Transformation

Sarah Flynn

 

At the beginning of the summer, Kat wore white ironed pants and a Vineyard Vines hat. By the end of the summer, she sported dreadlocks, a rasta necklace, and deep bags beneath her eyes.

She went to the all-girls private school on Broadway Street, known as the “house on the hill,” or rather the “house full of bills,” as us public school kids called it. At seventeen, most of her friends probably had internships, or volunteered at the soup kitchen downtown, or traveled miles to compete in math triathlons. Her first day at the pizzeria, as she stood with a Kate Spade purse clutched under her arm, I couldn’t understand how she ended up working at a broken-down place run by a chef who slipped rum into his coffee.

At first, she was simply the person to call to take my Saturday morning shift when I was out late Friday nights. We worked together three afternoons a week. When the pizzeria was slow, as it often was during the midday heat, I would pretend to read my book as I watched her move around the small restaurant, folding the paper napkins in one way, staring at them for a few moments, then folding them in another way. She would do the same with the plastic silverware, putting both the fork and the knife on the left side of the paper placemat, then moving the knife to the right side, then reuniting it with the fork. She would do this for hours, finding things to arrange and rearrange, to fix then re-fix.

One time, after watching her work on one flower arrangement for an hour and forty-five minutes, I blurted out in frustration, “why do you do that?”

“Do what?” she asked, peering at me defensively from behind her shoulder.

“I don’t know. All that OCD stuff.”

“Oh, um, my mom is a caterer. I help her with stuff sometimes.” I detected a hint of shame in her voice, and wondered if catering was looked down upon amongst all the private school doctors and lawyers. I quickly smiled at her before returning to my book.

 

As the long, hot days at the pizzeria dragged on, I became curious about Kat. I wanted to know why she wore the same pair of white ironed pants every day, why they were always ironed so damn perfectly. I wondered about what she did for fun, if she even had fun. I questioned if this curiosity were real, or just boredom from working at a broken-down pizzeria.

I wondered if she had ever kissed a boy before. She was pretty enough, but every week, five minutes past five o’clock, she went to the bathroom at the exact moment Nick walked into the pizzeria. Nick was the soda delivery guy. He came by every week carrying boxes of fizzy sodas, carbonated waters, and always a six-pack of Heineken for me. He was a senior at the public school when I was a freshman – he was pretty popular, all set up to go to the University of Michigan when some family shit got in the way. The rumor was that his mom went to rehab for a cocaine addiction and some trashy younger woman with tattoos down her thighs came to live with his dad. The first time I saw Nick after he graduated, around two years later, he wore a leather jacket, sported long shaggy hair, and held a lit joint in his hand. I liked this new edge.

 

One day, Kat reappeared from the bathroom a little too soon and Nick was still leaning against the counter. Her stride became awkward, almost unnatural. Color rushed to her cheeks and her blue eyes darted between me and him, unsure where or who to look at. He said hi, and she gave an awkward little wave. I remember when I used to give awkward little waves, before I had ever kissed a boy.

 

On a lazy Thursday afternoon, a couple days before the mid-summer festival, the pizzeria was quiet. From my spot behind the counter, I watched Kat organize the condiments and reorganize them, line up the cups and then again in a different order. At first sight, anyone would question why Kat, in her white ironed pants, worked at a place with chipped paint and plastic chairs. However, as she made her way around the small room, I decided that her ironed white pants fit nicely with the red and white checkered tablecloths, and maybe she didn’t seem so out of place anymore. On an impulse, I stood up and walked to the back, emerging moments later with a cold pizza and some sodas.

“Hey, Kat,” I said. She looked up at me eagerly, like she had been hoping herself to break the silence. “Want some pizza?” Kat and I sat down at a table. We both picked up a slice of Hawaiian pizza and looked across at each other, waiting for the other to start a conversation.

After one bite, Kat set down her pizza.

“You know, pineapple really just does not belong on pizza.”

 

We spent the next ten minutes giggling as we messily picked the pineapples off the pizza.  Kat’s naivety was refreshing. I liked how many questions she asked, not about me, but just about stuff. Like why Iceland is called Iceland if it’s not icy, or why flamingos were pink.

Eventually, Kat’s tone softened. “So, are you and Nick together?”

I almost laughed at the absurdity of the question, but something in her intense gaze told me that she was being serious. I shook my head no.

“Oh,” Kat said with a slight smile, “Do you like him?”

“He’s cool, definitely. A little messed up but a good guy deep down.”

Kat’s voice had become so soft, she was almost whispering. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I always go to the bathroom when he comes. I’m not hiding though. I’d actually like to maybe, I don’t know, talk to him.”

I grabbed her hand and squeezed it. A beautiful, fabulous, foolproof plan formed in my head.

