For six years I dated Ian, but only once we broke up did everyone close to me reveal they never liked him anyway.
“We didn’t want to tell you,” my mother said.
“Your father never liked him either.” She went quiet. “Ian’s tone was a little off. Do you know what I mean?”
“He was good at communicating his needs,” I said.
I found myself defending Ian, or at least defending my choice to spend six years with him, after a week of convincing myself I wasn’t right for him.
“If you didn’t like him, why didn’t you tell me?”
My mother was peeling the skin off a blanched tomato, a tedious process. “We didn’t want to interfere,” she said. “Your grandmother never liked me either. We wanted you and your brother to make your own choices.”
It wasn’t just my family. Each of my friends, one by one, expressed a similar sentiment about Ian. Even Maria, who told me soon after meeting him that she liked the way he dresses.
“I wouldn’t have complimented his clothes if there was anything else I liked about him,” she said. “Besides, I only really liked that one green jacket of his.”
“I bought him that jacket,” I said.
She glared. “But I did tell you. Remember? We were on Annika’s roof garden. I was interrogating you about him.”
I did remember. A month into our relationship, she had asked me, “How sure are you that you like Ian?” In her mind, this must have counted as an intervention, but that was lost on me. Maria was polyamorous, and all three of her relationships were falling apart at the same time. I thought she was seeking my advice.
Instead of consoling me, these delayed impressions of Ian soured me on my friends and family. I began reevaluating my relationships with them more than I had the one with him. For example, no one talked to me openly about how bad my skin was. But I suspected my skin was the reason Maria never proactively set me up with anyone. My parents almost never brought up my appearance, although my mother always insisted I drink more water, which I suspect she believed would clear up the dry patches on my face.
Nobody would be straight with me, so I found myself reading between the lines to understand what they really thought. I almost wish they would interfere more, I thought to myself. And, just as I was thinking that, I got an email from Alice Shanaghy.
I need a spa day. No offense, but you all seem like you need a spa day too. I’ve booked the entire floor of the Royal Oak Spa and would love it if you joined me. No need to pay, it’s totally free. This Saturday, 10 a.m.
See you there.
The email was sent to fourteen of us: presumably her most haggard acquaintances. There was someone’s work email, a couple of people I knew only vaguely, and Maria, which surprised me because I knew that Maria and Alice hated each other and hadn’t spoken in years.
Maria texted me a screenshot of the email, with the message:
She hasn’t seen me since she announced her pregnancy at my ironic birthday
and now, 4 years later, she emails me to say I look tired
I mean, she’s not wrong, I joked, but I think my bitterness toward her came through, and I regretted it. I waited a few minutes and then followed up with, I think I will go, though. I definitely need a spa day.
Maria didn’t reply for a while, and I felt awful. Then, she wrote Are you sure you want to? I wonder if Alice might not be the best person to be around right now.
I searched for Alice Shanaghy online, and her professional bio surprised me. In the past two years, she had become the Regional Vice President of a company with hundreds of employees. I also found her online wedding registry and felt guilty that I went to Shannon’s birthday party that weekend instead. There had been some drama at the time: a month before her wedding, Alice had accused Shannon of being duplicitous and fake, and everyone sided with Shannon. I went along with the crowd, although, personally, I can’t think what Alice ever did wrong, except be direct and open in her communication. Maybe that’s where I was going wrong. I favored being nice over being real.
If you’re going, I’ll come too, Maria texted.
At the entrance of the spa, Maria saw Alice and, just as she had done with Ian, complimented her on her clothes.
“I love those sandals. What are they made of?”
“Thank you, they’re espadrilles. Jute, I think. How are you, Maria? Still can’t decide on a lover?”
“No, actually, I’ve decided on several.”
If I hadn’t already known that Maria hated Alice, I wouldn’t have guessed it from their interaction. It was becoming increasingly unnerving to me that Maria had the capacity to conceal her feelings toward others so readily.
Five of us had arrived when we decided to go through reception. Alice’s canvas bag was overflowing with supplies, including a bunch of red grapes that hung over the strap. I imagined she had planned for us to be fanned and fed like Roman emperors once inside.
“Ma’am, you can’t bring food into the spa,” the receptionist told her.
