BEFORE AND AFTER THE BILLBOARD
By Joanna Friedman
You know those before and after photos? The before with the heavy, unhappy woman, and the after with the smiling skinny one?
Lacey’s before was on a billboard that stood on a hillside above Bellflower. Forever wearing a bikini and frown as she pinches the skin near her hip. Above her head the slogan: Summer isn’t summer until this is gone. Beneath her feet, a parade of Slim Star diet pills.
Except there wasn’t an inch on her body that needed correcting. She was beautiful and I hated how I felt when I looked at her. But that was before I met her and interviewed her for our school paper.
The highway toward Lacey’s house curved through hills, rolling green ones, with only a farm house every few miles. They’d planted the billboard on the highest and widest hill, so no one would miss her on display. Her waist was flat, perfect, nothing like what I had, and what I had made me want to do a thousand sit ups and eat only salads. At least I had blonde hair, but why did it have to turn out frizzy? God, you could have given me a little bit of what Lacey has.
Past the exit, the road turned to gravel. A pink box of donuts bounced up and down on the passenger seat. The words for the story were already writing themselves, the interview would be the icing:
SELLING OUT SUMMER
We all have wished for the gorgeous body; flat abs, hips curving–not too much, but only a few lucky women look like that in real life, and computers do the rest. Even the girl in the billboard isn’t happy. Research shows diet products don’t work, and can lead to eating disorders. What does the billboard girl think about that?
Ms. Lacey Bellflower USA- the truth from your lips will save a lot of girls from a lifetime of body bashing.
Her house was smaller than I’d imagined. A dilapidated chicken coop stood to the right, past it a lily pond, and the noisy highway further down. From behind a screen door her long hair seemed darker than in the photo. An autumn brown kind of hair, flowing down to her waist, the kind I’d always wanted. Her yellow shirt knotted above her left hip. Billboard girl. Diet pill pusher–I reminded myself of that girl–not the one in front of me making me fiddle with the camera strap. Making me wish I was wearing something better than a black jersey dress and tennis shoes.
Photo 1: Lacey behind a porch screen door, hands pushing against it. Serious hazel eyes. Gray eyeshadow. Perfect lips, coral red. Perfect chin. Perfect hair.
Smiling a perfect half-smile like she was inviting me in, but hoping I wouldn’t ask too many questions.
“Alexa.” I held out my hand. “From the school paper? The billboard story?” Her hand felt warm, and I had to reaffirm my reasons for being here: figuring out how she looked like that. Focus. I handed her the box.
She paused, a hint of frown, as she took the donuts. If she ate them, it would prove that she didn’t believe in diets; that she was a fraud. But it could also mean that the diet products worked. I wish I’d thought the test through a bit more, but she took the box and led me through her home.
Furniture piled with cartons, covered with sheets and all sorts of junk. She moved around it all, tanned, her dark hair bouncing, curled against her back. She turned, “I know you think I’m awful for doing that ad.”
It was awful, but she wasn’t awful. Of all things, I came out with, “It’s just –we have to do better as women, right? Even if we are beautiful – I mean not me.” This blurting of questions wasn’t like me, but here we were. “More like you.”
Lacey paused in the darkened living room, and laughed an awkward snorty, not very beautiful laugh, which I wanted to hear again, right away. I dug my fingers into the spirals of my notebook. Focus Alexa. More professional. Ask better questions.
She continued through to the kitchen. “I have a long way to get to beautiful.”
“See that’s just it. If you have a long-way, then how about the rest of us frizzy-haired girls?” I was trying to keep it light, but the truth was my lumpy figure wasn’t exactly the stuff of romance novels. Anyway, I wasn’t here to write romance, or for beauty tips.
In the kitchen, her mom, heavy set, drank black coffee–and scowled at the donuts. “Sorry, hun. This is a sugar free house.” Took a sip of her coffee. “Killer on the thighs, right, Lace?”
Somewhere inside the house, “Eat sugar each day, watch your beauty fly away.”
Lacey glanced at me, winked, rested the donuts near the fridge. “I’ll take care of them.”
Her Mom steadied the coffee against her lips as she spoke. “Are you going to make Lacey look bad?”
“No, Ma’am.” I nodded. The sun glowed on Lacey’s hair as she popped open a diet coke.
Her mom continued, “You need to understand–Lacey’s got a career now. This has got to be all positives. And my Pixie, mention her, alright? She’s just getting started.”
“What are those?” A young girl–about eleven–wearing heels, a crop top and mini skirt, blue eye shadow, hair combed out, pounced on the donuts like I’d brought poison. “No sugar.” She lifted her arms over her head, stretched out her torso, and flicked her hair back. “But you can take my picture.”
Lacey–now blushing- handed me a diet coke. “Can we dial down the attitude, Pix?”
But that only encouraged her more. “Not when the paparazzi’s here.”
I snapped the shot.
Photo 2: Pixie’s catwalk through the kitchen.
