Beautiful Ugly: A Tale

by Debbi Harris

girl-1402502748rGZCamille Portaine was reckless in her vanity, not subtle at all, which might have made it more palatable. Her teeth shown white and pearly, but the smile itself was rather dark, often tinged with disdain. Friends were accessories, like gemstone-encrusted headbands, sky-blue eye shadow, and designer handbags—accoutrements that helped make her even prettier. It worked best when their yin brightened Camille’s yang, their flaws spoke to her alleged perfection.

Camille Portaine’s laugh, while loud and exuberant, rang hollow and humorless. Her giggles were a string of nervous chirps that asked when all attention might point back again to her, away from any other focus or entertainment. Many grew tired of her company, the turbidity the self-absorption brought into their midst.

“I’m so fat,” she’d complain, often to her best—thusly appointed—friend, Mallory Marks. (Mallory, who had been assaulted on the playground numerous times as a child for being a four-eyed chunk.) Camille would then rub her hands over slim hips, posing with practiced efficiency. At one point just beyond adolescence, when bodies stretch and pocked faces smooth, Mallory Marks lost quite a bit of her heft, much of it as the result of an unfortunate and sustained battle with mononucleosis. Camille Portaine had deemed her friend a befitting companion up to the day when an acquaintance had pointed out how thin Mallory had managed to become, and how so very good she looked. She could no longer stomach the girl’s company then, and provoked a fight that assured the two would have to part ways until such a time as Mallory Marks grew fat again.

Camille Portaine had a penchant for wholly gratuitous insults, the outcome of which usually prompted her to feign surprise. When Mallory employed one of Camille’s tactics in an effort to seek, at the very least, acceptance and, at most, a hint of praise, the attempt imploded, the resultant rumble further exposing Camille Portaine’s inadequacy as a friend.

“I feel so large and awkward whenever I’m around you,” Mallory Marks poked. “Just so fat. And ugly.”

“Don’t be silly,” Camille replied, her voice breathy from the effort it took to focus for a moment on someone other than herself. “You’re not that fat.” Mallory’s eyes stung with hurt, though she knew she had taken a risk and was therefore resigned to accept the outcome.

At Mallory’s first visit to the cemetery after her mother had passed away due to a virulent and sudden illness, her cell phone rang hopelessly, unanswered in the car as she tenderly placed a bouquet of lilies on the dear woman’s grave. When Mallory had ventured back across the wet grass, eyes still flushed with tears, she retrieved the phone and found numerous urgent messages from her dubious friend.

“I believe you owe me an explanation!” Camille Portaine had left a number of screaming entreaties after each greeting. “My boyfriend said that so-and-so said that you said…” The message roiled into the troublesome foolishness to which, sadly, Mallory had become much too accustomed; though she found it even more distasteful on this particularly emotional occasion. Camille thrived on gossip and insinuation. It sustained her, nurtured her disquieting spirit. Mallory dialed Camille back.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mallory appealed, “and I’m at the cemetery. It’s my family’s first visit, you know, since Mama died.” Mallory’s voice had trailed to a whisper.

“How was I supposed to know that?” Camille Portaine’s voice was shrill, her tone accusatory. She accented the word that and Mallory could hear a bit of spit shoot from Camille’s mouth with the question. There was no empathy or polite consideration. Mallory hung up, even though it wasn’t in her nature to be rude. She entertained the prospect—but just for a moment or two—that her best friend might be the devil.

The two women parted ways for a time, a tacit and frequent contingency peculiar to their wayward friendship. Mallory married and had a child. Camille Portaine remained in the mix, seeking a man worthy of her beauty but not so remarkable as to upstage it.

When they met again, it was quite by accident. Mallory Marks failed to recognize her friend at first, until the woman spoke.

“Hello, Mallory.” Camille forced a half smile. They were at a local mall. Mallory pushed a baby stroller, a chubby pink toddler tucked inside. Camille walked slowly, supported by an enameled cane, the bulk of newly acquired weight shifting to the left and resting on a casted leg.

“Why, hello, Camille. I almost missed you.” Camille’s back was hunched. Deep lines parenthesized a heavily rouged mouth and the flesh of her cheeks descended into soft jowls that shook as she spoke. She seemed shorter to Mallory, diminished somehow.

“I…um…I fell, as you can see,” Camille offered before Mallory could ask. “So clumsy, I’ve become. But all is well. I have a wonderful fiancé. He has a bit of a temper. Of course, I am telling only you that. But he’s so apologetic. And even more handsome.” Camille was breathless. Her appearance belied such exuberance. “Lots of money too. From his parents, he tells me. He’s promised that we’ll marry soon. Of course, I’m in no hurry to be tied up like you… I…”

“You’re sure you’re all right? I know it’s been a while, but I’m here for you, Camille.” Mallory Marks rubbed the top of her child’s head as she watched the blood drain from her friend’s shellacked face. Heavy charcoal lines masked remnants of eyebrows, which lifted sharply to reveal bulging, bagged eyes.

“I should say as much to you,” Camille said. She chuckled then, and an anxious giggle hung in the air between the two women—Camille twitching slightly, Mallory locked in a stare. Camille sniffed up the drips emerging from her nose and tried hard to fake urgency. “Well, I need to be going. Getting ready for a good time tonight with my adoring man.” Camille Portaine had turned her head away from Mallory, and the words trailed behind her forced, uneven steps. “Try to slow down on those bonbons. Ha-ha.” Camille failed to trap a throaty gurgle that escaped through an arrogant smile.

Mallory Marks sighed, more from pity than exasperation. Her shoulders drooped in defeat and a wave of sorrow passed over her. “Goodbye, Camille. I wish you well. Truly.”

As she retreated, Mallory heard her name, faint and distant but wrapped in a genuine plea. She turned to find her friend calling out, and she was hopeful.

“Yes, Camille?” Mallory’s eyes widened as she stepped toward her old friend. She moved to stretch out her arms, to give shelter and warmth, when Camille spoke.

“My hair. You didn’t say anything about my hair. Don’t you like my hair?


Category: Short Story