Margot honestly didn’t hate her job. Not the way other adults seemed to hate theirs, with passion and purpose and some sense of what they’d do instead if the opportunity were only given to them. Margot felt sorry for the girls she worked with, but not so sorry that she was willing to quit. Margot worked for a company that offered modeling classes to preteens. It was not a modeling agency, and was not affiliated with one, and in no way guaranteed the girls would ever get modeling work. Anyone at all could sign up for the classes, no matter what she looked like. Margot taught the girls how to walk on the runway, how to fix their hair and apply makeup (which, if they ever became models, they would not be doing themselves anyway), how to pose for photographs in the most flattering ways. Margot knew none of these girls would ever get modeling jobs, and that the whole thing was a scam. She hated seeing those preteens’ hopeful faces on the first day of class, their braces and acne shining under bright lights.
Like most of the others who worked at the company, Margot had once been a model. Not one of the rich and famous runway models, but she was in department store catalogues and a few TV commercials for hand lotion. Occasionally Margot would still get gigs, but not as often now. Working for this company provided her with a steadier paycheck, anyway, which was important now that she was a mother. Margot was thankful that her own daughter, Sam, who was twelve, had never shown any interest in modeling. Sam was interested in science and soccer and having her hair cut short. Margot wished she had been like Sam when she was younger. She admired her daughter very much.
Margot had now decided it was a waste of time for women to put any thought into their appearances. She still put thought into her own appearance; she couldn’t help it after all these years. But she wanted to deter others from making the same mistake. She wanted to grab each mother who signed her daughter up for these classes by the shoulders, shake them, and say, “Listen. I know what I’m talking about. Sign your kid up for the Science Olympiad instead. We need more women in STEM.” And she wanted the mothers to smile and listen to her and turn their daughters away. They’d save their money and buy a chemistry set or a puppy instead. They’d stop looking at their daughters as just profit-makers.
Kelly, Margot’s wife, was a scientist too. A marine biologist. Kelly never wore makeup or straightened her hair or worried about what angle her face was at in photographs, yet she still happened to be very beautiful. She always got a lot of attention, from men and women alike. Margot had always been jealous of this. Kelly didn’t seem to care what she looked like or how much attention she got. Margot got attention too, but she worked for it. She had spent her whole life working to look good, and still she only looked as good as Kelly, not better. Kelly had her beauty and her career. Margot’s were one and the same.
Margot was Sam’s birth mom. Kelly had explained that she was a little butch for pregnancy. Margot’s body had changed after pregnancy, and she didn’t like that. Her breasts drooped a little more, her waist was a little larger. And she was aging. Margot had always thought somehow that her body would stay the same until she was sixty. Maybe it was the way women looked on television. But she was only forty-five and already her hair was thinning and her back was hunching over like she was half-dead. At least it felt that way to her. Kelly assured her she was just as beautiful as ever, and that she loved her very much.
Margot was teaching the girls how to pick the right foundation color. “Take the bottle and hold it to your wrist,” she said. “If it looks close, use your Q-tip to put a streak of the liquid on your wrist. See if it matches.”
The girls obeyed. She had ten students in the class today. They passed around the bottles and smiled as they found matches.
“Now I’m going to show you how to put it on,” Margot said. No preteen should have to worry about foundation, she thought. She passed out sponges and brushes and made sure each girl had her own chair and her own mirror. She walked around and made sure everyone was doing it right, blending it at the jawline to prevent a line between face and neck, dusting setting powder over their faces when they were done.
Several of the girls had terrible acne. They were preteens. Still, Margot thought, they shouldn’t have to worry about foundation. Boys didn’t have to. Foundation was a waste of time and money, plus it clogged your pores and made your skin even worse. Nobody’s acne would heal if they caked foundation over it every day. These girls could be reading books or kicking soccer balls instead of doing this bullshit. In a vain attempt to help them, Margot said to the class, “I know this is fun, but always remember that school is first, modeling second.”
Margot and Kelly went to a party for Kelly’s co-worker Anne’s birthday. They were good friends with Anne. She also happened to also be very beautiful, and gay, and single. She had recently divorced her wife Donna because Donna had been cheating on her. This, even though Anne was so beautiful. There is no justice in the world, Margot thought.
Anne was turning forty. There was a cake that said “Over the Hill” with a frosted picture of a tombstone on it. Anne laughed, but Margot shuddered. She would have killed someone if they’d given her an “Over the Hill” cake for her own fortieth birthday.
It seemed all of Kelly’s co-workers were present. Anne was very popular, even more so since her divorce. People believed she needed support. Sam played with Anne’s daughter, Abigail. Abigail was five, and Sam loved playing dolls with her even though she’d never liked dolls herself, but Abigail was cute. “I want to be a mom,” Sam said to Margot. Margot slapped herself on the forehead.
Anne didn’t want to cut the cake, so Kelly did it for her. Anne laughed and put her hand on Kelly’s shoulder. Kelly smiled at her.
