Tim Vrtiska CC
It wasn’t the head that freaked us out. You hear about the terrible things people are capable of, especially when it’s all over the news. Vera says we shouldn’t have been surprised. She said people like us don’t do that kind of thing. I didn’t ask what she meant by “like us.” There is enough othering already without Vera adding to it. Besides, we’ve all met one of them creepy loner guys who send our spidey-senses tingling. But who actually knows the dude that did the deed? Much less, have kicked it with him? Not that we personally hung out with him. Or even liked him. But like I said, it wasn’t the head that threw us off. It was Lulu. How Lulu might be slipping. How she might not know everything we expect her to know. We counted on her. And even now, sort of still do.
When you see Lulu, you see what the rest of us want to be. She oozes something stronger and fiercer than confidence. Like, if Apathy and Genius had a baby. And the boob job and collagen don’t hurt much. It not just that she takes such good care of herself. She is lucky. But don’t ever call her “Lucky Lulu.” That time Vera did, Lulu stopped talking to us for a few days, and hid out with said loser neighbor guy, binge-watching fake wrestling. Still, it is how we think of her. Lucky Lulu. She didn’t even have to pay for any of it, except for the boob job, because she works in a dermatologist’s office. Vera will smirk and say it’s so ironic. Vera says a lot of things are “ironic,” but in this case, it’s mostly just lucky.
The people in the dermatologist’s office think Lulu is the best because she’s smart and lovely in a princess kind of way, but a princess in stories from other corners of the world. You can tell she’s mixed, but it’s hard to say a mixture of what. Lulu doesn’t play that. She can be anything or everything. Or nothing at all. That’s how she owns what she is. People want to assume all sorts of things, ascribe stuff to her. And she lets them according to how she’s feeling that day. (Not like me and Vera. We can’t change who we are so easily.)
Anyway, Lulu gets to be the guinea pig for the latest beauty products and procedures. Lulu says the sales reps bring in new skin therapies and face-lifting techniques almost every week. At first it was just a Botox shot here and there, whenever someone needed practice giving injections to different face parts. And the lip filler -- they are always training people to handle the demand. That’s where the money is, according to Lulu. At the office, they peel, scrub and inject her, zap away imperfections with lasers. Lulu’s skin is smoother and purer than a baby seal’s belly, even when she gets a pimple or a cold sore, which is rare. None of us could afford half of what they do to Lulu for free.
Lulu is extra lucky because she’s gorgeous to begin with. If we go out for food or drinks, Lulu gets all the attention. Her skin literally glows. And I’m not using the word “literally” the wrong way. (Vera’s always saying she “literally” died of embarrassment.) Lulu’s skin is “luminescent” the way ads for super bougie facial creams promise. Plus, Lulu is lighter than me and Vera. She doesn’t let herself get tan. She says her grandmother warned her to stay away from the sun. And with those perfect manufactured boobs that stand at attention and her puffy full lips like the celebrities have, how is she not lucky?
Whether we’re hanging out at Dolores Park or at some taqueria or noodle place, Lulu just has to roll her eyes once, or shrug and look disinterested and, wham, dudes come sniffing around like tomcats. Women, too. You wouldn’t believe the tech bros and fresh-cut college boys who trip over themselves trying pathetic pick-up lines or making comments to win points. As if that would ever work on Lulu. The worst was at this new vegan place in the Marina when a guy with his designer sweatshirt sleeves pushed up to show off a fancy watch strolled up to our table and stroked his chin. He grinned and stared his blue eyes right at Lulu’s chest. “You know, I would love to work my way all over your Silicon Valley.” Lulu acted like she didn’t hear or see him, and after a moment he inhaled loudly and ran his hand through his hair. He mumbled “Bitches" and walked back to his friends.
Vera and I don’t mind being Lulu’s wing-women. We have each met our own sweethearts just by staying close and catching Lulu’s crumbs. Vera is on the second person she met after they tried hitting on Lulu. This latest one is a singer who has a band that plays salsa and “femmetón,” which is feminist reggeatón, as she explained to Vera. Vera complains that the band takes up too much of her girlfriend’s time, but we all think she’s cool. Me and my guy have been together for almost two years. Vera says that’s ironic, too, but I don’t think she’s using the word right. My boyfriend tells me he likes me fine the way I am when I complain my lips are too thin. He says I’m imagining things when I trace wrinkles across my forehead. Maybe he’s right, but even so, I don’t make enough money for those kinds of improvements. And no one’s going to do them to me at no charge.
