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Pretty Old

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“Excuse me, ma’am.”
 
I put my finger on the page and looked up. A freckly, buzz-cut boy stood in front of me. He ground his gloved palms together. He’s eleven, maybe twelve.
 
“Yes?”
 
“I just got in trouble for being mean to my little sister.”
 
I clicked my tongue. “That’s not good.”
 
“My mom told me to do a random act of kindness to make up for it.”
 
“And I’m the recipient? Not your sister?”
 
He nodded. Looked over his shoulder.
 
I dog-eared my page and closed the book. Cradled my mocha mug.  Tried not to grin.
 
“Let’s hear what you’ve got.”
 
I winked at his mom a few tables away. She held up crossed fingers.
 
The boy cleared his throat. “You’re pretty old.”
 
I put my hand on my chest and coughed. The mom sagged. I’m pretty sure I heard her moan. 
 
“I’m so sorry,” she mouthed.
 
I winced as he pulled out the chair next to mine. Sat. Tugged his gloves off and rubbed his hands on his jeaned thighs.
 
“That didn’t come out right, did it?”
 
I shrugged. Puffed air at my bangs. “I’ve been called worse.”
 
He leaned toward me. “No, ma’am,” he said. “You don’t understand.”
 
I watched his eyes. They started at the top of my head. Slid down past my shoulders.
 
“Your hair’s so shiny. You could do a shampoo commercial. And your eyes. Are they blue or green? Your fingernails are almost black. That’s cool.”
 
I felt a small, wry smile begin to bloom on my face.
 
“I didn’t mean you’re old, ma’am. I mean, you are. Older than my mom anyway. But you’re pretty and old. Pretty old. Get it?”
 
I covered his hands with mine. “I got it, sweet boy,” I said. “It’s taken me half a lifetime to get it. But I got it. Finally.”
 
 
“What the heck do you need a bra for?” my middle oldest brother said. Hooted really.
 
I whimpered and hightailed it from the dinner table to my petal pink bedroom. 
 
“He’s right,” I told the only stuffed animal I ever loved. It wasn’t even an animal. Jot was a giant smiley face with a tee tiny body. 
 
“I’m too flat to need a bra and too chubby to need a belt.”
 
Mom came in and sat on the end of my bed. “Let’s go to Sears. After I do the dishes.”
 
I didn’t take my face off Jot’s teeny neck. “Can I get a stretchy bra and panty set? Light purple? Like Jot?”
 
Mom touched my back so lightly I barely knew her hand was there. “Sure, honey. Anything you want.”
 
 
I sat in the audience and watched my best friend get crowned third place in the Miss Flame beauty contest. Beside me, her mom and dad clapped so hard I wanted to hold my ears. I applauded too. ‘Cause it was the nice thing to do. I should want her to win, right? But she’s everything I’m not. 
 
I squashed the thought down. That’s mean. It bobbed right back up like the candy bar in the swimming pool in “Caddyshack.” 
 
She looks like a cross between Cher and Brooke Shields. Me? Cindy Brady plus Dorothy Hamill hair equal me.
 
Last year’s Miss Flame handed my gal pal a daisy bouquet. Nestled a twinkly tiara into her almost-black up-do. Her legs come up to my armpits and she’s a C cup. I sighed. I’m an A. 
 
My friend’s mom stood and snapped a picture of the first, second, and third place Miss Flames. I blinked a bunch of times to make sure I wasn’t blind.
 
The mom turned to me. “You want a picture with her?”
 
I smiled, a grimace really. “Sure.”
 
So everyone can look at the photo album and call her gorgeous and me cute. Cute is a four letter word.
 
 
“I want to try something,” my hairdo girl said. “Don’t peek.”
 
I squeezed my eyes shut and waited while she fiddled behind me. What’s she up to? A few minutes later, she twirled the chair around to face the mirror. I tilted my head. Who’s that?
 
“Do you like it?”  Tami said.
 
My eyes looked a little buggy in the reflection. I stuck my hands out from under the fuschia cape and reached up to touch my hair. It felt so soft. And sleek. Barely there.
 
“I’ve never had straight hair,” I said. “I look different. Pretty.”
 
“Pretty?”  Tami said. “You’re beautiful.”
 
I felt a ball of air inside me. Behind my breastbone. Have I held my breath all my life? Just waiting? For someone to call me beautiful?
 
“You look fifteen years younger,” the receptionist said. “Your kids are going to think you’re the babysitter.”
 
“Bangs are the new Botox, you know,” the nail tech said.
 
Tami removed the cape and patted my neck with a huge powder puff. I stepped toward the mirrored wall. My breath made a silver circle. I slicked my lips with petal pink lip gloss. Made a kissy face.
 
“You should enter that Mrs. America beauty contest,” the shampoo girl said. “I bet you’d win.”
 
I put my fingers under my eyes. To hide the crow’s feet. 
 
“But I’m old,” I said, even though I didn’t feel it. “Getting there anyway.”
 
Tami snorted. “You’re not old,” she said. “You’re beautiful. Really.”
 
I turned to face her. “Will you say that again please? A little louder?”  So I believe it.

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