Excerpt

You Have the Prettiest Mask

Sarah Langan

November 11, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Sarah Langan's latest novella, You Have the Prettiest Mask. Langan holds an MS in Environmental Toxicology from NYU and an MFA from Columbia University, and is a three-time recipient of the Bram Stoker Award. She’s the author of three previous novels, including The Keeper, a New York Times Editor’s Pick, and Good Neighbors, forthcoming from Atria.

The summer before plague masks took over the Chaunce School for Girls, my whole world kind of gasped. Everything suddenly got really slow and nervous. It was that moment that happens right before the scream.

The world in general, and not just my world, was a dumpster fire. You couldn’t tune into a stream without hearing bad news. Between the Y-Plague and the weird parties that parents were throwing for their daughters when they turned thirteen, I was stressed out. Nervous, even. Unless I was with my best friend Paloma Xenteras, I was hiding in my room, pretending none of it was happening. I’d fold my clothes and put things in proper places for hours. Then, the next day, I’d do the same thing. And then the next day, I’d move the furniture. 

And then my personal bad news happened. Paloma told me she was going away all summer. Her parents had rented a cabin in Ontario to get away from all the noise. I knew she didn’t mean traffic noise. New Yorkers like traffic noise. She meant the streams and radios tuned to NPR, and the screens that flickered wherever you wandered, if you were brave enough to wander outside.

The problem was that Paloma and I had been besties since kindergarten. I was a penguin of a person. I picked one friend and that friend was the only person I cared about. I friended for life. I came to her house the day she left. Is it because of me? I asked her mom. I promised I’d be nicer and I’d stop distracting Paloma from homework when we teamed up for projects and I’d stop dropping eff-bombs when I didn’t think she was listening. I’d stop eating so many groceries when I was over at her house, and I was really sorry about those Pringles last time. It was just that my mom was always on a diet and we never had good food! Then I was crying and Paloma was crying and her mom hugged us both and promised it wasn’t about groceries. She lifted my chin with her finger like I was a little kid, and not a twelve-year-old. “It’s not about you. We love you, Cathy,” she said, and then even Paloma’s mom looked kind of weepy, and I got the feeling there was something she didn’t love, when she told me that. But you don’t ask adults questions when they flash those expressions. You just guess. Like, maybe she didn’t like my parents and the whole trip was to get away from them. Or maybe it was that she didn’t like her apartment because it smelled like curry and mice from the Chinese restaurant downstairs. Or maybe it was the plague masks.

Pretty soon after that, I was curbside, hugging them good-bye as they drove for Honey Harbor, Ontario.

The first few days were a total wash. I sat around staring at walls, then literally washing the walls with bleach, because it’s awful when you notice a greasy handprint, and once you clean it away, you notice that the spot you made is brighter than the rest. It’s uneven. And you need to make it even.

I spent a lot of time doing weird stuff like that because that was the summer that outside stopped being safe for girls like me. I also drew intricate mazes and hung them on my walls. Like, crazy intricate. At night when I was trying to sleep, which always took a while, I’d imagine I was inside one of those mazes, working myself out. 

The summer before plague masks took over the Chaunce School for Girls, my whole world kind of gasped.

After a week without Paloma, I realized something strange: a part of me was relieved. Paloma and I were like sisters, and loyal like sisters. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have a lot in common. We trusted each other. But since Y-Plague, we’d drifted. Her parents didn’t allow streams and they didn’t allow screens. She didn’t know things. She was innocent.

On the day the first mask law passed in Louisiana, she’d been on her roof, trying to get a tan in this giant surfer bathing suit that had covered half her legs and arms. I’d tried to tell her what was happening, why I was upset, and she’d just pulled the wilted cucumbers from over her eyes and said, “It’s going to be okay. It won’t come to New York. My parents promised… Wanna dance?”