Lulu doesn’t bother with people who hit on her in real time, anyway. She prefers the hook-up apps. She says she is not looking for anyone to tie her down, that if she meets someone on a swipe, they won’t expect a sleepover and breakfast. She’s super careful, too. She says she has street sense. Lulu has been living on her own longer than any of us. She got on the lease of an auntie’s little rent-controlled apartment all the way out by the beach, back when the rents there were cheaper. Especially if you were willing to live in one of the rundown brown or grey converted motels that blend in with the sand and fog. Her apartment is in a crumbling building with families with a lot of kids packed into two rooms, old people, and that weird neighbor Lulu watches TV with when she’s bored. (Vera says he gives the place a Bates Motel vibe.) Lulu’s not even bothered by the seagulls who poop everywhere and scavenge around the dumpsters outside. She says those birds are adaptable and have complex social skills. But I prefer them far away, when they soar up high and call to each other in the sky. Vera and I used to share a place not far from Lulu’s, with two sisters from Vera’s work, before Vera moved back home and I found a studio with my boyfriend.
Lulu can afford her own place because she makes good money at the dermatologist’s office, only on the web page it’s called a “dermatological and full-service skin institute.” Like Lulu says, she’s street smart. But she’s also good with numbers, has a head for accounting. Way back when, Mr. Gill, the math teacher at our old high school who used to play drums for some punk band, practically accused Lulu of cheating on the AP stats test senior year. She barely went to class and she still had the third highest score. People underestimate Lulu. Probably because she’s too beautiful. But I know her, and that girl does not tolerate cheaters. She doesn’t care about winning or losing or impressing. Or being popular, which kind of makes her popular. (And I am pretty sure that is ironic.)
You might think Lulu’s stuck-up, but she’s not. That's why she’s so good with the customers and sales reps that go to her office. She says she is good at listening when she feels like it. Lulu listens to the rich ladies who go in for things like rashes, or moles, or to check for skin cancer. It is mostly women, Lulu says, but they do get guys, too. She has a lot of “patience with the patients,” I told her. She says they like to talk and talk to her. But when those ladies go in for one thing and get a good look at Lulu’s smooth skin and pouty lips, they start asking about the same procedures for themselves.
The thing is, Lulu is shyer than most people would guess. She mainly keeps to herself, or watches TV and eats takeout with the weird neighbor guy. Vera and I keep inviting her out with us, but she says she doesn’t want to be a fifth wheel. She’s only come once to hear Vera’s sweetie perform her femmetón, when their band was playing at that converted movie theater in The Mission. Lulu says people annoy her if she spends too much time with them. I think the only friend she has besides Vera and me is the guy in her building. His girlfriend left him out of nowhere one day, just took off without any notice, Lulu said. She feels sorry for him and likes that he pretty much ignores her. He didn’t even look up at me and Vera the time she introduced us to him in their parking lot. He’s cute enough, I guess, but we couldn’t really tell because of the baseball cap and beard. He’s definitely older than us, maybe in his late 20s. Lulu says there’s something mysterious about him, but not in an obnoxious emo way.
Lulu says she has to be on all the time at work, and it gets tiring. She is like their office elf, the adorable helper the older people dote on who can figure out tech glitches. Lulu talked her bosses into using more social media to promote their services. She herself has a lot of followers, but the Lulu that people click “likes” on or chat with is just a persona she puts out there for the business. She doesn’t post anything real or personal about herself. Still, she gets more messages than she can handle. Girls who want her advice, or to be her friend. But she also gets creepy requests and comments. Total strangers ask her to post pictures of herself doing some crazy stuff, some of it with vegetables or stuffed animals. But Lulu just ignores them. She’s worldly like that.
Yesterday, Lulu called and asked me to come over. She almost never invites people over, and that makes her even more mysterious. I had just gotten home from work and hadn’t even changed. I told my boyfriend I didn’t know how long I’d be and drove straight out to the beach. When I got there, cops were swarming all over the complex, black and white SUVs barricading the street on both ends. I parked two long blocks away and walked fast. I was scared that maybe Lulu had done something to hurt herself, because even though she is so lucky, lately she has been shining too much. Like when she gets in her talking mood and becomes so busy she doesn’t sleep. Once, she stayed up for two days updating her work’s website. Or that time she sold all her clothes at a consignment shop and started buying new ones, in one afternoon? And then she goes dead silent, into hibernation. Doesn’t answer our texts for days, or longer. I didn’t call and tell Vera, because I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. Besides, it was me Lulu wanted just then.
The cops weren’t letting people into the complex. But I lied. I acted like I was trying not to cry. I said my sister lived there and was very distressed and needed me, and finally they let me past the barrier tape. I started thinking maybe something awful had happened. When I got to her apartment, Lulu was on the couch she got from the dermatologist’s office when they redecorated. I like that sofa so much. It’s pale pinkish-orange and modern looking, with blonde wooden legs. Anyway, Lulu’s eyes were red and swollen, black streaks running down her cheeks, and she was heaving but not crying, more like hyperventilating. I sat close and put my arms around her. I wanted to protect her, the way I want to run interference with the sickos that club the baby seals in the North Pole.
