2013 Fiction Prize Winner

Esther watched Tennis Boy amble across the hotel lobby, racket slung across his back, and decided on the spot he’d be her first boyfriend. He wasn’t noticeably handsome, but he was noticeably normal, and to Esther’s twelve-year-old eyes, that was everything.

The mirrors on the wall created four of him, no, six, each more polished than the last. Esther’s own family needed no multiplying, boisterous and too many already; they monopolized the desk as they checked in for their reunion in Puerto Rico, her uncle passing out room keys like prizes.

Given that Tennis Boy would be gallivanting past at regular intervals, he was an obvious choice. He would fall for Esther’s wholesome looks, a contrast to the gussied-up falseness of his friends back home. He and she would dive beneath the same surging wave. Impressed by her courage when she rose in the surf’s wake, he’d compliment her. Then as the sun sent light skittering across the turquoise waters, he’d kiss her. She would soon be transported by a momentous passion, leaving behind her squabbling clan, the impending double doom of braces and bat mitzvah, the fact that her best friend Lin had a date to the winter formal, and the terror that underlay it all: a sense that each day since seventh grade began had colluded with the day before it to shove Esther into a shackled crouch, to render her one day less free.

Unfortunately for Esther’s plans, the hotel’s private beach was lake-like: no waves. Even worse, the air above it was what the girls at school called “bad hair day humid.” Though she’d ignored her cousins’ request to build a sand fort so she might recline beneath the umbrella and alternate reading a Star Trek novelization with conjuring Tennis Boy’s lips brushing hers, her curls still bloated.

Her cousins gave her a new nickname, after the expanding animals on TV infomercials, those hideously mushrooming balls of greenery. “You know what Estie looks like? A Chia pet!”

They sat at dinner at the resort’s mediocre Italian restaurant, all in polo shirts. She’d already slathered in gobs of her brother’s gel, so much that her scalp itched. But “LA Style 100 Extra Hold” had failed.

“Ch-ch-chia pet!” Her brother’s shoulders churned up and down with mirth, like engine parts. The adults gulped their amusement back, their throats constricting. Esther’s mother, whose hair was cut close to her skull, ran a hand through the girl’s massy locks, but was halted by thick, gel-caked snarls.

“Like me,” she said softly.

“Like your whole family!” Her aunts, not Jewish, denied involvement in the travesty. “Esther honey, don’t butter the bread. You’re not getting taller.”

“Well, she’s certainly sprouting,” said her uncle, and everyone tittered because Esther was a noticeable B-cup, which was something for a twelve-year-old, not that it sent the boys running in her direction yet, she had heard her father telling her aunt on the tarmac this morning, adding: Thank God.

Esther who had been attempting to be a good sport at dinner, wondered suddenly what kept the boys from running. Did she want them to run? She squeezed a spongy curl, felt it rebound, and fantasized about impaling her family with a butter knife, then stabbing herself in the heart.

Tennis Boy and his family emerged from a corner table. Esther thrust her shoulders back and offered him a bold natural gaze, which he neither noticed nor returned. Yet he beckoned her into a better daydream; her T-shirt morphed into an evening dress, her hair softened and spread like wings and together they danced until dawn to Caribbean drums. She buttered her bread and floated away.

Esther’s best friend Lin had met a boy on vacation in Mexico and gotten to second base, a relief because what else did you even need before high school? Esther could achieve this too, she knew, if she applied herself, sat still, laughed at the right times and didn’t say anything dumb about Star Trek.

The next morning Esther swam with her cousins at a more distant beach with waves, though she knew the salty water would not help her hair situation. She joined them building a new fort soon smashed and flattened by the surf.

“You’re way more fun today,” she was told. She snorted and splashed; somehow she had the idea that while she bobbed, Tennis Boy might be gazing at them, wondering who these people were, these people who acted so carefree.

Through the window of the cab home, she noticed a Walgreen’s. A hair iron waited in those aisles; the girls at school, if in her predicament, would buy it. Surely Esther’s mom would never approve the idea: “What a waste,” she’d say. “We’re in a beautiful place and you want to go to a drugstore?” Yet the iron floated before Esther’s eyes, a sacred object.

Later, Esther’s brother and cousins embarked on video game tournament. Esther sat alone, picturing Tennis Boy coming to visit her on her block at home, a red rose in his hands, and Lin’s jaw dropping at the idea that a boy like that would go for Esther. In the vision, her hair was straight. Ironed straight.

She opened her eyes to the sunlight and there stood the real thing, with his racket, talking to her cousins at the entrance to the arcade. His shirt was off; his shorts slung below his waist revealed a trapezoid of fine-cut muscles. Esther draped a towel around herself, covering his indecency by proxy, and sauntered towards them, hearing phrases like “high score” and “next level.”

“Hey Estie,” the youngest cousin called.

“Hey, Chia Pet! Ch-ch-chia!” the cousin added as Esther struggled to formulate a socially acceptable way of saying hi back.

