Like the Girl on the Cereal Box

It’s a bitch when you’ve gotta get up for work, and all you want to do is stay in bed, under the sheets, even though it’s three in the afternoon, even though you aren’t really tired.

So you stumble to the bathroom where you stare in the mirror and apply a strip of eyeliner around both top and bottom lids with a skinny stub of a pencil. Where the hell did these lines come from, you mutter, peering at the cracks sprouting up from your lips, the fissured brickwork crawling down your cheeks from the corners of your eyes. You sear your forehead with the shaft of your curling iron, but that doesn’t irritate you half as much as having to rearrange your bangs so that the burn, which is in the shape of Pennsylvania, doesn’t show. Your hair has changed, also, over time. It used to feather back easily, in big, swoopy, Farrah waves, but now, it hangs like dried weed, the color of piss after several cups of coffee.

You think about that commercial as you get dressed for work, the one where the girl’s body becomes part of the K on the cereal box, all lean and straight and tan in that swimsuit. And you remember how you used to stretch out on a towel at the community pool when you were fifteen, listening to Don Henley and pretending not to notice how the lifeguards kept walking past you, thinking you were some hot shit. That girl, the one in the K, she reminds you of yourself all those years ago. For a second, as you slide hangers in your closet and take drags of your cigarette, you imagine that you could get yourself in shape again, start exercising. You could sit out in the sun instead of sleeping the day away, if that’s what you want to call what you do, sprawled in bed until 3 p.m. You hide under those covers watching the shadows stretch and snap back from between the slats in the blinds, wait to hear the kids who live in your building holler and thump down the hallway when they leave for school , and again, when they come home.

Which gets you thinking about your mother, and how she looks more like the lady on the K than you do, even though she’s seventeen years older, but she uses Avon and doesn’t need to worry about how the Allegheny Power bill is going to get paid each month, or if there’s gonna be enough money leftover for decent groceries. Because that’s what Sam, her boyfriend, does. All your mother has to worry about is taking care of Franklin, and she likes to call you and bitch about this every so often, since he’s your son. You say, Ma, what do you want me to do, and you imagine both of you at opposite ends of the line, smoking cigarettes and feeling trapped and angry, except her end has cable television and air conditioning and your end has shag carpet and dirty windows and yard sale dishes.

You use a paper towel to wipe out the bottom of an ashtray because you don’t know if you’ll be having company after your shift tonight, though you wouldn’t need any goddamn company if Franklin was at home waiting for you, but that’s impossible since they took him away and put him with your mother. You still think that it’s ridiculous that DSS feels that a seven year old isn’t capable of being home alone during the evening, even though your definition of evening encompasses anytime between 4 p.m. and dawn. You always told Franklin not to touch the stove, and you locked the door behind you when you left, so what the hell was the problem?

You catch your reflection one last time in the bathroom, where you go to empty the little wicker trashcan beside the toilet, because you probably won’t be coming home alone and you don’t want your guest to see the mountain of cotton balls and Q-tips and pantyliner wrappers. But maybe you won’t meet anyone, or maybe they’ll just ask you to sit in their truck for a little while. Or maybe, even worse, they’ll study their beer when you invite them over, and say quietly, I don’t think so. Like you’re not good enough. I don’t think so.

If that happens, you’ll go to Wal-Mart, where the fluorescent lights in the late night darkness make you think of Summer, where you’ll look at the jeans, buy a carton of cigarettes, half a gallon of milk, some hairspray, and still have a couple of bucks leftover for a few scratch tickets.

And when you walk back to your car carrying your plastic bag, you’ll push a stray cart into the cart corral just to hear it crash against all the others, and you’ll be glad, feel glad, at least for a second, knowing that you aren’t the one who’s going to have to push that long train of carts back into the store.

About the author:

Cathie Byers Hamilton's work has appeared in flashquake, The Summerset Review, VerbSap, and Michael Wilson's book, Flash Writing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and sons.