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Sometimes I think my parents named me Jolie as a joke.
It means “pretty” in French, although that’s not why they chose it—I’m named after some long-dead great-aunt. But they had to know as soon as I exited my mom’s birth canal, when I was still all purple and covered in amniotic fluid, that Jolie Peterson was not going to be pretty. Très not jolie, if you will.
I’m a lot of things—the smart one. The reliable one. The one who can binge-watch an entire season of any drama on Netflix, no problem. But the pretty one? Well, that’s never been me. My older sister, Abbi, has always worn that crown—and also the prom queen sash and the Miss Brentley tiara. On the mantel in our living room there’s a framed photo of her smiling on the football field as she’s being crowned at the homecoming game, showing off her perfectly white, straight teeth that never even needed braces, let alone braces and a palate expander and a retainer and surgery and more braces.
Abbi’s looks have been cooed over and awarded forever; people simply avoid mentioning mine. I mean, no one insults me. No one says, Whoa, get a look at the jaw on that one! But when our relatives tell Abbi how lovely she is, they inevitably pause when they get to me, then ask vague questions about where I’m going to college.
I know I’m not hideous. I don’t terrify children, and dogs don’t bark at me. No one’s forcing me to live in the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
But I do have mandibular prognathism, which in non-oral-surgeon terms means I have an underbite—my lower jaw sticks out farther than my upper jaw. My teeth only meet in one tiny spot, which makes chewing difficult and means eating takes forever. I get headaches all the time, especially if I chew gum or talk too much. And it means that the oral surgeon’s office is my home away from home, if “home” is a place where someone constantly takes pictures of you in profile and then measures the distance between your upper and lower jaws.
But what matters to me most right now is that my underbite makes my chin stick out past the rest of my face, it makes my smile look weird, and it makes my face look awkward. It makes me anything but jolie.
But on June 2, two weeks after junior year ends and the day after my seventeenth birthday, I’m getting fixed. I’m having surgery to move my unruly jaw into place, and after a summer spent letting the swelling go down, it’ll all be over. Goodbye, jaw pain. Goodbye, being the last person at the table to finish every meal because it takes me forever to chew. Goodbye, headaches.
Then I’ll be normal. I’ll be like Abbi.
I’ll be pretty.
* * *
I’ve known I need surgery for years. Ever since my dentist recommended that I see Dr. Kelley, it’s been pretty clear that my problems aren’t exactly of the “totally fixed with one round of braces” variety. Dr. Kelley started me on a years-long plan that involved multiple rounds of braces and the dreaded palate expander. Seriously, a device that a doctor puts in the roof of your mouth and then slowly expands? It sounds like a medieval torture device, but it’s just something I had to have because my upper jaw was narrower than my lower jaw.
And then, of course, comes the surgery. My parents never pushed it; they were clear about it ultimately being my decision. But Dr. Kelley was honest about what would happen if I didn’t get the surgery. My jaws being “misaligned,” as she put it, basically means that my teeth rub against each other and years of that could lead to all sorts of complications. Plus, it turns out it’s kinda stressful on your joints when things are constantly out of alignment. I already have a hard time biting into food, and that would only get worse. Plus, I would have to deal with way more jaw pain as I got older, and possibly even problems speaking if my jaw continued to shift and grow. And when she put it like that … well, who’s like, Oh, sure, a lifetime of pain and difficulty eating? Sign me up.
But I can’t lie; the bonus effect it will have on my appearance, the normal silhouette I’ll have, the smile with my teeth lined up exactly where they’re supposed to be … that’s what I think about most of all.
Of course, when we first started talking about surgery I was barely a teenager—it was easy to say yes to something that seemed like a lifetime away. Now that I’m almost seventeen, it’s starting to hit me that this is really going to happen. Dr. Kelley is going to break my jaw, move it into place, and put in metal screws to keep it where it’s supposed to be. When I think about it too much, I get a little woozy and wonder what made me think this was a good idea. That’s when I reread the list in the back of my journal:
THINGS TO DO AFTER MY SURGERY
1. EAT AN APPLE WITHOUT CUTTING IT UP FIRST.
2. KISS A GUY.
3. WEAR GLOW-IN-THE-DARK VAMPIRE TEETH.
Eating a piece of fruit might seem like no big thing to most people, but when your teeth don’t meet in the front, biting into an apple is pretty much impossible. If I were ever in an emergency bobbing-for-apples situation, I would be screwed.
As for the second item on the list: I, in news that will shock absolutely no one, have never been kissed (unless you count a playground kiss, which I emphatically do not). The only boy I even talk to on a regular basis is Derek, and we’ve known each other since we were in kindergarten. I still see him as the awkward, bony-kneed kid I grew up with who used to burp the alphabet, even though now he rarely burps in front of me, and Abbi swears he got “way hot” over the past year and now looks “all sophisticated and suave like he’s James Bond or something.” I told Abbi that doesn’t even make sense because we still live in a world that’s incapable of having a black James Bond even though Idris Elba and David Oyelowo are right there, but she told me that wasn’t the point.