Margot was teaching the girls how to pose for photographs. “Make sure to smile,” she said. “Tilt your head so that you catch the light. Use the light for contouring; it’s more effective than makeup. Don’t scrunch your forehead.” The girls did everything she said. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back, and bend one leg slightly out. It’s slimming.” No preteen should have to worry about slimming herself in photographs, Margot thought. They should just worry about becoming good people. Margot imagined these same girls at a birthday party, catching the light with their bad skin and sticking one leg too far out.
After class, the mothers came to pick their daughters up. One student’s mother stayed to speak to Margot. “I wanted to ask you about plus size modeling,” she said. Her daughter, Michelle, was overweight, even obese according to the BMI scale. Michelle stood a few feet away from the women, as if giving them privacy, but she was still within hearing distance. Margot nodded. The mother asked questions, but Margot didn’t want to answer any of them, and she especially did not want to tell this mother that most plus-size models did not even wear plus sizes, but instead wore between size 6-12, which is still smaller than the average size for an American woman, which is 14-16.
And so instead Margot said, “these are all wonderful questions. Let me get you a pamphlet about our special plus-size modeling class from my office. Michelle could enroll next season, once our current class is over.”
The mother smiled and nodded. “Oh, that would be lovely. Thank you so much, Margot. This class really means the world to Michelle.” She paused for a moment, then whispered very quietly, “you know, she’s had terrible confidence issues in the past.”
Margot smiled and nodded back. She walked towards her office, passing Michelle on the way. The girl was beaming, like Christmas morning.
“I want to be a mother,” Sam said at the dinner table. She scooped herself an extra helping of mashed potatoes. Margot was glad she wasn’t worried about her weight.
“That’s nice,” said Kelly.
“But don’t forget about being a scientist,” said Margot.
“Oh, I won’t,” said Sam. “Mom’s a mother and a scientist.” Kelly smiled. Margot didn’t know why she’d assumed Sam was giving up her dream of becoming a scientist to pursue the dream of becoming a mother.
After dinner, Kelly took a phone call and stepped outside to talk. She didn’t normally do this. Margot washed the dishes while Sam did homework. Margot watched Kelly out the window, touching her face and laughing. Kelly looked like a schoolgirl with a crush.
When Kelly came inside, Margot said, “Who was it?”
Kelly wiped the smile off her face. She shrugged. “Just Anne,” she said. “She had a question about work.”
“You sure were laughing a lot for a work question,” she said.
Kelly frowned at her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You sure were laughing a lot at her party, too.”
“It’s nothing,” Kelly said, and gave Margot a kiss.
Before the girls arrived at modeling class, Margot’s boss came in to talk to her. “Why did you tell Mrs. Wright that you didn’t know anything about plus size modeling?” she asked.
Margot sighed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to depress her.”
“You should have told her it’s great!” she said. “Do you think she’s going to sign Michelle up for the advanced class if you discourage her?”
“I wasn’t trying to discourage her,” Margot said. “Just being realistic.”
“Well, you weren’t realistic. You were just unhelpful.” Her boss held eye contact for a few seconds without saying anything. “Don’t let it happen again.”
“Yes, of course,” said Margot. Her boss walked out of the room.
Sam was preparing a project for the Science Olympiad, about pheromones. Sam was fascinated by the idea that what attracted two people to each other was not some elusive sort of magic, but a chemical that could be scientifically explained. Sam liked logic and rationality and math. Margot had never liked the idea of pheromones, and preferred not to believe in them. She liked the idea that love was magic. She found the idea of pheromones reductive and depressing.
Margot drove Sam to the craft store to buy supplies for the project. “I need a big poster board,” said Sam. “The kind with three panels.” Sam also apparently needed a special kind of marker, even though they already owned markers that Margot thought were just fine.
At home, Sam drew a man on the left panel and a woman on the right panel. In the center panel, she drew the pheromones, even though they are invisible. She drew them as tiny clouds with hearts for eyes and arms reaching out towards each other. She printed out her descriptions of how pheromones work and pasted the descriptions next to the drawings. She wrote the word “PHEROMONES” very large at the top.
“I’m so proud of you,” Kelly said, and kissed Sam’s head. “My little scientist.”
“How come it’s a man and a woman?” Margot asked. “Why not two women or two men?”
Kelly glared at her. Sam shrugged.
In the bedroom, Kelly asked Margot, “Why did you say that? Why did you ask Sam about the man and the woman?”
“I don’t want her to be so heteronormative,” Margot said. “She has two moms, and she still drew a straight couple. I don’t want her to be like everyone else.”
“She’s not like everyone else,” Kelly said. “She’s special.”
Kelly took her hand. “Sorry,” she said. “I understand what you mean. I just don’t think it was that big of a deal. Some couples are straight, after all.”
“Yeah,” said Margot. And some couples are gay. “Do you think Sam is straight?”
“I don’t know. But I love her either way.”
Margot drove Sam to the Science Olympiad. Her schedule was more open than Kelly’s, since her job was only part-time. Sam sat in the backseat with her giant poster, reading the words over and over and smiling. Right now, Kelly was at work, with Anne, Margot thought. She didn’t want to think about pheromones, science, or Kelly.
