I wrote the following for a course entitled "Fabulous Fictions."
Long ears, pointy nose, wistful eyes, like those of a man over the hill, parting ways with a long-lost high school sweetheart. That was young Cynthia Swift for you.
Cyn had an adult face, always did. She looked just like her mom, and at six, that wasn’t exactly a good thing. She used to stare at herself in the mirror wondering who she was and what the deal was with her pronounced features. But she never looked too long, for the mature curvature of her face frightened her beyond anything else.
Cyn was stern. Always stern. Whether she was playing hopscotch or dashing the hopes of a pervy preschooler, Cyn was always stern. She was also shy, unbelievably shy, so shy that she didn’t even talk to her grandparents.
“How is school going, Cynthia?” her grandma would ask.
She shrugged her shoulders and gently smiled.
It’s safe to assume she never ever talked to her kindergarten teacher, Ms. Schmidt—so much so that on days when she had to go to the bathroom, she simply held it in until all hell broke loose on her own toilet. One day she left a huge butt-shaped imprint on the pavement from the pee she couldn’t quite suppress.
Cyn thought a lot about morals, based if nothing else on the sheer number of times a day she heard the words “sin,” “sinny,” and “sinifred.” She at first thought the odd iterations of her name were meant as a slight against her. Of course, she also knew kids would be kids.
Cyn’s friend Cassie was one of the worst culprits. Cassie further took the liberty of speaking for her whenever Cyn wanted to ask the teacher a question or air a grievance. Cyn didn’t mind this interlocution; she just felt it came at a price.
Always a third wheel in whatever play date Cassie devised, Cyn put up with a lot of offhand critiques of her shyness and gangly features.
After catching Cyn admire her crush for a good two minutes, Cassie interrupted: “I don’t think Josh really likes tall girls. What would you even say to him anyway?”
Cyn wanted so hard to rebut all of that, but it’s true, she wouldn’t know what to say.
It wasn’t that Cyn was mute; she just didn’t have anything to say—well, she had stuff to say; she just didn’t want to say it.
“How are you?”, “How’s it going?”, “What’s up?”—none of these questions merited verbal answers. She wasn’t rude or resentful; she was a lot of other things.
Cyn had a habit of staring deeply into other people’s eyes, parsing every black mark and greenish-blue tint in their irises. She was fascinated with the eye—so beautiful from a safe distance, but so disgusting up close. The pink glob of nerves in the inner corners, the red lightning bolts of fatigue, the crusty yellow build-up…she stayed far enough away to avoid these things.
Ms. Schmidt’s eyes were the faintest blue you could imagine; they’d look the same whether in color or black and white. There was almost no texture to them, like perfectly sculpted cuts of glass. Cyn felt a funny sense of solidarity with her teacher, for every time Derrick walked by and cut a big lock off of Cyn’s hair, she watched Ms. Schmidt overcome a bit of hesitation to tell him that wasn’t right. Cyn peered into Ms. Schmidt’s eyes and waited.
Cyn loses control of what would be her arms and legs and simply goes through the motions. The vision is a bit blurred, but manageable, especially once her glasses fit themselves neatly over her eyes. She’d seen that pink mug on Ms. Schmidt’s desk many times before, but in her new eyes it looks purplish. Looking hard around the room, she notices Cassie entertaining a bunch of other students, in awe of her sassy pants charm. Cyn’s new mouth begins to purse and she suddenly finds herself telling Cassie to “quiet down,” two words she never dared utter before. Cassie looks back with a glaring intent Cyn had never seen, and in a sense, she still hadn’t. She then turns to a young Cynthia staring right at her.
“Sinny, did you hear what I was trying to say before Ms. S interrupted me? It was important,” Cassie said.
Cyn shook her head, turning her gaze back to Cassie.
“Okay, well I’m having a birthday party tomorrow night, and I’m inviting you.”
Cyn walked home from school, wondering whether there was such a thing as a fourth wheel, or a fifth.
“Mommy, is it okay if I go to Cassie’s house tomorrow night for a birthday party?,” Cyn asked as she walked into the kitchen.
“Sure, dolly,” she said, “but I want to make sure you’ll have a good time. I don’t want to see you cry again.”
“This time it will be different,” Cyn said, “There won’t be as many girls there, so I should get a chance to spend more time with Cassie.”
“If that’s what you want, honey.”
Cyn’s mom walked to the other side of the kitchen, fidgeting with the oven settings, then going to the fridge to pull out some ground beef, recently defrosted. As she unpacked the meat, Cyn couldn’t help but admire her deliberate gait, her beautiful blond hair, her hybrid blue-green eyes as deep as the ocean, dotted with specs of black and a halo of gold. She couldn’t stop her gaze.
