Every afternoon after school, Gina would position herself in front of her tiny magnifying mirror propped up on her desk to look at her pores. It was more than just looking. She’d take action, popping a whitehead, extracting a few blackheads, or plucking a wiry eyebrow hair. There was always something to be done—the upkeep of one’s face was nearly a full-time job.
She did this every day for about a half hour, even before signing on to Chat. Every extraction and pluck was so satisfying and absolutely necessary that messages from boys and her friends could wait. She’d just spent hours with them at school. This was her time, and how could one truly interact with others, even behind a screen, without knowing what one looks like? The only way to truly know what one looks like was to examine it on a micro level, from the inside out.
Towards the end of the half hour, when her fingers had all but cramped and the surface of the mirror was speckled and greasy and sprinkled with dry bits of skin and eyebrow hairs, each pore became a challenge. Could she get any more out of this one? Had she missed the area around her chin?
Stop, she’d tell herself, stop, sometimes out loud, breathy, fogging the mirror’s surface so that she couldn’t see into it anymore. This is the last one. Okay, this is the last one. And then she’d recoil her head, fold up the magnifying mirror with a clap and then shove it and the tweezers into her desk drawer where she kept pens and small things that didn’t have any other place to go.
It was bad what was she was doing to her face, she knew. Sometimes blood would accompany an extraction and sometimes it wouldn’t stop bleeding for a few minutes, even after splashing cold water on her face. When it was all done, she’d make herself look at her face in the mirror, just for a second or two. It was hard for her to meet her eyes. Her skin was guilty and flushed, swollen in areas she’d been torturing. Up close, each pore was its own thing, but zoomed out, the post-picked face took on a mask quality, a Picasso with mismatched cheeks and a bulbous chin.
She’d time it so that her face would go down before her parents came home, before plans were made for the evening. One time she popped a zit too soon before dinner and her father scolded her, saying Look what you’ve done to yourself, and he stared at her for a full minute, which is a long time when someone is staring at you, and then he looked down at his plate for the rest of dinner. After that, she made sure to always be face-ready when getting ready to face others.
Other kids popped zits; she wasn’t the only one. She knew because they’d do it in school, between classes, their greasy extractions smeared on aluminum public school mirrors. But she’d never do that. Not in a million years. For one, the magnification was poor in those mirrors, so there’d be no way to be precise in the matter, and for another, the act felt too private. These girls might as well have been turning themselves inside out in the school bathroom. And then of course there was the matter of going back to class. She wouldn’t be caught dead walking into class with a freshly-popped, a shiny bit of clear slick at the tip of the volcano, spotlighting the deed.
After the extractions and after dinner and after homework, she’d finally sign on to Chat and start chatting. She’d carefully selected her font: Century Gothic in turquoise, size eleven. Some of her friends had garish fonts, Comic Sans in bold and hot pink, Intrepid in red with black background. It was all too much. She much preferred people like Joe from English class who didn’t change his font at all and instead used the default Times New Roman, twelve point, black. Joe was smart. He didn’t need any flourish; his Chats spoke for themselves. And even though she herself was smart, she figured all girls needed at least a little flourish. Plus she liked having control over how her words looked. She felt that her font – Century Gothic, turquoise, size eleven – best mirrored her own actual voice, so she kept it.
Joe never said anything interesting, but she initiated Chats with him anyway. There was the typical exchange – sup, how r u, fine, same – but each time she hoped he’d say something more. Like maybe he’d comment on the really insightful thing she said in class about The Scarlet Letter, or mention the nuances of her pen-and-ink drawing in the advanced art class they took together last quarter. But nothing. He was probably too busy reading or tracking the S&P 500 to talk anyway, things she herself should have been doing.
The next day, after her daily extractions and dinner and homework, she sat on the couch with her parents and watched the news. She knew that girls her age weren’t supposed to like watching the news, but she wanted to be up on the issues. Joe and his friends always seemed up on the issues. That night, the newscasters were in a tizzy. They put up pictures of a redheaded woman standing next to a senator from her state. Then there was a video clip of the same senator speaking into a microphone, claiming that he did not sleep with the redheaded woman. They never showed the woman in video; her image on TV was stationary, mid-walk down the hallway of a building that looked stately like the White House but wasn’t.
