Annie received the phone call to return to New York on the same day her boyfriend Jason moved out of her house. It had been twelve years since Annie and her two best friends were selected at random by a photojournalist in the Mall of America for a spread in the New York Times Magazine about the everyday lives of teenagers. Her face lit up—she could actually feel the flush run through her cheeks—when she heard the photographer’s name and the reason for the call: a retrospective photo shoot to revisit the image of three thirteen-year-old girls from Edina, Minnesota, applying too much blush and lipstick with their hair straightener cords dangling from the light fixtures, getting ready for their school’s Sadie Hawkins dance.
She refused to not be there when her boyfriend moved out: it was her house, the down payment had been all hers, the mortgage payments had never been shared, and she sensed the possibility that he would take something of hers, accidentally or not, and this threat, however unfounded, felt like a horrible violation. But her thoughts were on New York—wearing Dior and reading Vogue and flashing a radiant smile at photographers and their assistants. Her suitcase was on the top shelf of the hall closet, and Annie wondered how many outfits she should pack for a three-day visit.
The email with a proposed itinerary was still open, the New York Times logo in the signature gleaming like a gold coin, when she sensed Jason hovering in the doorway. She set her laptop down on the coffee table and stood up, folding her arms across her chest. The friend that was helping him move out was not a familiar face, and he had smiled with embarrassment at her presence. She wondered if he was like Jason, the type of man to blame his girlfriend for the fact that he had been out of work for six months. She wondered too if he would decide to cope with this insecurity by cheating on his girlfriend with some slut across the river at Macalester.
“I’m all done,” Jason said.
“If I find anything of yours, I’ll set it aside and give you a call.” She looked out the window at his friend, leaning against the pickup truck, smoking, the sweat glistening off his forearms. “Are you staying with him? Or her?”
His jaw clenched, and his eyes focused at some point over her head.
“On his couch,” he said. “I told you, I’m not with her.”
“It doesn’t matter. You know there’s more to it than that.”
“I know,” he said sadly, and for a moment, she pitied him and how it must feel to have been laid off twice while Annie kept getting promoted. Then he said, “I just can’t believe you’re chucking me when I’m still looking for a job.”
“Are you serious?”
“Whatever.” And he turned and pushed open the storm door, which swung back rapidly, and right before it hit, the hydraulic held it in place, just for a moment, until the door’s weight eased, and it closed with a satisfying click. The truck backed out of the driveway, the items in the bed shifting perilously, and then they were heading up the street, and they were gone. She picked up her phone and dialed her brother.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Great. Can you come over now?”
In ten minutes, Joel and his wife, Bridget, were there. Annie pretended to listen as he explained to her what he was doing as he changed the locks. Instead, her enthusiasm for New York vanished at the mere presence of Bridget. Her sister-in-law had been married to Joel for two years, and she and Annie had never been close. Bridget was Nordic and solid and, while certainly not unpleasing, she was a remarkable switch from the effusive and buoyant type her brother used to date. Bridget smiled tightly at her and asked if she was okay, calling her dear in a condescending tone that made Annie irrationally furious, and remained across the living room, politely disinterested, as if she somehow disapproved of even being in Annie’s home. When Joel was done, he handed Annie the new key, and she wrapped her fingers around it into a tight fist until its grooves stabbed her palm.
“I’ll be right behind you guys,” she said. “I just need to pack a bag.”
“You’re staying at Mom’s?” Her brother’s expression coiled into a grimace, and she pictured what he was like when he was younger, bouncing bars in order to pay his way through school.
“He wouldn’t hurt me. I just don’t want to stay here tonight. That’s all.” His eyes softened, and he was her brother again: more teddy bear than grizzly.
In five minutes, she was packed, got in her car, and followed her brother on the short drive to their parents’ house. She assumed that her mother had told them everything about her relationship with Jason. What they didn’t know, what Annie still hadn’t decided whether or not to confide to anyone, was that she had followed Jason one night, trailing his car like something from a bad detective novel, and saw him leaving a bar with the girl. From across the street, Annie focused on her: tall and curvy, with dark wavy hair and a slim nose, moving with the athletic confidence of a funambulist. Despite everything wrong with their relationship—her budding career and his lack of one, their inability to communicate their fears, their deadening sex life as Jason gained weight from inactivity, the growing disapproval of her parents, her disbelief that anyone else wanted to be with an unemployed twenty-five-year-old like Jason—what hurt Annie more than anything else was this inarguable fact: this new girl was prettier than her.
