the audience – part 3
April 17, 2009
The lady on the phone had said that she had to be at the house when the audience were delivered because she had to meet with a customer service representative to sign a release taking charge of the audience and agreeing to certain terms and conditions, blah blah blah blah blah-while she had waited for her to stop talking, Laura had put her iPod earbud into her left ear so she didn’t completely die of boredom. What kind of company these days didn’t have an online store? It was ridiculous, having to listen to someone talk just to buy something, god. She was the one doing them the favor, what with the economy and everything. But it was supply and demand, that was economics, they were supplying something she wanted and could demand her to do annoying things like call their phone number, that was how it worked. After she had finally finished talking, the lady had said the audience would arrive between 9:00 and 10:00 AM the next day, so, early on Sunday morning, Laura sat in the panic room drinking organic blackened caramel espresso with Stevia and watching the feed from the driveway security cameras.
Her dad had the panic room installed when Laura was ten, after he had read some article or seen some news story or movie or something about them. “We have to be protected,” he had said. “Our things can be replaced, but you can’t,” he had said, and when he had said “you” he had touched Laura’s shoulder because he had been talking about Laura and how she couldn’t be replaced, was irreplaceable, like in the song. The morning after the panic room was finished, Laura and her mom had pretended there was a horrible murderer like Freddy Krueger or Saw in the house and they had hid in the panic room in their pajamas, squished together into the leather sofa and squealing with faux-fear. Even still, even though by now the panic room was old and way out of date by style and technology standards, Laura still loved it, loved being inside it. It was like in the first Harry Potter movie when he had to live in that little room under the stairs, except that was horrible for him and for her it wasn’t horrible at all, it was great, small and cozy and dark and safe. Safe, like if they had safes for people like they do for jewels and Laura was a diamond held in black velvet, that was the panic room. Irreplaceable. And her dad had paid the workmen extra to have a cable from the TV run through the wall so you could watch regular shows on the monitors as well as the security camera feeds and even though because of the thick walls the internet reception kind of sucked (even with her Air), Laura spent a lot of time there.
At 9:35, the left front yard camera showed a shiny black SUV rolling into the driveway. Laura knew it wasn’t proper to go out there before they rang the bell, it wasn’t good manners or ladylike, what a lady is like, but she was too excited and didn’t care and she rushed out of the panic room and through the door at the first sight of the car. She had had this dream the night before and as she had been sitting in the dark in the panic room she had been replaying it in her head, like brain Tivo. In the dream, she was on stage at some very famous and important awards show wearing a dress woven completely from gold thread, not just a dress but a gown, elegant, the gold shining under all of these sparkly lights high above her head like stars. She was on stage and someone had handed her an award and she was scared for a second, a split second, because she thought she was supposed to make a speech but she didn’t know what the award was or why she had won it and when she looked out from the stage, all she could see was darkness. So she had just stood there for a moment and smiled and then suddenly there was clapping, lots of clapping, it was so loud, like the ocean or a thunderstorm or the ocean in a thunderstorm. It sounded like everybody in the whole world was clapping for her and that was the part of the dream she kept replaying in her head.
When she got to the SUV, a blonde in a wrinkled white peasant blouse was standing beside the driver’s side door, flipping through a clipboard. From behind cheap sunglasses that were trying to look like medium priced sunglasses, the woman smiled at her in an automatic kind of way.
“Well good morning!” said the woman, sticking out her hand. “You must be Ms. Conradi. Hi, I’m Amanda, from SES. I’m here with your audience.”
Laura said hi and touched the woman’s hand and tried to look around her into the SUV. The windows were heavily tinted but she thought she could see movement inside. That was them, it had to be, her audience, they were here. It seemed like she had been waiting for them forever, even though it had only been like a day. She wondered what they would look like, what they would smell like, what they would think of her. She imagined that it was like being a little kid and wondering what your new baby brother or sister would be like when they came home from the hospital. Laura didn’t have any brothers or sisters because she had been a demanding pregnancy, her mother said, but she had seen things like this in movies and in Facebook albums and always wondered what it would be like, getting this present that wasn’t a present but a person. The woman handed her a pen and a clipboard and started talking.
