It's My Body and I'll Cry If I Want To
By Sharleen Jonasson
Published by Bold Books 
September 2001; 0968709400; 227 pages

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It's My Body And I'll Cry If I Want To by Sharleen JonassonChapter One

Just once I’d like to look in the mirror and not feel like there were a whole lot of eyes staring back at me from the other side.

I stepped out of the shower, watching my progress in the foggy rectangle on the back of the bathroom door. One shadowy leg moving up and over the outside of the tub. One foot on the floor. An arm extending and then the hand at the end of it reaching for the vanity counter for balance. A torso, wrapped in white cloth as if bandaged, and an indistinct face with a knot of brownish hair atop it. The other arm and finally the other leg, the last joining in rather clumsily.

I took the towel off, pulled the elastic out of my hair, and looked at my soft-focused self in the steamy glass. Pale spheres of breasts and feathery hips parenthesizing a dark fact.

I stepped forward, acquiring additional features: smoky eyes, reddish mouth, the soft stains of two nipples, a waist, and a blackish triangle—slightly off-kilter, like a stick-on patch stuck on without due care and attention.

(Of course, I could get that fixed. I could get it inverted, or depilated, or metallized and dusted with blue to look like an SOS pad—complete with a digital assistant to tell me when to expect my next period and remind me when to make an appointment for a PAP test. They can do just about anything, these days.)

I stood, nothing between me and my reflection but condensation thin as a layer of gauze, and thought that I could still be almost anyone at this point.

 

A tousled hair babe with breasts as firm and round as baseballs and the body fat of a meat skewer. Or, the unremarkable woman who stood two cranky customers ahead of me yesterday in the checkout line at the drugstore. Or a woman of mature years and limited finances with an abdomen tattooed with the stretch marks of childbearing, breasts left unaided to feebly contest the rights of gravity, eyes with bags the size of hope chests under them, hips as wide as a walk-in fridge and the facial hair of a Neanderthal.

Or a movie star.

Behind me, on the counter, was a jumble of tools and cosmetic condiments to help me wash, dry, brush, tweeze, shave, clip, file, make-up, powder, deodorize, moisturize, condition and perfume myself—including something called a "revivifier" that I bought with an almost-maxed-out credit card from a shopping channel hawker with white hair and three-inch orange fingernails at three o’clock in the morning less than a week after Rusty had packed his bags and I had given him a warm hug and wished him well in his soul-searching and assured him that I really meant it. (And did. Sort of.)

In front of me, a slab of glass that cried out for attention: still covered with a thin veil, except where a false tear had formed and dribbled down to the mirror’s bottom, beveled edge.

I picked the towel up off the counter, bunched it, and pressed it hard against the top edge of the mirror.

"Okay, baby," I said. "Surprise me."

I drew the towel down in one long, unbroken sweep and—

Was that the phone?

I switched off the fan. Yes, the phone. I wrapped the damp towel around me, twisting and tucking one edge under the other just inside my left armpit as I sprinted down the hall to the living room -- realizing too late that it was highly unlikely yet certainly possible that Paige may have let a friend into the apartment while I was in the shower and that they could right at that moment be peeking out her room door at her mother's ridiculous, terry-covered rump. Never mind, Paige mustn't be allowed to reach it first. If it was Rusty, and if Paige were to answer, I probably wouldn't even get to say so much as hello to him. Though if it was Rusty, he was probably only calling to arrange something, a movie or dinner at some trendy restaurant, with Paige, anyway.

I lunged at the phone, paused to take a deep breath and check that the camera was off and my favorite likeness -- myself coifed and posing in a borrowed suit jacket with impressive lapels, looking very together, from the neck up, at least -- still loaded, and pressed "Answer."

Wait—did I really want to deal with him right now?

The audio beeped and light and color burst onto the screen and bounced around the way it usually does before it forms a face. It took nanoseconds but seemed like it was happening in slow motion, as an accident will when you're unlucky enough to witness one. That same arrested spell of time during which all you can do is watch.

"Hello, calling for Beth Sharp."

The face, live, not a still, was one I'd never seen before. It was a woman, with what seemed to be a brownish tattoo on the side of her shaved head, just above the left ear. She was sitting close to the camera, her nose reflecting some off-camera source of brilliance. No visible make-up on her face, not that she was trying for the natural look: she'd plucked most of her eyebrows. Either that or she had one of those hair-loss diseases recently rumored to have hit this continent. So maybe she hadn't shaved her head, either. Who was I to judge, and could I care less? I wasn't that curious about people anymore. Bad sign, in my line of work.

"Speaking," I said. "But I don’t use that name anymore. It’s ‘Middleton,’ Beth Middleton."

"Good afternoon, Ms Middleton. I'm calling you because I, and some of the people I work with, have something we'd like to discuss with you. An assignment."

She looked as if she could barely contain her excitement. I made an impatient face, which of course she couldn't see (I remained safely behind my still), and said nothing, which was unfair because of course how could she know I was standing there in nothing but a damp towel, which I now loosened to relieve myself of the lump in my armpit.

"It's an assignment only a very special person can fulfill," she went on, as if I was supposed to be impressed. "And we suspect you may be our woman."

It could be another one of those organizations dedicated to eliminating government-run fish farms, or regulatory boards governing the cloning of domestic pets -- she definitely had an anti-something look about her. What was coming next, undoubtedly, was a pitch for me to help her and her organization achieve something of importance for humankind, by way of me providing some of my time and skills. Free of charge of course. A donation to their worthy cause.

