ONE PERSON AWAY
At 12:30 on a Saturday our bus pulls into the Grand Teton Mall in Idaho Falls. Tracy rubs eye shadow on the girls' lids and Vaseline on the boys' abs. Then she puts on "Born This Way" and we all get Pumped Up. When the song is finished, we gather our supplies -- boombox, Madonna CDs, glitter guns, and head to our station near the food court. Before founding the Gay Intervention Recruitment League (GIRL), Tracy was the star of a line of exercise DVDs called Workin' it with Tracy. Her abs are the best of the bunch. Mine are, without question, the worst.
At our place in the mall, Tracy straightens the collar of my flannel shirt, licking her fingertips to plaster down the flyaways of my ponytail. My role on the GIRL team is to act as the "before" gay. Tracy chose me because I have a plain face and am slightly overweight, so the teenagers of middle America will recognize themselves in me. I hand out the pamphlets, conduct the interviews, and lead the pimpled, closeted youth to the makeover station. The rest of the group performs their choreographed dances, flipping their edgy haircuts out of their eyes and flashing seductive smiles. Showing the kids of the mall that being gay doesn't have to mean the bespectacled geek in their theater class, or the old lady who lives on the edge of town with her "friend" Roberta and their twelve cats. Showing them that sometimes all you need is to meet that one person who brings everything into homo-focus. "Being Gay is One Person Away," or so our slogan says.
For me, being gay feels fifty thousand people away. I took the job with GIRL when I moved to New York after college and realized that living there can't make everything else in your life magically fall into place. When Tracy said I was "just the one she needed," GIRL was my new New York. I would make friends, meet someone, get a makeover. It would be just like a movie montage. But all it's done is make me feel like even more of an outcast than I was before. Kind of ironic, considering we're supposed to be helping kids feel good about the whole thing. I watch a girl in line at Jamba Juice stare at Lexie and Sarah dancing together. The cashier is asking what she wants but she doesn't even notice. I can't say I blame her. None of the members of GIRL are supposed to date, but I hear the pillow-muffled moans coming from Lexie's bunk at night. I'm a light sleeper. It's not like I wait up trying to hear them. And I have eyes. I see the way they look at each other in the morning while eating their Greek yogurt. I know they think they're in love, but it's not going to last.
Sarah's hot, sure. She's got that whole "Shane" thing going on. But that's about all she has going on. Lexie is different. Each town we stop in, she goes to the library. Checks out Annie Proulx books and finishes them by the time we leave three days later. She only wears makeup when Tracy slaps it on her before our mall sessions. And she cries at every episode of The Biggest Loser, while Sarah gags and says, "You could hide a basketball in one of his rolls!"
I feel a smack on my ass. "Come on Brenna, let's get some gays!" yells Tracy, firing her glitter gun out into the crowd. Mothers in capris grimace and shield their eyes. "Get out there and rope 'em in!" She jumps around me in circles, making a lassoing motion with one hand and gulping down a Red Bull with the other. I grin and shake my head. The woman is thirty-eight years old and loves this as much as the day she started.
I look for the Jamba Juice girl, but she's disappeared. I notice a ginger kid standing in front of Hot Topic swiping at his cell phone, unconsciously singing along to "Express Yourself." I walk over, picturing myself lassoing him in.
"Hi there," I say. "Pretty good song, right?"
He shrugs and keeps playing with his phone. "It's alright."
"Pretty good dancers too."
He looks up and I see his eyes zone in on Aaron's lips sliding down Eric's shiny stomach as Eric pops his booty better than Beyonce even can. The ginger kid's cheeks go from freckled to red alert in about two seconds. Poor redheads, never able to hide their feelings.
I hand him a pamphlet. A BRIGHT FUTURE LAYS AHEAD, it says, with a rainbow falling through skyscrapers to land on an attractive lesbian and gay couple. I hate handing these things out with a mistake in the goddamn headline. A bright future lies ahead. Tracy's strength is in her abs, not her grammar. I keep telling her we need to make new ones, but she insists on using up the ones we've already printed, making us look like the dumb, superficial bunch we are. The kid looks skeptically at it, but as I start walking towards our station, I feel him following me.
Thirty minutes later he emerges from the makeover station in bright red skinny jeans and his hair done in an Elvis pomp that must be at least six inches high.
"Own the ginger, girl," says our stylist Leo.
"Mind if I take your picture?" I ask.
He throws his hand on his hip and juts his chin out, all boldness, but I see the insecurity linger in his eyes. I snap a shot and promise to email him a copy. I flip through my pictures of America and transformed teens: windmills silhouetted over sherbety skies, a girl with freckles and a brand-new nose ring sticking out her tongue, hay bales like gigantic cinnamon buns plopped haphazardly in freshly-cut fields, a boy in a hot-pink blazer with a mesh tank top underneath smiling shyly. The dichotomy of the landscapes and the portraits makes me smile, and I'm glad I splurged on the fancy digital SLR camera before joining GIRL. Sometimes I daydream about an exhibit of my photos, something to make this whole journey seem worth it. But I have no idea how I'd go about that, and the photos probably aren't even that good.
When the mall closes we've made thirty-three successful recruits. Not the best day, but not the worst. We all pile into the bus and argue about what we want to eat for dinner. The 'bos want something healthy and the 'mos want fried chicken. I'm so tired of eating out, I would take a feeding tube at this point. Tracy works out a "compromise" by taking us to a combination KFC and Taco Bell. Sarah complains the most but then polishes off a bucket of chicken. After dinner, we pull into an abandoned lot near downtown and settle in for the night. Everyone packs into the "living room" of the bus to watch Dance Moms, and instead of screaming at the top of my lungs, I grab my camera and go for a walk. When I'm about fifty feet away from the bus, I hear someone yelling my name. I turn around and Lexie is running towards me.