“Now this is a pretty standard kind of thing so let me just run through the small print for your benefit, any questions, you know, just ask. Basically, you’re signing a two week lease for your audience, beginning now and ending on…Sunday, March 22 between 9 and 10 AM, when your audience will be picked up from this location. If at any time you decide to extend your lease, you may qualify for a discount and should contact Customer Service as soon as possible, especially if you’d like to retain this particular audience – as you may know, our service is becoming very popular and they may already be booked if you wait too long…”
The woman — Amanda, whatever — had tired eyes and chapped lips and overall could really use a chemical peel and some work, maybe just Botox but possibly some real work, a nose job or something, like Erin’s mom had just gotten. Laura knew everyone couldn’t be beautiful but everyone could at least make a good effort, she thought, that was just being polite. The heavy little bag the woman was wearing was a knock off of an LV knock off from forever ago, the print, god, and the strap dug a hard, deep wrinkle into the shoulder of her blouse like a scar from an operation. Laura stood and stared at her flip flops while the woman droned on and on about clauses and exceptions. Eventually, she quit talking and pointed to the bottom of the page and Laura was able to sign the lease. She tried to give back the clipboard but Amanda chirped something at her and laughed and then peeled back some pages to reveal another contract. This was worse than school.
She kept going on and on and on and it was so early in the morning and already hot outside. Global warming was bad and everything for the reasons they described in that movie but also because even though winters didn’t get that cold in southern California, Laura still liked to have some difference between the seasons for fashion and style reasons. Winter style was nice because it was more about the clothes than your body, about how you dressed and not how you were. Amanda pointed to a place on the clipboard and Laura signed that place and dated it and Amanda tore off a pink copy and handed it to her, then tossed the clipboard into the front seat and opened the back passenger door. Slowly, her audience slid out of the SUV onto the pavement.
There were three of them, all three wearing matching blue sweatsuits with single white stripes running down the side. Not Juicy or Adidas or anything recognizable, some kind of off brand, with bright white tennis shoes and little white vinyl backpacks rounding out the look. There were three of them and all three of them looked to be about her age, a little older maybe, it was hard to tell. Amanda closed the door and there were three of them standing there on the driveway in front of her, staring at her, not saying a word. There were three of them and they were completely beautiful, they were prettier than any girls she had ever seen in real life or maybe even on TV, not on ANTM, not on Project Runway, not in expensive commercials for makeup or perfume, they were prettier by far, Vogue pretty. There were three of them and they were prettier than her, all of them, each one.
The three of them stood there staring at her while Amanda pulled bags out of the back of the SUV. Laura looked back at them in little glances and tried to remind herself to breathe, that this was a skill she had and could perform without thinking. She wished she had worn sunglasses so they couldn’t see if she was looking at them or not, so she would have some cover. There were three of them, a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead, their hair shoulder length and well conditioned. There were three of them and they were thin and tall, each of them five or six inches taller than her at least, so that they cast long, thin shadows on the driveway in front of her.
They were so pretty. They were so pretty it almost hurt to look at them, the way it hurts to look at the sun.
Laura had never had this problem before, of having girls around her that were all much prettier than she was. With her friends, things had been all worked out for a long time. Of the three E’s, she knew she that was just prettier than Erin, that was simply a fact, no one would disagree, you could do a survey but you wouldn’t need to because it was obvious. It was okay, though, Erin was super smart and had lots of good qualities to compensate for not being very pretty; it even made them better friends in some ways because she never had to be jealous of Erin so she could tell her embarrassing or emotional personal secrets that she couldn’t tell the other girls. As for Emma and Emily each had specific parts that were prettier than the same parts on Laura, like for example Emily had what they called in magazines “a kissable mouth,” the kind of mouth they use to demonstrate lipstick (Laura was very self conscious about her mouth and the kind of turn up in the corners it, which she thought made her look clown-y although everyone said that was crazy). Emma had these swimsuit model boobs so that she was always pushing her chest out and bending down a little in pictures and for example if it was a picture of her standing on the beach at sunset, boys would write comments like “nice view ;)” which was kind of cheesy, okay, but also showed thought and noticing of things. Anyway, but even with all this Laura felt confident that she was still overall prettier than them, her beauty profile and style aura combined to give her an overall higher percentage of attractiveness than those two and most girls in general.
“Is everything okay, Ms. Conradi?” Amanda asked, breaking Laura’s concentration. She was standing half in, half out of the driver door of the SUV, looking at Laura over the top of her sunglasses.
