Fiction: You Look So Pretty When You…
By Kirstyn Petras
He remembered first having the dream on December 2. Henry was never one to claim his memory was infallible, but he rarely remembered his dreams. If he jerked awake, he could not say if he had fallen from a building, been chased by a raccoon, or had tumbled over a cliff. It was gone the moment after his eyes opened.
But he lay on his back, sweat making his t-shirt cling to his skin, staring at the ceiling, and running his tongue against his gums, the tips of his canines, the grooves of his molars.
In his sleep, every tooth had shattered and turned into sand, a grittiness filling his mouth as he tried to spit out every shard of broken bone. Henry got up, trying not to disturb Rose as she lay curled against the other side of the bed, and walked to the bathroom in the hall. He stared at his reflection, pulling up his lips and making sure the pearly white smile was still in place.
December 2 had also been the first time he’d seen Wendy in months. A visit to the newest developments at the border of South and Central Harlem, making sure that his company could start renting out $4-6,000 a month apartments with “unbelievable, panoramic views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline,” according to schedule and soothe any investor concerns as the buildings grew closer to completion.
Henry had been walking along 125th St, on his way to catch the train back to the office, when he paused, looking into the window of a rock-climbing gym, sure he had imagined it.
But no, there was Wendy, her long chestnut hair tied back into a ponytail, studying a wall intensely, her hands covered in white chalk. He had watched as she jumped to hold on to a bright pink handhold, the muscles in her back pushing against a green tank top. His eyes had been transfixed as Wendy moved her way up the bouldering wall, the tips of her toes helping her balance as she reached higher. He couldn’t tell if he wanted her to fall or not. He had been stuck in place until he felt someone hit his side, knocking him to face the opposite direction. He had heard the man who hit him cursing, a fading tirade about slow walkers and tourists.
Henry had turned back towards the window and saw Wendy was back on the ground, taking a sip of water. If she saw Henry, felt his eyes on her, she hadn’t shown it.
Back in the bathroom, Henry ran cold water over his face, trying to shake the image out of his head. When had she started rock climbing? He remembered her place in the Upper West Side, a tiny space that was close enough to a train station he didn’t have an excuse to not stay over, with a fluffy gray rescue cat missing half its ear. There was always hair at her place, stuck in the shower drain, on the couch wherever the cat sat, and in the sink when she was done brushing her hair. It had always smelled like coffee and sugar cookies, a combination of her candles, baking, and old, old coffee maker that would gurgle every morning, an alarm clock that always woke him because he knew Wendy would be coming back to the bedroom to sit beside him, give him a kiss, and make him sit up before pressing the cup into his hands.
He cursed, shoving his hands back into the cold water and rubbing viciously at his skin, pushing his fingers into his eyes.
“Babe?” He heard Rose’s voice from the next room. He swore, mentally this time. He turned off the water and that bathroom light and crossed back to the bedroom, lifting the blanket, and laying down beside her.
“You okay?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep.
“Yeah,” he said, resting his palm on her thigh above the duvet. “Yeah, just had a bad dream.”
“Since when do you dream?” He couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a question. He chose not to respond either way and pressed his lips to the top of her head.
“Get some sleep, babe,” he told her, scooching down so he lay flatter against the pillow. She didn’t reply, presumably already following the instruction.
Henry ran his tongue across his teeth again. Still there. Not cracked. Not broken. Still perfectly stuck in his jaw.
Chalking up the dream as a one-off, he closed his eyes.
Henry hadn’t realized when he and Rose had started dating just how much of a holiday person she was. He knew she loved Halloween, and that her parents really cared about Thanksgiving, but that had not prepared him for Christmas, and just how much she wanted to decorate and do. It seemed every day she had a new ornament for the tiny tree she’d set up in the corner, or there was fake snow to put on his — no, their, now, their windows — while the New York City sky remained a bright, sun-filled blue. There was a wreath for the apartment door, tiny presents wrapped perfectly in shiny paper appearing under the tree, and little snowmen and reindeer in snow globes on the bedside tables. But, it was when he saw batches of ready-to-bake pull-apart cookies appearing out of the oven that he finally cracked.