Her eyes dart every which way, looking almost simultaneously at the stove, the countertops, the floor, the window, and her own hands. They shake if ever slightly, partly because it is hereditary, partly because the situation seems to warrant it. Cyn knew she had a great mom, but she didn’t know how much work it took. Every second is equally active and reflective, as if doing one at a time isn’t good enough. She looks back at herself, a daughter, young but with a mind so much older.
The next day, Cyn took the bus home with Cassie, as did seven other girls.
“Who wants their nails painted?!” shouted Cassie’s au pair, Queen—a twenty-five-year-old Kenyan woman with a shaved head and enormous hoop earrings—as they all walked into the living room. Cyn was never much a fan of decorating girly extremities, so she just watched while the others took part, slapping on layers upon layers of “Teal We Meet Again” and “The Blonde.com,” forming a more perfect union around Cassie. Unlike the Founding Fathers, however, Cassie did not create a set of guidelines to help out her posterity. She made the rules as she went.
“Okay, now we’re going to play teacher,” Cassie proclaimed to the whole group. “I’ll be the teacher; the rest of you can be my students.”
After soundly passing the first “test” consisting of ‘1+1’ and ‘draw a picture of a CAT’, Cyn thought she would make for a good laugh by intentionally failing her ABC’s. She made up a series of nonsense letters designed to make her stand out among the sheep. The bottom half of a capital L, the top two-thirds of an R, the bottom right portion of a Q cut diagonally: all these letters were sure to incite amusement in her best friend.
Cassie gave her an F—not the top half of an F or the right side of an F, but a full F. Nothing seemed more final than that.
Cyn stared into Cassie’s eyes with the same unbroken intensity with which Cassie stared into Ms. Schmidt’s. The bulging, light brown, perfectly ambiguous nature of her eyes made it all the more frustrating.
Standing three inches shorter than Cyn, Cassie nonetheless sees the world as her oyster. Each of her friends sits like an anxious heap of ribbons and bows, waiting to be called upon. Cassie’s eyes twinkle with ego as she breathes a quiet but purposeful “hmmph.” She walks in a slow, dignified manner, taking in every bit of her surroundings calmly, yet never pausing to look for any prolonged period of time at any one particular thing. Cynthia’s fiery stare is no exception. The room is large, and Cyn is just a small part of it.
“Bloody Mary. That’s it—that’s what we should play,” Cassie said. “Everyone find a partner, and you can go in together.”
Of course there was an odd number of girls—nine including Cassie—so everyone paired up except Cyn. One of the other girls snatched Cassie up before Cyn could even get a chance scope out her surroundings.
“Sorry, Cyn. You know I always pick you. Besides, Sam asked me first.”
Naturally, Cassie volunteered Cyn to go first, as per her usual ventriloquism. Cyn walked tentatively into the bathroom, lights switched to OFF, and shut the door. She looked into the mirror and recited, as promised: “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.” She realized too late that as she was waiting in fear for Bloody Mary to appear, she had been staring into her own eyes, a shifting combination of green, blue, and grey, depending on the lighting, the mood, and the eyes.
Cyn is now inside the mirror, looking through her own reflection. Shards of silver reflect the Victorian-style crown molding, the gold faucets, the marble bathroom tiles. But she is powerless to see or do anything else, for her bodily movement is controlled by her actual body, which is entranced watching her reflection. The game, her body, and the world have all stopped, but Cyn’s thoughts are still going. Her mind is all that she has. It is who she is.
After nearly five minutes, Cassie is convinced that Cyn has actually seen Bloody Mary and walks into the bathroom, only to find Cyn in a static daze. Cassie pushes her forward, and Cyn snaps out of her trance, clutching the sink for support.
“What happened? Cassie asked, gripping Cyn by the shoulders, “Did you see Bloody Mary? Did she put you under her spell? Are you gonna cry again? Do you want me to call your mom?” Cassie wasn’t behaving at all out of character, nor did she mean any harm by what she said.
It wasn’t until this moment that Cyn realized just how red and yellow—how frantic and insincere, if ever so slightly, Cassie’s eyes looked up close. She had never seen anything like it. It was almost as if Cassie was looking through her, as if Cyn was her reflection on the wall.
“Cassie,” Cyn said, “Shut up.”
Cyn had an adult face, always did. It didn’t frighten her so much anymore.
Cyn had an adult face, always did. It didn’t frighten her so much anymore.
All clothing designed and made by the wonderful Sarah Worley.
All photos by the fabulous Nicole Picchietti.