I had never been called anything but pretty. Friends would comment on my hair, family on my eyes, and strangers on my ass. I never thought much of it for I assumed it was the only compliment I was worthy of. I spent hours every day painting my face and choosing the right clothes just for my mom to say “look at how pretty you look today”, the only compliment I would hear the entire day.
When the school counselor took me out of class, as she did with all seniors, and asked me what I wanted to do after high school, I echoed my mother’s words. “I want to be a model.” I said. That was not completely true. Perhaps I didn’t despise modeling, but I had gone to my fair share of casting calls and photo-shoots. The other girls there shivered with anticipation, excitement, and nerves. Some broke down on the floor, some were holding themselves back from jumping up and down but they were all filled with raw emotion and passion. I simply, in between the girls without feeling a single emotion.
I am not sure if the counselor saw the lack of passion within me, but she handed me a pamphlet for The New School in New York and underneath it, one for a public liberal arts college in Florida. She told me to really think about what I wanted and to talk to her once I decided where I wanted to go.
I hid the pamphlets underneath my drawers when I got home. I didn’t want my mom to find them and start the uncomfortable conversation that was sure to come. But at night, when all the lights of the apartment were finally off, I pulled the pamphlets out from underneath the drawer and skimmed them. The New School looked beautiful, luxurious, expensive, filled with pictures of art and their artists hard at work on their creation, their eyes fixated in every small detail. It was the place everyone expected me to go to. Something about that scared me. I wasn’t really sure what it was though.
I placed that pamphlet on my laps and looked at the other one. The lettering was simple, white and blue. I read the inside. High admittance rate, low tuition, offered housing. The hallmark images of the ethnically diverse group of friends sitting in fresh grass right in the middle of the page. But at the edge, something caught my attention. It was a picture of a girl laughing. I had grown able to recognize a forced smile from a genuine, even when there seemed to be no difference. The girl’s smile was bright and wild. I could tell in that instance it was a genuine smile.
I had to tell my mom about The New School so she’d pay for the SAT. I took them three times but never did look at the results. I already knew I wasn’t anything more than pretty so I didn’t see why I should confirm my suspicions.
I never did apply to The New School. Every time I though about it, I felt void. Instead, I saved money. My mom would take me to another photo shoot or casting call and if I got the job, I’d have the photographer pay half of my paycheck in cash. I hid it under the drawer next to the ripped up image of the smiling girl.
It was a Tuesday before I turned eighteen that my mom entered my room unannounced claiming she couldn’t find her scarf. I don’t know if it was the force in which she pulled the drawer with or the way in which I had placed the money and the letter near the hinges but the drawer slipped out and the money fell into the floor.
“What is this?” She asked. I didn’t reply. I knelt down next to the money and stuffed it into my pockets. “What is this?” she insisted.
“I got my letter yesterday.” I replied as picked the letter up, “I’m moving to Florida.” My mom grabbed the letter and read it. She was quiet for a minute. So was I.
Then, she was screaming.
“Why did you never tell me about this?”
“Because you would have said no.”
“This is not what you want!”
“I don’t even know what I want.”
“Do you really want to waste the best years of your life here?”
“I’m going to waste them anyway. I might as well have some say as to how.”
“I’m not paying for it!”
“What do you think the money is for?”
“This is going to ruin your life!”
My blood tingled with heat. My throat burnt and my skin shivered. I had never raised my voice before, but for the first time, I couldn’t control my emotions.
Then, I screamed.
“What life do I have to ruin? You never allowed me to make a life for myself! ‘You´re pretty, Rose. You’re gorgeous’, that’s all you ever say. That’s all you ever let me be. I don’t even know who I am.”
“If I only say that it’s because you’ve never given been good at anything other than being pretty!”
“And who’s fault is that?” I yelled.
My mom looked at me dead in the eye. She tore up the letter. My body went cold but I didn’t allow the emotions to show. “If you’re going to disobey me, you can’t live here.” She stated, “Get out of my house.”
I packed as she watched. Three changes of clothes, the money I had grabbed, and the torn up picture of the smiling girl into my backpack and out the door.
I called my counselor. She let me stay with her the month I had left of school before graduation. When I did graduate, my mom didn’t show up. I thought maybe I’d give her something else to call me besides pretty, but she wasn’t even there when I received my diploma.
I didn’t rest during the summer. My counselor let me stay with her so I wouldn’t have to pay for an apartment. I worked every single day in any job I could find. Waitress, saleswoman, barista, sometimes I did model. I didn’t care. I saved every penny I found on the ground and barely scraped together one semester of tuition. If one semester is all I was going to be able to afford, at least I’ll try to make it worth something.
The sun is setting through the window. I stand in front of a door with nothing more than three changes of clothes on my back and the picture of the smiling girl clenched in my hand. Students move around me, carrying boxes into their dormitories and unpacking. Nervous laughter fills the halls, but I don’t even seem to be able to laugh out of nervousness. I hold the key in my left hand. My hand shivers. My knees are weak. I wonder if this is what the girls felt like before a photo-shoot, so nervous that they can’t even think straight, so unsure of what is to come when everything else had already been laid out. Alone, it was up to them to face the unknown. It is up to me to face uncertainty.
I press the key against my skin and open the door.