During dinner with her parents, everyone left her alone, treating her silence as a stage of grief and reflection. All through dinner, Annie focused on those weeks in junior high after the original Times photo came out. With Hannah and Kaitlin, the three of them had walked down the hallways of their school like royalty and held the gaze of not just their classmates but their teachers and parents, too. It was intoxicating to be recognized and known simply for being herself. Even during high school and college, any time she was brought low by a soccer match or poor grades or hooking up with the wrong guy or filling out job applications, the memory of that time could lift her mood like a warm, summer wind, and she would momentarily close her eyes and glide on that feeling of admiration.
She helped her mother clear the table and brought out dessert—brownies, and coffee for herself and her dad—and eased back into silence. She didn’t quite see her parents as attractive, but she knew her brothers were handsome, desirable with their broad shoulders and easy smiles. The memories of their girlfriends drifted through her thoughts: large eyes and long hair, straight white teeth, bodies with just enough curves in the right places to make them seem vaguely like adults. It struck her then that Joel had married a girl who wasn’t all that pretty, not in the sense that his previous girlfriends had been. The beginning of a question formed her in mind, then she brushed it aside like crumbs and sipped her coffee, ignoring her mother’s insistence that she eat.
After, Annie returned to her old bedroom and turned on the desk lamp. She had cleared out the dresser and closet when she bought her house, and these spaces now felt like coffins emptied by grave robbers. Above her desk was a corkboard still covered in high school memorabilia: photos of her soccer team and senior prom, her scholarship letter to Wisconsin, Prince concert tickets, torn notebook scraps with inside jokes scrawled in her handwriting. In the middle, among all the clutter, was the original photograph that ran in the Times. She pulled it down, careful to not damage it further. The three of them were so young—barely into puberty, their shoulders and elbows bony, the serious exertion in their brows and mouths as they tried to look adult and ignore the photographer. They were sweetly unaware of how young they were. She sat down on her bed, holding the photo with two hands, studied her face. It wasn’t until she was in her pajamas and staring at the ceiling that her mother came in and sat on the edge of the bed, and Annie told her about returning to New York.As the plane descended into LaGuardia, Annie leaned against the window, gazing down through the fog into the runways and planes lit by the airport, just like when they first visited during their junior year of college, twenty-one and freshly armed with the developing plan to move here together as soon as they graduated. Her hand tightened on the magazine in her lap, the six dollars she spent on it duly noted in the spending log secured in the inner fold of her wallet. This must be what it’s like, she thought, for the defeated—the politician about to give a concession speech, a salesman who just botched the close, lovers returning from a failed rekindling to the wreckage of their lives. She held the photograph in her hand, its corners rounded, fingerprints visible when tilted at the right angle, smudges all over, a crease between her and her two friends from a moment during their senior year when she was angry with them but couldn’t quite tear it to shreds.
Annie hopped in a cab curbside and caught the driver checking her out when she dipped into the backseat. This brought a thin smile to her lips, a small reassurance that she was still in the same class of pretty as her friends. She removed her compact from her purse and checked if her mascara had gathered in the tiny creases around her eyes, then closed it with a resounding click. She watched the seven-minute news loop playing on the small screen on the back of the front seat, but as soon as they climbed the Queensboro Bridge and she could see the East River, she focused her gaze out at the city, pleased to feel a bit like a tourist again. It was startling to rush through the city, around cyclists and pedestrians, and look up to see the building rose far above her view. When the cab pulled up to the address on East 84th Street, Annie felt as if she had been jarred from a pleasant, unexplainable dream.
She buzzed the apartment, and almost immediately, Kaitlin came flying down the steps. On sight of her old friend, Annie felt a twinge of jealousy: Kaitlin was beautiful. It was so natural, too, with her shapely face and shining smile, as if adulthood had filled her with light. In her t-shirt, Kaitlin’s sinewy arms were the kind Annie never saw at the gym back home: lean, smooth, unfreckled, no fat. When Kaitlin reached her and wrapped her in a massive hug—Christ, she even smelled good—only then did it hit Annie that she had been hoping, all this time, that she was somehow better than her friends.