They arrived at school and set up Sam’s poster at a table in the cafeteria. Other kids set up their own projects about dinosaurs, volcanoes, and deep-sea exploration. Sam’s was certainly the most unique, Margot thought. The least obvious choice for a twelve-year old. A few teachers walked around looking at the projects and nodding their heads.
Margot went to use the restroom. While she urinated, she took her pocket mirror out of her purse and checked her makeup. She had always done this: checked and reapplied makeup in bathroom stalls. She was too embarrassed to do it in the mirror above the sink, since others could see her. She didn’t know why this was. She supposed she didn’t want anyone to know it took her so much effort to look pretty. She wanted everyone to think she was like Kelly, effortlessly and naturally beautiful. Margot felt like a fraud, but she’d rather be a fraud than ugly. She smoothed some powder onto the sponge and dabbed the shiny parts of her face.
When Margot returned from the restroom, Kelly was there. “I didn’t know you were coming,” said Margot.
Kelly smiled. “I got off early,” she said.
The teachers walked around judging projects. They asked the children questions, then wrote things down on their clipboards. Margot didn’t like the idea of this judging. She didn’t like the idea of winners and losers and rankings, not anymore. She had liked that idea when she was younger, when she could have won a beauty contest. She didn’t want Sam to lose.
But Sam did lose. She got third place, after the dinosaurs and the volcanoes. “The volcanoes?” Margot said. “Seriously?” The volcano project included a baking soda and vinegar volcano. It wasn’t even dyed red. “Everyone does that experiment in like second grade.”
“Shh,” Kelly said, and nudged Margot with her elbow.
Sam looked at the ground and shrugged. “Oh, well,” she said. Then she went over to congratulate the winner.
“Are you having an affair with Anne?” Margot asked Kelly.
“What are you talking about?”
“Just that. Are you having an affair?”
“What?” Kelly said. “No. I would never. You know that.”
Margot was silent.
“Don’t you know that?” Kelly asked.
Margot looked at the floor.
“Margot,” Kelly said, “I love you. I would never have an affair, not with Anne, not with anyone. I promise.” Kelly touched Margot’s chin and tipped it up so that they looked into each other’s eyes. Margot blinked.
It was graduation day at the modeling class. The girls were to perform a series of tasks in front of an audience of parents, then each girl would be presented with a certificate of participation. Some people said this generation was being ruined by participation trophies. Margot generally disagreed, but in this case she agreed.
After the makeup and the hair and the posing for photographs, the girls filed out from behind a curtain onto the catwalk, wearing outfits that expressed their favorite fashion trends: leather jackets, tea dresses, cowgirl boots. They each paused at the front and turned from side to side with their heads raised. The parents cheered and snapped photos. Margot could tell some of them still harbored hopes about their daughters becoming real models. They snapped the photos and pretended to be professional photographers hired to cover a big London or New York City fashion show. But this was a suburb of Seattle, and none of these girls would ever be famous, or even rich, or even happy, probably. Margot sighed.
The girls lined up and grasped hands while Margot said some words to the parents. “Thank you for enrolling your daughters in our class,” she said. “We believe everyone is beautiful and everyone is special.” The girls all smiled. The lights shone bright on their faces, and they looked like children who had been playing with their mothers’ makeup, which is exactly what they were, only somewhere along the line, the play had turned into a hellish reality.
Margot handed each girl their certificate of participation. Each girl shook hands with Margot and then went to sit down with her parents. After one more round of applause, everyone started to file out.
“You did well,” said Margot’s boss. She put her hand on Margot’s shoulder.
“Thanks,” Margot said. She may have done well, but she’d done well at a bad thing. “I don’t think I want to do this anymore,” she said.
“It’s just not right for me,” Margot said. “It’s just not right.”
Her boss frowned, then opened her mouth to speak, but Margot just turned and left the place.
In the car, Margot watched the shadows of red traffic lights bloom on the wet pavement. She waited. She counted the seconds that went by as she sat at the red light, and she took note that these were wasted seconds. Life was too short, it went by too quickly. She looked over into the car next to her and lowered her window, to try to communicate this to the other driver. But the other driver didn’t see her. “Don’t you see what’s wrong with this picture?” Margot asked. She waved her arms, then continued to talk in the direction of the woman in the next car. “We’re sitting at this red light, and nobody’s even coming the other way. We’re wasting our lives. Time is precious.” But Margot didn’t even believe the words coming out of her mouth, not really. Was time really precious? She didn’t know. She only knew that there was something very wrong with the world, and she didn’t know how to fix it, and she didn’t know who to ask for help. Girls were dying of anorexia and the advertisements full of exclusively thin women kept coming. That was enough to prove people were heartless. Plus, bombs were going off and people were starving, or whatever. Margot didn’t really follow the news about foreign countries. She saw enough problems in her immediate surroundings. “Something’s wrong with the world,” Margot said to the other driver.
The other driver suddenly noticed Margot talking in her direction. She lowered her own window and asked, “What did you say?”
Margot paused. “Nothing,” she said. The light turned green and both women drove on.
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