But my point is that dudes aren’t exactly lining up around the block to kiss me.
As for number three, those glow-in-the dark vampire teeth … they just aren’t made for people with underbites. Every Halloween I stare at them longingly, thinking of the Dracula costume that can never be.
And fourth? Smile. I mean, I smile now, but I never smile without thinking about how my teeth look. I’m always conscious of who’s seeing me in profile and wondering why my face looks so weird. It’s like I’m always looking at myself from the outside, always imagining how other people see me, always looking at myself through the lens of judgment. I smile with no teeth so no one will see the gap between my lower and upper jaws. I keep my lips slightly parted to make the place where my teeth don’t quite meet less obvious. And if I can’t avoid being photographed, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it’s not from the side.
Since I know my face will never be perfect (not until after my surgery, anyway), I have to compensate. I keep my hair in a wavy bob, making sure my bangs are always straightened and sprayed into submission. I’ve perfected my eyeliner, even though it took me, like, three weeks and no fewer than five YouTube video tutorials to get it right. I use a sheer pink lip gloss, one that makes my lips look nice without drawing too much attention to my mouth. And I always wear clothes that are cute but not flashy—I need to be trendy enough to keep up, but not so much that I stand out. If H&M had a section called “Dresses to Help You Blend in and Make Sure Eyes Pass Right Over You,” I would buy all my clothes there. As it is, I wear a lot of neutrals, no wacky patterns, and definitely no bold colors.
I hope that by making sure every other part of me looks good, people won’t notice my face. If I can keep everything else perfect, maybe my jaw won’t matter. I’ll never be one of those girls who can wear a T-shirt, running shorts, and a ponytail and make it look cute and effortless. Evelyn, Derek, and my family are the only ones who ever see me in sweatpants.
It’s exhausting, constantly feeling like you’re on display. Trying to be as small as possible. Trying to make yourself invisible.
But after my surgery, I won’t have to worry about that. I’ll be able to wear bright colors or pick out a bold lipstick. When my teeth meet in the front and I have a normal profile, no one will be able to get me to stop smiling—and by then, I’ll have a lot to smile about.
* * *
The most important thing to know about my sister, Abbi, other than the whole “she rolls out of bed looking like a beauty queen” thing, is that she’s pregnant.
We were all surprised when Abbi came home one day to tell us that she was two months along. She’s in her second year at a nearby community college, but she still lives at home, so we see her all the time. And she’s never, ever brought a guy home, not since her senior year high school homecoming date, Anthony, who was definitely gay and definitely not going to impregnate her. I just assumed she didn’t think any of the men of Brentley were worthy of her, which is probably true.
She told us at dinner one night like it was no big deal. “Pass the broccoli, and by the way, I’m pregnant.” My dad contorted his brows in confusion, but that’s the look he wears ninety percent of the time; honestly, he looked so shocked that I was a little worried I would have to explain to him how babies are made. A look of wide-eyed surprise passed over my mom’s face, but soon her calm demeanor was back, like the sun popping out from behind a momentary cloud. She’s never really been a yelling-and-pointing-fingers type of mom, so it wasn’t that weird that she immediately switched into “get shit done” mode and started planning out where the baby would sleep and how she’d be able to babysit and basically making plans for its first eighteen years. She was just being her usual “I accept your choices” school counselor self.
With Mom taking care of the conversation, I didn’t have a chance to say anything, even though I had one million questions. Questions like, Are you serious? and How could this happen to you? and Who’s the father?
Now it’s April and Abbi is a little over two months away from pushing out her baby (and pooping on the delivery table, from what I saw in a birth documentary on Netflix). She spends most of her time waddling into the living room, waddling into the kitchen, and studying with her books propped up on her gigantic belly. Oh, and watching television with my mom.
They’re obsessed with what I call Worst-Case Scenario TV. Their favorite thing to do is to park themselves on the sofa and turn on any true-life show about murder, catastrophe, or disease. A Dateline episode about a bunch of missing or murdered prostitutes? They’re into it. A special report about a woman who was terrorized by her stalker because the police wouldn’t intervene? They’ve watched it twice. An episode of Sex Sent Me to the ER about a man who broke his penis? Unfortunately, they’ve seen that one, and so have I. It was traumatic, and I wish I still lived in the state of blissful ignorance I had before I learned that genitals are capable of breaking. It all used to stress me out, but I’ve become used to it at this point.
Tonight, they’re glued in front of an episode of some show about medical mishaps.
“I just can’t believe this,” Abbi whispers, lying on the couch and shoveling another barbecue potato chip into her mouth. “Can you imagine a doctor leaving a pair of scissors inside of you?”