“I’m not gonna eat that shit,” he told her, looking down at a pile on a plate.
Rose didn’t look at him, busy putting plates into the dishwasher.
Henry’s jaw twitched.
“I said I’m not gonna eat that shit,” he held up a cookie with a deformed reindeer head, a factory defect.
“Uh,” She looked at him blankly. The timer on the oven started beeping.
“Did you make more?” He threw the cookie back down.
“What the hell crawled up your ass?” Rose asked, turning her back to him and opening the oven door.
“They’re disgusting,” Henry said, “why couldn’t you just bake?”
Rose raised her eyebrows as she put the tray on top of the stove.
“I did bake.” She said. “I made these.”
“The Pillsbury-fucking-dough boy made them,” he snapped. “They aren’t real.”
“You know I don’t know how to bake,” her eyebrows were still well above their normal resting place, “if you want to make ‘real’ cookies you can do it yourself. I like these. I wasn’t making you eat anything. So why are you being such a dick?”
“I don’t like how they smell.” He said, finally.
Rose frowned at him. “What if we bake some together?” She asked, “Do you know how?”
Henry shook his head.
“We could try? Do you know any recipes?”
“I don’t cook. Or bake. Or whatever.”
“So, neither of us knows how to bake, and you’re mad I bought cookie dough?” She tried to laugh.
His jaw twitched again.
“I don’t want to walk into my kitchen and have it smell like this.”
“Yes, my kitchen.”
Rose stared at him with one hand on her hip, the other against the counter, tapping her nails against the butcher block, any trace of humor gone.
“What am I supposed to do then?” She asked.
“I don’t know, just, get that shit out of here.”
Rose said nothing, looking like she was chewing the inside of her cheek. Finally, she opened a drawer and grabbed a plastic bag and the plate of cookies before storming past him. He heard her rustling through the closet, the jingle of her keys, then the slamming of the door.
He stood still for a moment, glaring at the other cookies she’d left sitting on top of the oven. He could see misshapen Christmas trees and snowflakes. Henry reached down to take one, his fingers brushing the top of the hot tray. He hissed and accidentally squeezed the cookie in his hand. It burned his hand as he turned it into a brown playdoh-like mush.
He smashed them all, leaving his palm red and angry, before throwing the entire tray into the garbage can.
He found himself outside the rock-climbing gym again. He was sure he wouldn’t see her there, but he couldn’t help himself.
Wendy was leaning against the counter at the front, laughing as one of the employees said something to her. He’d always found it strange, how she laughed with her whole body. Her stomach and chest would heave with each breath, tears would form in the corners of her eyes, mouth open in delight.
She didn’t notice him, and he turned around, knowing he needed to get the train back home.
At his pre-prescribed six-month checkup a week later, the dentist said it looked like Henry had started grinding his teeth at night. She suggested a mouthguard, and he thought about the nightmare, about his teeth shattering like glass. She recommended a few brands to him, but it wasn’t a big deal, he thought. He’d just order a cheap one off Amazon and it would be fine.
Lying in bed that night, Rose made no comment about the plastic in his hand but did give him a kiss before he put it in his mouth. Their fight had not been discussed, but they had resumed a quieter version of the old status quo. Henry felt himself drifting off to sleep, trying to relax.
He was greeted in sleep by a woman with a dark ponytail. He tried to say hello to her, tried to introduce himself. She stared back at him with eyes of pure white, her skin hanging off her bones.
“Why are you smiling?” She asked him.
Henry let his mouth fall open, unsure of what to say. Why shouldn’t he smile at her? Be kind to her?
“I hate it when you smile,” she told him, pointing one claw-like finger at his mouth.
He tried to speak, but she was on him in an instant, pushing him down so he was lying on his back. Her legs curled around his waist, and she reached for his head, scratching his jaw. He kept his teeth locked together, holding his lips closed tight, as her hands slammed on his face over and over, knocking fragments of his incisors into the air with every blow.