“Yes, I can. Talk to Fiona.” Alice turned and signaled for us to go ahead to the changing room without her. As we walked away, we heard her shouting, “Talk to Fiona. I work with her. I always bring food in.”
Alice heaved the canvas bag onto the bench beside me as I got undressed. The grapes were still hanging, triumphantly, over the strap. She stood behind me as I put on my swimwear, and when I turned around, I caught her watching me. “I’ve noticed something,” she said.
She came very close to me. Her coconut-scented hair brushed against my shoulders. “You have what’s called ‘combination skin’,” she said. “Your nose and forehead are oily, but everywhere else is dry and flaky.” I stood very still as she examined me. The shame was exhilarating.
“You don’t mind that I’m mentioning this, do you?” said Alice.
After some thought, I said, “No. I appreciate it.” It was validating, in a way, to hear someone else acknowledge my flaws without trying to convince me they didn’t exist. “I think my skin gets worse when I’m stressed. I just broke up with Ian. Do you remember him?”
“Oh, you poor dear. Do you think your skin was part of why you broke up?”
I had considered it, but Ian would have told me if it was. The thing I loved about Ian was not just that he didn’t mind my skin, but he was the only person in my life, except for Alice, whom I could trust to tell me what he really thought. If I did something wrong, he would tell me loud and clear. He would shout at me quite a lot, but I always knew where I stood with Ian. And when he left me, there were no uncertain terms. I completely understood.
Alice reached into her canvas bag and gave me a little bottle of moisturizer. Maria was standing on the other side of the lockers. When Alice departed for the spa, Maria came over to me with her arms folded. She was still wearing her clothes and appeared distraught.
“We should go,” she said.
She looked at me. “Do you want to stay here?”
“Yes, why not?”
“I heard what Alice was saying to you. This is what I was worried about. She’s playing on your insecurities.”
“No, you’re the one who’s playing on my insecurities,” I said.
“At least Alice acknowledges that my skin is bad,” I said. “She’s trying to help me. But whenever I brought up my skin with you—which was really difficult for me to do—you pretended like I was imagining things.”
“I—your skin is fine. It’s completely normal.”
“See, you won’t even talk straight with me.”
“I’m trying to talk straight with you now.”
“Maria,” I said, and paused, because I wanted to be careful. Honest but careful. “I like the way that Alice talks to me. This is what I need right now. Do you understand?”
Maria gave a half-hearted apology, but I could tell she didn’t understand. I left her to change and joined the others, who were waiting for us in the hot tub. Steeping in the tepid water, I began to wonder if Maria had gone home. When she finally appeared, looking unnerved, Alice sat upright and reached behind the hot tub for her bag. She held a handful of cosmetics in front of us. In her left hand I noticed a bottle of moisturizer just like the one she had given me.
“Now that everyone is here, I want to share something exciting,” said Alice. “Not all of you know about the journey I’ve been on. It all started with these Almard Cosmetics.”
She smiled widely as she addressed everyone in the hot tub in turn, except for me. “Once I tried these products, and I realized how game-changing they were, I knew that this was what I wanted to devote my career to. And now I’m a Regional Vice President, which actually means
I’m a business owner, of Almard Cosmetics. I can make thousands in a single month, working mostly from home, while spending precious time with my family.”
She put her hand on my shoulder and continued. “But the most important thing for me is helping others who find life difficult, all because of their skin. As you can see, my friend here has combination skin. Which means the cheeks are flaky and dry, but the nose and forehead are slick with oil. It’s one of the hardest types of skin to deal with. And my friend recently got dumped—now, I’m not saying it was just because of their skin, but we all know bad skin doesn’t help.”
She continued like this. I sat very still and looked at Maria, who was looking down into the water, averting her eyes. I wanted so badly for her to look at me, to acknowledge me, but she wouldn’t do it.
Was she ashamed of me? I was seething with anger. Not at Alice, but at Maria. Why wasn’t she saying anything? Why couldn’t I tell what she was thinking?
She was fake. She was two-faced. And I hated her, I hated her so much.
Sumil Thakrar is a writer and environmental scientist, currently based in Edinburgh, UK, and St Paul, MN. This is his first literary publication. You can find his academic work here: https://www.sumil.me/