by Mary Julia Klimenko
Julia Pearl had been to therapy enough years to understand it was her job to find things to do and her job not to complain if her life wasn’t going the way she wanted it to go. Her therapist always pointed out, when Julia Pearl complained about men not being interested in her, that she didn’t spend very much time or energy looking for a man.
Sometimes Julia Pearl wondered why she paid her therapist to tell her what she already knew and why she felt better after she told her therapist what was bothering her and her therapist told her what she already knew. Julia Pearl thought she must be desperate. She thought, if she had friends like other people, she wouldn’t want to pay her therapist.
She had to admit she didn’t like people that much, at least not the way she observed other people being friends and liking each other. It seemed to her that other women did things they liked that Julia Pearl didn’t like. She didn’t like talking on the phone, didn’t like going to lunch, didn’t like taking walks with someone she had to be friendly to, didn’t like feeling obligated to anyone and couldn’t stand the thought of going to the mall with someone. She couldn’t stand the thought of going to the mall alone but going to the mall with another woman would double the unpleasantness of the experience because Julia Pearl would have to talk to her, seem interested in what her friend looked at and be required to give her friend feedback about how something looked on her. It was hard for Julia Pearl to lie when she really wanted to blurt out that no one looked good in anything if ripples of fat and cellulite were visible through the material, that maybe her friend should stop eating macaroni and cheese in the middle of the night.
Julia Pearl read in a magazine that there was a blues jam on the second Monday of every month in a bar in a small town near where she lived. She thought it sounded like fun but knew she wouldn’t have the nerve to walk in alone because she wouldn’t know what to say or how to act, how to find a table and sit down by herself. Was she supposed to spend the evening staring at musicians and clapping, tapping her foot or swaying her body to the music, talking to someone sitting next to her, would there be any one sitting next to her? Not having a girlfriend for those times was a problem but in order to have those times she knew she would have to have the other times because no woman was going to be a friend for spontaneous, last minute phone calls to go listen to music if Julia Pearl didn’t want to talk to her the rest of the time. That’s when Julia Pearl thought it would be good to have a boyfriend. She didn’t think a boyfriend would want to talk to her all of the time, only when she was getting naked or asking her what was in the refrigerator but he would probably go listen to music with her as long as she paid for the beer.
She wanted a boyfriend with enough money to pay for her way in and buy her a coke or something, wanted him to pick her up in a car that wasn’t twenty years old, a car that had been washed sometime in the last year, wanted him to be intelligent and, if not handsome, at least not disgustingly ugly, someone who made her laugh, who didn’t expect to wind up in her bed every time he took her out, who showed her that he really, really liked her. She knew that wasn’t going to happen so she went to therapy and complained. As far as Julia Pearl was concerned, that was the least painful alternative and for some reason the process gave her hope.
It was Friday night again and Julia Pearl needed to go get some groceries and start the laundry she had accumulated during her workweek. She’d been home for a few hours, washed the work makeup off her face, put on comfortable sweat pants and a sweater, thought about going grocery shopping tomorrow but then thought getting it over with would feel better. On the other hand, maybe she was lying to herself. Maybe she just didn’t want to stay home alone. It was always so hard to tell when she was lying to herself. How would she be able to tell? If she was lying to herself she would believe it like it was the truth, wouldn’t she? She did like the grocery store late at night when other people weren’t there and she liked spending time in the makeup section looking at the different lipstick colors, imagining a particular color being magnetic to a handsome man’s eyes, thinking about the endless possibilities for color and texture—for lips shaded and shaped—ready for anything or makeup that made her look “sun kissed,” like she read in the magazines and not just orange. She liked to look at the different kinds of mascara tubes. There were so many tubes promising different effects like thicker lashes, longer lashes, waterproof lashes, dramatic lashes, bold lashes, lashes that didn’t clump, whatever that meant, and lashes that had dramatic appeal, which seemed a little vague as well.
Late at night in the grocery store, Julia Pearl didn’t have to talk to anyone or smile. She didn’t have to worry about looking like a slob and running into someone she knew. Julia Pearl was becoming more and more tired of trying to “look good”. No matter how hard she tried she wasn’t going to pull it off. She was old, from a different era when women worked hard at looking good because women who looked sexy and carefree didn’t have it as hard as women who just looked like themselves. When Julia Pearl was young, the only currency a woman had was how desirable she looked. In those days women had to look sexy and, if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a rule that, in conversation, women could never make a man think she was smarter than he was. Julia Pearl didn’t know how to make herself act dumber than a man who was talking to her, they were mostly stupid, which made it even harder to do. She didn’t know if young girls today felt the same pressure to be desirable. They seemed more at ease in their own bodies, more natural; they looked like they’d been air brushed into existence, angelic faces, unkempt long hair looking perfect in its imperfect and tousled state. They walked in front of the boyfriend trailing behind trying to look macho. Those pretty girls only looked in the mirror at themselves. The boyfriend could stop trying to look like anything as as long as he did what she wanted him to do when she wanted him to do it.