Henry jerked away, gasping, his hands immediately feeling for his jaw. He pulled out the mouthguard, a large crack visible in the cheap plastic.
He was called out to the Harlem developments shortly after Christmas. Cold weather was causing some delays on the construction. Snowstorms in other states were making it difficult to get expected shipments. He listened to the usual explanations and was drafting an email to his boss on his phone when he walked past the rock-climbing gym. He immediately paused to look inside, but he couldn’t see her there this time.
Annoyed, he finished the email and quickened his pace to the train. It was too late to go to the office, but maybe he could make the tail end of happy hour. He raced down the steps when he heard it coming, his coat billowing behind him as he dashed for the open door, a hand reaching out to keep it from slamming in his face.
“Thanks so much,” he said, panting, looking over at his savior.
“Oh, hey,” she said, realizing who it was. “No problem.”
Henry swallowed, looking down at the top of Wendy’s head. She was wearing a large hoodie, and golden studs in her ears he’d never seen before. She had one earbud in her right ear, the other free to listen to the world around her. A safety precaution, she’d told him once.
“When did you start climbing?” He asked before he could stop himself. She looked up at him, confused.
“You, rock climbing,” he gestured awkwardly to her hoodie.
“I, uh, I don’t know, a few months ago?” Her eyebrows furrowed together, the expression of what does it matter to you plain across her face.
The automated MTA voice came through the speakers, announcing the next stop.
“I was just wondering,” he said quietly, shrugging and looking at a spot beyond her shoulder. He could feel her eyes glance back up at him.
“Are you okay?” She asked. His heart skipped a beat, and he looked back toward her.
Henry was cut off by the doors opening, other passengers coming on board, pushing him closer to Wendy. He was uncomfortably aware of how he must be crowding her. How he hadn’t been this close to her since she’d left.
It was almost a year ago when she said that she was done waiting for him to decide she was enough. That she was deciding for them both. After three years, instead of wondering why she wasn’t enough, she was going to leave instead of deciding to settle for less.
He had smirked at the end of that conversation. Remembering the feeling of slipping between Rose’s legs. Knowing he had a perfectly fine option waiting for him.
Wendy had snapped him out of the memory when she slammed her bag on the floor by the door, grabbing her jacket off the hook.
“I just hope you actually make her come,” she had said. Her bottom lip quivered, but her gaze was steady.
“Daisy or Lily or Rose, whatever the girl you’ve been fucking’s name is.” The words seemed to tumble out of her. “Whenever you’ve seen her, you have that same fucking smile. And I wonder if it’s because she’s really that much better at stroking your ego, or if it’s because you’re reliving what it feels like to have a woman actually come on your cock, ‘cause God knows you never felt it with me.”
“You, no, no! You—” He was confused. Furious. She was obviously lying. There was no way; he’d have known, and how did she know? It didn’t matter. How could she say that? “I would never—”
“You’ve never smiled that way when you look at me,” she had said, heaving the bag over her shoulder. “I’ve never made you look that way. So just go do whatever the fuck you want with the one who does.”
Henry tried to create as much space as possible between himself and Wendy, but it was difficult with the number of commuters squashed in around him. Wendy grimaced, though he couldn’t tell it was to appease him, an unspoken bond of MTA passengers that they were all aware the situation was far from ideal, or if it wasn’t for him. If her expression was about his proximity to her.
“I’ve been okay,” he finally answered her when the train started moving again. “Been busy.”
“The buildings on 124th?” She asked him, and he knew what she was talking about.
“Yeah, those are ours.”
She nodded. “The locals aren’t happy.”
“They never are.”
She grimaced again. She’d never liked his job, either.
“How about you?” He asked, “How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been good,” she said, the grimace flicking to a grin, “really good.”
“You look good,” he said before he could stop himself. “I mean, you, I—”
“Thanks,” she stopped him before he tripped over himself with his backtracking. He felt the corners of his lips twitch up when another thought crossed his mind.
