As Beauty Does

Sarah Freligh | Fiction

During her sophomore year in college, Shelby roomed with a girl named Felicity who was so beautiful that people stopped what they were doing just to stare at her— men, of course, that goes without saying, but also the elderly woman in the purple hairnet who tonged out whatever meat the dorm cafeteria was serving up that night, usually Swiss steak although it all looked the same, gray and floating in gravy and bits of something that may or may not have been mushrooms. The woman dipped and dished and said Move along, ladies to everyone but Felicity who would point to a piece of meat and Purple Hairnet served it up. Shelby had known plenty of pretty girls, had hung around with them in junior high when those things had started to matter and in high school where looks and a little bit of smarts got you elected to student council or the cheerleading squad and later into a good college, but it was Shelby’s first foray into the world of the truly beautiful and the passports they carried that entitled them to all the candy. Shelby was pretty enough herself and might have been prettier minus the forty pounds she put on during freshman year, thanks to bad cafeteria food and late-night pizzas delivered hot and delicious whenever she was stoned, which was most of the time after Grady, her high school boyfriend, dumped her right before Thanksgiving. Grady had met a Chi O during Rush Week at State who’d unzipped and blown him in the bathroom of the undergraduate library as part of her initiation. He promptly broke up with Shelby in a tweet telling her, in a roundabout fashion, why he wouldn’t be able to give her a ride home for Thanksgiving. She ended up taking a five-hour bus ride to Tiffin, Ohio, sitting next to a woman who smelled of pee and mothballs. The woman was crocheting an afghan for her elderly cat, Marcel, and told her that all men were bastards. Shelby held her breath and nodded and pretended to sleep and when she finally did sleep, she dreamed that Grady was marrying Felicity, who served up meat in the cafeteria. Shelby woke up a few miles out of Tiffin with a trickle of drool leaking from her mouth, unpressed and cranky at not finishing the dream. Her mother said she looked she’d been studying too hard and Shelby laughed until she cried and gave herself the hiccups.


In the spring of her sophomore year, Shelby started dating a new guy, Chuck, who liked bikes. It was a big campus and students rode bikes from class to class and abandoned them at the end of the year in the racks in front of the dorms. But Chuck actually rode dozens of miles on country roads during the weekend, decked out in tight shirts featuring the logos of foreign-sounding companies and shoes that clicked on the linoleum of her dorm room floor. In fact, Chuck had just finished a 70-mile ride when he came across Shelby hunched down next to the very flat back tire on her bike. She found herself at eye level with Chuck’s crotch and it was hard not to stare at his bunched-up package in the tight Lycra of his shorts.

“I can change that for you in a jiffy,” is actually what he said. In a jiffy, something that her grandfather would have said. He whistled the entire time he was threading the new tube through her tire, quavering bits of melody that started out sounding like something familiar and ended up being nothing she’d ever heard. He was weird that way, but good with his hands, too. He knew his way around bikes but also women’s bodies as she would find out exactly two weeks from the day he changed her tire, in the bottom bunk of the room she shared with Felicity who’d jetted off to New York City for a long weekend. Chuck was an athletic lover, pumping away on top of her like he was cycling uphill until arriving finally to enjoy a well-earned view. It was the first time she’d done it in a bunk bed and the entire time she worried what would happen if the bed broke and the top bunk collapsed on them, whether anyone would hear their cries for help or if they would have to try to stay alive until Felicity came back in three days and whether someone someday would make a feature film about a couple who’d survived in the rubble of a collapsed bunk bed by licking the sweat off each other’s bodies for hydration and nibbling on the pack of stale saltine crackers that had been on the night table since the first week of September. She worried so much that she was unable to enjoy any of it, something Chuck took note of, promising that it would be better the next time. And it was, a little. Chuck shared an apartment with three other guys who left their smelly gym socks on the living room sofa and their dirty plates in the kitchen sink, but he had a real bed that didn’t tremble or squeal and was plenty big enough for both of them. Also, by going to his place, Shelby could head off what she thought of as the Whole Felicity Thing, the starstruckedness of people in her presence. Shelby was certain that Chuck, like most guys, would turn to Silly Putty and that she, Shelby, would cease to exist for him. In fact, she’d tried to confront it the second time they’d had sex in her dorm room, after which Chuck rolled over and studied the silver-framed photographs that Felicity had arranged on her dresser.