“Chia?” Tennis Boy said. He looked right at her and laughed like it was the best joke he’d ever heard. He quaked with it as her brother had, each peal a knife entering between her ribs and perforating her heart.

They began to talk about a tennis tournament but Esther couldn’t pretend to care: she fled into the bathroom to weep pitifully into her resort-issue towel. What a loser she saw in the mirror there, too preoccupied with the rooms of her mind to tackle the halo of frizz that crowned them. She craved a friend, a girl to hand her tissues or coo. Instead, the shrieks of children on the waterslide battered her ears.

A thumping drumbeat began in her chest and spread down to her stomach. She had to act. Esther dashed upstairs to the room she shared with her brother, shivering from the hotel’s air conditioning. Ignoring the wet stains spreading over her T-shirt from her thick hair, she pulled on the handle of the adjoining room and saw her mother asleep, her head framed by a pure white pillow.

Esther had never lied or stolen a thing. And her mother was so peaceful, so tired, as if the family’s teasing, the tugging, had caused her to retreat just as it forced Esther to venture out.

Esther pushed back her pity: the moment demanded something harder. She grimaced, reached into her mom’s purse and pulled out a wad of cash. Before she could reconsider her descent into petty thievery, she exited: out through the lobby with the slot machines blinking and bleeping and the sad old people throwing their money away, as her family described it.

She stood still on the sultry street. On their tour of the Fort the first day here, they had learned about how horribly the Europeans, then the Americans, had treated the island. Oppression, poverty, just like the creepy Borg on Star Trek, traveling to different planets, assimilating people into slavery. Her family was like the Borg too sometimes: her father had gripped her shoulder on the way back and said, “Stay close to the Hilton, Estie.” She had said, “I ride the bus into Boston all the time.”

“Hey you. Hey Chia!” She looked up and saw Tennis Boy, lounging in front of the hotel with a drink in his hand. “Tennis later? Your cousins are coming. Ask them for deets. What’s your name again?”

“Esther,” she squeaked out.

“Okay cutie,” he said. “Bring your racket.”

She nodded and watched him glide away, “cutie” reverberating in the air. A window had opened with that word; a real one, not imaginary. She might puke with excitement. She had to see this mission through.

She walked towards Condado. Her thighs rubbed together and her shorts rode up inside them, about a centimeter. Her aunt said she wasn’t growing taller. True, a small puddle of belly now spilled out over her bikini shorts. She should do sit-ups. Yes: she had to iron herself out from top to bottom. Sweat gathered behind her neck and beneath her breasts.

She stopped halfway across the causeway for a breath. The tide flowed beneath her feet from the wild Atlantic into the lagoon. Her hotel looked like a dollhouse. She felt dizzy but kept on down an avenue lined with shops whose windows held the little frogs, dolls and seashells that her family called tchotchkes, always in a singsong voice—chach-kees!

She passed two homeless men asleep on the sidewalk, one cop with a machine gun, dozens of tourists and six elderly people awaiting the bus. Where did the bus take them, and wouldn’t it be nice to just sit on it until the end of the line? Esther imagined the ride, the bumpy road, the sea views, the small houses growing smaller and smaller as they left San Juan’s center behind. Perhaps there was a perfect pink house for her and Tennis Boy, with laundry in the yard and some chickens.

Next to the bus stop she saw a group of teenagers, American boys. They reminded her of her cousins, but older. Like Tennis Boy, too. Their laughter was harsh; they barely saw her pass.

Esther hurried towards Walgreen’s and shoved the door open, standing still in an oasis of air conditioning and discount beauty products.

“You get them!” “No, you do!” a pair of teenagers giggled in the condom aisle.

Esther hid her face, sidestepped them on the way to the hair section. She had enough cash to buy the iron and for added kicks the cheapest eyeshadow, mascara and lipstick she could find.

At the register the woman gave her everything in a plastic bag.

Gracias,” Esther blurted out.

“That iron works good on curls,” the cashier said in approval—or was it disapproval?

Tremors traveled through Esther’s limbs: what if her mom woke up and missed her? But she was bursting with the need of it, to use her new purchases, to rip open the plastic and erase her face, tame her tangles. She slipped into the lobby of the Condado Plaza hotel and followed the signs to the ladies lounge.

Once there, she savagely attacked the box with the iron in it, unsheathed it and plugged it in. While it began to heat up, she fell upon the makeup, hurling the pieces of packaging in the trash. She stood at the mirror: shadow, stroke, fill. She didn’t know what she was doing but she was doing something: dab, line, stroke. Her eyes became encircled by big dark patches.

The iron radiated heat. Esther inhaled, then ran it down each curl, pressing it against the strands, stopping when she felt the singe, the crackle on the ends of her hair.

Oh, the sick smell of it. She had a friend who cut herself. Another friend who had stopped eating anything but balled up pieces of white bread. Esther kept going: lock by lock, kink by kink, she conquered the flyaways until a woman who reminded her of her mother barged in.

“Ugh! It smells like burning! Why are you doing this down here, honey?”

“My mom’s sleeping.” No lie. Still, she ought to return. Tonight they were going to Old San Juan for dinner.