Going to her house had been like leaving a funeral for a surprise party. You had to be like: Oh! Hey! Great, yeah! Let’s do that extra credit biography on Mercy Otis Warren. Then we’ll have a pillow fight while your mom bakes Tollhouse Cookies! It’ll be a nice change for me, because when I left my house my parents were literally screaming at each other, and half the women on the streets, including your building manager, were wearing plague masks. They were looking at me but I couldn’t tell if they were scowling or smiling or what. They were like ghost people. Your obliviousness isn’t infuriating at all and I absolutely don’t feel like I’m about to explode.

So, I’d noticed this. That I felt a little more myself without Paloma around.

At dinner that night, my dad told me to stop rearranging the furniture like a weirdo. He was sorry camp had been canceled, but I needed to be self-motivated. I needed to devise an alternative plan. He suggested I start texting girls like Irene Scott and Penny Dupont—girls whose parents were important. He said he liked Paloma, but I was sophisticated. I had potential. Paloma came from hippies. She didn’t have good sense. She was… basic.

I was glad he thought I was sophisticated. I also felt I was sophisticated, and that Paloma was basic. It was nice he’d noticed, when he so rarely noticed anything about me anymore. When I was little, we’d been close. Like people glued together. Then Y-Plague came along like a bucket of solvent, dissolving every bond between us. Now he was my submarine dad, popping up when I least expected to give annoying advice or criticize. The rest of the time he hung out deep unwater, at work or with my little brother, whom he treated like the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Irene Scott and Penny Dupont were not girls I liked. They were the opposite of cool. If our school had a caste system, the popular girls were the ones with super-powers like from My Hero Academia. They could digest people outside their bodies like frogs, or open portals to new universes or shoot fire balls. Me and Paloma were the normal people without powers. And Penny Dupont and Irene Scott were something worse than ordinary. Mashed potatoes, maybe. The kind without skins. Just that white crap.

On the day the first mask law passed in Louisiana, she’d been on her roof, trying to get a tan in this giant surfer bathing suit that had covered half her legs and arms.

So, no way. Still, my dad’s suggestion gave me an idea. I was curious about the popular girls. I thought I might have something in common with them because, lately, I wanted to do mean things. I wanted to do crazy things like run into traffic and scream at strangers. I wanted to flip over my family dinner table and tell everybody off. Maybe there was a hidden super power inside me, too. Y-Plague had triggered it and all I needed was the company of the cool people to set it free. So, I texted five different girls and wrote the same thing to all of them: I wanna get wasted.

Nobody answered. Sometimes little dots showed up, like they were writing back. Then the dots went away.

Twenty minutes later I was sweating from the shame. I was in my tiny bedroom, door closed, air conditioning blasting, sweating and pacing like a confused zoo monkey. Were they all together right now? Were they shout-laughing something like: I always knew Cathy Lerner was weird! What a freakshow!

So, I went back in. I wrote them all again. JK! Not! Maybe! I wrote, which, you know, I’m sure cleared it all up.

Rhonda Pandheja texted back. I was holding the phone, and it was like it turned into hot wax. My hands freaked out at the sight of her name. I dropped the phone, because maybe her name could see right through the glass. Maybe she was looking at me!

Rhonda Pandheja was the queen of our grade. She was also a psycho. By psycho, I don’t mean that she stuffed her mom with formaldehyde and sat her in a rocker. Though, maybe? I mean shaking with cartoon rage if somebody sat in her special queen seat in the cafeteria, and, once in a while, finding them in the hall and belting them. I mean mocking the underclassmen when they fetched her lunch wrong. It wasn’t just other people that she hurt, either. In fourth grade right before the Y-Plague lockdown, our teacher accused her of messing up her report on Phantom Tollbooth. It got her so mad that she pulled out this loose baby tooth. And then she worked on the rest of her teeth over the course of the day until she had four baby teeth and her mouth was this gash of blood. By emotional health class, she was holding the teeth but trying to hide them, like they were evidence of something bad. Like it wasn’t the fact that she’d yanked them that was the problem, it was the baby teeth. They were evil.

In other words, Rhonda Pandheja was not somebody you messed with.