 

“Mid-summer festival” was one of those phrases that meant something different at every age. As a baby, you are placed in a stroller and put on display for the town to pinch your cheeks and remark on how cute you are. Ages two to six, you are dressed in a frilly pink frock and dragged around by your mother to the haystacks and play structures. From seven to twelve, you are left alone to play in the mud and run in circles until your parents stumble away from the bar around noon. In the early teens, you walk around with kids who look just like you, searching for another group of kids of the opposite sex who all look the same, too. Finally, at sixteen years old, you dress up at night in your most revealing clothes and sit around the same haystacks that you know so well, drinking cheap beer and listening to bad music. Around eleven o’clock, the stoners take over and all that can be seen of the festival is thick smoke. Around midnight, the cops show up and everyone runs. I decided it would be the perfect place for her and Nick to hangout.

On the day of the festival, I showed up to work with two pairs of glittering four-inch high heels. When Kat saw them, she looked up at me, terrified. I laughed. After some convincing, she came to my house that evening to borrow some clothes. After twenty minutes in the bathroom, she finally emerged in a red dress that clung to the curves of her hips and accentuated her thin waist. The neckline drooped downwards so that the lace of her black bra could be seen. Her hair was tied up, exposing her thin features. A couple gold chains hung from her neck, dangling down her cleavage.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“If it’s too much I’ll change, I’d be happy to, really.” Kat folded her arms across her chest.

“Hell no. But you’re missing something.” I approached her and placed my hand lightly on her cheek. With the other hand, I spread a deep red lipstick across her lips. I stepped back and looked at my masterpiece. “Now you’re ready.”

A few hours later, we arrived at the festival and I found Nick in the crowd. Kat spotted him too. Luckily, there were no bathrooms at the festival, other than the bushes out front.

“Casey, hey!” Nick spoke to me first, but didn’t look at me. He was staring at Kat’s red dress, tracing her curves with his eyes. He looked as shocked to see her as I had when she walked out of the bathroom.

“Let me get you girls some drinks.”

“Oh, no thank you,” Kat began to protest.

I interrupted her. “A Heineken for both of us, thanks.”

As Nick walked away, Kat grabbed me and whispered desperately, “Casey, I never drank before.” Her voice trembled a little, I assumed from excitement.

“It’s pretty simple,” I said. “Just like drinking a soda.”

Nick returned from the bar with two beers and a vodka tonic. Kat grabbed the beer from his hands and pressed it to her lips. Within seconds, she had slurped down half the drink. Her lips turned downwards from the taste and she squeezed her eyes shut.

 

“Slow down, there,” I giggled. Nick watched her closely and took a step towards her.

 

“Hey, guys,” I said, “I’m gonna wander around and find some other friends. Kat, you’re cool here with Nick, right?” Before she could respond, I was walking away with a smirk on my face. I remember feeling like the nicest person ever.

 

Later, around midnight, I was sitting in the pizzeria with red-eyed, hungry friends when Kat stumbled through the door. Her forehead was bleeding and her knees scratched. She walked with a slight limp. I ran to her and she fell into my arms. I lowered her to the ground and rested her head on my leg as she cried and cried. Her red lipstick was smeared around her lips and she was barefoot. I asked what happened, but she shook her head and continued to cry.

When she didn’t come to work the next day, I didn’t call. When she showed up the day after in grey sweatpants and knotted hair, I didn’t ask how she was. I never asked her again what happened that night, after I left her with Nick. Maybe I didn’t feel comfortable because we weren’t that close. But again, I left her. I left her.

When Nick arrived on Thursday afternoon for the weekly soda delivery, Kat went to the bathroom, as usual, but didn’t come out until thirty minutes later. I asked him how his night was with Kat, but he just flipped his greasy shaggy hair and shrugged his shoulders. “Alright, I guess,” he murmured. He didn’t bother to ask where Kat was. After he left, while Kat remained in the bathroom, my mind drifted to red dresses and glittering high heels and blood and Nick’s hungry gaze.

By the next week, Kat started looking more alive. Color returned to her cheeks and her hair was nicely combed. She continued to wear sweatpants, but they fit her more naturally than her white ironed pants. She looked at ease with herself, but something in her soft blue eyes had changed- they seemed faded, sadder.

“Casey,” Kat asked softly one slow evening, “have you ever tried marijuana?” I giggled at the way her voice rose as she said “marijuana,” like it was her first time ever saying it out loud.

“Why?” I asked. I had smoked plenty of times, and always enjoyed it.

“I’m wondering, what does it feel like?”

I hesitated for a second. I tried to picture this private school girl in white ironed pants and a Vineyard Vines hat puffing from a joint, but no image materialized in my head. Nevertheless, I felt that I owed her something.

That night, Kat tried weed for the first time out my blue glass pipe, which I kept in a box under my bed. She coughed at first, but eventually got the hang of it. As she sat with her legs dangling out of the window in my bathroom, her hair tied messily atop her head, smoke seeping from her mouth and into the warm summer air, I felt like this was the real Kat. I thought that maybe it took a sad drunken night to unleash something beautiful.

Kat and I started smoking together after work twice a week. We would sit in the alleyway behind the pizzeria, our backs against the brick wall, and munch on pineapple-less Hawaiian slices. She seemed the happiest that I had seen her all summer. Between hits I learned that her father died when she was ten years old from liver cancer. Her mother didn’t make enough money to support Kat and her younger siblings, so they moved neighborhoods and Kat got a job at a crappy pizzeria.