"Why don't we start with who and what you represent?" I suggested, a polite smile now applied on my face, which she couldn't see either. "Then we can decide if your suspicions are well-founded." Because there was always a chance this could lead to a decent-paying job. Or, just a paying job.

"This is a very sensitive assignment. I'm afraid I can't discuss it over the phone. But we've taken a good look at some of your work and we are very interested in you and I think once you know more about what we propose, you'll feel the same way about us. If you're able to meet with me in person, I can answer all your questions. To the best of my ability, anyway. If you'll allow me an hour of your time, I don't think you'll regret it." She shifted and leaned back in her chair, revealing the top of a sweatshirt the color of cayenne pepper.

"I can usually afford some time to look over an interesting proposal," I said. I always liked to get in the word "afford" when referring to my time, to make it clear my time was money. You got what you paid for, and I was still a professional. Who charged professional rates, or as close to them as I could command. In fact most of the people who contacted me wanted to know first off how much I charged and if they thought it too much they thanked me for my time and rang off. Half the time they didn't even bother to thank me. I noticed she still hadn't asked.

"What's your address?" I asked.

"Oh, we'll come to you!"

I glanced around the living room, at the fat motivational guidebook I'd used to bore myself into sleep the night before, lying open face-down on a sofa pillow, at the empty wine glass and dirty plate beside the listing tower of old Global Grrl magazines on the coffee table, at the mangled pop can tossed on the floor, courtesy of Paige. It would take ten minutes to tidy things up, and I couldn't be bothered.

"No, that's fine. As a rule, I don't see clients in my home; I go to them. What’s your address?"

"Actually, we never have outsiders come to our office."

"Outsiders?" I asked, not bothering to keep the impatience from my voice. The damp towel was beginning to give me a chill.

"People not members of our organization." She had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. "It's just a rule we have."

I rolled my eyes. The bald head tilted a bit to the side, revealing more of the tattoo, though all I could make of it was a line, or some sort of string. Or tail. Then she looked at me (that is, at my likeness) again and said, "I have this evening free. Is that too soon for you? Would tomorrow morning be better?"

"You can come tomorrow morning." I sighed, and didn't care if she heard. "Ten o'clock?"

"I'll see you then."

I grabbed a pen and scribbled the time on my message pad. "Your name?" I'd almost forgotten to ask. Talk about deteriorating skills.

"Darby."

"And your last name?"

"That is my surname. It's what I prefer to go by."

"Darby, then," I said. "By the way, who gave you my name? Or did you just get it out of a directory, a skills search on my particular experience or something?" I was listed on a couple databases, Association of Professional Information Packagers and Professional Communicators Association of North America, for example. But I was listed as Beth Middleton.

"Oh, it's not just your experience -- you even look perfect for this part, if you'll excuse my commenting on your appearance. Sorry."

She didn't sound it. And anyway, what did she mean by that? Already I was beginning to regret agreeing to meet her. "If this is something for which you need someone to make personal presentations --"

"The project is something that requires a woman who can present a certain image --"

"Then you definitely don't want me.  I rarely work on jobs that require me to go out and meet people face-to-face because I prefer to work out of my own home." I put the pen down. This woman, hands now clasped behind her shiny head, was not likely to turn out to be a serious business prospect. "I'm a casual kind of person. I don't even own a proper business suit. I work in old sweats and a pair of poodle dog slippers. That's how I think best. If I were to go on camera right now -- which I'm certainly not going to do because I just stepped out of the shower -- you'd see what I mean."

She put her hands down, leaned into the camera and shook her head to cut me off. "Oh, but that's fine. We've seen you in the flesh, and I'm telling you, you're perfect."

She switched off, and I immediately put a trace on it. But the number was blocked and I was still standing there glaring at the blank screen when Paige and some recent friend of hers I'd never met before wandered into the living room, giggling.

Copyright 2001, 2002 Sharleen Jonasson
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

Beth Middleton, lapsed feminist, is recently separated from her husband and is the custodial parent of their frequently hostile 14-year-old daughter. A failed investigative journalist in a financial and career slump, she’s wary of the offer, from an unconventional source, of an exceptional assignment: Will she infiltrate an elite beauty clinic to uncover details of a state-of-the art treatment soon to be unleashed on an unsuspecting market? The anti-beauty guerrilla who briefs her claims the treatment could expose millions of women to possibly mortal danger. Beth decides to do her bit to help loosen the hold an increasingly unrealistic beauty industry has over women including, potentially, her own daughter (and also perhaps resolve the ongoing contest between herself and her bathroom mirror). So she signs on as a client at this institution devoted to improving appearances -- and finds many things are not what they appear to be at all.

It’s My Body and I’ll Cry If I Want To delivers a captivating look at the pursuit of beauty in the not-too-distant future. The plot is strikingly original and fast-paced, the writing is smart and funny, and the author clearly has a terrific sense of the absurd.

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Reviews

"It's My Body is wry, intelligent and objective, poking fun at an industry where others might have been tempted to uncover a soapbox. If Jonasson has a political agenda with It's My Body it's agreeably masked behind the clarity of her prose."

- January Magazine August 2001

(back to top)

Author

Sharleen Jonasson is the alter ego of a business journalist who writes for publications in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The list of her publishing credits includes Office.com, Onvia.com, Backbone Magazine, Canadian Living, and Canadian Business. Her short fiction has been published in Mississippi Review and Blue Fiction. She lives in Victoria, B.C., Canada, with her husband and three children.

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