[Fiction] Pretty on the Inside
The smoke from Jamie’s rollup entombed us, sealing us off from the rest of the world. It nipped my eyes and made me wheeze but when one was offered to me, I didn’t refuse it. I tucked my lips in to hold it steady while Jamie leaned closer to light me up, floppy hair obscuring one eye. The twinkle of the exposed eye set my insides twinkling. This surprised me as I had never thought about what nestled under my little pouch of belly fat and if I had, I’d have pictured it hollow, like the torso of a shop mannequin. But now, I could feel something there – a swirling then a rushing that crept down my thighs and made me feel weird.
I averted my gaze quickly, lest my face betray what was happening inside me. I suppressed the urge to cough as Jamie chatted about the book which rested on the coffee-stained Formica table. The Dice Man sounded infinitely cooler than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole which was hiding in my schoolbag. Thankfully, Jamie didn’t ask the dreaded ‘What are you reading?’ question and I was free to listen and dream of that velvety brown hair tickling my face. I hadn’t paid much attention to Jamie before, likely because we inhabited different worlds: one of us wore Doc Martens and listened to Pearl Jam and Hole while the other wore clothes bought by her mum and listened to Wet Wet Wet.
I thought I had just about managed to get away with my impersonation of someone cool when a shrill voice penetrated our hazy cocoon.
‘Jen! What are you doing? You don’t even smoke! You look so stupid!’
My acne throbbed as my face flushed and I became acutely aware of my unfashionable glasses and ridiculous ‘Forever Friends’ pendant that hung around my now-scarlet neck. In that moment of shame, I’d never hated anyone more than John, Jamie’s idiot younger brother, who also happened to be my boyfriend.
I didn’t look again at Jamie and instead stormed out of the cafe leaving a trail of mortification and Charlie Red in my wake.
I was supposed to go to John’s to do ‘homework’ which was code for him sitting too close to me while we puzzled over quadratic equations, but I didn’t want to. Not just because I was mad at him for embarrassing me, but because I needed to be by myself, to make that scary trip inside my head and digest what had happened in the doldrums of The Baker’s Oven.
I stopped off at the library but instead of heading to the Young Adult section for my usual Point Horror fix, I ventured to the Audio Department. I was usually content with taping the charts off the radio so flipping through cassettes of unknown bands was new and exciting. I found what I was looking for sandwiched between Hipsway and The Hollies and the photo of four grungy band members on the neon pink cover fuelled the internal twinkling.
I also opted to take out Now 24 so I could hand over something that didn’t have the word, ‘Hole’ and a parental advisory sticker across it – the librarian was a family friend who’d likely phone my mum to advise her about it. Thankfully she just commented on the ‘lovely’ and ‘thought-provoking’ album title, Pretty on the Inside. Even though I didn’t know the band, I knew the music was going to be anything but ‘lovely’.
As soon as I got home I closed myself in my bedroom, plugged my dad’s giant Phillips headphones into my Walkman, got under my duvet and pressed play. The rough guitars and the raspy female voice yelling about being a teenage whore startled me for I was far more accustomed to the likes of Mariah Carey searching for her Dreamlover but I didn’t turn it off. I imagined Jamie listening to it at the same time, hands behind head and feeling the music or something. I replayed our brief liaison and imagined the cool things I should have said and what the future might hold now that we were connected. My imaginings gathered moss until the two of us were lying entwined under an old oak, twiddling each other’s hair and smoking baggy rollups. The twinkling intensified and I knew what I’d find if I peeled back my flesh – something that sparkled; something worth holding up for admiration; something pretty.
I didn’t know what had happened that day, why I was feeling this way about Jamie and not John, but I knew that I was forever changed. I knew that I would never again fit in with my friends and their Naf Naf jumpers who sang along to Grease on sleepovers.
From then on, I spent as much time as possible with John, in a bid to get closer to Jamie. I made excuses to pop over to his house most evenings and arrived with my Walkman blaring Nirvana’s Love Buzz in the hope Jamie would answer the door and think about my love buzz, even though I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. Of course, Jamie was always at some gig or other but those new feelings in my tummy kept me hopeful.
With all the time I was choosing to spend with him it was no wonder John thought our relationship was progressing. As a lanky streak of hormones, he often tried to up the pace. Every time his callused hands strayed towards unchartered territory I made my excuses to leave because I felt nothing – no fluttering in my tummy, no warmth in my chest, no flushing in my cheeks. Nothing. But if I gave him up, there was no chance I’d see Jamie who did evoke such feelings.
