It was the same mirror she had always looked into; slightly dusty, cracked down the center – hanging where it had always hung – just above her bathroom sink. Rowan regarded her reflection carefully, brown eyes sharp, looking for change; looking for something; anything that would denote what she had done.
There was nothing.
Same dark hair; same straight, ridged teeth. Maybe the width of her nose had gotten larger, but she always thought that – always worried about that. All in all, her face was the same face she had spent her life growing into, and once the growing stopped, the same face she had tried to accept as her own.
“Stupid,” Rowan muttered under her breath.
She looked away from the mirror as she brushed her teeth, watching the water settle and dissipate. Nothing was different. She didn’t know why she always thought her body was a neighborhood that would change over night; like one day she’d wake up, and there would be scaffolding on her forehead; a ripped down iris, nailed over with particle board; or graffiti when her lips pulled back into a smile, blue spray paint applied sloppily, which would read: I was here.
The night before Rowan had spent a solid half hour just curling her hair; it was thick, and unruly, and required more patience than she had on a daily basis. For that reason alone, she usually wore it up, pulled away from her face. But tonight she had a date, and though she was twenty-five, she still couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she had no idea what she was doing.
“It’s fine,” she said to herself. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”
Her stomach did not agree.
She had met Henry last year. He was the friend of her friend’s boyfriend. There was nothing extraordinary about it. They had seen each other a handful of times – talked at house parties, nursing their drinks by the chip bowl neither of them ate from. Henry was tall, and blond, and had blue eyes. Henry was attractive, almost pretty. Henry was not Rowan’s type, but apparently Rowan was his.
“He told Brad he likes you,” Amanda said to her last week.
“He doesn’t know me,” Rowan countered, gathering discarded plastic cups into a trash bag. It had been Brad’s birthday party, which she had helped to plan and throw, having always liked Brad, the way she imagined one would like annoying older brother.
“Apparently he thinks he does,” Amanda said with a laugh. “So, are you interested?”
“Well, he’s objectively gorgeous,” Rowan said with a teasing smile, “if you’re into that sort of thing.”
“And it’s been so long since I’ve been on a date that I’ve started talking to my houseplants –”
“You make them talk to you now before you kill them?” Amanda asked, laughing. “That’s sadistic.”
“I’m a real prize,” Rowan said, chewing on her thumbnail, trash bag set on the floor next to her. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to go on a date. Just for fun.”
“Right, just for fun.”
Rowan snapped back into the present when she felt herself begin to sweat from the heat of the curling iron. She walked over to her closed bedroom window and opened it, looking out at the parking lot below her. The summer air was just starting to cool down as the sun set around the lined up cars. She breathed in deeply.
Are we having fun yet?
Henry had taken Rowan to a nice restaurant. As he talked she kept her hands in her lap, fingering the soft tablecloth, wondering how they kept it so white. Maybe it was brand new. Or a mild oxygen bleach, she heard her mother say inside her head. She touched it again, more thoughtfully this time.
“– and, you know, that’s about it,” Henry said in a way that led Rowan to believe he had just finished telling her a rundown of his life. She hadn’t caught any of it.
“Wow,” she said, smiling. “So, I guess you and Brad go way back then?”
She felt comfortable asking this because if he hadn’t mentioned it, then it would seem like a sincere question, but if he had, it would only seem like a confirmation on what Brad had already told her – and a gentle goading to go on – that she was interested.
She wasn’t interested.
He was smart, and attractive, and polite, but there was no spark. Rowan had experienced the No Spark enough that it had become a feeling all its own. At first it had been a crushing disappointment but over the years it had faded into a complacent boredom. Amanda was going to kill her – she thought Rowan was too picky, and maybe she was. Maybe she wasn’t trying hard enough. In a last ditch effort, Rowan tried to focus on Henry.
“– and in senior year, Brad and I both joined the football team.”
“Oh! The Mighty Earthworms, right?” Rowan joked.
“The Mighty Eagles,” Henry corrected. “The team was awful. I think we won maybe three games all season.”
“Yeah, Brad still sings the school fight song when he gets drunk sometimes, but I guess you’re aware of that.”
“All too aware.”
Rowan pushed around the leftover Penne on her plate, too full to eat another bite, even if it would mean filling the dragging silence. Henry’s plate was empty, and he sat, watching her.
“The food was delicious,” Rowan said.
“It was really good, wasn’t it?” Henry asked and after a beat, he continued. “So, you’ve hardly told me anything about yourself.”
“Well, there’s not much to tell. My childhood was happy. My parents are still together. No brothers, or sisters – well, unless you count Amanda. Which I do,” Rowan smiled. “I work in human resources at a large company, but that’s boring. I take photography gigs on my off time. You know, engagements, weddings, birthdays – that kind of thing.”
“Amanda mentioned you were into taking pictures.”
“Yeah. The one Amanda has hanging in her hallway of the kid crying hysterically in front of the clown? That’s one of mine,” Rowan said.
“I always wondered about that picture. Never got up the nerve to ask about it.”
“Thought there was some deep rooted clown trauma in Amanda’s past?”
“Something like that,” he said smiling.
Objectively, Henry was gorgeous. If you were into that kind of thing. Which apparently, Rowan was not.
Later, after the date, Rowan sat on a white shag carpet. She was wearing an over-sized t-shirt and underwear, and not much else. She was listening to Amanda talk on the other end of her cellphone.
“Why’d you let him kiss you then?” she asked.
“His face was just, like, coming towards mine and I don’t know. It just happened. It’s not like he forced himself on me or anything. Or that I initiated it,” Rowan sighed heavily. “I should’ve stopped it. It just happened too fast and I wasn’t thinking. I feel bad enough about it already.”
“This is going to make for some awkward parties together.”
“Maybe you should stop throwing so many parties then,” Rowan said softly.
“Never,” Amanda replied. “Wait, why are you whispering?”
“Uh, I’m not. I haven’t been –” Rowan said quickly, getting up and walking silently to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.
“Oh my God, Rowan,” Amanda groaned dramatically. “Tell me you didn’t.”
“Amanda, it’s not like that –”
“You did, didn’t you?” she interrupted. “You’re there right now!”
“She needed my help. That’s all,” Rowan said, trying not to meet her own eyes in the uncracked mirror that hung just above the sink. “We’re just friends.”
“You and Hayden are just friends the way Brad and I were just friends in college.”
“No one has ever been, or will ever be, just friends the way you and Brad were just friends in college,” Rowan said with a grimace. “We lived together in student housing, remember?”
“You know what I mean!” Amanda snapped. “I don’t want to see you get hurt again.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Rowan lied in a way that didn’t seem to register as a lie to herself.
“Call me tomorrow. We’re getting coffee and having a long, long talk.”
“I can’t wait,” Rowan muttered to the echoing dial-tone.
Amanda had never liked Hayden. It had been four years and she had never been able to get the pair of them on friendly terms. Of course, she couldn’t blame Amanda. Hayden had broken her heart. She had broken Rowan’s heart enough that Rowan was surprised she could still fit all the pieces of it back together over and over again.
“It’s going to be different,” Rowan said to herself in the mirror. “I know what I’m doing this time.”
She tried to flash herself a reassuring smile, but swore for a second, when her lips pulled back to reveal teeth, she could see the blue words shining even in the dark: I was here.