By Chad Collins
Avery’s mother was preparing to leave for the evening. She was to attend an ostensibly Black Tie Christmas affair at the local civic center, the proceeds from which were to benefit the county hospital. Festooned in diamonds– the few remaining remnants from her failed marriage two years prior– she stood before the floor-length mirror in awe of herself. “Fifty-seven,” she thought, “and I still look this good.” Ready to go, she meandered through the hall and popped into Avery’s room.
“I’m leaving now.” She said, leaning in toward his left ear.
Still asleep on his side, Avery mustered a muffled “Yeah, sure. Have fun.”
Are you going to get up shortly? Your party is when? Eight?”
Rolling over to face his mother, Avery said, “Yeah, they’re picking me up half-past seven, I think.”
That’s in an hour. You typically take longer than I do to get ready.”
I’ll get up when you leave.”
“Do you need any money?”
“What do I need money for?”
“Good, because I haven’t got any.”
“I love you.”
Avery’s mother, the apex of middle-aged glamour, left. Tonight was about her.
She shouted one last parting reminder for Avery, “Set the alarm before you go!”
Avery, still in bed, thought of how he hadn’t left it since late last night. He had hoped for his mother to take note—“Avery dear! Why, you haven’t left the bed all day!
Why don’t you skip the party?”—but with thoughts of her first social event in ages scurrying about her head, his endeavor to draw attention to his sullen, recumbent state proved futile.
He looked at the clock on his nightstand and sighed. Defeated, he rolled out of bed, onto the floor. Swaddled in cheap throws from Target, Avery trundled out of his room, down the hall, and into the bathroom. He left the door open—he did this only when his mother wasn’t home—and used it quickly.
He flushed the toilet, but before leaving, stood to scrutinize himself in the mirror. Avery dropped the throws and was petrified by the gaunt bag of bones before him.
He typically thought of himself as an unknowable, angular ghoul, but he must have lost even more weight without having realized it. His arms resembled bobby pins—long, narrow, and diaphanous—and when he inhaled deeply, his chest formed a cavity similar to that of a half-pipe. He grasped his jaw and examined it in the medicine cabinet. His chin looked as if Edvard Munch had painted it on, and his perfunctory jab at shaving the night before had left thin patches of scratchy, brown hair all over his face, much like how the yard looked when he was told to mow it.
Avery stared at himself for a minute. He had resolved to tackle any issues he had with himself before the New Year. But standing there, in the mirror, he saw that it was just as fruitless as his cursory attempts to connect with anyone, especially his mother.
His nose was too big, his Adam’s apple the size of an actual apple, his neck too long, like a dinosaur’s, his eyes too slim, and his profile disastrously unappealing.– the downcast eyes more prominent from the side than head-on. Scrutinizing his profile, though, led him back to high school. Avery recalled sitting in the back row, where no one could see him, fearful of the many vantage points a high school classroom might offer. “Behind to the left.” he thought, “I don’t know what I look like from that angle.” The notion of a class of students picking apart his unfortunate physiognomy marred his very soul, made him nauseated, and usually concluded in a trip to the bathroom until the bell rang.
Avery hated himself. He hated the skeletal phantasm he saw before him in the mirror, and he hated how routinely he ran into this problem when getting ready.
“I’ll get dressed,” he thought, “and then I’ll feel better.”
Avery did a lot of thinking in times like these. Mental gymnastics just to get out of the house. It was an enervating process, but Avery needed to go out. He hadn’t been out in nearly a year, and he worried what his friends back in Tennessee might think. They’d think he had moved, and upon settling in Maine, failed to procure any semblance of companionship, or friendship, from anyone in the region. On account of his looks, he knew they wouldn’t be surprised.
A boy he had come across online would be there, and Avery was detrimentally attracted to him. He wanted to take pictures with him, and post them online. His friends back home would see just how well he was doing, and they’d see him next to a stud, and they’d know that Avery had transcended his issues. He was all right.
Avery padded back toward his bedroom to find something to wear. The party wasn’t formal, but casual would be unwelcome. He wanted to look nice, like some effort had gone into your outfit, but he couldn’t actually put any effort in. The other guests would know it, the acrid scent of desperation radiating off his shirt.