“Can you believe it? Can you believe what he did? I let him sit right on this goddamn sofa and watch wrestling here.” Lulu’s boobs make it hard to hug her too tightly, but she still fell right into me and let me hold her. Then she pulled away and stood up and slapped her forehead with the palm of her hand, over and over, like she was hammering at her own thinking. I was afraid she would hurt herself. Also, I was getting a tiny bit impatient to find out what happened. Lulu doubled over and pounded both fists into the salmon-colored cushions I so admire. Her face was blotchy and she had bits of blood on her mouth from where she had bitten her lips. “He was right here.” It did not make sense. Lulu was the strongest out of all of us, and she was losing it.
“Who? Your neighbor?” I could never remember his name. Vera and I just called him weird neighbor guy because Lulu never introduced us except that one time outside when it was already getting dark. We had never even seen his whole face because he wouldn’t look up at us. It had to be him.
And then it hit me -- Lulu letting him hang out at her place watching TV, his girlfriend leaving. I thought of the worst things and didn’t want them to be true. Plus, I had never seen Lulu come all apart like this. “Oh, Lulu. I am so sorry.” I exhaled for both of us and paused. I wanted to calm Lulu down and give her space to tell me everything. I read somewhere that if you breathe slowly, you can make a person with you breathe more slowly, too. I breathed a little louder so Lulu would catch on. But she stayed bent over, her arms crossed, holding herself. I couldn’t let her keep it in anymore. “What did he do to you?”
“Me?” She sat up, and it looked like she was trying to scrunch her eyebrows a little, but her forehead was still beautiful and smooth. “Not me.” Lulu grabbed my shoulders and looked straight at me. We had never been so up close before, our noses practically touching. “They found her head in his goddamn freezer. The freezer. They’re looking for the rest of the parts.” She closed her eyes and covered them with her hand. “But he kept her head.”
“The girlfriend’s. The one he said left him? Abandoned him?” Lulu twisted her hair around her fingers and pulled, like she was trying to shake out the contents of her mind. “I am so stupid.” She collapsed, and was on her knees on the floor bent forward. She pushed her palms flat against her ears. Then she sat back on her heels and looked towards the window over the parking lot, where two seagulls squawked around the police picking through the contents of a dumpster.
An empty, greasy take-out carton with an anchor on the side sat open on the coffee table and made Lulu’s apartment smell like fish and chips. “I can’t believe I felt sorry for him.” We could hear the cops running up and down the hallway outside her door, and the crackle of their radios. Red lights still flashed against the side of the building facing us. “They’ve been here all morning, asking questions. But I refused to say a thing until they told me what was going on. They want me to talk with another detective. I’m tired of talking.”
“You spent a lot of time with him. Alone.” I kept my mouth closed, had to hold my breath because I wanted to scream a lecture at her, wanted to point out that it could have been her head in that freezer. How did she not even hear something in his voice, when she was so good at listening? She was on a whole other level, knew how to read the world and get things for free. People wanted her to like them, wanted to be like her. If Lulu could be fooled, what about me and Vera?
I looked back towards the window. The anchor on the carton reminded me of how I was kind of tied down without planning it. How the only person I shared takeout with was my boyfriend. Or stayed in to watch movies with. It felt like enough for now, even if it might not be forever. I could think of places I might want to go. Like Switzerland or Iceland, someplace that made here the far away corner. If Vera’s girlfriend could sing femmetón, maybe I could work on making my own luck. Only, where would I start? I read about these coding bootcamps where they teach you how to program in 12 weeks, or 12 months. It depends. You can make a lot of money fast. Except, I hate working on computers. I thought of Vera’s cousin who went to work on an organic farm in New Zealand. I had some college credits already. I could sign up for courses to become an X-ray technician. I could take images and see inside people’s bodies, help figure out what’s underneath. Vera says we all need back-up plans. Which means we’d better have first plans, too.
“That’s what sucks.” For a second, I had forgotten about Lulu.
“I actually liked him. I liked hanging out with him.” Lulu shook her head no, like she was confirming a wrong answer. “He was one of the few people I could tolerate. He didn’t try too hard to get to know you.” One of the seagulls started squawking louder, higher pitched. I imagined it was sending out a message to its seagull friends. Outside the window, I saw three more gulls flying around. Maybe they, too, were looking to scavenge something.
Some people are just too beautiful to look at full-on. They can’t help it. It’s like they make us see our own plainness reflected back. This time, I stared into Lulu’s eyes, bloodshot and puffy, with dried black tears streaked on her face. Still so beautiful I felt shy.
What would it be like to have so many followers? To be so wanted? I did not call her “Lucky” Lulu to her face, but I should have. Even if she couldn’t hear me. I wanted her to know how lucky she was. I don’t think she understood. A head frozen solid, staying stuck in one moment, eyes wide open in shock, never aging, the expression unchanging, until it thawed, or cracked off in pieces. A head all alone, separated from its body. Lulu had come so close. I thought about how Vera would call it ironic, and in this case, she would be almost right.
A. Cabrera's poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in The New Guard, Brain,Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, Best Travelers' Tales 2021 Anthology, Deronda, and other journals. Their short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company. They write, teach and live in San Francisco, CA.
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