a little house gathering. Just a hundred or so folks from the neighborhood, who’d be interested in meeting with you and talking. Real informal.”
I’m cornered like an animal about to be shoed, or maybe slaughtered, and I’m starting to not be able to focus on anything or anyone. The room seems to be getting darker, and the only noise I can really make out is the slow moan of the whales. My face feels hot, but I do notice Maria mouthing the words “Fuck him,” I think. Perhaps she’s saying it out loud. Perhaps whale sounds are coming out of her mouth. Somehow my brain begins to function again, and I get an idea. A girl does what she has to.
I put one hand on Glen’s shoulder. “You know, Glen,” I say, then I stop and make my eyes very wide. I cough loudly, then catch Maria’s eye. I cough a few more times, for extra effect. I’m pretty good at this.
“Oh, God,” Alix cries.
“Please excuse us,” Maria says, grabbing my arm and moving us toward the door.
“We love you, Kate,” I think Alix says. It almost sounds sincere, what with the whales crying and all.
We make it out the door. I’m about to laugh, but I notice I’m actually trembling. Maybe it’s from the cold.
Maria looks at me, then finally says, “I can’t take you anywhere.”
We walk quickly to Maria’s car and get in. I wrap myself in my coat and concentrate on how Maria’s car smells of peppermint.
“I hold myself responsible,” Maria says.
“Then you have very high self-esteem,” I say, trying to calm down.
I buckle myself in, then tighten the belt. As if I’m recovering from an aerobics class, I take a few deep breaths, counting to ten, breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth.
The car heater begins to blow warm, friendly air at me. I put both hands in front of my vent. After a few seconds of quiet, Maria says, “Damn, we didn’t get any of those rubbery dim sum.”
She heads the car out of the lot and down the blacktopped, deserted streets of Santa Monica.
“Yeah, and we never got our gift pack of whale songs,” I say.
“Best of Shamu,” Maria says.
“Shamu and Seije do America’s favorites.”
We hit a pothole, but Maria’s shocks make the best of it.
“You know,” Maria says, “if I’d been wearing that dress, I’d have gotten all the attention.”
“Not if your life depended on it,” I say.
“You think you’re so special,” Maria says, turning on the radio to a song sung by a girl I can just tell is much younger than I am.
I pull down the passenger-side vanity mirror and take a look. A little on the pale side, I think. And just look at that hair. I could have someone put some red highlights in it this weekend, do something with the bangs, before I go back to school.
“I feel so incomplete,” Maria says. “We didn’t get any of that sparkling peach cider.”
“We didn’t even get to say good-bye,” I say, running my hands through my hair, then flipping the mirror back into place.
Linda Lenhoff‘s latest novel, Your Actual Life May Vary, was a finalist for the Santa Fe Writers Project prize and may be published in 2022. The first chapter, “Your Actual Life May Vary,” appeared in This Side of the Divide by Baobab Press in 2019. Her first two novels, Life a la Mode and Latte Lessons, were published in 2005 and 2008, respectively; the first was translated into Russian, Portuguese, Indonesian, and two variants of the Czech language. Another novel, The Girl in the ’67 Beetle, is forthcoming July 2021 from Literary Wanderlust. She has also published stories in The Tishman Review, Akashic Thursdaze, and elsewhere. She works as an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area.