Hell yeah! Let’s get wasted, she texted. Only kidding! Not really! You suck! I’m just joking, you fucking loser!

This went on for a while and I had no idea if she hated me or was making fun of me with a crowd of friends while I sat alone in my lame room with its weird mazes all over, that I’d drawn with 005 micron pens. So I kept my answers neutral: Sure! Yeah! I’m serious! JK! I know! I’m such a loser!

I was in my tiny bedroom, door closed, air conditioning blasting, sweating and pacing like a confused zoo monkey.

We stopped texting. My phone went dark. I should have been relieved, but I wasn’t. I’d had this feeling while texting her, this alive feeling. 

Wanna hang? Rhonda asked a few days later.

Yes. Absolutely. I wanted that so much. I texted back: Whatever! Why not? smiley face/angry face/death face.

Rhonda and this other popular girl, Lola Gipson, picked me up at my apartment. I didn’t yet know to be embarrassed of my apartment, but I did know to be embarrassed of my family, so I was waiting just inside the building, looking out when Rhonda’s driver Ivan pulled up in a giant, armored Mercedes van.

I didn’t talk the whole ride. Didn’t even ask where we were going. Lola and Rhonda were in the way-back, and they didn’t make room for me, so I took a seat in the middle row. Rhonda was tall and skinny with a really long nose, her features all angled, but not in a pretty way, which was weird, because her mom literally used to be a supermodel. Lola was dark skinned, with big brown eyes and very curvy. Like, definitely a C cup. Before Y-Plague, she’d always had boyfriends. Since she was black, some people thought she was a scholarship student. This was weird for them to think, because the girl was a fashion plate. She wore a Tiffany headband to school and her boots were hand-crafted by a cobbler in Italy.

Rhonda and Lola took a deep dive on how to build stream followings without posting nudes. Including my parents and extended family, I had twelve followers on my stream. Also, I had no boobs. Clearly, I had nothing to add to the conversation. So, I sat there, facing forward. I had the feeling they’d forgotten about me and I was afraid to remind them, in case it made them mad.

The car stopped and somebody opened the door for us. Since none of us had masks, they rushed us into this tall building on the Upper East Side. A plaque inside said Club Tourniquet. The walls were all dark wood, and it smelled both old and clean, like the Guggenheim. We took an elevator to a lounge with red velvet couches where people worked on screens. Some were adults, others our age, doing homework or whatever. I followed Rhonda and Lola past that, to stairs in the back that led to a small restaurant and bar. 

At first, I didn’t know why I felt so happy. Why my chest felt like it was twice as deep, and the air was twice as sweet, and for once, I didn’t want to mentally rearrange all the furniture like a Tetris game. Why, despite being with these scary, sophisticated girls, I felt so comfortable. But then I figured it out. Not a single girl or woman was wearing a mask. Not even the bartender or wait staff or hostess. This place, these walls, were safe.

I didn’t talk the whole ride. Didn’t even ask where we were going. Lola and Rhonda were in the way-back, and they didn’t make room for me, so I took a seat in the middle row.

“Is it always like this?” I asked. And Rhonda and Lola looked at me like maybe I was a moron. Like: WTF? You’ve literally never been here before?

A whole bunch of Chaunce kids were at this giant table beside the bar and Rhonda and Lola joined them. They didn’t wave for me to follow and they took the last two empty seats. I followed anyway. Life was happening here. The real shit was going down, while I’d been wasting time eating Pringles at Paloma Xenteras’ house. I didn’t care if they didn’t like me. For this, I’d make them like me.

I stood there, right behind Rhonda. Compared to the rest of them, in designer everything, my outfit was… bad. 

“Who’s she?” the sophomore across from Rhonda asked, her chin pointed at me. Except I knew her. Her little sister was a grade below. I’d been to her brownstone twice for playdates.

Rhonda grinned this tight, closed-lip grin. My heart split lengthwise with terror. “She’s our loser shield. If somebody tries to talk to us, we can throw her at them. Her smelly douche powers’ll neutralize them.”

