The house was one that tried too hard to look normal — the shutters, painted red so carefully, seemed to advertise exactly what went on inside; told tales of discarded pantyhose (black, unlike my mother’s) and lampshades covered with silk slips.
I was fifteen and delivering March’s copy of Cosmo the first time I ever stepped inside. The “welcome” mat had a heart as the letter o — I can still remember it vividly. A woman answered the door as the bell rang its last warbling notes; she was an older lady, the kind that could still be mistaken for young in the right light. She was smoking a full tar cigarette.
“Come in, kid,” she said. “What happened to the last one?”
“The last one?” I repeated, standing next to a coat rack filled with only mens’ jackets.
“The last girl who delivered the magazines?”
“Oh,” I responded stupidly. The woman had taken off into the next room and left me standing awkwardly in my old running shoes. “Melissa. That was her name. College.”
“A terrible thing to happen to anyone,” she said with a cackle as she returned.
“What? College?” I asked.
“Just one old broad’s opinion, mind you,” she said, pressing damp dollar bills into my hand.
I didn’t mention to her that I was working this job to make a little extra money so in a few years, when I took off to college, I would not be completely destitute. Of course, I was only fifteen, and it was a little early to be worrying about these things. However, my father had so firmly instilled the early bird gets the worm that I would’ve been working last year, had my mom not insisted I needed a childhood.
“I don’t think it’s so bad. You know, to get away from here,” I said, shoving the money into the pocket of my dark jeans.
“Here. There,” she gestured, ashes falling from her cigarette onto the hardwood floor. “When you get to be my age you realize there isn’t much of a difference. Places are places. People are people. You only remember the really good or the really bad, and honey, you end up with a lot more of the second than the first — trust me.”
Up the long flight of stairs I heard muffled laughter, something falling onto the floor. The older woman’s eyes didn’t move from mine, as if she was so accustomed to the noise she didn’t even hear it anymore. Maybe she didn’t.
“I guess,” I said uncertainly. I was raised to respect your elders, and even though I thought it, I wasn’t about to tell her that she seemed like she had made a lot of mistakes to get where she was now and how would she know anything anyway — and at the very least, wasn’t she aware that smoking could kill?
“You’re thinking you’re better than me,” she said casually, pulling her hand through her silver blond hair. I opened my mouth to protest but she cut me off. “Don’t bother, hon. I was the same way when I was your age — I thought I was hot shit.”
She suddenly grabbed me by my shoulders and dragged me over to the full length mirror. I saw myself, mousy brown hair, body still developing. Narrow, angular — breasts just starting to swell with promise. I looked at her in question, meeting her eyes in the glass.
“What do you see, girl?” she asked me.
“My reflection, obviously,” I said with sarcasm.
“Maybe you should go to college. This one has no creativity,” she said, as if she were talking to someone other than me. “Do you want to know what I see?”
I shrugged my shoulder as if I wasn’t interested — tell me if you want, but who cares? I didn’t know if I was any good at projecting this image, this unspoken So what? but I had been practicing my older sister’s stance, trying to project her cool indifference. It must have been a rite of passage for seventeen year old’s because the woman saw right through me and smiled.
“You are not a girl. Your arms and legs are not arms and legs. Your smile is not a smile. You are currency.”
“I’m what?” I asked, shocked.
“You — your body — even your soul. It’s all currency.”
“Listen,” I said, “I know what people say about this house but…”
“No, you listen: We all sell pieces of ourselves. You are stupid to think otherwise. College may give you something new to sell, but you will sell it all the same. The smart girl. The professional girl. Men will see dollar signs when they look at you because you will look at them like they’re unworthy. Because they are. Most of them. And they may not hand you hundred dollar bills, and you may not do the things that I do for them, but there’s little difference.”
I didn’t know what she meant then. I never asked. Never went back to the house with the red shutters. Was too scared to, really. I quit my job delivering magazines, tried harder in school, thought a scholarship was the answer — but I understand her now.
I am thirty-seven. I dye the gray out of my hair — she was braver than I am. I have a husband; he loves me. Sometimes I purposely lose at cards, make love when I’d rather be watching TV. He cooks the dinners, picks up my errant socks (we are a modern couple, after all). We have two children, a boy and a girl, only about a year apart in age. I talk to them differently, not because they are different — but because one is a girl and the other is not.
Every time I catch myself doing it, I think of the older woman; her lined lips breaking into a sly, knowing smile.