“My roommate,” she said, “is kind of beautiful.”

Chuck squinted his eyes and finally said that she was maybe in his psych class. “Sits up front, always walks in late? Kind of an airhead?”

At the end of the semester, Shelby and Felicity had packed up the room and said goodbye and that was it, The End of the Year of Felicity, as Shelby had come to think of it. Felicity was moving into a condo in a building with a doorman and an elevator. Shelby was moving into a house between an auto repair shop and a florist that smelled of roses or gasoline depending on which way the wind blew. Her roommate was a friend from a creative writing class who smoked one cigarette nightly and promised to teach Shelby how to blow perfect smoke rings.


When Chuck came back at the end of the summer, he was different. For one thing, he’d started running marathons and was even skinnier than when he’d bicycled everywhere, requiring an entirely new wardrobe of button-down shirts and khaki pants. He no longer went to the barber but to a stylist, a woman with a phony French accent who rubbed his scalp with herbal oils before cutting his hair into an aerodynamic fin that crested above his forehead. New Chuck spent a lot of time looking at himself in the full-length mirror he’d installed in the bedroom of the apartment he shared with two roommates, guys who were cut from the same fastidious cloth. They sent their shirts to a laundry to be washed and pressed, and booked a once-a-week cleaning service to keep the apartment tidy. New Chuck no longer spoke about the mental and emotional benefits of regular exercise, but lectured Shelby bluntly about how running would do a lot toward burning off the fat she’d stored in her gut, the Number One predictor of a heart attack. He talked often about physical perfection and how essential attractiveness was to success, now and later, how important it was to make an effort.

“Is the employer going to hire the great-looking, fit guy or girl,” he would say, “or the slob?”

She yearned for Old Chuck, convinced he was trapped under the glossy veneer of New Chuck. Old Chuck had encouraged her during their long bikes, promising beautiful views at the top of a difficult hill. Old Chuck had stopped mid-ride for a skinny dip in a farmer’s pond, which is maybe why she’d agreed to join his Wednesday evening running group—what better place for Old Chuck to show up?

The other runners stretched and preened and talked about PBs and fartlek training versus long slow distance. They wore top of the line shoes and workout gear with expensive brand names stamped into the moisture-wicking space-age fabric. Shelby wore some old Chuck Taylors that she’d dug out from the back of her closet and gray sweats that felt heavier with every step she took. Old Chuck would have stayed by her side the entire three miles, would slow down to walk when she did, tell her that she was strong and beautiful and could do anything she set her mind to doing. But New Chuck, this alien blade of a man who never walked if he could run, sprinted on ahead, leaving her to trudge by herself the miserable final, desolate half-mile or so past the facilities plant where the university parked the heavy equipment, a couple of bulldozers and a fleet of plows that sat huge and sphinxlike. When a dark shape crossed in the road ahead of her, she assumed it was a feral cat but as she got closer, she realized it was a skunk that was studying her with its tail raised and that she was too damn tired to speed up and out of its way before it let loose. Worst of all, there were frat guys playing touch football under the lights who stopped what they were doing to make noises that sounded like oinks.

Chuck was stretching his right leg on the railing outside of the juice bar when she finally chuffed in, averaging eighteen minutes per mile, according to Chuck, whose baleful look let her know that she was not only a fat slob, but an fat unfit slob to boot, that he’d like her a hell of a lot better if he didn’t have to poke his way through rolls of blubber to get to what he called the sweet spot.

“There was a skunk in the road,” she said, apropos of nothing.