They were so pretty, it was awful. Could Laura return them? That’s what she was wondering, that’s what she was trying to figure out. Or if not return, then exchange, get a different audience, maybe, god, maybe fatter or uglier, younger or older or something. Maybe if they were a different race, like Asian or something. It was awful. In plays and TV shows and concerts, the audience wasn’t important, nobody focused on the audience, they all blended together to watch or listen to the star, the person on stage who was the center of attention. Laura stared at the audience, breathing, and they stared at her. She wished again she was wearing sunglasses so they couldn’t see her eyes, that felt important. It didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right, it wasn’t a good fit. How could she say that, though, to the woman is what she was wondering, it wasn’t like saying that a shirt was a size too small or something, how could she make it into words, “I don’t want this audience, I don’t like the way they look.” The customer is always right, her mom had told her that, that was the golden rule of retail, but she didn’t even know how to put in words to ask and she had signed all those papers and they were staring at her there, just standing there and staring, and she didn’t know if she could even move.
“Everything’s okay,” she finally said.
“Fab! That’s great, have a wonderful day,” Amanda said, closing the door and starting the SUV. She pulled out of the driveway and then she was gone and Laura was alone with the audience. She stood in the driveway, staring at them. They stood in the driveway, staring at her. It was quiet, Laura could hear the ocean off the back of the house and the sprinklers running down the street at the Boswell’s, but that was it, it was mostly quiet. When people describe a neighborhood as being a “quiet neighborhood,” that’s supposed to be a good thing but it didn’t feel particularly good to Laura at that moment. They were so pretty.. She breathed in slowly and let it out, a yoga breath, concentration, find center.
“Hi!” she said, giving them her best cheerleader smile. She wasn’t a cheerleader but she could’ve been if she had really wanted to, she was cute enough no matter what Taylor Montgomery had said about her in the locker room in gym. “I’m Laura! You’re going to be my audience. It’s so great to meet you!”
They just stood there in the driveway, staring at her. They didn’t say or do anything, they didn’t smile or frown or blink, they didn’t even seem to be breathing, really. They just stood there, staring right at her. Laura was a little scared but she stepped closer to get a better look at them, still smiling like you smile at a dog that you’re scared of. They all looked so similar it was kind of creepy almost. She thought that maybe it just was the matching sweat suits, clothes are so important in creating the style aura, but as she got closer, she realized it wasn’t that at all. Their faces were identical, the bone structure, skin tone, everything, each of them with perfect blue eyes in the same shade. Their body shapes, their bustlines and curves, their height, all the same. The only way she could see to tell them apart was their hair. Did identical triplets even exist, was that even a thing? Laura didn’t know. It was so quiet in the driveway, just the sprinklers and the sound of the ocean.
“I like your sweatsuit,” she said, looking at the blonde one. “Blue is a really good color for you.”
The blonde one didn’t say anything but kept staring at her like all the rest of them. They were staring, but really, it wasn’t so much at her as through her, they were staring through her, like they had some magic power that let them see under her skin. It made Laura think about last summer when those UV bathing suits that helped you avoid tan lines were so in and the guys had discovered that you could use the nightvision on a video camera to kind of see under them and they had gone around on the beach taping girls and then at night watched the videos together at somebody’s house and rated which girls were the hottest. Laura had seen a little bit of one of the videos on Emma’s computer, they had passed a clip of Brianna around after she had given Derek Johnson blue balls in a jacuzzi and it was so creepy looking because the colors and light were all weird and wrong and reversed and it was like you were seeing into another world that was part of our world, this world where your clothes couldn’t protect you from seeing what was inside no matter how carefully you picked them out.
After what felt like forever, realizing that they were going to be totally rude or weird or shy or whatever and not respond to her, Laura pushed out another smile and headed for the front door. She heard footsteps behind her on the brick, so she knew they were following her, even though she didn’t turn around to check. As she walked, Laura could feel their eyes on her, on her back, on her legs, on her hips, on her shoulder blades. The weight of the looking made her skin tingle, made the tiny, invisible hairs on her skin prick up under her jersey dress, something simple she had thrown together when she was first learning to design but that she still wore because it was comfortable and a good fit. Laura wished she had a mirror so she could hold it up and look back at them looking at her, like at the salon when they hold up a mirror so you can see the back of your head at the same time as your face, so you can see all of yourself at the same time. She wanted to see what parts of her they were looking at and if their faces changed as they looked at the different parts, if they liked what they saw or not, but even though Laura was really confident and strong and a total feminist, girl power, she didn’t feel like she could turn around and look at them, not right then at least, so she just kept walking.