“Wait, what are you—”
The automated voice started speaking again.
“Isn’t this you?” She asked, nodding towards the platform beyond the train. He looked out and saw they were at 42nd St.
He was immediately being pushed out by passengers, fighting to both come on and get off. When he got onto the platform, he tried to catch another glimpse of her, but Wendy had already slipped out of view. The train doors closed, and with a screeching of metal, continued the journey downtown. Henry continued staring long after the train had disappeared, a question burning in his mind.
That night, with Rose in the shower and the apartment quiet, he pulled up Wendy’s Instagram page. After she had ended things, had bruised him with such finality, she had blocked him on everything. He assumed Rose, who had posted photos of them together almost immediately afterward, was also blocked. He created a fake profile and let himself scroll.
There were photos of her cat, photos of her, and her friends from college. Nothing that would suggest why a girl who lived and worked miles north of 42nd St would be heading further downtown than him at six o’clock on a Wednesday evening in January.
He knew it was riskier, that she sometimes checked who looked at her Instagram stories, but he couldn’t help himself. He saw a post of two cocktails, a dark bar, her blue painted nails holding the stem of one glass, a larger hand, a masculine hand, near the other one.
After work drinks with @timmrey_nolds <3 Was stamped on the photo in the corner, and a location tag of a cocktail bar near the Seaport.
He felt the now familiar tick in his jaw.
No way that Timm Reynolds, he thought, no way could this guy be better than him. Better at holding her, at making her scream. At smiling in whatever way she wanted to be smiled at.
And, he thought, holding the phone so tight his knuckles turned white, what sort of pretentious fucker spelled Tim with two M’s?
The white-eyed woman changed between laughing and crying the next time he had the dream. Milky tears fell down her sunken cheeks into his bloodied face as she forced his jaw open. She destroyed every single tooth, smashing the shards into a pile of dust at the back of his throat, leaving his gums scarlet as he screamed in agony.
Henry woke up with his face wet, Rose’s hand on his arm. He picked up a pillow and apologized for waking her, saying he was going to sleep on the couch. He did not sleep, but stared at the ceiling, imagining different faces for Timm Reynolds, each one more grotesque than the last.
The next time Henry was in Harlem, he waited at a bar across from the gym, sitting by the window. He slowly sipped pint after pint, ignoring the texts from Rose asking where he was and if he would be home for dinner.
Finally, he saw her walk out of the gym, her hair loose around her shoulders, dressed in jeans and heeled boots with her hands in the pockets of her burgundy coat. He threw three twenties on the table and slipped out the door, following her as she walked to the train station.
Henry stayed a little ways behind Wendy, making sure she didn’t spot him, not looking her way for too long in case she could feel his eyes burning into the back of her skull. He saw her enter a train compartment and entered a few doors down. He hung in the opposite corner to her, glancing up when the automated voice announced the next stop, to see if she was leaving.
Wendy got off at the Fulton stop. Henry followed suit, making sure there was plenty of room between the two of them. She walked down to a row of cobblestone streets filled with bars with little signage or fanfare. He paused at the corner, trying to angle his back to her, waiting.
Henry turned to see her arms wrapped around a tall man with close-cropped hair, and a plaid scarf around his neck. He gave her what looked like a very, in Henry’s opinion, perfunctory hug, before holding the door open for her.
Timm didn’t smile at Wendy.
He waited until he was on the train back uptown before looking at Instagram again. There was another story with Timm Reynolds tagged. He bit his tongue. Hard. Better than letting loose the expletives running around in his mind and becoming the next viral video of a crazy MTA man.
But that fucker had not smiled at Wendy. Henry’s smile might not have been perfect, but how was that better than not smiling at all?
He wandered into the apartment two hours later to see Rose curled up in a blanket on the couch.
“Henry? What the hell, what happened? Are you okay?”
He waved a hand at her, stumbling towards the kitchen, grabbing a glass from the cupboard, and looking at the small collection of bottles on the counter.
“Henry?” Her voice had an edge of anger to it. “Who were you with?”