Thinking about it just made Julia Pearl feel even older so she put her little dog into his car seat and drove to the grocery store just before midnight. At least non-clumping mascara and sun blushed bronzer were non-judgmental. In the makeup aisle, she imagined herself entering a party with violet eyelids, sultry red lips, juicy and inviting. People would stop talking and stare at her because she would be so exotic looking. She was exploring the possibilities of “Cinnabar” and “Barely Rose” when a male voice behind her said, “Any color you choose will be perfect on you.” Julia Pearl whirled around to stand toe to toe with a man who was maybe forty-five years old. He had curly black hair and blue eyes and he was SMILING at her, a big, polished, white smile. Julia Pearl was horrified. She didn’t have on any lipstick or eye shadow. Her sweats were stained with whatever she’d been doing all week. She thought, any second he would realize his mistake, really see her, mumble something and walk away.
Julia Pearl wanted to make herself talk and couldn’t think of anything witty or charming or even intelligent to say. She stammered that she was looking for something other than the color red before realizing she clearly had a red lipstick in her hand. She knew he looked at her hand, knew he was checking to see if she was wearing a wedding ring, so he definitely saw the red lipstick. He asked her what color she was thinking about, which made Julia Pearl even more uncomfortable. Why didn’t he realize he’d made a terrible mistake? Maybe he hadn’t put in his contacts or something or he was near or far sighted, whichever one meant a person couldn’t see close up.
This encounter had all the markings of a grocery store pick-up only the pickup-er hadn’t yet recognized that his pickup-ee was a slightly addled, gray haired, flat footed woman enjoying the highlight of her weekend, shopping the grocery store makeup section at midnight. Julia Pearl was thinking layers of things all at once: he hadn’t yet recognized his mistake, she didn’t know what to say, hadn’t read a Cosmopolitan magazine where girls get tips for getting picked up, except when she was standing in the checkout line. She didn’t know what the protocol was for getting or not getting picked up. She grabbed the handle of her shopping cart and pushed it a few inches to the eye shadow section, saying that her friend told her teal eyeliner was in, a lie but she had to say something, anything. Silence while he stared at her would be too awkward. He was drop dead handsome and she was feeling more humiliated by the moment. She grabbed several eyeliners and began studying their colors; positive he’d turn and run at any moment. He didn’t. He came closer to her and said, “Why don’t you want to wear red?”
That was the moment Julia Pearl had an epiphany. He was a serial killer just like Ted Bundy, all charming and sweet, never forcing anyone into his car. They went willingly while he smiled at them and was so charming he charmed them into his car and charmed them into his house and stopped charming them when he was strangling them instead. She grabbed her cart and wheeled over to the magazine section in the next aisle. To her relief, he didn’t follow her. In her peripheral vision, Julia Pearl watched him go to the checkout counter and she turned to stare at a “Hunting in the Wild” magazine because that’s where she stopped her cart. She couldn’t think. Her heart was fluttering and not in a good way. When she looked back, he was gone.
Relieved, Julia Pearl pushed her cart to the checkout counter, wanted to get out of that store and into her car, wished she’d remembered to bring her pepper spray, maybe she should call 911 but what would she say, that some guy wanted to know why she didn’t want to wear red lipstick, proving he was a serial killer? The police probably wouldn’t come out for that. Suddenly he appeared in the checkout line behind her and asked if she’d gotten everything she was looking for. Julia Pearl’s mouth was so dry all she could do was nod. He asked her what she was going to do, meaning what she was going to do after she left the grocery store. Finding her voice, she told him she was going to go home, put on her new makeup and do laundry. He said, “You’re going to go put on all that makeup and then do laundry?” “Yes,” Julia Pearl told him, thinking she sounded so crazy that, at last, he would turn and run away. Instead, he asked her if she needed someone to fold her clothes. That was it, all she needed to hear. He was most definitely a serial killer and she just stopped talking to him, looked away, paid and fast walked to her car, clutching her bag of makeup.
Once Julia Pearl was on her way home with her car doors locked, she started thinking about him and began wondering if she’d been wrong. Was it possible he actually was trying to pick her up? Maybe he did think she was attractive. Maybe she was just in a scene like in the movies, the scene of the grocery store pickup. She read somewhere that the grocery store was a good place to meet men. What if she’d just had a chance to get a boyfriend and she blew it? Even if he was a serial killer, she didn’t have to get into his car. She could just talk to him in the grocery store, maybe even in the parking lot. Julia Pearl turned her car around and headed back to the grocery store. The laundry could wait. She hoped he hadn’t left and hoped he had left, couldn’t decide if she was so unattractive only serial killers wanted to talk to her or so neurotic she’d blown it again because she didn’t know how to talk to men. She hated it when she felt like this and knew she would complain to her therapist next Wednesday at her appointment. She was going to complain that guys wanted to meet her all right, serial killers who wanted to cut off her head and make a necklace with her teeth. Her therapist better have an answer for that.
The parking lot was empty when she got back to the grocery store. He wasn’t standing next to his car concealing an axe nor was he standing there, waiting, hoping she would come back because he was so attracted to her he didn’t know what else to do.
Turning her car around again and heading back home, she was disappointed for a few minutes. Then she began to think she actually did have an experience that was kind of like a date, not exactly, but he did come up to her, asked her if he could fold her clothes, stood close enough for her to study the whiteness of his teeth.
He was probably a good guy, a lonely guy and years later they would snuggle in bed and laugh about their first date or, if she saw him again and he was a serial killer, years later he could open his freezer and admire her perfectly made-up, perfectly frozen face.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing