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Puddles reflected car lights like winking windows. Adriana scurried through the rain, looking for the address of the agency. When she found it, she sheltered in the building entrance to shake out her umbrella. Water droplets flew over the steps. Her new top was wet. She checked her phone and posted on her social-media feed: Overslept, kids didn’t wake me, had to stand on the bus, now drenched! I think I’m Bridget Jones! *Smiley emoji* Her friends would find that hilarious. She had a big following. She thought about taking a selfie of her wet top, but she’d already posted her tits three times this week. Someone pinged her back: Good luck at the interview!
The sign that announced the offices of Ugly Models was unexpectedly beautiful: elegant silver and black. Adriana snapped a pic. She might post that later. Ironic, she would say. In the reception area everything was shiny and corporate. It could have been an agency that handled Beautiful Models. Although in that case, Adriana wouldn’t have been here. The reception desk was a sleek glass table with nothing on it except a silver laptop and a single red anthurium flower in a bottle. It winked its stiff red petal at Adriana. Behind the table a youngish man reclined in a black Eames-copy desk chair. Adriana looked him over and decided he’d rank about a seven on the one-to-ten scale that ranked every person in the world from ugly to beautiful. He was staring at the laptop but looked up and smiled when she came in. She smiled back at him and said hi and he continued to smile and said hi back. So far so good.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes, sure. Yes. Yes, you can. I’m here to register on your books, for modelling. And movie-extra work. I read your website.”
“Did you fill out your details online? Upload some pics?”
“Yes, yes, I did. And I actually have an appointment today. Oh, I should’ve said that. Yes, at eleven. With the casting director.”
“Great! That’s great. I’ll let them know you’re here. What’s your name?”
“Adriana,” she said, resting one hand on the glass tabletop. She leaned closer to him and giggled. “There’s not a casting couch, I hope,” she said, and giggled again.
He was typing a message into the laptop but looked up at her, at her brown face and prominent nose, at her expressive bosom in her tight-and-low-cut top, still damp.
“Not that I’ve heard of,” he said, and laughed too, though not enthusiastically. “I’ve let the casting director know you’re here. Eve is her name.”
“Oh, Eve, thanks, thanks,” said Adriana, and stopped leaning on the table. If Eve wasn’t interested in her tits, she didn’t see how she was going to get the gig. And getting onto Ugly Model’s books was just the first step. Then some ad team or movie casting person or big director had to want Adriana’s particular face, her style. The website had emphasized that.
Eve appeared a few minutes later from behind a white door. It swung from a paneled wall where no door had previously been suspected. Adriana straightened up. Eve scored highly on the one-to-ten-ometer, an eight at least. Adriana wondered why everyone employed at Ugly Models was so non-ugly. Adriana herself, with her big schnozz and fat lips and brown crinkles around her eyes, her low hairline and wide mouth – well, for obvious reasons she refused to even engage with the one-to-ten thing. Ugly didn’t bother her. Her focus was on another scale altogether, the one where the whole point was personality, and verve, and zaniness. On the zany scale, Adriana was a ten out of ten. All her many friends said so. Anyway, from the neck down she was back on the other scale, and pretty damn gorgeous, on any friggin’ scale. Plenty of men had confirmed that.
Eve looked blankly at Adriana. She tapped something on the screen in her hand.
“Hi,” she said. “Adriana? Nice to meet you, thanks for coming in. Let’s go through to the studio.”
“Oh hi, Eve. The studio. Sure. Let’s go to the studio. Nice to meet you.”
Beyond the white door, the Ugly Models decor was far less sleek. Eve led Adriana down a corridor cluttered with cardboard boxes and spare furniture, where the walls were papered with posters showing faces and figures of an astonishing variety. Eve led Adriana down a corridor where the walls were papered with posters depicting an astonishing variety of faces and figures. Who knew that humankind was so varied? Fat and thin, giants and dwarves, pierced and smooth, frizzy hair, straight hair, no hair. Skin colors across a rainbow spectrum. Some were possibly not natural, she thought, pausing to peer at a blue-faced giant with piercings in most bits of his facial skin. Eve’s heels clacked down the linoleum corridor. Adriana snuck out her phone to take a few pics. Her followers would love this. She gawped at the faces, a wild tribe. Was she ugly enough for this agency?
They arrived at a business-like photographic studio, bare and black, except for a lighted screen at one end. There were several camera tripods and a photographer whom Eve introduced as Eddie.
“Hi, Eddie, hi hi hi,” said Adriana, still fiddling with her phone. She’d snapped a couple of good shots of the blue-faced man. She wondered if she could excuse herself and go to the loo so she could post them right away. Eve was making a short speech about the agency, how long it’d been going and how many clients it had. Adriana heard her say character models and certain types and quirky fashion shoots.
Adriana watched Eddie as he fixed settings on a camera. From the side he looked conventional enough: black clothes, longish hair, just one modest tattoo on the arm that she could see. When he turned and grinned at her, his buck teeth showed. Immediately she liked him. That whole one-to-ten-scale was meaningless in this studio. She straightened up and her heart swelled; this might be her tribe, right here. She made an effort to listen to Eve, who was finishing her speech.
“I’ll leave you with Eddie,” she said, “to get a few shots for your profile.”
Eddie asked Adriana to stand in front of the lighted screen. She posed self-consciously with her hands on her hips, her head thrown back, and her impressive tits thrust out. She’d included a few shots of this pose with her application. The kids had taken them for her. There was one in her red dress too, with her long night-black hair spread over the crimson satin. Very sexy. Eddie snapped a few shots.
“Turn towards me, a bit more, that’s lovely,” he said. “Now left a bit, perfect. Could you open your mouth?”
Adriana opened her mouth, smiled, pouted, looked angry and made faces. He asked her to jump in the air and fist-pump while grinning. He asked her to hold a prop – a crystal ball – and lean over it as if reading the future. She peered into the crystal and saw her own face, strangely unfamiliar.
When the photoshoot was finished, Eve reappeared. She and Eddie looked through the shots on the back of his camera, and Eve said no – no – yes – no – yes – yes – no. When she was satisfied Eve came over to Adriana, waiting on a purple velvet chaise longue. The studio lights threw their shadows up the wall like two towering fairground clowns. Eve looked at her screen.
“I think we’re about done,” she said. “Oh yes – there’s something I need to check.” She leaned forwards and peered at Adriana, staring into her face, then she leaned back, assessing from afar.
“Yes,” she said, “I think we can put you down for Greek, southern Italian, Maltese, and…”
“Lebanese?” said Adriana, “since that’s what I am?”
“Really?” said Eve, sounding surprised. “Our middle eastern girls are usually more…”
“I was born here. My parents were from Lebanon. Don’t you think my looks are exotic?”
“Hmm, yes, exotic.”
“Do you get much call for my looks?”
“Yes, yes, we do. In fact, I might have a job you could be right for. Not Lebanese, though. Is that okay?”
“Sure, sure!” said Adriana, abandoning her heritage without a second thought. “Just let me know, anytime, I can start anytime.”
“I’ll call you,” said Eve, smiling, and led Adriana back down the corridor of grotesques to the shiny reception area. Then she left. The receptionist guy looked up at Adriana and smiled once more. She smiled back. Everyone was so smiley here.
“It must be fascinating working in this place,” she said.
“Sure is. All kinds come through that door.”
“Really? Like who?”
“Oh, character models.” He winked. “You know what I mean?”
“You mean ugly people?” Adriana put on her broadest grin. The receptionist chuckled, an embarrassed little sound.
“Oh, that’s just a business name, a joke, you know. Character models is a better description.”
“Well, it looks like Eve might have a job for me already. Isn’t that great?”
“Congratulations. We might be seeing you around, then.”
“Yeah. You might.”
As Adriana sauntered out, she passed a female bodybuilder in stretchy clothes and a fat man with rolls of neck flesh spilling from his shirt collar, on their way in. The reception guy smiled at them.
At home, the kids could hardly contain their excitement when Adriana told them she might have a modelling job.
“Hey yeah, cool,” said one from the couch.
“Yo,” said another from behind the open fridge door. “What’s for dinner?”
Adriana thought how she loved her daughters, both of them. She wondered sometimes if this affection was returned. It was hard to tell. Returned affection was the best kind; that’s why Adriana spent so much time on her social media feeds. All that love coming back at you, all the likes and *heart emojis*
Eve called the next day. The client liked Adriana’s looks and she should present herself at this advertising agency address, as soon as possible, or pronto, as Eve put it. Adriana spent ages fixing her makeup and choosing an outfit. Eventually she raced out. As she hurried from the bus to the address she’d been given, it began to rain again, and again she was drenched. It was worse this time since she’d forgotten her umbrella, or maybe lost it. She took a pic of her wet feet and posted: story of my life! *sad emoji*
The advertising agency office was in a renovated brick building off a trendy alleyway. She raced up the ironwork stairs, tripped halfway, recovered, emerged at last, panting, before the desk that guarded the agency’s reception area. It was one of the big important ones. Would she be ugly enough? She pulled out her phone and took a pic of the desk with the agency name over it, so she could impress her followers.
After a short wait she found herself before the decision-makers and was introduced to them, an art director and the account executive. Their names were Virgil and Pete. They were putting together a big campaign for a supermarket chain. It would be about recipes, different global recipes. They eyed Adriana assessingly then told her they thought she’d be great for the Greek mother.
“I’m not Greek,” she said.
“Is that relevant?” asked Virgil, the art director. “Is that relevant, Pete?”
“I don’t think that’s relevant,” said Pete.
“I just thought you ought to know,” said Adriana.
They stared at her for a moment.
“You look Greek,” said Virgil.
“Okay,” said Adriana.
The photoshoot for the campaign was much more complicated than her session at the Ugly Models agency. It took all day, for one thing. A makeup artist spent hours on Adriana’s face. The art director had her in a dozen outfits before he finally decided on a red dress. Adriana could have told him that red was her color, if he’d asked, but he hadn’t. The dress had a high neck; they seemed to want a housewifey look. Two hairdressers fussed with her hair. She checked her social media feed while she sat in the hairdresser’s chair and took a pic of herself in the mirror. Dozens of likes pinged within five minutes.
The ad shoot had a set, a kitchen. There was a bowl of artificial lamb stew with mashed potatoes with which Adriana had to pose. Despite the fake stew having no aroma, it still disturbed her a bit, since she was vegetarian.
“I’m vegetarian,” she said to Virgil.
“Is that relevant?” Virgil asked. “Is that relevant, Pete?”
“No, I don’t think it’s relevant,” said Pete. He looked at Adriana. “But if you need to go puke or anything, just give us a heads up.”
“Do Greeks eat mashed potatoes?” asked Adriana. She had her doubts. She’d been to a Greek taverna with a Tinder date once; she didn’t remember any mashed potatoes.
“Pete?” said Virgil. “Mashed potatoes? Greek?”
“It’s okay,” said Pete. “Trust me.”
They had her looking down lovingly at the bowl of stew. That took a few takes. Then she posed holding the stew and looking straight out at the camera, with the smile of a happy mother and housewife who has cooked an excellent stew for her family. A Greek mother and housewife. Adriana wondered if she should have done some googling about Greek housewives, maybe checked out a few on YouTube. But when the long shoot was done, Virgil and Pete seemed satisfied.
“That’s a wrap,” said Virgil.
Adriana took pics of the studio and she asked some of the crew if they’d be in a selfie with her, and they said okay.
A couple of months passed and Adriana had almost forgotten about the Greek stew job. She’d been paid, and she’d spent the money quickly. Her television went on the blink, and then a mysterious sinkhole appeared in the driveway of her house, so she’d had many expenses. She would’ve liked more work, but Eve at Ugly Models hadn’t called again. Adriana told her friends it was because she wasn’t ugly enough. They responded by telling her she was absolutely gorgeous. *Blushing emoji* Her posts about the ad shoot had dozens of likes, but the ones about the sinkhole weren’t as popular.
She was riding the bus into the city one morning when the driver took a corner fast, and a huge billboard loomed close to the window next to her seat. Adriana had been reading her phone but looked up, startled by the lurch. There, right in her face, she saw her own face, holding a bowl of stew.
“Oh my God!” she squealed, and the other bus passengers looked at her. She craned back to see the billboard, but the bus had rushed on. Had she really seen it? She hurried off at the next stop and raced back down the route. It took about five minutes, pushing through the crowds, then she stood before the billboard. It was her. Across her bosom were the words: Helena’s Big Greek Stew and underneath the name of the supermarket chain.
“I’m friggin’ famous!” she shouted, and took a pic of the billboard. She sent a group message to all her friends. It wasn’t long before everyone was sending her texts saying they’d seen her on such-and-such a building, or in this-or-that online ad. They started calling her Helena, but she asked them to stop.
“My name’s Adriana,” she said, grumbling to her kids.
“Is that relevant now? I don’t think so,” said her oldest.
“What’s for dinner, Helena?” asked her youngest.
One evening Adriana was to meet her friend Aggy at a private viewing of the latest Damien Hirst exhibition at the Modern Art Gallery. As she circulated, looking for Aggy, people smiled, calling out “Hi Helena!” Her instinct was to smile back with the Greek housewife’s smile instead of her own grin, but she tried to resist the urge. It’d taken her years to perfect her zany smile, and she was proud of it. It’d done wonders for her social life. Now she was expected to act like Helena? She picked up a second glass of bubbles from a passing waiter – who also said “Hi, Helena!” – and eyed some canapés sitting on a small plinth. She was reaching to take one when Aggy came through the crowd.
“Adriana!” she said, and Adriana was grateful to hear her own name.
“Aggy!” They air-kissed.
“How do you like the exhibition? All these chrysalises hatching on the walls and turning into butterflies before our eyes!”
“Oh, is that what’s happening?” said Adriana, who’d been wondering. “I thought there were moths in the gallery or something. Have a canapé?”
“Oh, darling,” said Aggy, laughing, “those aren’t canapés! They’re the feeding trays for the butterflies. Don’t you love butterflies? The ugly caterpillars turning into such beautiful creatures?”