“No one,” he shook himself as if shaking off a bug that had landed on his shoulder.
“Where were you?”
“God. Out. I went out. I can fucking go out.” He popped the top off the vodka bottle and tipped it sloppily into the glass. He took a swig before looking at her.
“Don’t go there,” he said, taking in her expression.
“You come home drunk, ignored my messages, won’t talk to me. The fuck am I supposed to think?”
“I didn’t fucking cheat on you,” He slammed the rest of the vodka back. “There? Happy?” He swayed where he stood and put a hand back on the counter.
“You promised me,” she crossed her arms tightly across her chest, standing across from him, glaring him down. “You promised it was me, and no one else. That you would never do that to me.”
Henry let out a laugh that was more like a scoff.
“I did not cheat on you,” he said, “I went to the bar and then went to another bar, and then I came home.”
“Why didn’t you message me back?”
“Let me ask you something,” he said, taking a step closer to her. “Do I smile funny?”
“Do I smile funny?”
“I don’t— I don’t understand.”
“Do. I. Smile. Funny.” He spread his lips wide, showing her his teeth, moving his head from left to right.
“It’s not what I want to fucking see right now if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That’s what I thought,” Henry tried to take a sip straight from the vodka bottle, but Rose’s hand closed around his, stopping the bottle from reaching his lips.
“Get off me!” he yelled, trying to shake her off him.
“The fuck is wrong with you?”
Henry managed to escape her hold and stumbled to the couch.
“My smile,” he said. “My smile is what’s wrong.”
She didn’t reply to him, and he put the bottle to his lips, then pulled it away again.
“How was I supposed to smile for her?”
Rose was silent. Frozen. Henry tipped to his side, eyes closing. It hardly registered when Rose reached for her phone on the coffee table, when she picked the blanket up off the floor and tossed it over his shins.
He woke up the next morning to the sun burning his eyes through the living room window. His head was in pure agony. He took a few deep breaths and tried to sit himself up. He would have to move the curtains back into place, at the very least. He couldn’t bear the sunlight beating directly on him.
He looked at the coffee table and saw a glass of water and a bottle of pain meds on top of a note.
We need to talk. Tonight. I’ll call at 7.
“Rose?” He tried to call out, but it came out hoarse and cracked. He gulped down some of the water before trying again. “Rose?”
But he was very aware Rose was gone. The apartment was too quiet. He remembered her face last night, remembered how he’d behaved. He wanted to be more ashamed of himself but couldn’t bring himself to be.
He spent the day in the dark, nursing his head with more pain meds and minimal noise. By the time Rose called, he felt almost human. And had a large portion of her stuff already in suitcases. Her beauty supplies neatly arranged in makeup bags and carrying cases. The shoes she wore most frequently were in the only box he had, an Amazon package he had left to return.
“Henry,” she said as soon as he answered.
“I don’t know—”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Last night was—”
“I want to—”
“I already have some of your things ready to go.” He said. “I’ll leave the place tonight so you can come get it. We can figure out the rest later.”
There was silence on the other end.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re not even going to talk about this? You’re just kicking me out?”
“Weren’t you calling to break up with me?”
“Well, I, I didn’t—”
“So why prolong it? I’m heading out now. Take all the time you need.”
He ended the call before she could reply.
He knew the way to Wendy’s apartment; had been there enough times he was able to autopilot his way there.
Henry pushed the intercom and hurried up the stairs to her door when she buzzed him in without her asking who it was. She opened it while his hand was still poised to knock.
“I heard you—” She cut herself off, looking up at him.
“Hi,” he said.
“Henry? This isn’t a good time,” she tried to tell him, but he entered the apartment without her permission.
“What did you mean,” he asked, ignoring her expression between incredulity and fear, “when you said I didn’t smile for you?”
“You said I didn’t smile a certain way for you. You said I didn’t—whatever. What did you mean? What was wrong with, what was wrong with how I…” he let the question trail away.
“You stormed into my apartment now, after how long, to ask me that?”
