At 7:45 a.m. I awoke to the gaudy ululations of my roommate, Virginie, getting vaginally plumbed by her latest conquest. This one was called Fraser, and as usual he was good-looking, albeit in a deliberately grungy, vaguely artsy, I-may-be-harboring-pubic-lice kind of way. He was dimmer than most of Virginie's cerebrally challenged boy toys, but cuter, too, bigger--and I liked the way he smelled. He exuded a strong but healthy sweat smell that was likely loaded with pheromones. My ex-roommate, Elda, once told me that man-smell falls into one of two categories: cat urine or Campbell's tomato soup. She was joking, but she wasn't far off. Fraser existed somewhere in the tomato soup camp. He tried to camouflage it with cologne, but it came through anyway, and I found the effect of the two comingling quite devastating. Sometimes, after he showered, I'd nip into the bathroom, scoop a wet towel from the floor, and sniff it before depositing it in the hamper. On a couple of occasions I almost wanked to his image, but I stopped myself, realizing that that's exactly what Virginie figured was going on in my sad-sack room. Fat, ugly Allison probing her sweaty flesh folds, drooling and dreaming about the handsome hunks who paraded half-dressed around the apartment, who were allowed to strut muscled through the kitchen in tiny towels, or lounge lanky in the living room in their threadbare Calvins because clearly pathetic Allison represented no threat whatsoever. So I stopped myself. And one night after overhearing Fraser regale Virginie with an insipid regurgitation of some fresh-faced faux-journalist's view on the cultural significance of reality-based television shows, the urge, mercifully, diminished.
"Listen," I said on that particular occasion, trying in vain to enliven, or perhaps, I'm mortified to admit, momentarily enter their conversation, "we are God's reality-based entertainment. That's why there are earthquakes and tornadoes and tsunamis. God isn't dead; God is bored. The Mesozoic Era seemed like a good idea at the time, sure, but the dinosaurs turned out to be dull stuff--God's juvenilia. Like the people on that show Big Brother, the dinos were okay to gawk at for a while, but they didn't really do much--eat, sleep, fight, fuck--so God turned on the deep freeze or coin-tossed a two-hundred-mile-wide asteroid at our blue ball and started over with a marginally more interesting cast."
They didn't say anything, they just stared at me like chickens with their heads cocked to one side. I continued, not believing a syllable I was slurring, but vaguely amused by the concept anyway.
"I'm not saying Darwin was wrong. We do evolve and adapt. It's just that God is watching the process as a form of entertainment, you know? So anyway," I went on, "this new cast of characters was more engaging, because they could invent things, like Silly String or stuffed-crust pizza or hair plugs. They made pyramids and giant sporting arenas with retractable domes--that was sort of nifty. And the Chrysler Building. They filled the sky with hot-air balloons and helicopters and rocket ships. They had a field day with the water--everything from breezy galleons to sneaky submarines. Under the ground they put subways. On top, they put baby-blue 1959 Cadillacs. I mean, this cast would erect entire cities and then flatten them with a Little Boy and a Fat Man. They came up with stuff like 'Ode to Joy' and Pride and Prejudice and 'I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.' It was better than the dinosaur show. There were plenty of big-time baddies: Stalin, Adolf, Papa Doc--and lots of little heroes, too. Plus, this show had Shakespeare and Chopin and Harry Houdini. . . . But I guess there aren't enough of those types in the cast--too many extras, not enough stars. Or maybe everything gets tired after a while. Who knows? All I know is that if you want to save the world from another tidal wave or ice age, you'd better do something unusual. Do something that will amuse God."
They seemed surprised that I had spoken more than six words in their presence. I usually didn't. But on that night, I was absurdly hammered (I remember because it was my twenty-second birthday and I had spent the evening in my room with my Discman, a Chet Baker box set, and a jumbo bottle of Baileys Irish Cream).
Fraser lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out of his mouth with a long "whew."
"What's she on about?" said Virginie, as if I wasn't even in the room. And then I wasn't. I was in the bathroom, emptying my creamy Baileys guts into the toilet.