That night she and her roommate got high on cheap weed and invented a country named New Charles, a tiny fiefdom ruled by a cruel king named Chuck who’d ascended to power in a coup. His first act was to order that each and every resident show up for a giant weigh-in. Those weighing more than five pounds above official state guidelines were forced to starve until they reached the desired state of thin. Any resident who failed to do so was exiled forever to the neighboring country of New Fatistan. Anyone who refused banishment was subject to a lottery type of extinction by dodgeball, led by King Chuck himself. Shelby imagined he’d never been happier.


It was the last warm day of a string of nice fall days when she saw Felicity at the grocery store near campus, the one with the breakfast bar and the organic vegetables displayed in bins. Felicity was selecting avocadoes from a tray of them, inspecting them briefly before tossing them into the small cart she was pushing. Even in the harsh light of the grocery store that bleached people to zombies or turned them yellow as a ward full of liver-sick people, Felicity looked beautiful. Pale, yes, but a translucent kind of pale as if lit from within. Shelby was pretty sure Felicity was wearing false eyelashes though it was barely ten in the morning on a Saturday. Shelby herself had crawled into bed hours before, cracked-lipped and head banging, after a Chuck-less night with some other creative writing majors that had ended in rounds of tequila shots at last call. Her sweatpants had some kind of dried goo on both knees that may or may not have been throw up.

Felicity, meanwhile, was wearing what looked like yoga pants and a stylish little hoodie that was unzipped enough to show a purple spandex bralet and a healthy amount of cleavage. Not gross, pornstar cleavage but classy boobs, like a swimsuit model.

“Hello, Felicity,” Shelby said.

A brief touch of hands to shoulders, a brush of cheek to cheek, what passed for affection in the cool world of Felicity. “Oh, hello,” Felicity said, showing more enthusiasm than in the nine months they’d lived on top of each other in their dime-sized dorm room. Shelby thought about telling her that the avocadoes she’d picked were far from ripe, that they wouldn’t be ripe for weeks and would likely go bad first, liquid and awful. Instead she said was fine, great in fact, school was good but she had to run. She barely made it to the bathroom where she hurled up everything in her stomach from the last twenty-four hours and then some. Afterward, she felt good enough to wash her hands and creep out of the store to the parking lot where she fell asleep in the backseat of her roommate’s car.

She woke up to a text from Chuck informing her that she’d blown off the Run for the Cure 5K, that a large part of being a responsible and fit person was keeping commitments.

She texted back to say she was sick in bed—food poisoning, bad sushi last night—and spent the next hour watching the birds arrange and rearrange themselves on the telephone wire strung across the rear window. It was the happiest she’d been in months.


The end came as she knew it would, but later rather than sooner. Somehow they made their way together through a difficult winter of afflictions—colds (hers) and flu (his), bouts of diarrhea (both of them) and a mysterious rash on her neck and upper back that the doctor at student health poked at, but couldn’t diagnose and ultimately wrote it off as a case of nerves. “Anything in particular bothering you?” he said.

His kindness undid her, opened the container into which she’d been stuffing down her feelings. She sobbed and sobbed, and then apologized over and over again for crying. She cried so hard she broke a blood vessel in her right eye. When Chuck lectured her later about high blood pressure and fat and the increased risk of strokes, Shelby told him to stuff it and locked the bedroom door and napped for three hours on a Saturday afternoon instead of going for their weekly run.


On the first night of spring, she yanked on a pair of Spanx and wiggled into her tightest jeans and went to a birthday party thrown by Lawrence for his girlfriend, Clotilde, a dancer. Lawrence’s father was a bigwig in one of the automobile companies, and semi-famous, but Chuck warned Shelby not to mention him or their connection, that he and Lawrence were “estranged” because of his company’s environmental policies that were accelerating climate change. Apparently, Lawrence wasn’t estranged from his father’s money. His condo took up the entire penthouse of a new high-rise and offered a panoramic view of campus and the city that surrounded it. Also, the party was catered and featured an entire buffet line complete with prime rib cut from the bone by a chef in a tall white hat. There was a full bar of top-shelf liquor as well as a bowl of something spicy and nonalcoholic and another bowl of something fermented that smelled like the crumble of mud on shoes and tasted just as bad. She sipped tequila from a brandy snifter and waited to feel numb enough to walk around and smile at the other guests.