“Giving yourself a makeover?” the lady asked

“Sort of.”

“You’re gorgeous. Don’t change—you’re too young.” The woman went into a stall.

Shut up old woman, Esther wanted to say. Usually, she never even thought things like that. The woman began to pee. Esther looked at herself in the mirror and she couldn’t help it; she grinned. She had done it; she was beautiful.

Esther held her head up high on the way home and let her hips sway, slightly, like Lin’s did. She smiled to herself. She had done it. She noticed the American boys in college sweatshirts and backwards caps on the sidewalk, milling, and stared at them: frank, natural, bold.

This time they noticed her too.

“Yo. What’re you looking at?” one asked. She froze.

They swarmed, like the bench spilling over after a school basketball game. They were fourteen or older; it couldn’t be her they were lurching towards. She instinctively crossed her arms across her chest, looked down, walked on.

“Why is she not answering?” she heard. “Raccoon eyes.”

“You were checking us OUT, girl. J, she likes you.”

“Her tits are big!”

“Where’s she going? So rude!”

“Hey chica!” They were tourists like her. Maybe they even went to her school, and she’d have to see them in January. Esther walked faster, engulfed by blasts of hot shame. Why had she looked their way? Why had she been excited when they looked back? Her face perspired; her eye makeup was running down the sides of her nose.

“Why won’t you talk to us?”

“Ugh, fuck her!”

“Would you, though?”

“I’d hit it.”

She lost them on the causeway, hearing over the din her raggedy breath. “Leave me alone!” she told the air.

Evening was arriving on the lagoon; she watched the white scrim of the waves hit the breakers. Salt settled on her tongue; air moved across her damp neck.

Esther lifted up her hand, weakly, and spent her last five dollars on a cab that took her 800 feet.

She looked at her selves, all eight of them, in the mirrors of her hotel lobby. Gone was the frizzy hair, yes, but she saw now that the effect looked off, as if her head were straining against a leash. The tendrils near her face remained fuzzy: sweat.

Yes, her eyes looked like a raccoon’s, her lips lurid, a cheap imitation of Lin or the girls at school. A tchotchke.

Tennis Boy, dressed in black shiny fabric, blocked her way to the elevator.

“I kicked your cousin’s ass in tennis,” he said cheerfully. “Your mascara’s running,” he added, as if it were obvious that she would wear mascara. She put a hand to her face. “Well see ya, Chia! Hey, that rhymes,” he said, finding her mute.

Esther slid down the side of the elevator and sat on the floor as it climbed. She was Chia Pet, yes, but he wasn’t Tennis Boy. He was Andrew, Josh, Evan or Jake. Of course he had a girlfriend; boys like that just did. She saw Tennis Boy raising his racket and sending an ace over the net, leaving her relatives speechless.

Her mother paced the hallway, growing frantic. She pulled Esther by her arm and then wrapped her in a smothering hug—an act which led Esther to spill the details of her subterfuge and a few more tears.

In the taxi to dinner Esther learned there would be consequences for her actions. She heard the words “chores” and “grounded.” But her mom wished it were easier, she did. She believed she had raised Esther to be herself, not underhanded. Esther, wretched, wished her mom would hug her again or go back to sleep.

The trees in the old city’s plazas were festooned with lights that slid up and down like drops of illuminated water. Kids set off firecrackers and pigeons swooped, then hobbled around eating the clusters of crumbs.

“Whoa, you look different,” said Esther’s brother. “I miss your Jewfro.”

“She looks good,” said the older cousin.

“I see you’re putting more into your appearance,” her aunt whispered. “It’s about time. Easier on the eye makeup, easier on the dessert.”

“Your aunt has a problem,” said her mother. “Don’t listen, Estie.”

Tunes engulfed the plaza, but Esther heard only the replay of the day: the rough talk of the boys, laughter from her would-be lover, her aunt’s fretting.

Esther sought refuge in her mind, but imagined only the high balcony of her room and herself climbing the railing. She felt herself overtaken by a wave. She dodged a car swerving towards her on the causeway.

She sensed in a thousand ways her visibility, her invisibility. Maybe she even sensed a future of being overlooked, leered at, always wanting: objects packaged as salvation that never were, promised approval that never came.

The trees rained light. Somewhere close by, waves swept in against the rocks, the soft sand. Her cousins tossed a tennis ball in a circle. The moist breeze with its fingers began lifting each tendril of her hair and lacing it in a spiral, undoing her work.

Her journey to Walgreen’s felt filthy: a betrayal, a waste. But she felt she’d have to make it again, to flatten and press things down until they burned at the edges. How endless, how exhausting this would be, like the tide coming in each morning for years, wearing down the sandcastles the children built.

Esther squeezed her eyelids shut, then opened them. But wait—what if there was still a chance? She craned her neck, strained to get a glimpse of Tennis Boy walking the street towards her, hoping still for a rescuer, for a story that wasn’t hers.

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, the Hairpin and the Forward. Tweeting as @sarahmseltzer.