“You look great!” Kaitlin said. She pulled back, holding Annie in place. “I’m so excited! I’ve told everyone that you’re back for a photo shoot, and they’re so jealous. Remember how they all hated us the first time?”
“Bitches,” Annie laughed. “What do they know?”
“C’mon, let’s go upstairs. Gimme your bag.”
Annie followed her up three flights of stairs, noting that Kaitlin’s hips were slim and she had that upper thigh gap that Annie had never been able to achieve, no matter how much dieting, Pilates, and yoga she tried. She counted how many locks were on their door—three—when they entered. Even just inside the doorway, Annie could sense how small the apartment was, how constricted.
“She’s here!” Kaitlin screamed. She wrapped both arms around Annie and steered her into the bathroom. Hannah stood in front of the mirror, leaning towards the glass with her chin raised, running eyeliner over her lids. For just a moment, Annie was certain that a flash of contempt ran through Hannah’s eyes before she broke into a smile, turning fully to face her, and giving her a strong hug that chilled Annie to her core.
It didn’t take long for Annie to remember why she loved New York. To revel in the endless beeping of taxi horns, the crowds of people moving like oceanic waves through the streets, the variety of faces—so heterogeneous, a kaleidoscope of clothes, expressions, heights, buildings rising and rising into the sky, the rank smell of the hipsters and bohemians mixed with the expensive perfumes and colognes of the rich tantalizing her from block to block, lights of restaurants and bars that never seemed to be anything but full. In part, it was the walking that so captivated her, the constant sense of movement, the steady impact in her heels that rippled up her legs that reminded her, with each step, that she was young and alive and going somewhere in this world.
They hailed a cab at Second Ave, zipped on to FDR, and headed south into the Village. Their first stop was at Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar they stumbled into together on one of their first nights in New York after meeting, and then ditching, a couple of NYU law students. Annie’s eyes widened at the drink prices, but Kaitlin placed a hand on her wrist and said, “This night is on us.” They stayed for two drinks before heading to KGB, then Boiler Room, then, drunk and arms linked, they took a long nostalgic walk around Tompkins Park. The entire night, Annie wondered how she could possibly live anywhere else but here.
Finally, at two in the morning, they caught a taxi home, the smell of alcohol pouring off their skin like perfume, their arms and shoulders sticky, pressing against each other as they talked too loudly in the backseat of the cab. Inside, they yanked their shoes off and made gin-and-tonics. Kaitlin stretched out on the couch, her eyes heavy with sleep. Annie and Hannah sat in the dilapidated easy chairs against the window overlooking the street.
“Dad helped me buy a place in Nokomis,” Annie said. “It’s really cute. On the weekends, maybe once a month, he comes down and helps me do work. We re-stained the floors last month. I don’t know if we’re going to do anything this summer. I mean, I love it, but I’d like to just live in my house, you know?”
Below, the heavy gears of a delivery truck reverberated in her ears.
“It’s nice having my own place.” Annie stared out at all the rows of lit windows across the street. “But it’s hard not to feel that I’ve settled somehow. I didn’t think I would miss being here so much. I’m really lucky to have my job back home, and I really don’t regret taking it. I don’t know. I guess I’m just wondering.”
“I couldn’t imagine going back. It’s so Midwestern. And look at this one.” They looked back over at Kaitlin, asleep now, her mouth agape, her hands tucked neatly into her chest as if in prayer. “Remember how long it took her to sleep through the night when we first moved here?”
“I never really adjusted to this place. I know I could now. I’m different. More mature.” Annie turned back to Hannah. “I think I might want to give New York another shot.”
A silence fell. Hannah took a long drink from her glass, and the ice cubes rattled when she set it back down.
“I bet it’s easier to get married in Minneapolis,” Hannah said. “You wouldn’t believe how many thirty-five-year old women in this city have never been married. They say it just sneaks up on you. One day you’re all Carrie Bradshaw, and the next day, you realize you’re never gonna have those two kids until you find a guy, and there’s just no one out there.”
“I don’t care about that,” Annie lied. “To tell you the truth, I feel like I needed to figure myself out first, decide if I wanted to stay there or come back here.”