Adriana replaced the morsel she’d lifted from the plinth. She considered the butterflies fluttering around her head, tried to take a pic of them but they moved too fast. Instead she took a pic of the butterfly food. Canapés or art work? she wrote on her post.
“And how about you, up on all the billboards in town,” said Aggy. “How does it feel to be famous? I’m so envious!” Aggy gave a little squeee.
“It’s not me who’s famous,” said Adriana. “It’s Helena.”
“Helena is the butterfly. Don’t you think she’s the butterfly?”
“But you’re the same person, darling, surely?”
“Is that relevant now?” asked Helena. Or Adriana.
Helena appeared on billboards all over the city. Her black hair and long brown nose looked out at people from posters at bus stops. She smiled from supermarket windows everywhere. Her friends sent her texts saying they’d tried her big Greek stew and loved it, especially when they added a few olives from her sunny homeland. Helena’s inscrutable smile and her bowl of stew hovered over the city.
When the posters first began to appear in her local supermarket, she jumped with surprise whenever she passed life-sized pictures of herself. The thought flashed through her mind that it was someone she knew but whose name she couldn’t’t remember. Then she grew used to it. It was quite cool to be recognized everywhere. Her social media feeds jumped with the story for weeks. Her friends never seemed to tire of it. People stopped her in the supermarket aisles and asked for selfies with her. No one said she was ugly, or even a character. One little kid, in fact, tugged at her shirt near the breakfast cereal, looked up with big eyes and said, “You’re beautiful, Helena. I love you.”
One Thursday she walked past the butchery section, an area she usually avoided. Helena’s face was everywhere here, since she was selling lamb for the stew. She noticed a new set of Helena recipe leaflets on the counter and picked up one. She was interested to read that her two teenaged sons loved her Greek stew. She wondered what their names were. The leaflet didn’t say.
As she waited at the bus stop with her grocery bags she took out her phone and shared with her friends that she now had two teenaged sons, ha ha. That got forty likes and two shares within minutes. She heard someone call out “Hi Helena!” She sighed; it was becoming irritating, after all, being accosted all the time. She glanced up and saw her ex-husband leaning on a sign pole next to the bus stop, grinning at her. She didn’t see him much these days, not since he’d run off with the au pair, but she’d tried to keep things civil.
“Oh, hiya,” she said.
“How’re the two boys?” He laughed.
Helena puffed out her cheeks with annoyance. It was one thing to laugh about her new teenaged sons with her friends; it was quite another to be jeered at by her ex.
“Don’t start,” she said.
“Unnatural mother!” he said. “Can’t even remember if your kids are boys or girls!” He thought this was a great joke, apparently. That sound like a high-pitched dog-bark, that was his laugh. She recalled it well. Soon he began to really howl, holding onto the bus stop sign, bending over with a hand on his stomach. Other people in the bus shelter stared.
“Come off it,” she said, sniffing.
“Aren’t you going to invite me round for some stew? I haven’t seen the boys in ages.” He laughed and laughed.
A tall man in expensive-looking clothes stepped over and peered disdainfully at the laughing ex-husband. He drew his thick eyebrows together in a threatening scowl.
“You need any help here, Helena?” he asked.
She looked at him; she had a weakness for tall men with thick eyebrows. Simpering a little, she said: “My ex. He is being rather a bore.”
The attractive man stepped between them and told the ex to piss off. The laughing subsided to hiccups and the ex walked away.
“Bye, Helena,” he called out as he went. “Say hello to the boys for me. What’re their names again?” His laughter diminished as he rounded a corner. The attractive stranger turned to Helena.
“Some kind of father, not remembering his own boys’ names,” said the man.
“Yeah, he’s a real loser,” said Helena with an alluring smile. She straightened up to make sure he appreciated her décolletage. From the way he lowered his eyes, he seemed to. The bus drew up and they boarded together.
By the time Helena reached home she had a date to cook her big Greek stew for Roger, which was the name of the attractive bus-stop man. She heaved the grocery bags onto the kitchen counter, humming to herself, fluttering around, unpacking groceries. She remembered she’d have to go back to the butchery to get the lamb for Roger’s stew. Perhaps she’d try some too. A person could change.
Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. Her short stories have appeared in a number of Australian and international journals including BrainDrip, South Broadway Ghost Society, The Writing Disorder and Typehouse Magazine, and she was a 2018 Pushcart Nominee. She recently completed a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney and has launched fearlessly, and perhaps foolishly, into a Doctorate of Arts at the same university. She would like to acknowledge the support of her Sydney writing group, emerging writers all, who provide critique and support in equal quantities. Annette is currently working on a novel set on the Amalfi Coast in Italy.