In a bid to be noticed, I changed my style, mimicking that of Jamie – second-hand army jacket that my mum deplored, Dr Marten boots in purple which she could just about suffer if I didn’t wear them to family gatherings, and long-sleeved band T-shirts with thumbholes cut into the cuffs which drove her mad. John, always eager to please, tried to evolve with me but he just wasn’t the right fit for combat trousers, or, for me.
One evening, the moment I’d been waiting for happened: an open bedroom door with Mudhoney playing was an opportunity to make conversation. I’d taken one of their albums out of the library not two days previously, having seen one of their posters in Jamie’s room. I was invited to sit on the bed and we discussed who was the better drummer, Mudhoney’s Dan Peters or Hole’s Patty Schemel. When I say ‘discussed’ I mean I nodded emphatically at the appropriate moments and tried to keep my face from stretching into a dorky grin because I was finally being noticed. John came looking for me and sat with us which forced me closer to Jamie. The faint smell of coconut mingled with patchouli from that floppy hair surprised me as Jamie was a ‘Smelly’ and Smellies were so-called because they looked like they needed hosed down with shower gel. The coconut transported me to a desert island where Jamie and I built beach fires and drank the juice of mangos all day, but the illusion was ruined by John wittering about the merits of Larry Mullen Jr’s drumming. I died inside for him a little – here was me trying to demonstrate how music savvy I was, and my boyfriend was enthusing about Ubloody2! But Jamie rekindled my good mood with a gig invitation for the following evening. Ok, John and I were both invited but I could live with that if it meant time in Jamie’s vicinity.
I didn’t sleep that night but it wasn’t excitement that fuelled my insomnia: it was uncertainty. It was confusion. I didn’t know what any of this meant. Was it a date? No, of course not, John was coming too. But why ask me at all? Were my feelings reciprocated? Had I ever been led to believe they were? What if I made a move and was laughed off? What would people think? Would the few friends I hadn’t pushed away still be there? The questions whirled around my head until I thought I would vomit and for the first time in months, I sought Teddy and cried into his tatty head. I wished to go back to the time before I met Jamie, before these secret feelings when light-up LA Gears and Marti Pellow were enough to make me happy.
I was so tired the next day that by the time school was finished I didn’t know how I’d manage the gig, but I had to go. I had to know. I fixed myself a caffeine bomb, something I’d heard Jamie talking about: six teaspoons of Nescafe and an equal amount of sugar. Each mouthful of the tarry solution burned through my somnolence and I was ready, the anxiety of the previous night having been swallowed way, way down.
I’d never been to a gig before and the stink of the unwashed grossed me out. There were so many people jumping around, their long tendrils of matted hair whipping in all directions. I didn’t like it. I felt hemmed in and the caffeine rendered me jittery and paranoid. Why was everyone looking at me? Did they know? How did they know? Had Jamie told them? To further my paranoia, Jamie didn’t seem interested in John and me and while John didn’t care, I thought I was going to die. My thumping heart hurt, and I couldn’t get a breath, and everyone was still staring, and the words John spoke were gobbledygook, so I turned and ran, pushing through the mass of moshers to get outside, to get as far away from this as possible. I slumped in a doorway, distraught. Months of secrecy and confusion and alienating myself from my friends had all built up. My insides no longer sparkled, were no longer pretty; they were ugly, diseased. I wanted to claw them out and throw them into the mosh pit to be stamped on until they were nothing more than a bloody pulp.
Salt trickled into my mouth from tears I didn’t know were falling and I hugged my knees to my chest, wishing someone were here to hold me, to tell me things would be ok. But then came the light brushing of fingers on my cheeks, wiping delicately at the flow of emotion. I hadn’t known John to be so tender and for the first time, I felt guilty for my feelings – for not liking him, for loving Jamie. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, that I’d just been confused, that I really did want to like him in that way but words did not form. I just wept until the person crouching over me took my head and cradled it into their itchy woolen jumper. A big sniff released the blockage in my nose and at once, my scent receptors trembled. I’d expected the whiff of John’s hair, that murky aroma of unchanged beds, but instead, it was coconut that wove up through my nostrils and down through my viscera reigniting the sparkles. I was pulled into Jamie’s tropical embrace and she kissed the top of my head.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so lonely and everything made sense: the warm lips pressed to my head told me everything I needed to know – that everything would be alright, that I was pretty on the inside.
Fee Johnstone lives in Scotland and loves writing short stories. She’s had work published in various zines including Paper and Ink, Razur Cuts, Glove Magazine, and Ellipsis.