Joyce stared at herself in the mirror, twisting her head from side to side, finger combing more of her long black hair over the unsightly bulge that used to be her temple. What had started as a tiny red bump had swollen and grown in circumference with each passing hour and day, building up over the week into a massive burial mound on the side of her head. And though Joyce had tried to head it off with her arsenal of tools and tricks accumulated over years of poring through beauty magazines, the medication, steaming and “gentle” squeezing did nothing to stop the growth.
“Joyce, we’re really leaving now.” Helen, her older sister, banged on the locked bathroom door.
“Okay, okay. I’ll be right out.”
Joyce stepped away from the mirror and turned to reach for the doorknob, but a flash of redness drew her eyes once more. She grunted in disgust. It was no use. She had to do it. She had to go in again.
Joyce stepped back to the mirror and pulled out two sheets of tissue from the dispenser on the counter. She leaned forward, raising her tissue-swathed index fingers to her face. The huge zit pulsed with pain, but she held her breath and gave it. One. Last. Push. Eye-rolling, teeth-clenching, nausea-inducing, searing pain flooded her body, but in the mirror, Joyce could see the beginnings of a white nugget like a tiny grain of rice oozing out from under her skin along with pus-streaked blood. Joyce gasped and watched with revolt and glee as the alien seed emerged from the mother ship that was her temple. She got it.
Joyce leaned over the sink, dizzy from the pain. The last day of school and Joyce was still in no shape to ask John Ford Kang to sign her yearbook. But this was it. There would be no other chances. Her upcoming senior year depended on this moment.
Joyce checked her face in the mirror. She was still deformed, but at least now, with the blockage out, the zit might deflate by the end of fifth period. Joyce pressed the tissue paper to her temple and grimaced in pain. Please, please go down.
While she waited for her zit to stop oozing, Joyce paced around the small bathroom and practiced her line for John.
“Hey, John, do me a favor and sign my yearbook?
“Lame,” she said and stared at the tile floor. “Hi, John. Sign this for me.”
Joyce reached for her tube of Extra Strength Zap Zit and dabbed it around the opening of the pimple, which was red and ragged, puckered dead from all the picking. The sting of the medication made her eyes tear up, but this was proof that it was working. Joyce stared at her face, hoping now her reflection would let her go. But it was no use. The Thanksgiving cranberry of a zit glistened with a medicinal shine. She was Rudolph with a misplaced nose. A cheese pizza with a renegade pepperoni. Joyce clamped her hand over it. The thing needed to be hidden away.
Joyce pulled out the drawer and reached for her heavy-duty concealer makeup stick. She dotted the perimeter of the zit with the beige marker and then tried to blend it in with her fingertip. The redness was toned down, but no amount of makeup could hide the rawness of the skin around the lesion. Joyce’s shoulders slumped forward. What was the use? She might as well draw a line down the middle of her face. Quasimodo on this side. Plain Korean girl on this side. Joyce could see the tears welling up again in her reflection. Nothing was going to work.
Stop obsessing, she told herself. You’ll be late for school. Joyce pulled more of her hair forward, using it like a dark
curtain cutting short a bad performance. Stay under, she told it, and finally stepped away from the mirror.
Joyce rushed out of the bathroom and into the living room. Where were Helen and Andy? Had she heard the door slam? As Joyce grabbed her backpack off the couch, a note on the coffee table caught her eye. Helen’s handwriting.
Joyce grabbed the note. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she quickly scanned the words.
“HELEN!” Joyce screamed into the empty apartment. She heaved her backpack to the floor and crumpled the note in her hand. Joyce ran back to her room and searched the top of her dresser for the key to the lock on her bike. This was just like Helen. Everything had to revolve around her schedule. Helen was going to be late and she had to drop off Andy, their younger brother, at school. Helen had a meeting, so Joyce could ride her bike. Joyce flung a stack of paper to the floor and found the key. She snatched it up and ran out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her.
The whole reason Joyce had asked for a ride in the first place was that today was not just some ordinary day. And if Helen had even taken a millisecond to think about anybody else besides herself, then maybe she would have noticed how hard Joyce had been trying to look good today.
Joyce pedaled furiously, the bright morning sun glaring into her eyes as she rode out of the apartment complex and
onto the streets. As she started her ascent up the hill to her high school, beads of sweat popped up on her forehead. Damn this heat. Damn this sweat. Damn you, Helen. Oh, God. Joyce quickly reached up to her zit. Same size. Well, at least it’s not bigger, she thought.