Lacey caught my eye, “Well then, let’s show the paparazzi our back porch.”
On the wooden steps, the donuts between us sat melting in the heat, while Pixie, diet coke in hand, ran off to the lily pond.
Photo 3: Close up of Lacey. Her hair curled around her ears. Her shirt collar touching her neck. Sipping on a diet soda. Long eye lashes. Smudges of mascara. Her eyes with their flecks of brown and gold, and clouds of sad peeking through.
Pixie took off her shoes and burrowed her feet into the mud at the edge of the pond. Around Lacey’s crossed ankles the thin straps turned a few times, the wedge heels were thick and high. She chewed on her lip and asked. “Alright, how about more questions about how I’m a bad influence.”
Something about the way she asked seemed familiar. Like she’d spent time beating herself up about it already. The same way we all beat ourselves up about everything. All I’d planned to ask seemed out of order, but I had to see this through. “Only a few lucky women have a body like that– it’s not even your real body, right?” Her eyes fell and I felt terrible for asking. “It’s just it makes the rest of us feel inadequate . . .”
Her gaze drifted to where Pixie’s heels sank into the earth near the pond; the cars speeding on the highway at the bottom of the hill. A few strands of hair loosened against her cheek and brushed against the freckles near her nose, landed right where her shirt ended and her skin began. Finally, Lacey asked, “The diet stuff, doesn’t it at least give us hope?”
“So, you’ve tried those products, and they make you feel better?” My pen hovered, ready, for her response.
She leaned back. “Even if I did, I’d never look natural and beautiful, like you.” Her fingers strayed to my curls, and pulled one down near my chin. “It’s like hair that you have after a long crazy swim. Like memories of a wild summer.”
Dragonflies dipped onto the lily pads, bouncing on water as warm as the air. Yes, summer hair- not bad to have that. In the margins I doodled translucent wings fluttering just short of landing on leathery green leaves with their cracks and spots of brown and me swimming among them.
She was a much harsher critic when it came to herself. “I hate my natural color. They lightened it with computer graphics for the ad. And my stomach–” She lifted her shirt a little, and exposed her midriff with three beauty marks and curves, soft with layers – not like the image in the billboard.
“What else?” Her dark hair, against the light gray wood of the porch, and the brilliant blue sky just past her shoulder, she leaned back, “You know, for the story?”
Pixie ran over screaming – “Huge toad!”– her toes muddy. She was dramatically panting, her entire body heaving with laughter. “My hair got messed up. And my stomach-” Pixie began poking at her stomach with muddy fingers, leaving spots wherever she pinched herself. “I need to lose at least fifty pounds today.”
“Stop!” Lacey grabbed her wrist gently. “Alright already. You won’t be able to catch that toad if you don’t keep those muscles.”
Pixie lifted the lid off the donuts. The chocolate had melted. “Those look so gross.” Her fingers had made their way into Lacey’s and now both of their hands were muddy.
“Liar.” Lacey teased her.
“I want to have a billboard too.”
“Alexa will put you in the paper. You’ll look a hundred times better.” Lacey’s trust made me want to take better pictures, write a better story.
Photo 4: Her head near Pixie’s, some of the mud smudged on Lacey’s cheek. Pixie’s hair wild. Lacey’s arms around her little sister.
I loved how one of her teeth tilted just a little forward when she fully smiled. No one saw that on the billboard. “So, why did you do that ad?”
“I wondered if I could look beautiful.”
“Did you?” I already knew the answer, but I pushed her. “Feel beautiful?”
She squinted into the sun. Pixie’s mouth opened slightly, listening for Lacey’s next words, but there was only one soft one. “No.”
Exactly. None of us felt beautiful. No matter what we tried.
“Except,” she pulled in Pixie close, smiled at me with that serious smile of hers, “The three of us together, today, look beautiful.”
I pointed the camera at us and snapped the shutter.
Photo 5: Three faces, touching, grinning.
Pixie moved to open the box of donuts – they’d melted and fallen all over each other. “When I get ugly, I’ll go on a diet then.”
“Yeah, and what kind of diet will fix the uglies?” I asked.
She lifted the soda into a toast. “The Pixie, Lacey and Alexa diet soda and donuts and hang out together all-day diet.” Chocolate smudged on Pixies upper lip, and Lacy and I toasted to that.
Near the pond I took the final photo.
Photo 6: Lacey laying on the shore, her legs in the pond. Small concentric circles created waves out over the glassy surface. The skin falling over the top of her shorts. Tiny hairs on her legs. Shades of stubble under her arm. The way her mouth opened a little. The bump on her nose. Laughing at her sister racing to catch a toad.
Here’s the article, “Summer Wasn’t Summer Until I met Lacey.” Photos attached.
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Joanna Friedman's fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of anthologies and online publications. She works as a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area and lives with her husband, twin girls, and pug. Her writing is inspired by the complexities of relationships. Follow her on twitter, @j_grabarek or her website, https://joannafriedman.wordpress.com/