Hannah contemplated her with an expression Annie couldn’t understand. Annie looked back out the window. She could feel the trains shaking beneath the city.
“Of course, we’ve got some time,” she said.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get married,” Hannah said, staring into space. “It’s just so much trouble. You see these women walking through Manhattan with their twins in a stroller, and you just know they had to get shots in the ass for years in order to conceive. And all these women are forty! So old! I mean, what happened to their careers? They’re just at home all the time? I don’t know. I never really thought about it until I got here, and now, the idea is just so bizarre.”
“I could always sell my house.”
“Weren’t you seeing someone? What was his name?”
“Jason. He got jealous because I got a raise and a promotion and made more money than he did. Sounds silly, but he really had a problem with it.” Annie frowned at her hands. “I feel like I’m never going to have sex again.”
“You’ll never have a problem finding that here. Just smile and toss your hair: that’s all it takes for some of the assholes you meet at bars. I was seeing a married guy for a while. That’s not a bad way to go.”
“What?” Annie said. “Wait, who?”
“Just some guy. I didn’t work with him or anything. It was only a couple of weeks, and then I decided the fun was over and broke it off.”
“How could you do that?”
Hannah shrugged. “It’s really not that big of a deal.” She finished her drink and set the glass down with a satisfying clunk on the coffee table. “Kaitlin, you still with us?”
Kaitlin’s eyes opened and then closed, and she rolled away from them and faced the cushions. “Annie,” she said. “Take my bed for the night. I’ll sleep here. Just throw a blanket on me.”
“Sleep sounds good,” Hannah said. She draped a throw blanket over Kaitlin, then stood and stretched her sinewy arms towards the ceiling. “I’m off to bed. See you in the morning.”
Annie took her drink to the kitchen and dumped it down the sink, and then chugged two glasses of water and refilled her glass before she crossed the tiny apartment and closed the bedroom door. She shouldn’t have sounded so indignant at Hannah’s affair. So she slept with a married guy: so what? But, frankly, it did bother her, and if that made her parochial and old-fashioned and Midwestern, so be it. She didn’t want to feel shocked and offended, but the fact of the matter was she was shocked, she was offended. People just shouldn’t do things like that. She flipped off the lights, casting the room in gray and black shadows. In the dark, Annie stripped off her dress, leaving it crumbled on the floor, pulled on her Badgers t-shirt, and then slinked into bed, falling immediately into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
The shoot was in the Four Seasons, and the writer met the girls in the lobby. She had a long forehead, and a haircut and glasses that screamed expensive; Annie couldn’t remember the name of the reporter who had interviewed them the first time, but she knew it was a woman, and vaguely, she recalled liking her, wanting to be her, even though she had no interest before or since in journalism.
On the twenty-third floor, they were led down a hallway that seemed to zig and zag endlessly, and then they entered a room filled with people. It was an executive suite, complete with a bar and kitchen, and two opposing bedrooms. Everyone wore vaguely haggard looks, as if they had been drinking all morning. They were all women, and Annie realized she had been dreading the idea of changing outfits behind closed doors, the precise and cold gaze of a male photographer. The room was stuffy, and all around them, massive photo lights stood like scarecrows; cables and cords to computers and equipment lined the floor like snakes. Annie’s feet ached, even though she was in flats and had been told in advance someone else would select their wardrobe. That hadn’t happened the first time. The first time, the girls were told to wear whatever they wanted, and the three of them had spent all weekend racing through all four floors of the mall, their mothers indulging their every whim, insisting that, as long as the price tags remained on, they could buy whatever they wanted.
The wardrobe coordinator frowned when she saw them. “I thought they were taller.”
Annie lemoned her lips, a hot flash traveled down her neck and burned on her chest, and she knew she was making the expression that got her nicknamed “Mouse” in the first grade.
The coordinator narrowed her eyes. “Not a problem. I can work with them.”
Annie twisted her gaze into the kitchen: coffee and pastries and fruit lined the marble counter, and last night’s alcohol flipped in her stomach. Kaitlin touched her elbow and whispered in her ear: “You’re gorgeous.” Annie loved her for saying it, hated herself for needing to hear it. She smiled tightly and crossed the room for a cup of coffee.
