Whenever she got ready to go out with me she would preen herself like a little bird, delicate, flimsy hands flitting about her head like flesh- colored butterflies, laughing and throwing her voice out between endeavors, talking while she had her hands fastened behind her
head to pin her hair back, elbows standing out like wings. I had always admired it, her lack of seriousness concerning her looks. I could never concentrate on girls who spent too much time grooming themselves- there was always a screen between them and me, like soundproof glass, where I could watch them but not have anything I said heard.
Natalie seemed to be the only pretty girl I knew who was aware of her own prettiness. There had never been a screen between us, just her clear, bright, eager face, her honey-blonde eyebrows perched high on her forehead, her brown eyes rapt and round when we talked. She sometimes seemed so focused that I felt a little guilty for not having anything more interesting to say.
The only time that screen divided us was when she was getting ready for the prom our senior year. She looked more vulnerable in her peach dress, her neck and shoulders slender and bony, her waist tiny in the middle before the skirts flared out in an upside-down cupcake. It was as if she had been wiped clean with a warm, sweet estrogen cloth and was now pristine, enchantingly female. I sat on the edge of her bed, watching her with my hands on my knees. In a petty way I had always thought it unfair that boys were just the handles from which the beautiful girls hung, that we would all look the same in black and white and be eclipsed in the radiance of our dates. But now I understood the pride, the flattery that was involved in being Natalie's handle. She was bent at the middle in front of the mirror on her white desk, holding her face close to the glass with her fingers crawling all over her cheeks. Making disgusted, breathy little sounds, she switched from the bent position to a sitting one in front of the mirror. Every time I thought she was fully and completely ready, she would erupt again in a moan of displeasure and stand up, inspecting her face again as if some fresh blemish had bubbled there.
After an agonizing few rounds of this, I finally interrupted her.
"What is it? You look fine, Nat."
She straightened and turned to me first with surprise, like she had forgotten I was there at all, then with impatience, and I felt like a child who had just asked about something he was wholly ignorant on and had been dismissed from the conversation. Natalie returned to the argument with her body, continuously lifting her hands to her hair and make-up, imploring, and repeatedly answered by it with a firm rejection.
I started to worry. My reaction to her behavior came in stages. First I was flattered that she wanted to look nice for me, then I was perplexed that she wasn't satisfied with how she looked, then I was annoyed and worried. I pushed back the black sleeve of my tuxedo to look at my watch, hoping she would notice, not because we were in danger of being late, but because I wanted her to stop.
She straightened again and yanked her head in my direction.
"Don't do that, it makes me nervous."
I blinked at her, and tried to talk before I lost her attention again.
"Nat, you look fine," I insisted, standing from the edge of her bed for emphasis. "Come on, let's go."
She glared at me in a swollen childish pout, as if I had interrupted something she was deriving great pleasure from indulging in. I took her elbow gently, feeling ridiculous for treating something so simple like a great instability, but I really didn't know how else to handle such a steep shift in her behavior.
She laughed a little, touching a light gloved forefinger to her pulled-back hairline, then closed her eyes and breathed deliberately, making her nostrils flare like little pink wings with the intake and exhalation of air.
"Fine. Right. Let's hurry and get out. I hate all the attention."
We left the soft pastel enclosure of her room and she held onto my arm so that she could hold her skirts away from her heels and walk steadily at the same time. Her mother was waiting, one hand on the peak of the curl of the banister, head turned to talk with Natalie's aunt. When she heard the soft rustle of Natalie's dress she whipped around and promptly gushed, hands quivering like little insects. The two of them surrounded us in a fall of high squeals and croons like little silver pellets of rain and I smiled, mostly because I thought it was funny. Natalie was smiling like the expression was a weapon, like she was trying to fight them off with it. And that made me smile wider.
"Pictures!" Natalie's mother announced, hands flitting to the camera ready around her neck. They trapped us at the bottom of the stairs and took pictures of us facing each other, holding hands, linking arms, sitting, standing, embracing and kissing.
I wanted to leave and have Natalie to myself, but her mother took her by the wrist.
"Come on, let your father see you," she said breathlessly, and Natalie nearly had to trot behind her, holding her skirts up with one ineffective hand. I followed behind, a spectator to the presentation, waiting until Natalie's moment was sufficiently captured, when she could then be turned over to me.
"Here," Natalie's mother breathed, turning to her daughter and touching her hair with the pads of her fingertips. Tugging on one of the ringlets framing her face to make sure it bounced back into place properly, she turned and called over her shoulder.
"Mike! Come see Natalie!"
I had never known much about Natalie's relationship with her father, or her father in general. She always dismissed the topic when I brought him up, like it was trivial to even mention him. I had stupidly assumed that he was trivial, probably because a son could never understand what a father means to a daughter.
Eventually, he emerged in the doorway from the dark living room, like staggering from a cave. I saw Natalie's back straighten under her glimmery bodice, her creamy shoulders drawing together. She stood stiffly, detached, skinning herself from the moment. I recognized the gesture. Natalie did it when she wanted to wear her emotional armor, stretching the sheet of her feelings taut so that it was a blank white, unfeeling, unwrinkled indifference.
Natalie's mother raised her arms in a gesture toward her daughter, half embracing her, half showing her off.
"Isn't she beautiful?"
Her mother's voice was like a gunshot that signaled a beginning, then the moment hung in the air like the silence right before a dam creaks and breaks.
Natalie's father shifted, crossed his arms and slumped against the frame of the doorway, surveying Natalie almost clinically and working his mouth thoughtfully.
"Mmm," he grunted, and turned, rolling away from the door frame.
Natalie's mother interrupted before Natalie could react to it. She beamed, taking it upon herself to assume for everyone that her husband's response had been positive.
"There," she assured with finality, voice tender and quiet, "you look beautiful."
I wanted to interrupt. I wanted to ask them why the authoritative dismissal had been considered a needed punctuation of the process.
Natalie's mother turned her around, and Natalie looked smaller, withered, defeated, like a different girl, frail and strange, wearing a Natalie costume.
I took her arm gently, afraid I would break her, and led her outside to the car.