“You didn’t love me,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
“No.” He shook his head. “No, I loved you. I love you.”
“Don’t,” she held up a hand. “Stop.”
“I didn’t love Rose,” he was still shaking his head, bouncing his weight from foot to foot. “I didn’t. I thought I might’ve, but I didn’t. See? And that’s over. Over. So why don’t you like my smile?”
“Henry,” her voice was too gentle.
“No, no, see, was it too much? Not enough? What did I do?”
“Hey, babe,” Henry’s head snapped up to see Timm standing in her doorway. “What’s going on?”
“This is Henry,” Wendy said, slipping her arm around Timm’s waist. “He was just leaving.”
“No, he was not just leaving.” Henry pointed an accusatory finger at Timm. “He doesn’t fucking smile at you either. Is that it? Do you not want me to smile at all?”
“Listen, buddy,” Timm took a step towards Henry, and Henry took a step back, his back against the fireplace.
“Just tell me!” He screamed, “tell me why!”
“I told you why!” Wendy yelled back at him. “Get him out of here, please!”
Henry tried to move towards Wendy, and Timm took a firm step between them. Henry tried to sidestep him, but Timm caught his jacket and pulled him away from Wendy.
“Back off, man,” he said, “She wants you to leave, so just leave.”
“No!” Henry screamed, slipping out of the jacket, and again trying to get to Wendy. Timm grabbed his arm and spun him away, towards the open door. Henry landed hard on his ass in the hallway. Timm tried to shut the door, but Henry stuck his foot out to stop it from closing. Timm tried to slam it harder, and Henry let out a yelp of pain, but he didn’t move his leg.
“I’m calling the cops,” Wendy called from inside.
Timm tried to kick Henry’s foot out of the way, but Henry scrambled to his feet and shoved the door open with his hand. Before Timm could try to shut him out again, Henry tried to throw a punch. It was sloppy and untrained, but his knuckles collided with Timm’s ear.
“Fuck,” the man cursed, holding one hand to his ear.
“Timm!” Wendy cried, but Timm was already recovering, throwing his own fist at Henry, and with much more accuracy.
Timm’s punch hit Henry’s cheek, and Henry could taste blood in his mouth. He spat red onto the white tile of the hallway and held up his fists again.
“Timm, stop!” Wendy screamed, but Timm didn’t care. He threw another punch at Henry, and Henry reached for his waist. Timm’s arms wrapped around Henry’s shoulders, detaching him from Timm and pushing him towards the stairs. Henry tried to catch his balance on the top, but Timm’s strength was too much. He tried to pull Timm with him, but Timm managed to catch the railing while Henry tumbled down to the landing, his skull smashing against the tile with every step.
Henry groaned, curling to his side, trying to take stock of his body, of just how much was hurting.
He heard footsteps, and a shadow crossed in front of him. He saw bloody fingers twist into his shirt, pulling his chest off the ground.
Pain exploded across his face, across his mouth, as the fist slammed into him once, twice, three times.
“Timm!” He heard the scream above him, as if from another world.
Henry was dropped back to the ground, blackness filling the corners of his vision. He felt something in his mouth and opened his lips, watching as blood, scarlet and sticky, spilled out. He coughed, once, twice, sending pieces of white skidding across the tile.
He forced himself to roll onto his back and move his head to the other side, facing the stairs toward Wendy’s apartment.
His face trembled, his jaw a mess of misery, but he managed to curl his lips upwards. He heard the shocked gasps of more than one person.
“Is that better now?” he asked, his eyes closing. “Saved it just for you.”
Kirstyn Petras is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer but primarily identifies as caffeine in a human suit held together by hair spray and sheer force of will. She has been published in Punk Noir, Hoosier Noir, Alien Buddha Press, City Lights Theatre Company, and A Thin Slice of Anxiety. Her debut novel, The Next Witness, was released in 2022 by Cinnabar Moth Publishing. When not writing, she trains contortion and aerial hoop. She is also the co-host of Dark Waters, a literary podcast exploring all that is dark, dreary, and wonderfully twisted.