She stood watching the coordinator choose their outfits. The coordinator sized them up, arms akimbo off her hips, pursing her thin lips tightly, then reached into one of the four long and full racks of clothes and grabbed an item seemingly at random. She only needed three attempts to find something for Kaitlin, selecting a lavender dress and a slim leather belt. She smiled at the coordinator the way she would smile at her parents: genuine and open, the oldest in a family of six that Annie had always been slightly jealous of. Everything for Kaitlin came together. Annie knew this wasn’t effortless. Rather, it was a dogged optimism that Kaitlin possessed that if she gave it her best, whatever it might be, things would work out all right for her, and this state of mind that seemed to be so graceful and reflexive, this was the thing that left Annie in awe of her friend, and almost made her forgive Kaitlin for not having called in almost two years.
She set down the coffee—which was remarkably good and made her think about a coffee shop she dearly loved back in Minneapolis called Cherokee Street, and how maybe it would have been wise to turn down the free airline ticket back to New York for this short weekend—and fingered the fabrics in front of her, noting the quality of the stitching, the care that was clearly taken in putting all these clothes together.
“I have something for you.”
Annie turned. The coordinator was looking up at her, holding in her hands a pair of black slacks and a sleeveless plum-colored silk blouse.
“I’d like to wear a dress,” Annie said.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re going to shoot you girls from the waist up.”
“Kaitlin is wearing a dress.”
Annie looked up. Kaitlin was in the bedroom, changing, but Hannah was there, her back turned, browsing the racks of clothing. It seemed she hadn’t heard Annie’s protest. Instead, Hannah tilted her right ear downward and flipped her hair back and over her left shoulder. Metal hangers clattered as the clothes were pushed aside, flipped nonchalantly, like a magazine in a waiting room. But Annie was certain she had heard, and that there was somehow a refusal in this gesture of feigned deafness.
She looked back down at the clothes in the coordinator’s hands. She fingered the silk, pleased the shirt had a deep, plunging neckline. Maybe that would be enough.
After the shoot, the girls said their goodbyes to the entire crew—thank you, thank you!, so nice to meet you!—and followed the reporter down to the lobby. It was both crowded and intimate all at once, as if someone had placed all the couches and chairs in just such an order to create the kinds of nooks and crannies children hid in when playing games.
The reporter clicked on a digital recorder and set it down on the low coffee table in front of them. Annie and Kaitlin sat on one couch to the reporter’s right; Hannah sat on the same couch as the reporter, to her left. The reporter crossed her legs and flipped open a notepad, a pen appearing in her hand from out of nowhere. Annie noted that the reporter was left-handed.
“We sent a reporter to Minneapolis thirteen years ago,” she said, “to discover the everyday lives of young girls who were newly minted teenagers. Looking back, what are your thoughts on being thirteen? Kaitlin, I’d like to start with you.”
Kaitlin nodded, her hands in her lap. “It was so much easier then. No Facebook, no Snapchat, you know? But it was still so fraught with both excitement and uncertainty. Being a teenage girl is always hard, and I’m lucky that I made great friends that I still have today.” She took Annie’s hand, squeezing warmly, and gave the reporter a genuine smile.
“When we were younger,” Kaitlin continued, “we had our whole lives ahead of us. In many ways, we still do! Like, when the three of us graduated from Wisconsin, we all moved to New York together. It’s been an adventure. It’s still an adventure. As for the future, who knows where we will end up.”
The reporter turned left. “Hannah. What about you?”
She raised her chin with what Annie thought was a haughty gesture.
“When I moved to New York,” Hannah said, “I felt so incredibly young. I’m an associate producer for a TV documentary series, and often our subjects are children, so it gives me a unique perspective on the lives of teenage girls. Hopefully, I’ll have children at some point, but I don’t know. Since I moved to New York, I’ve sort of stopped planning. I think that a lot of girls are too young to self-edit, and it’s so easy to put too much of yourself online. But of course, maybe I’m cautious because I got put out there in a big way when I was younger.”
The reporter turned back around. Annie tried to smile, but something about Hannah’s response angered her, made her feel like Hannah had treated the question as if it was beneath her. She couldn’t fully understand why she felt this way, only that it was a tremendous effort to not clench her hands together and to ignore the rising heat in her throat.