Even though Helen was heading into her second year of college, she still lived at home and used the family sedan like it was her own. Joyce had gotten her driver’s license over six months ago, but she rarely had the chance to drive. Once Helen didn’t have to get to classes every day, Joyce vowed to herself that it would be her turn to get the car.
Joyce crested the top of the hill, and the city of Orangedale spread out below her. The heavy freeway traffic of Southern California crept along as the morning commuters sat in their cars talking on their cell phones and inching their way to work. And if she squinted just so, Joyce could imagine that she saw a ribbon of the Pacific Ocean glimmering in the distance.
Joyce coasted down the hill, past the line of cars headed into the parking lot of her high school, and stopped at the bike rack. All around her, there was an upbeat intensity to everyone’s steps and chatter. The last day of school felt almost as good as the first day of summer. Joyce jumped off her bike. This summer was going to be completely different, and it would all start with doing something that she had dreamed of all year long.
John Ford Kang. She was finally going to talk to him. She was going to say something witty to make him laugh. Maybe a joke about school. And then John would laugh and sign her yearbook while she signed his. Joyce had the perfect phrase: Make every minute count. So what if Joyce had stolen it from a greeting card—John would never know. And then over the summer, he would look at her clever note and remember talking to her. Joyce had it all planned out. Leave him curious, and at the start of senior year, she would walk into school and knock him over with her transformation. She was going to wash her face every night and exercise to get rid of her fatty knees so she could wear short skirts. And come fall, when she walked into Orangedale with her clear complexion, stylish new haircut and sexy clothes, John would fall to his knees. Joyce smiled. Well, she would settle for just a little drool.
Some girls in the distance were squealing and hugging as though they were never going to see each other again. Probably seniors being melodramatic, like they didn’t have all summer to go to the mall or hang out on the beach. Joyce still had one more year, and that year was going to count, not like all her other high school days that blurred into one long yawn. Joyce took a deep breath and exhaled her nervousness as she reached up to remove her backpack. In that second, right as her hand pawed her empty shoulder, she slammed into a wall of realization. Her mind’s eye traveled back across the streets,
back into her apartment, to the living room floor next to the crumpled note.
A few students glanced over. Joyce quickly knelt down and pretended to be busy locking up her bike.
She pressed the heels of her palms to her damp eyes and tried not to linger on thoughts of a bad omen. Signs. This was turning into one of those days.
“Stop it,” she whispered. Joyce finger combed more of her hair over her zit and forced herself to stand up. She would just buy another yearbook. There was nothing wrong with that. The plan would still work. It wasn’t a big deal. And yet, the negative thoughts lingered. Too many things going wrong. Maybe this wasn’t a good day to ask John to sign her yearbook? Joyce gulped back her reservations. No. This was it. There were no other chances. No such thing as bad omens, Joyce tried to convince herself.
Joyce slowly walked toward her English classroom, her eyes lasered onto a figure in the distance. John Ford Kang stood with his buddies two doors down the hall, their backpacks thrown in the middle of their circle. He towered over his blond surfer friends, his frame tall and muscular, unlike so many other stringbean Korean guys. But then, he was only half Korean and half something else. Dutch or German or something else, exotic, European. His mother had been a model, it
was rumored. Joyce’s arms felt uncomfortably empty without the weight of her backpack on one shoulder. She crossed her arms in front of her, but then thought they looked too weird that way. Would he look at her, she wondered, burying her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. Look at me, she whispered in her head. Look at me. Look at me. Her zit throbbed. No, don’t look at me.
He cut one hand through the air, his head bobbing to emphasize some point he was making. He was so close, Joyce had the urge to walk right over and touch his shoulder. Turn his perfect face toward her so she could gaze up into his eyes, which she had overheard other girls talking about as this amazing light shade of brown rimmed with green. She had never been that close to him, but she could imagine. And had imagined many days and nights as she thought about ways to talk to him. Thought about how to get him to fall in love with her.
“Come on, stalker.” Gina prodded Joyce to move along. “Where’s your backpack?”
Joyce blinked rapidly as though she had been staring at the sun too long and then smiled at her best friend. “Long story, but I can say one word. Helen.”
Gina groaned sympathetically and they linked arms before heading into their English classroom.