Everybody except for purple-haired Lola started laughing. Lola gave me this look, like: say something.

Here’s what they didn’t know. The price of being here was worth being teased. I was totally cool with it. “Sure!” I said. “Point me at them. I’d be happy to.”

They liked that. They all started laughing, like I was in on the joke with them. Rhonda’s angry grin turned into a real one. “I brought you here and that makes you my slave. Go tell my mom to fuck herself, slave,” she said. 

“Your wish is my command, master,” I said, and then everyone, even Rhonda, was howling.

“Where is she?” I asked.

The laughter got even louder. Rhonda pulled the chair from a nearby table, and pointed for me to sit. “Forget it,” she said. “Another time.” And then I was with them, talking and laughing like one of them like I belonged in their club. Like I was one of the safe people, who would survive this. Who would come out the other side, unbroken.

“I brought you here and that makes you my slave. Go tell my mom to fuck herself, slave,” she said.

I hung out with Rhonda and Lola every day after that. Once I was in her circle, Rhonda was nice. She saved her mean for everyone else. Lola was smart, and not in a book way. She understood how people worked, what made them act the way they did. People assumed she was mean because she was so serious and because her best friend was Rhonda, but it wasn’t true. One-on-one, she was gentle as a kitten. We confided in each other that summer, and spent late nights talking. In the dark one time, Lola told us, with this delighted grin, that she wasn’t a virgin. The boy was a secret. I’d felt awed by that. Scared, too.

We went to each other’s houses, and did all the things you’re not allowed to do at twelve, but you do anyway, like sneaking into the liquor cabinet, then showing each other how fun it is to straddle the arm of a wingback chair. I felt myself. The real me. A person with rougher edges than I’d ever been allowed to show Paloma.

I re-penguined, this time with two girls instead of one.

I’d been worried, but my submarine dad surfaced long enough to approve of Rhonda and Lola. He said that while they seemed wild, Chaunce girls always pulled it together by graduation. Girls with their pedigrees had too many safety nets to fall very far. He told me not to feel bad about Paloma, who had no idea that I was going to drop her on day one of seventh grade. He said it was inevitable; I’d needed to spread my wings. Paloma had been holding me back. At the end of lower school, you’re never the same person you used to be and it’s nobody’s fault, he’d said.

But it was absolutely my fault. I’d hunted it down like a wild boar.

*

We went to this school called Chaunce, an all-girls on the Upper East Side with the motto “know thyself.” It cost $73,000 a year, not including the bus, hot lunch, or afterschool. Most Chaunce girls started in kindergarten and were expected to stay until college, when we matriculated to the Ivy League or Wesleyan if we were weird. I was weird. I drew mazes and needed my clothes to never have tags or else my skin felt like it was burning, and stuff like that. But I knew enough to keep my weird hidden. I never acted like that at Chaunce or with Paloma or even with Rhonda and Lola. I saved it all up and then spewed it once I got home to my room. I contained it there, like a smelly pet hamster. 

The Chaunce brochure made our education look like some kind of love-fest, where we sat around and laughed while making mud pies and practicing yoga. Children can only learn when they’re happy, Chaunce boasted. The rest comes naturally. That’s why Chaunce girls score in the top percentiles on every standardized exam, including the SAT.

But none of it was fun. All of it was work. We didn’t just get graded in math, science, history, and literature. We got graded in pottery and we got graded in how well we meditated. We got graded in whether we could shoot a basket, and whether we were good at sharing our feelings during class-wide council. So we made up our feelings, and when we were waxing especially dramatic, we even cried while telling them. We pretended our dogs were dead or our adopted sisters were dead or our imaginary friends were real but also dead.