Later that night, she got a group-Chat from a random guy at school and it was a picture of this redhead completely naked. Only it wasn’t completely the woman. It was her head, definitely, but somewhere around her shoulders there was a pretty obvious division indicating that the body was someone else’s. The skin colors weren’t even the same. The woman’s real skin was pale, almost yellowish, and the body someone gave her was tan and orange.
Gina responded back, “LOL w/e.”
Since that first picture composite, she saw this redhead woman – Hortensia was her name – naked a handful of times. Each time the woman’s body was made slightly different, and each time the claim was that this was the real one. Legs were in various poses, open and closed, breasts were of differing sizes. The pubic hair of Hortensia was in various stages of growth.
They had her either completely shaved and pink and waxed, or completely wild and natural. Both options confused her. Why would anyone do that to herself? Even though neither of those were likely the actual nether regions of Hortensia, they must have each belonged to some woman.
The next day there was a new picture development. Again, it was transmitted through Chat from the same random dude. Not only was Hortensia naked, but she was also kneeling down next to a naked man – not the senator – putting his junk in her mouth. She knew this was a thing, though she’d never seen such a stark depiction of it. Whether or not this was actually Hortensia’s body or face was beside the point, though she was certain it wasn’t because the body on this kneeling woman was very skinny and the body on the actual Hortensia was actually sort of round. Not like fat or obese, but just curvy. She filled out her skirt suit well.
But even so, she couldn’t help thinking how the fake Hortensia felt with that junk in her mouth. Did it hurt? Did it feel good? Did fully-grown women have mouths big enough to fit an entire penis? Gina got up from her computer and looked in the mirror. She was sort of round too, her hips and breasts were pretty much there. She gnashed her teeth together and opened her lips, looking at the little jagged barrier her front teeth made. She opened wide and stuck out her tongue. The mouth looked cavernous, the tongue created a soft and undulating carpet. It was hard to picture junk—a known cylindrical object—fitting in a cavernous space like this. She wanted to look more but her mouth was getting tired.
She opened her sock drawer and pulled out a square-shaped sock, square-shaped because that’s where she kept her digital camera. She slipped the camera out and turned it on. The lens spun out slowly like a mechanized lipstick tip. She opened wide and took a picture of the inside of her mouth. The flash had made her silver fillings and pencil eraser tongue and the tonsils she never had removed awash in white. Everything was white-pink except the dark hole of her throat.
Her parents called her for dinner. She deleted the picture and shoved the camera back into her sock. Even though there was nothing inherently wrong with what she just did – it was just a bad picture of her mouth, since deleted – she felt tingly. The camera’s flash activated something inside her, traveled inside her throat and down into her belly.
That night she went to sleep without Chatting. She fell asleep outside of the covers and dreamt that her arms and legs were detachable.
The next day after school, she took her position hunched over her magnifying mirror, dutifully performing her extractions and tweezings. One particular blackhead released its contents so beautifully and completely she wished she could rewind and do it again, but therein lay the crux of the extractions. There were so many pores, hundreds, thousands maybe, and no two were the same, nor could any extraction be perfectly duplicated. Maybe, she thought, she could take a video of an extraction. Then she could replay it whenever she wanted to, whenever her pores weren’t cooperating. She could watch the perfect release over and over again, reliving the pleasure ad nauseam.
She propped the camera up on a few textbooks, angled it in certain ways, and used the self-timer feature as she mimed doing the extractions. It was a failed experiment. Every picture was too far away to capture her pores. But in examining the pictures that were taken, she noticed the waist of her jeans had fallen down in such a way when she was hunching over that it showed the crest of her underwear. She zoomed in on it, surprised at how good she looked from that angle.