Funnily enough, Fraser was a gaffer. This dimmest of bulbs made his living by plugging in lights on film sets--low-budget film sets, I might add, but he swaggered cocky like some super-sized Scorsese coming off a Palme d'Or victory. Likewise Virginie. She was assistant wardrobe person on one of those Little Hose-Bag on the Prairie-type TV series. Fraser got her the job. He introduced her to a production manager who liked her French Canadian accent and thought she was cute. She was cute. She tried very hard to be cute. She never sat in a chair, she curled up in it. She wore pigtails and little girlie clothes: knee socks and Mary Janes and tiny plaid skirts that forced you to see her underpants every five seconds--she was a terrible exhibitionist--and big, loose-knit sweaters that slipped off her bare shoulders or let her perky tits poke through, and she offset the whole Junior Miss Slut look with a chunky pair of Buddy Holly glasses. Uch. So anyway, the pedophilic production guy thought she was cute and, bingo, she went from making eight bucks an hour as a hostess at the Pasta Garden, to eighteen bucks an hour as assistant wardrobe Thingy, and even though she spent her days steaming the creases out of period frocks or blocking saggy bonnets, the I'm-in-the-biz attitude she exuded was titanic. Between the two of them you'd have expected Brad and Jennifer to be dropping by for cocktails every evening; you'd have expected Wolfgang Puck over every morning to rustle up their breakfast.
Alas, it was I who usually prepared the morning coffee, after Dumpster-diving in the sink to locate the filthy Bodum. My aim was always to brew up a pot and get it to my room before the bloodhounds sniffed it and came panting, but on the morning in question they caught me. I had just set the water on to boil and was spooning out the coffee when they emerged, scantily clad, from their love lair. Fraser was wearing one of Virginie's shorty kimonos. He had a cigarette hanging macho in his mouth. Virginie was wearing a pink pop-top and Fraser's cotton boxer shorts. Cute. Her hair was mussed and her face was all red and scratched from sex with Fraser and his two-day growth of Marlboro Man beard. She curled up on a kitchen chair and said, "Mmm, coffee."
Fraser opened the fridge and surveyed the contents. "You want eggs?"
She stretched languorously and sniffed her left armpit. "Yummy," she said.
I concentrated on the kettle, willing it to boil. I surreptitiously tugged at the front of my sweatshirt, pulling it away from my gut so it wouldn't cling and reveal. I thought about bringing up the smoking thing again--there was supposed to be no smoking in the common areas, since I'm allergic to it, and it makes my eyes water and my nose clog up. "I thought you weren't going to smoke in here," I said with a little quaver in my voice. That fucking quaver fucked me up.
"Ahh," said Virginie, throwing her arms in the air. "I haven't even had coffee and she's starting with this business!"
I decided to let it go. I turned back to the stove.
Fraser plonked the egg carton onto the counter. He cupped his private parts in his hand as he squatted to look in the lower cupboard for the frying pan. He gazed, as if mesmerized, at the soup pots and mousetraps therein. His face was blank. An ash fell from his cigarette to the floor. I thought perhaps he had frozen into position, but then a synapsis succeeded in firing and he straightened abruptly and blinked at the sink.
"Shit," he said helplessly. "The pan's dirty."
The handle was sticking up and out of the mad tangle of dishes. It reminded me of Picasso's Guernica.
"Maybe Allison would like some eggs," said Virginie with a smirk.
"No, thanks." There was no way in hell I was going to scour out their refried-bean remnants again.
"You should eat breakfast," she said coolly, lighting a cigarette, miffed that I'd refused to do her bidding. "It gets the metabolism going."
The kettle started to scream. I switched off the burner and poured the water.
"We'll go out after coffee," said Fraser.
"Goody," said Virginie. "I'm ravishing!"
Fraser laughed. "You mean you're ravaged, dum-dum." He kissed the top of her head and dropped his cig into a beer bottle on the table. She grabbed him by the kimono belt, pulled him close, and nuzzled her face into his belly. Then she tilted her face upward and presented him with a big mock pout. He leaned in and they started to neck.
"Ravenous," said my mouth as I pressed down on the Bodum plunger.
"Quoi?" said Virginie, peeking around from behind Fraser. She took a puff of her cigarette and blew the smoke toward me.
"Nothing." I poured my coffee and retreated to my room. As I closed the door, a burst of suppressed laughter erupted in the kitchen.
I got back into bed, drank java, and waited for the lovebirds to clear out. For the zillionth time, I fantasized about kicking Virginie's ass out of the apartment--opting for the highly illegal, immensely satisfying change-the-locks-and-toss-the-heap-of-belongings-on-the-front-yard method. Better yet, I would move myself into an airy one-bedroom apartment with hardwood floors, a wood-burning fireplace, a claw-foot tub, and a private perennial garden. Yeah, right. I couldn't begin to afford the former scenario and the latter was absurdly pie-in-the-sky.