Discouraged by what he had just seen in the mirror, Avery searched for a larger shirt, something to hide his emaciated physique. His pants, too, needed to be slightly baggier than usual. “Baggy but dressy” was his mantra for the evening. He reached inside a loafer on the closet floor and removed a flask. He took a single swig, then one more, and a third, finally resolving to just finish it off.. His mother would be angry to know he was a closet drinker—amongst other things—and wouldn’t understand why he felt compelled to do so. They’d fight, he’d feel terrible about himself, and he’d be sober. That was the worst part.
Avery cycled through fifteen different outfits, yet he still could not make up his mind. He’d do his hair, he thought, and feel better about himself having done it. With his hair done, he would feel better about picking out his clothes.
He went to his mother’s bathroom to use the flat iron. His friends had jokingly straightened it once, in eighth grade, but with a faint bit of satisfaction for how nice he looked, the joke subsisted until he was nineteen. He plugged it in. The tool usually took a few minutes to heat up, so he paced around the master bath. The lighting in here was a bit more amenable than his bathroom’s, and made the room comfortable, for him.
“Ah,” Avery remembered, “my forehead.”
Avery had an unfortunate habit of not washing his hair for months on end. He hated the way his hair looked wet, and he couldn’t bear to see it. Over time, the buildup of oils and grease—burnished into his hair with every pass of the flat iron—achieved the kind of bedraggled look he was after. It was like a bird’s nest, conceived of spit and sticks. Other young men, the skaters, or the hipsters from Brooklyn, achieved the same look with nominally less effort. They used sprays, and gels, and mousse. Avery couldn’t though– products of the sort needed to be washed out every evening.
It wasn’t all that noticeable. He smoked, so his roost of fibers smelled and his bangs usually covered the most noticeable portions of crust. After not washing for an extended period of time, crusty dead skin begins to accumulate on the scalp. It’s similar to dandruff, only larger, more repellent, and a light shade of green instead of white. He couldn’t combat the buildup atop his head, but the forehead was fair game.
Avery wet a cloth, pulled his hair up in his mother’s headband, yelped at the way he looked, and began to wipe. The crust extended down toward his eyebrows, so he furiously swabbed at his forehead. It bled, but his bangs would cover that. Once he finished, he set the now crimson cloth in the sink and began to straighten his hair.
It was uneven. He cut it himself, since he couldn’t go to a salon with hair that hadn’t been washed in nearly a year. They’d crucify him, and his mother would find out, and she’d crucify him twice over. He removed a pair of cuticle scissors from the drawer and did a few touchups. He trimmed the bangs, attempted to thin out the top, and cut around his ears. He returned them and grabbed his electric razor. He shaved the patches on his face and evened out the back of his neck.
A few more passes in, Avery noticed how stiff– dry– his hair looked. He must have cut too much off from the top. It lacked volume, and it stuck out like a diagonal line from his forehead. It was overtly flat, only it wasn’t flat. He ran the iron through a few more times, and then a few more.
He checked his phone. He only had fifteen minutes to finish getting ready. He ran the iron through again, and again, and again. His eyes began to swell with tears, but he kept running the iron through. Hmph, sizzle, poof. Hmph, sizzle, poof. Once more. Again.
“This is the last pass.” He continued to promise to himself.
It wasn’t, and before long, without having intended to do so, a large swath of bang fell off. It floated, wispily, into the sink. Avery saw billows of smoke rising from the iron and the charred strip of hair, no longer than his forehead. He had burned his hair, and the singed remains sat pitifully in the sink. Avery unplugged the iron, sank to the floor, and remained there.
He must have fallen asleep, because when he woke up, the time was 9:14. He had several missed calls, and texts indicating that his friends were going to “just go without him.” He had missed the party. He had burned his bangs off.
Using the counter as leverage, Avery stood up. He flushed the hair so his mother wouldn’t see, turned off the lights, walked down the hall, and got into bed.
His mother would never know about the party. He’d tell her they left early, that he had a grand time, and that he was very tired. She’d believe him. In the morning, he’d get up before her, and he’d think of a solution to the hair. Would he cut the rest? Shave it? Pretend that it’s an edgy new style that everyone is trying? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he wanted to sleep and forget the day. Tomorrow would be exhausting, and he needed all the energy he could get.