There was still some time before her parents would come home from work and start dinner proceedings and before the news needed to be watched. She closed the bedroom door and locked it, just in case. She took off her jeans and her sweater and looked in the full-length mirror. There was some skin bulging out by her bra strap, but not so much as to be obscene. It was less than the real Hortensia, but perhaps more than the fake Hortensia.
Gina adjusted the camera once more, pressed the timer button, squared her shoulders to the lens, back straight, arms at her sides. She had ten whole seconds between when she pressed the button and when the picture would be taken. At the eighth second, she put her hand on her hip and bent her knee. It felt natural, like something one should do when faced with a lens.
After the flash went off, Gina hurried to the camera to investigate. It wasn’t bad, considering, but her underwear had bunched in a weird way when she posed. She adjusted accordingly. Her bra made her boobs look nice but she noticed a sweat stain on the band near the armpit. She decided it must come off.
She set the camera back on the shelf, pressed the timer, took her place. She smiled a little half-smile and raised an eyebrow. The flash went off, she examined the picture, started to zoom in, and then heard her parents’ car door. She shoved the camera back into its sock, threw her clothes back on, fixed her hair, and greeted her parents at the door, big full smile.
Dinner, chatter, news, Hortensia. She moved through the night’s motions with a cultivated ease, though all she could think about was the camera in her drawer. After the news, she excused herself, claiming she wanted to get a head start on a project that was due next week. Her parents excused her and she went to it, closing the door behind her. She plugged the camera into the computer and within seconds her body flashed on the screen. At first she felt nauseated, as if she was looking at a close-up picture of an open wound, but then she zoomed in and started editing. She didn’t want to alter her body per se, but the background was lacking.
She used a selector tool to outline her entire body, zooming in to get around the little bumps and curves. When it was all done, her body was outlined with blinking lines. She used a keyboard shortcut to delete the entire background, which left just her body and a white background. Some parts of her legs got deleted too, due to poor editing skills. She thought about doing it over again, but the first time took her nearly 20 minutes, and she didn’t want to waste any more time.
But where was it going to end up? In her documents folder on the computer? She’d name it something like “AP US History Essay 1” so no one would think to look in it.
This made her sad. What if she developed an illness that made her gain a lot of weight? What if she got into a car accident that disfigured her body entirely? Would she have to go her entire life without anyone seeing her naked body in this current state? It was a pretty good state, she had to admit. Better than some of her friends, she’d bet.
Maybe she should just send it to one person. A male friend that she could trust. She scrolled through her buddy list and weighed the pros and cons of each straight male person she knew. She couldn’t send it to someone hot or someone popular. She couldn’t send it to someone unhot or unpopular either.
Her cursor hovered over Times New Roman Joe’s screen name. What if she just…No. She decided she couldn’t send the picture to anyone as it was right now. She went back to the document and chopped off the head of the picture, just in case. She wanted people to assess her body but not have it be traced back to her. She would make sure it was the opposite of what happened to Hortensia – every picture of Hortensia was immediately traceable back to her because her head was immediately recognizable.
She re-saved the document, titled it “AP US History Essay 1” and decided to put it out of her mind for now. It was almost 11pm and she was technically supposed to have turned the computer off a half hour ago. Just as she was about to sign off of Chat, Joe IMed her.
       u have the english notes from today?
       ya, Gina replied
       i figured. i spaced during class today
       can u send them to me plz
       sure whats ur email
       u can just copy n paste them here
       they r longish
       its fine
       k 1 sec
Her fingers were tingly. Joe was asking her for notes. Maybe this was the ‘in’ she needed. He would read her stellar notes – plus commentary – and he would want to talk about real important things with her. Like books and current events and things on the news that no one besides her parents ever wanted to talk about with her.
She rushed to open the notes document and fumbled with the keyboard shortcut for “copy” and then quickly pasted and pressed send in the Chat window.