Instead, Annie said, “Thirteen is a tough age for every girl. It was for me. And it’s tough for girls that age everywhere. Growing up in Minnesota, we were all taught the importance of friends and family, which, for the three of us, is really the same thing. The three of us met in third grade, and I feel lucky that I met really great friends in Hannah and Kaitlin when I was young. They’re still my great friends today. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
“All of you mentioned family,” the reporter said to Annie. “Is there something special about being from the Midwest that makes your sense of closeness stronger?”
Actually, Annie thought, Hannah didn’t mention family at all. She hadn’t mentioned Kaitlin or Annie either. And this question seemed like the kind of question an East Coaster would ask a couple of Minnesota hicks, as if they lived in some exotic and mystical world of farmland and suppertime with all their aunts and uncles.
Annie said, “Hannah and I grew up on the same street, and Kaitlin was just one street over. I think there might be something special about our families, but not necessarily because we’re from Minnesota. It’s just how we were raised.”
On the flight home, staring at the steady blink of the red strobe light on the wing of the plane, she couldn’t remember any other questions directed at her. It seemed the majority of the reporter’s focus was directed at Kaitlin and Hannah, as if there was a connection between the three of them that inherently excluded Annie.
After six weeks, during which Annie had returned to Minneapolis and set up a daily email about recent sale prices for homes in her neighborhood and started sending her resume out to New York companies—with Kaitlin and Hannah’s address listed on the resume—an email from the photographer arrived. The text of the email was polite and impersonal, and Annie skimmed it quickly before downloading and opening the PDF of the spread that would run in the Times.
She held her breath as she took in the original and new photo.
Her initial response was like being poisoned: a nauseous turn of her stomach, her mouth comically open, a ringing in her ears. This couldn’t be the real photo they were running.
She flipped back to the original. Objectively there were similarities: the same three girls in the same order in front of a mirror. The rest, however, was so different. For whatever reason, the photograph they used was one that Annie couldn’t imagine was worthwhile: they had taken dozens of shots, hundreds, and what they used framed the mirror, showing the viewer the nondescript walls of the bathroom. At least a fourth of the photograph contained these beige walls. The angle of the shot showed empty space to the left, a mirror reflecting, essentially, nothing. Though the girls were lined up in the same order as last time—Kaitlin, Hannah, then Annie—this photograph was so misaligned that Kaitlin was now in the center of the image; Annie’s arm was actually angled out of the mirror, out of the photograph, as if a portion of her simply did not exist.
But that wasn’t what was horrible. What was horrible—couldn’t be changed or fixed from a better angle or a better photo—was this: Annie was the ugly one. Annie was the one who wasn’t pretty anymore. Annie was the one made to wear pants, whose blonde hair looked shaggy and unkempt, the one whose nose seemed too big, eyes too large, who looked like, yes, a mouse. Her friends—flawless brown hair shaping their confident and defiant expressions, with their sleek arms and short dresses and faces that fit their bodies—were beautiful. Heartbreakingly so. Annie wasn’t. And the proof was on her monitor in brilliant, shining pixels.
She stood up and scanned the floor, afraid one of her colleagues would see her on the verge of tears. She strode to the nearest conference room, closed the door, and the click of the latch signaled a release, and she slumped into the nearest chair. Everyone would see that photo. Everyone would see how ridiculous she looked with her blonde hair and frumpy clothes and how plain and ordinary and dull she was compared to her friends. A thought zipped through her mind: Jason was right to leave me. She pressed her fingers into her forehead; stop it, stop it, stop it. You broke up with him. You threw him out. She closed her eyes.
This is about you, she whispered.
After several minutes, she stood, walked back to her desk, emailed her boss that she was sick and was heading home, hit send, logged off, and went straight home. She turned off her phone, changed into sweats, and took a bottle of wine from the fridge. She sat on the couch, fired up Netflix, and willed away any thoughts of the photograph.
The Sunday the article came out she turned off her phone, went to her parents’ house, and spent the day on the couch watching football with her father. She loved his presence, his periodic cursing at the various plays, things she understood well enough, if disinterestedly, thanks to her brothers and father. When she was younger, she liked to watch old movies with her dad, letting him choose whatever he wanted, just so long as she could rest her head against his chest, feeling his body rise and fall as he breathed. Nothing else had ever made her feel so safe.
