A Forced Smile by Brynn Lietuvnikas

When I was five years old, my doctor handed Mother a sheet of paper. She gazed at it, a hint of curiosity and possibility in her eyes. I looked from her to the doctor. His face was impossibly graver. “Am I dying?” I whispered. Mother handed me the paper while she searched in her purse for a pen to sign it. It was warm from the official hospital printer. It read: Defect, physical and mental changes may occur to this patient due to external persons’ unconscious desires. “Mom, what’s a–what’s a…” She waited. “…de-ff-ect?” I sounded it out.

         Years later, I walked through the kindergarten door and my hair turned greasy and brown. The other girls didn’t seem to notice, but I thought I saw the teacher’s eyebrows knit. My hair changed back to blonde when I got home, but every time I came to school, it would happen again. I asked Lissie from school about her curly locks on Tuesday. She had crowned herself queen of us girls, and a natural smile crossed her lips when I asked her about herself. “Isn’t my hair sooo pretty? It’s like gold! No one else’s hair is like mine.”

         I got my first grammar assignment in third-grade. My pencil pressed too hard in blocky lettering, and every time I had to erase, my frustration grew. I called loudly for my mother. My lips quickly intertwined into something unable to open. Mother and Father were busy talking in hushed, angered voices in the dining room, but I was beginning to cry and needed to interrupt them. I made guttural sounds with the back of my throat until Father finally came into the living room to see me. He asked what it was. My lips were able to part again so I could explain to him my problem. We stared at the workbook together for a while. He sighed and decided English wacks must have changed shit because he had no idea what a Direct Object was. My father told me that I was smart, that I had been the one taught the fancy new lingo, that I could figure it out on my own. He left, and I figured it out.

         My parents’ angered conversations got louder as school blurred into summer. I learned to head for the fields of hay outside whenever the name “Brenda” was mentioned. If I was there long after they said that name, Father or Mother would begin questioning me about loyalty. As they took turns looking at me, I could feel my face change. My father had a broad-set face, with strength if not beauty. When he looked at me, my nose would expand to match his. When Mother did, I could feel my eyes flicker to her blue-gray. By the time school started up again, it happened even when they weren’t fighting.

         Sixth-grade was when things got especially hard. Every period, we went to a different classroom with a different teacher. It felt like each teacher had different expectations. Some were OK with talking. Some got mad if you breathed too loud. Ms. Joice had just lost her daughter to a case of the measles. I didn’t want to think about what happened to my body when I went to her class. Because of these constant changes, the other students looked at me weird. Because of me, the school newsletter wrote a column about how to approach the subject of defective individuals when the talk came up with their children. The kids in my class still played with me during recess, though. The only game I didn’t play with them was the race game. Everyone wanted to be the fastest, so I was always last.

         My father bought a new house with Brenda. Custody issues were resolved in court, and I spent some months with him and some with Mother. In summers at Mother’s house, sometimes I would forget the sound of my own voice. Father took up a passion for art, so I didn’t talk to him much either. Brenda loved to talk, though. She said every child should be raised in California. She said all salads should be made her way. She said I should look over the weight loss programs in her magazines. She said a real woman could keep her man.

         Change was a part of life, a part of my life in particular. Once I started high school, it started to hurt more, though. On the way to Brenda and Father’s place, my insides were crushed and squeezed. They kept trying to get smaller. On the way to Mother’s, my skin would become smooth and hairless, everything would pop into place until I was her little girl. On the way to class, different pieces of me would twitch into various shapes. I felt like a puzzle with its pieces flipped upside down and forced together.

         It became a habit of mine to get ready in the dark. I memorized the squirt needed for the right amount of toothpaste, where the holes in my shirts were, and how to place a pad in the exact middle of my underwear. All without needing to feel for it. All without a chance of looking in the mirror.

         By the time I graduated high school, it felt like independence had come too late. Every part of me held a grudge against the other. The college catalog boasted of several programs and clubs, but I didn’t know what I was good at; I didn’t know what I liked. Instead, I moved out and took a gap year to build up work experience.         In front of me, the kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom of my new apartment were all smushed together into a single space. It was claustrophobic. It was cast in soft brown and dull blue–forgettable colors. But tears fell down my cheeks without consent. I was alone, truly and utterly. And that made me happy. My crying made it hard to breathe without gasping. I went into the bathroom–the only room that was separate–to blow my nose with some toilet paper. From years of practice, I averted my eyes from the mirror during the process. Something itched at me, though. I was miles away from my hometown, from my parents, Brenda, and all my old classmates. What if…? I looked up into the reflective surface in front of me; I gazed into the mirror. And there I was. I searched for something foreign in my features, for the creature that must have lurked inside of me, the one that rearranged my organs until they looked pretty from the outside. There was no such being. Heart thundering in my chest (I was breaking my rules!), I lifted the front of my shirt. Soon, I was standing naked. I was a girl. Just a normal person. Slightly underweight, with a nose some would call too long or narrow, but I was a person. Underneath my defect, what people wanted me to see and do, I was a person. “Who would have thought?” I whispered.

Brynn Lietuvnikas has written many stories, some of which have been published by Hedge Apple. This story, though laced with fantasy elements, strikes close to home. Her whole life, she has struggled with defining femininity and what its place is in her life. When she came across “The Divine Feminine” prompt, she decided to give the internal issue another shot at working itself out on the page. She is proud of the resulting piece, and she looks forward to seeing how her future self will continue to write on the matter.

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