But what sent wasn’t the well-written page and a half of English notes. It was a picture of her head. The head that she had selected and deleted. The head that she had detached from the picture of her body. It was floating in front of her eyes and now in front of Times New Roman Joe’s eyes.
       lol what is this
       oops sry here it is
       nice face
       She pressed “paste” again and sent a picture of her face again.
       lol why do you keep sending me your face
       you know I have a gf right
       w/e I’ll get the notes from someone else
Her stomach flipped and turned and her fingers could no longer type. She considered apologizing and sending the notes to Joe anyway but she was too embarrassed. She didn’t want to be on the computer anymore. She didn’t want to even have a computer anymore. She turned it off, stepped away, climbed into bed, watched whatever was on TV until she fell into a dreamless dark sleep, her mind lightyears away from computerland.
It wasn’t until after breakfast that she remembered the face fiasco. The only thing she could hope for was that Joe was a decent person who wouldn’t tell anyone what happened and might be cool enough to laugh it off with her in seventh period English class.
Before first period, she felt people looking at her, people she knew and didn’t. But maybe they weren’t. Maybe it was like the end of Anna Karenina where Anna only thinks everyone is looking at her and talking about her. She would not be like Anna, though she would be remiss if she didn’t acknowledge the fact that Anna’s head got chopped off by the train. But that was it. That was the only same thing.
She went to her locker, got her books and started the day. Things were great, things were fine, classes were business as usual.
That was, until right before seventh period when she went to the girls’ room. While washing her hands she noticed something in the dirty mirror. She first thought it was a smudge on the surface, a pockmark that wasn’t attached to her, but quickly realized that it was. There was a large, whitehead zit on her chin. She touched it, it hurt. Even if she did consider popping it in school, she knew that this was not one that would go down easy. This was either a days-long whitehead, or a mess in the making.
She considered going to the nurse and asking to go home early, but she couldn’t not go to English. She would wear her zit proudly, pretend it wasn’t even there. She would confront Joe before class and explain that there had been a glitch with her computer. She wouldn’t even mention the girlfriend thing, although that did make her angry. Who was he dating and why hadn’t she known about it before?
As she walked down the hall to her English class, she saw Joe see her and duck into the classroom. This was not the plan. She tried to get Joe’s attention as class started, but he wouldn’t look her way. She figured the only way to remedy the situation was to pass him a note. Time was of the essence.
Sorry about my face she wrote.
She flicked it toward him. It landed on his desk. The teacher saw, read it aloud. Every face looked at her face, laughed, some said I’m sorry about your face too. The teacher tried to calm everyone down but there was no remedying the situation.
“She sent me a picture of her face,” Joe said, shrugged and then hunched back over his notebook.
Too bad it wasn’t a picture of something else someone else said under his breath, out of earshot of the teacher, making a gesture that implied boobs.
She excused herself and the teacher understood. She went back to the bathroom, decided to hell with it and went at the zit. It hurt sharply, as if she was burning herself with her hair iron, and the pain instantly engulfed her entire face. But she kept at it until it released all of its milky white contents on the mirror. The morbid relief was almost worth it.
She wiped the mirror with a paper towel, and then her chin started to bleed. It bled a lot. This was not protocol. She had broken her own rules. Before she had a chance to retreat into a stall, the end-of-period bell rang and people started flooding the bathroom.
There she was, towel to chin, glassy-eyed, certain that she’d never live this down, that she’d need a chin transplant or a school transfer. But instead of gawking and making fun, the girls pushed passed her to get to the mirror themselves. They hunched over, squeezed, dabbed.
Though no one was looking at her, she said Stop looking at me.
We’re not, one of the girls said.
STOP LOOKING AT ME she repeated.
She threw the bloodied towels in the garbage and went back to the classroom to gather her books. Luckily there was no class in there this period, and eighth period was gym class. She’d never missed class before – another one of her rules – but she could make something up. She had to. Her notebook remained opened on her desk, pen was uncapped but no notes had been taken. The small piece of paper sat on top of her belongings, uncrumpled, as if after the teacher had thrown it out, someone had fished it out of the trash and flattened it out:
Sorry about my face.