She was headed back to the bar for a refill when she ran into Tyrone from her playwriting class. Tyrone was carrying a tray of something that looked like crab cakes but was, in fact, lobster. He urged her to take two and offered her a napkin. “Only the best,” he said. Lawrence, their host, was fumbling with a microphone and talking about “raising a glass to my love, my Clothilde,” and Tyrone figured it was as good a time as any to take the break that was required by law and usually ignored by the catering company. “You just have to go for it,” Tyrone said, and lit up the tightest, tiniest joint that Shelby had ever seen. After one puff, skinny little Clothilde turned into a praying mantis. Two puffs and the party turned into a stage set and everyone on it an actor, strutting and fretting, something she’d never understood until now. I get it, she said to Tyrone. She watched Felicity cross the room in skinny jeans and boots that made her even taller and thinner. Shelby watched while she circled from person to person nodding and smiling and as she got closer, she saw it wasn’t Felicity but the same type of girl, the kind who would never sweat or let herself get fat. She watched the Fake Felicity make her way over to where Chuck was standing by the refrigerator, lit up when he saw her, pulled her toward him with the cord on the hood of her yoga jacket and kissed her. Not a hello, how are you kind of kiss, but a kiss that meant something.

Shelby dropped her dirty glass into the garbage instead of the sink as she’d been instructed by the smiling host and walked home the long way by the football field where people were running circles on the tracks under the lights.


She never heard from Chuck and that was fine. She started writing a three-act play and found out she’d rather talk to the characters in her head than to New Chuck about personal perfection and striving to be the best, though she did borrow a few of Old Chuck’s mannerisms: His peculiar way of balancing on one foot and tipping his head to the side on the rare moments that he wasn’t in motion so that he looked like a gigantic, awkward, flightless bird. She got a B- for the assignment, knocked down a grade because it was late by a day. “This has promise,” the instructor noted in his unreadable scrawl, though when she wrote to him six months later to ask for a recommendation for a playwriting grant, he claimed he didn’t remember her. Eventually Chuck became a giant bird that the female protagonist falls in love with and his entrance never failed to get a big laugh when the play was workshopped at a regional theater. The play would later win a big prize and be produced off Broadway in a theater with clean bathrooms and decent food and she would say in the Q&A afterward that the character really wasn’t based on anyone in particular but was in fact a composite of men she’d known and been involved with, which wasn’t a lie. The truth was that she’d forgotten about Chuck by then and about that part of her life, which blurred into a series of late nights in poorly lit rooms peopled by characters made of gauze.

 A few years later when Facebook was in its infancy and people were realizing hey, you could reach out and find that long-ago person, say you loved them and were sorry after the fact, you never meant to, you didn’t, Shelby signed up and posted a profile picture of a theater marquee advertising her second play, the one that would go on to win a Pulitzer and get her a teaching job at New York University and buy a small one bedroom within walking distance. She who’d never owned anything all of a sudden had real estate in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. She supposed she was famous, too, if fame meant people knowing your name and not you, judging from the friend requests on Facebook, the follows on Twitter. She won’t be surprised then when Chuck friends her and sends her a private message to say congratulations, you probably don’t remember me, that he was happily married to Felicity, of all people, and that they had a little girl, aged three, who appeared in her pictures to be a miniature Felicity.

She waited for the request that would follow for tickets or coffee or both and when that didn’t happen, that was okay, too. She’d long ago ridden away, climbed up and coasted down the steepest hills, left him and that part of herself, the girl she’d been, far behind.