My guess was that most Chaunce parents loved their daughters. They wanted us to be happy, so long as we also did everything they told us to do. I mean, they hadn’t paid the big bucks for life’s simple joys. If they’d wanted us to play in mud and eat organic, they’d have sent us to the Rudy Steiner Waldorf. They’d sent us to Chaunce for connections; theirs and our own. Our job was to train in the language of the upper class. To look adults in the eye when we shook their hands, to make incisive jokes tinted with sarcasm but not cruelty, to look pretty and get straight As. To never confess to studying but to make it all look easy, like something we’d naturally been born with. Something impossible to acquire unless you knew the secrets of the ruling class. As a scholarship kid, it was my job to learn from and pass for a ruling-class Chaunce girl. To hide what I really was from them, and to become them by osmosis.

Paloma, another scholarship girl, never seemed to understand that. I think that’s what annoyed my dad about her. She just thought she was there to learn trigonometry.

The first day of seventh grade, Paloma met me at my cubby. I hadn’t seen her in almost three months. She looked child-like and young in her too-big, second-hand uniform, and I felt a hundred years old. It was like that relativity thing, where a century had passed for me and just three months for her. She’d gotten all tidy for her first day back: Fresh blazer, ironed shirt, pants creased, her BFF half-heart necklace dangling, even though I’d stopped wearing my half months before.

I felt myself. The real me. A person with rougher edges than I’d ever been allowed to show Paloma.

“Yes! CATHY! I missed you so much!” she cried, and then she hugged me and squealed this high pitched, enthusiastic squeal that made me want to stab my own ears and then stab her, too.

All breathless, she told me about the lake cottage, and the lame stuff she’d done with the kids she’d met there, that she thought was scandalous, like role-playing MHA and taking turns reading the sexy parts of romance novels.

I wanted to puke at the nerd-ness.

She kept talking with this fierce, earnest intensity, and I felt bad for her, and bad in general. I’d spread my wings. I was different now. A moth or a butterfly, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was, we no longer fit.

“Let’s sign up for all the same afterschool!” she cried, which was impossible, because I’d already been practicing field hockey with Rhonda and Lola and had made the team. After that, we’d do swimming, and in the spring we’d do tennis. We’d decided this.

“I can’t,” I said, right as Rhonda and Lola walked up. Rhonda looked especially cool. She had this thing, where she rolled her sleeves to her elbows and rolled her knee-high socks around her angles like four little donuts. It was her trademark. Some people copied, but they just looked stupid. Lola’s trademark was her dyed bright-purple hair that she straightened into ringlets down her back. She also wore her uniform skirt a size too small. People copied that look, too, but nobody looked half as hot. They’d told me I’d needed a trademark, so I’d cut my sweater vest down the middle, made it into a safety-pinned cardigan. Punk rock! Today was my debut with it. I felt stupid, and was pretty sure I looked stupid, but probably people would think I was making a joke. I would then agree that yes, I’d been making a joke.

“Hey, slave!” Rhonda called to me.

Paloma narrowed her eyes, like she was about to defend me, which would have been suicidally stupid but not out of character. She thought we were still penguined, even though she’d only sent me two postcards all summer. I’d known the girl for seven years, and she’d sent me a picture of Niagara Falls and a picture of Lake Ontario, with this scrawl on the back about what an amazing time she was having.

Rhonda grabbed my hand, and Lola grabbed the other hand. I felt strong like that. I felt like I wasn’t a person. I was part of a bigger thing; a cell in a great, mindless organism.

“You look constipated,” Rhonda told Paloma. “You’re like a giant Ex-Lax emergency.”

Paloma’s face went red and her lower lip got all quivery. She looked only at me. Her problem was that she didn’t know that none of this mattered. We could say and do anything to each other and it meant nothing, because the world was falling apart. The whole system was broken into pieces and she was playing make-believe at summer camp. In a way, I was helping her. I was explaining it to her. And also, I was just really mad. Two frigging postcards. She’d brought this on herself.

“She smells like it, too,” I said. “She’s full of shit up there.”

Then we three turned, a connected chain of perfection, and left her behind.

__________________________________

Excerpted from You Have the Prettiest Mark by Sarah Langan. Excerpted with the permission of Small Beer Press. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Langan.




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