Around halftime of the second game of the doubleheader, Joel and Bridget arrived. Annie kicked at the blankets tangling her feet and sat upright. She swiveled on the couch and watched her sister-in-law like an art student studying a master painting hanging before her, its colors and lines and textures so clear while her sketchbook was filled with failure after failure. Bridget glanced at the television, then back at Annie’s father with disinterested alertness. Her lips smiled; her eyes did not. It was as if Annie wasn’t in the room.
At dinner, Annie was seated across from Bridget, and she stole glances at her all throughout dinner. Annie’s one word answers to all questions convinced everyone to stop speaking to her; they knew, to a person, how chaotic and painful the last few months had been, and she was given tremendous latitude to be moody and inscrutable, which she gladly took advantage of to take in her sister-in-law’s wide shoulders, her pale flat face, her flaxen hair pulled perpetually into a ponytail, her high neckline sweaters that squeezed her large breasts up her chest, her long mannish hands and the way they enveloped her fork and knife. Why her?
After, Annie stood outside on the deck, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. It was a scene from one of her father’s war movies: one soldier, bone tired, pain so constant it was normal. Above, a light snow fell, coating the deck and the yard in a thin sheen of white. She twitched. Standing there with the warm lights of her house and family behind her, she couldn’t fully understand why she was so miserably unhappy. Men leave. Friends leave. Family ignores your flaws and tells you pretty lies. What was so tragic about being unremarkable?
Everything. Everything was wrong with realizing there was something that you wanted beyond your reach. To be loved by strangers. To turn heads. To be admired, to make others jealous. This was petty, she knew, small and unsavory of her. But two people who knew her, who had once loved her, Jason and Hannah, found her unworthy of not just their love, but even a glance. The last year—the cheating, the breakup, the photograph—all confirmed that Annie fundamentally lacked something that the world demanded of a woman. And there was nothing she could do about it. These doubts about herself, which had become more and more frequent, came like this: a vertiginous spiral of dark thoughts, and then her shoulders curled forward so instinctively that her body couldn’t resist. The choking in her chest began, but as soon as she heard the sliding door keen open, she sucked in a deep, cold breath and pulled herself upright.
The footsteps were heavy, and she knew who it was without pulling her gaze away from the woods at the edge of her parents’ property.
Bridget said, “Are you all right?”
“People have to stop asking me that.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Is that a serious question?”
They watched the snow.
Softer, Bridget said, “Everyone is worried about you. No one knows quite what to say.”
Finally, Annie said, “Why does Joel love you?”
Bridget took a step forward and turned her questioning eyes on Annie’s mouth, as if she couldn’t quite believe it was capable of making sound.
“I just want to know,” Annie continued. “You just appeared one day. All his other girlfriends were—” she licked her lips “—they were different.”
She braced herself for harsh words, a withering gaze, maybe even a slap. She suddenly became aware of how much bigger Bridget was than her, how tiny she was by comparison. But Bridget’s gaze softened, and instead of hitting her, her eyes lingered so long on Annie’s face that the panic rose again in her chest. She blinked rapidly, hoping to hold back the tears, and her breaths came out raspy.
“Why?” she asked again. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Bridget said, “what you mean.”
Her hands remained at her side, down by her hips, unclenched. Annie sniffed. When she was able to look Bridget in the face, ready to apologize and beg for forgiveness, she found that this would not be given. Her sister-in-law’s gaze was stoic, neither bovine nor stupid, but a willful refusal of the question. She knew something that she would not reveal.
At two in the morning, Annie was still wide awake, turned onto her side and staring at the wall, failing to get comfortable again in her old twin bed. Her eyes adjusted to the gray light, and she turned over, listening to the silence of her house and the strong winds blowing outside. She gazed at the empty space on her old pin board. It looked strange up there, the last remaining vestment of her old bedroom, with all these paper memories of her teenage years, sun faded and brittle. She studied the empty space between all her awards and letters and ribbons and photos, then slid out of bed and opened her purse. She took out the photo and ran her thumb over their faces, then tacked it back up among all of her old things, where it belonged, and wondered what her thirteen-year-old self would think if she could see Annie now.