"Where you going?" she asks.
"Just taking a walk," I say, trying to tell myself that her joining me doesn't mean anything.
She starts walking along next to me without asking if I mind, which I like. As we get closer to downtown, I see a large white structure stacked like a wedding cake peeking out from above the trees. It seems out of place in such a small town.
"Do you have any idea what that building is?" I ask.
"Oh, that's a temple," she says.
I look at her skeptically. "Are there really that many Jewish people here in Idaho?"
She laughs for about thirty seconds and then says, "No, an LDS temple." When I keep looking at her blankly, she clarifies. "Mormon, although they don't really like to be called that."
"How do you know this stuff?" I take a picture of the temple, Lexie's head framed below it so it looks like she's wearing a towering Lego hat.
"Isn't it funny how none of us really know anything about anyone's life before GIRL?" she says, looking down and picking at a hangnail on her thumb. "I grew up Mormon. Take a guess how that turned out."
"Wow." I look at the temple and then back at Lexie. "Maybe that's why you seem different than everyone in the group."
She nods, doesn't dispute that she's different or ask me why. "What about you? Why are you different?"
I want to say, Look at me, what do you think? "Well, I don't think it has anything to do with how I grew up. It was a pretty standard, nonreligious, macaroni-and-cheese Saturdays kind of thing. I just don't think I'm so... sparkly."
She laughs. "Sparkly things lose their shine at some point."
I can't tell if she's talking about attractive people getting older, or her losing interest in Sarah. I could ask her to clarify, but I want to hold out hope that she's talking about the latter.
When we're almost back, she says, "That's a really nice camera."
"Thanks," I say. "I emptied out my savings account on it, but I take a lot of pictures, so."
"Let me see some," she says, gesturing for the camera.
I hand it to her and she spends time looking at each photo, smiling. "These are really good, Brenna."
I shake my head and grab the camera back from her. "Oh, I don't really know what I'm doing. I just like it."
"Take a compliment," she says, pushing me lightly on my shoulder.
"Well, thanks," I say, trying to stop myself from grinning like an idiotic hyena.
"Could I borrow the camera sometime?" she asks.
"Sure, whenever you want," I hear myself saying, when I never let anyone borrow even a pen.
The next morning it's Sunday, so we get to go out to breakfast at IHOP. After a regrettable decision of stuffed French toast, I'm spending some quality time in the bathroom when I hear two people come in.
"Is it bad that I love IHOP?" It's Lexie.
"It's adorable," says Sarah. "I love to watch you eat." Gag. It's silent for a minute and then I hear saliva swishing around mouths. Who makes out in a public restroom? I feel another wave coming on, and I clench my bowels, trying to stay silent. I'm in the last stall by the wall and hope they won't notice me. Two stall doors slam, one after the other.
"So you asked Brenna for the camera?" says Sarah. Her belt clinks and she starts peeing. It sounds like someone is spraying a garden hose in the toilet.
"Yup," says Lexie. She rolls some toilet paper. "She said it was fine."
"You guys were gone for a while on that walk," says Sarah.
"Well, I was just following her," says Lexie. "It's not like I could ask for it right away. I had to make it seem natural, like I was actually interested in talking to her and seeing all of her pictures." Lexie starts peeing, in small tentative streams.
"Were they all of you, taken stalker style?" asks Sarah. "For her Lexie shrine?"
Lexie screeches a laugh. "They were like, landscapes and stuff. Pretty boring."
"What a surprise," says Sarah, flushing. "Well she can keep the headshots after we're done, so she can at least have some good-looking photos."
They wash their hands and then the bathroom door thuds shut behind them. I can't believe my own stupidity. For eating that French toast, for thinking Lexie was different, for joining GIRL, for thinking that things will ever change. I keep sitting on the toilet even when I'm all emptied out. The last thing I want is to get back on that bus with those people. I wait what has to be twenty minutes. I keep expecting someone to come in looking for me. When I go back out to the restaurant, our table is cleared. I look outside and see everyone getting back onto the bus. I crouch behind a plastic plant and tell myself that someone is going to have to come drag me out of here if they want me to get on the bus. I picture Tracy coming in, her look of surprise when I tell her I'm done. I watch a waitress go by with a gigantic plate of sausage, bacon, ham, hash browns, and eggs, and when I look back the bus is making its way out of the parking lot. Before I know what I'm doing, I run out the door and after the bus. It's at a stop sign, waiting for traffic before pulling out. My right flip-flop falls off and I keep running, pebbles piercing the bottoms of my feet. The remainder of French toast sloshes around in my stomach. I reach the rear of the bus and slap my palms against it until I get to the door. The driver opens it, and I get on. I look at everyone, panting.
"Oh, Brenna!" says Tracy. "We thought you were on the bus."
I gesture around wildly. "Did you see me on the bus?"
"Well, I guess not," she says, "but we thought you were here."
"How could you think I was here?" I scream and stomp. "I was not here, I was definitely not here!"
Everyone shrugs. I crumple to the floor of the bus. Leo reaches out and puts a limp hand on my shoulder. I push it away and dig a pebble out of my heel while the bus lurches forward, pulling onto the street. Tracy presses play on the boombox and "Born This Way" blares on. Sarah shoots a glitter gun and they all start dancing. I watch as the tiny silver flecks fall to the floor, sticking to my skin when I try to rub them off.
Celia Laskey was raised in Brunswick, Maine and attended Emerson College. She currently works as a copywriter at an advertising agency and lives in Brooklyn with her partner and two cats. She's had work published in BlazeVOX and The Fiction Circus. Her favorite cheese is every cheese.