I stared at the peeling ceiling paint and cursed my lack of judgment for allowing her to move in in the first place. But then, as I always did when I ran through this particular loop in my mind, I remembered that I had no choice. My first roommate, Elda, had lit out with virtually no notice to shack up with her new boyfriend. "My first real boyfriend," she told me with tears in her eyes as she stuffed her bedding into garbage bags. I was happy for her--Elda was a fat girl, too, much fatter than I--but I was pissed that she was leaving me in the lurch. Still, I understood. The boyfriend had lost a roommate and wanted her to hustle in right away. She wasn't going to risk love for friendship. Who would? And besides, we weren't really friends. We had cohabitated peacefully for several years, maintaining a chummy facade, but we never really connected. Elda was a ditz. A hairstylist. A club chick. She drank raspberry coolers and listened to A.M. radio. She read Cosmo and Fitness and Shape magazines. She shopped incessantly and was always on an outlandish diet--low-fat, or no carbs, or nothing but bananas and yarn. She was constantly tweezing her eyebrows or waxing her gams, painting her toenails or fiddling with her hair--cutting, perming, dyeing it different colors (including blue). In the early days, when she was still in hairdressing school, I allowed her to experiment on my lank locks. She sharpened her two-hundred-dollar scissors and went to work. With a snip-snip here and a snip-snip there and a snip-snip through the cartilage of my left ear. Just an inch off the top, thanks. Four hours in emergency and eleven hideous stitches to sew the thing back in place. But the most gruesome element was the haircut. For six months I looked like Moe Howard from The Three Stooges.
In truth, the only things Elda and I had in common were excess flab and vigorous PMS cravings. Once in a blue moon we would slip into the same menstrual cycle and be PMSed Up at the same time. Then we'd rent Terms of Endearment or some other cathartic tear-yanker, and hunker down on the sofa in our elastic-waist pants with a party-sized pizza, a couple bags of rosemary and olive oil potato chips, some M&Ms and Doritos, and several single-serving liters of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey. We'd get a good salty-sweet-salty-sweet rhythm going. Elda had an enormous shelf of a chest, and by the end of the evening a sprinkling of chip crumbs and assorted food remnants would have fallen from her mouth and collected there. She'd call it "dessert," and would make a show of cleaning it off when all the other munchies were gone. One time she took a straw and vacuumed it directly into her gape. It was sort of amusing.
Unfortunately, as soon as Elda started bleeding, she'd be back on some draconian diet, sticking pictures of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models on the fridge door, ordering toilet-seat-like fat-free grilling devices from the Shopping Network, and toting around tomes with exclamatory titles such as Eat, Cheat, and Melt the Fat Away! But Elda could never remain in the Zone for very long. Binge, Purge, and Flush the Flab Away! was more like it.
Personally, I had sloughed that bilge a long time ago. No more juice fasts or Thighmasters or diet pills for me. I ate what I wanted when I wanted. But Elda persisted. Elda persisted because Elda was pretty. She had glossy hair and smooth skin and a fabulous smile with big Chiclet teeth. Yes, Elda was one of those fat girls with a pretty face. The kind who could proudly model plus-sized lingerie on daytime TV talk shows. The kind of whom it is said or thought every time someone clamps eyes on her: Such a pretty face. If only she could lose sixty pounds. Nobody thought that of me. If I'd lost sixty pounds, I would have been a hideously ugly thin person. My dead-mouse hair would still have laid limp, my golf ball skin would have continued to ooze boils, my pellet eyes and potato nose would have remained, as would my broad back, hunched shoulders, and flat ass. My teeth would still have sat snaggled and mossy in my thin-lipped mouth, my legs would have remained too short for my torso, and my beige-nipple tits would have gone on dangling, lopsided and slack. That brown birthmark would still have sprawled like an obscene diarrhea stain over my left shin, and those three black hairs would have continued to sprout from the mole above my upper lip. I was one of those rare individuals who possessed nary a good feature. I didn't have nice eyes or a winning smile or a creamy complexion. There was no single feature in which I could take comfort. I was a physical disaster. I always had been (since the age of two, anyway). No wonder that Elda had allowed me to move in with her--in contrast, she looked like a supermodel. And no wonder that nobody wanted to take her place when she bugged out. At least half a dozen prospective roommates had trooped through the freshly scrubbed, centrally located, and reasonably priced flat, but there were no takers. They had all found my presence too disturbing. Too depressing. I could tell. I have a sixth sense, a radarlike detection device that can pick up the faintest frequency of compassion. Ultimately, only Virginie jumped at the chance to shack up with the ghoul next door (at a slightly reduced rent--she had a sixth sense for weakness and desperation).
Excerpted from Waking Beauty by Elyse Friedman. Copyright © 2004 by Elyse Friedman. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.