I liked hanging out with her. She always had weed, and even though I didn’t know where it came from, she never made me pay. But then Kat started smoking before work most days, and even during her two five-minute breaks. Her hair was knotted and her grey sweatpants had holes in the knees. Her soft blue eyes continued to fade, complemented by the red around her pupils. She stopped walking around the pizzeria on slow afternoons, organizing and reorganizing, fixing and re-fixing. Instead, she sat with me behind the counter, her back slumped into the chair, reading comic books.

 

Shortly before school started up again, Kat, a few of my friends, and I went to the dandelion field by my house to celebrate the last moments of summer. It was a cool evening, the falling sun covered by clouds so that the emerging moonlight illuminated the field. The humming of crickets set a baseline for the frogs croaking in the nearby creek. Kat sat next to me, wearing a short denim skirt and a rasta necklace that clung tightly to her throat, apparently a gift given by her drug dealer to frequent customers.

A couple more guys showed up to the field, carrying a thirty-six rack and a handle of Jack Daniels. The group continued to expand, and eventually about forty kids sat in the dandelion field, passing around solo cups and joints. I didn’t recognize all of them -only my friends were distinguishable amongst the crowd of leather jackets. Kat stood in the middle of it all, a cup in one hand and a pipe in the other. She swung her long, almost dreaded hair as she danced to the Rolling Stones. I noticed through her denim skirt that the curves around her hips had shrunken, and her bones protruded slightly. Her pale skin had turned paler, her soft eyes empty. She danced in the middle of the crowd with her eyes closed, turning in circles, swinging her arms through the air.

A few moments later, Kat sat in the middle of the crowd with a girl who sported the same rasta necklace. I watched as they whispered into each other’s ears like old friends. I watched as the girl reached into her backpack and pulled out a credit card and a bag of white powder. I watched as Kat put a finger to her right nostril, leaned down, and sucked in the white powder through her left. I watched as she leaned her head backwards and sniffed, mouth wide open.

I quickly looked away, my stomach suddenly rejecting the taste of beer. My eyes rested on a silhouette of a man at the end of the field, walking slowly towards us. As he came closer I could see the outline of his long, shaggy hair in the moonlight.

I hadn’t invited Nick to the dandelion field, and for a reason I couldn’t understand at the time, fear surged through my body as he approached. He moved towards me to hug me, when suddenly a force from behind pushed Nick on the ground, his face smashing the dandelions beneath. I dropped to the ground, trying to help him up, when I saw Kat standing where he had stood moments before. Fire blazed beneath her dilated pupils as they fixated on Nick. Her cheeks were flushed red and icy tears dripped down to her purple lips.

“Don’t fucking touch her!” Kat screamed, craze growing in her eyes.

I stood up to face her. “Christ, Kat, I’m fine, it’s fine!” I could feel tears swelling in my own eyes. Forty silent kids surrounded us, watching in shock.

Kat stepped closer to me, now screeching. “It’s not fucking fine. God, Casey, you really don’t get it, do you? I’m not fucking fine. You think you’re so cool because you don’t give a shit about anything, but you’re wrong, you’re just a selfish bitch who only cares about herself.”

Sweat dripped down her forehead as she swung her leg back and kicked Nick again in the stomach.

“Jesus, Kat, you’re psychotic. Stop, okay? Please, just stop.”

Blood dripped from Kat’s left nostril and stained her denim skirt. “Fuck you,” she whimpered.

“Look at yourself, Kat. You’re a mess. I won’t get caught up in whatever superficial shit you’re dealing with. Truth is, Kat, my life was good before you, and my life is going to be good after you.”

At that, we stood in silence, with Nick lying paralyzed and moaning between us. We looked each other, both of our cheeks wet with tears, and our eyes begged for the other to say something nice, to make this okay. In this moment, we were just two girls from different backgrounds sitting together in a pizzeria.

 

Yesterday, I saw a newspaper article about a college football player who has been charged with the rape of six girls. I read each of the girls’ stories, who they were and who they are now, and an image of a young girl running away from me through a field of dandelions entered my mind. I hadn’t thought about this girl since she quit working at the Diamond Heights pizzeria right before my senior year, six years ago. I still don’t know what happened to her, Kat, the girl in white ironed pants and a rasta necklace. I don’t know who she became or even if she became anyone.

My mind wandered back in time, to the night at the mid-summer festival. I think about how I left her with a boy she didn't know, about her sitting on the window of my room, trying weed for the first time, my weed. I think about how I chose to ignore her bloodshot eyes at work, how I believed that somehow that was her becoming herself.

I finished reading the articles with a terrible knot in my stomach. I reached under my bed to grab an old box. The box had come with me to college and after, but hadn’t been touched in six years. I bring it to the window across the room, and pull out a blue glass pipe and a lighter. I lit it, breathed in. On the exhale, I began to cry.