My mom shakes her head. “What a nightmare.”
“Did you see that episode of Grey’s Anatomy?” Abbi asks. “The one where a surgeon left a towel inside someone? Imagine! Living with a towel inside of you and not even knowing it!”
Dad walks by, holding a book. “Going to bed,” he says, and each of us turns up a cheek for a quick kiss. My dad has zero interest in Worst-Case Scenario TV. Besides teaching shop class at a neighboring high school, his main interests are (a) watching TV shows and movies that have happy endings and zero botched surgeries, (b) building furniture in the garage, (c) cooking, and (d) being confused by pretty much everything the women in this house do. But a few years ago he finally got strong enough to stay in the room whenever one of us mentions the word “tampon,” so I have hope for his future.
Once he’s upstairs, the show switches its focus to a doctor who was supposed to amputate a patient’s right leg and instead amputated the left.
“I woke up and thought, ‘Wait, this can’t be true…,’” the woman on the television says.
“I’m never going to a hospital,” Abbi says with a full mouth.
“Aren’t you having a baby in two months?” I ask.
“Shut up,” Abbi says, waving me off. “It’s just that hospitals are scary, you know? You go in for some basic surgery and the next thing you know, you’re dead.”
She shrugs and goes back to the woman who lost the wrong leg, but her words bounce around in my mind. You go in for some basic surgery and the next thing you know, you’re dead.
Because, hello, I’m going in for not-all-that-basic surgery soon. I mean, a doctor will be breaking my jaw and moving it into place.
What if the surgeon leaves scissors inside my body? What if she gets the wrong instructions and amputates my leg? What if I end up with a towel inside my body and I don’t even know it? What if I die?
“Oh my God,” I mutter.
“I know,” my mom says, nodding along as a man on TV talks about waking up in the middle of surgery.
I jump out of the recliner and walk into the kitchen, where I send a quick text to Derek and Evelyn. Derek is my forever best friend, but the best friend I actually talk to the most is Evelyn. I can’t have one best friend any more than I can have one favorite TV show or one favorite flavor of ice cream.
SOS. Emergency meeting needed ASAP.
Evelyn responds immediately. Applebee’s?
Of course, I type. And then, Derek, if you aren’t there, I’ll never speak to you again.
I was talking to my mom, chill, Derek responds after a long twenty seconds. He’s not a big texter, so he doesn’t place nearly enough importance on a quick response time. I’ll be there.
I grab my keys off the hook by the door and call out, “I’m going to Applebee’s. I’ll be back soon!”
I look into the living room to see Mom raise her hand in a wave, not taking her eyes off the television. Mom pretty much gives me free rein to go where I want because she’s “trying to foster independence” and “letting me find my own consequences,” but secretly I think it’s because she knows I’m such a dork that I’m never really going to get in trouble.
So why do Evelyn, Derek, and I hang out at a chain restaurant instead of, like, some hip bar that doesn’t card?
(a) There are no hip bars in Brentley, just the American Legion and this place called Happy Endings where middle-aged people hang out.
(b) Derek doesn’t drink because he’s never broken a rule in his life, and Evelyn says she’s only going to drink when she’s old enough to afford the good stuff.
(c) Appetizers are half off after eight p.m., duh. Have you even had those Chicken Wonton Tacos?
When I get there, Evelyn and Derek are already sitting at a booth in the corner, talking earnestly about something. Derek is wearing his usual uniform of a red hoodie and jeans, twirling a fork in his hands while he talks. Evelyn has her messy dyed-gray curls shoved into a bun on the top of her head and is patiently listening to Derek. Wearing her purple cat-eye glasses, she manages to be the most glamorous person in this Applebee’s. Which isn’t exactly some huge feat, but still. Evelyn has major plans to become a fashion designer, a dream she got when she had a hard time finding stylish plus-size clothing she actually wanted to wear. So now she makes all her own clothing and always looks amazing.
She immediately stops talking to Derek when she sees me and slams her hands down on the table so hard that the water glasses shake. “What is it? Tell me now!”
I slide into the booth, appreciating that Evelyn has never been able to stand a secret.
“This had better be important. I was in the middle of recording,” Derek says. He has a podcast called Deep Dive that he records in his bedroom closet (where he swears the sound is better, or at least it’s quieter because his twin seven-year-old brothers can’t find him in there). Whenever he has a break from his one million extracurriculars, he records an episode about something that he’s obsessed with, and since Derek is interested in basically everything, this has included topics from Charles Manson’s music career, to the early films of David Lynch, to moon-landing conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, this helps him pretty much kill it on the Brentley Academic Challenge team. I don’t think anyone at our school listens to Deep Dive other than me (even Evelyn can’t handle it; she says she’s not going to listen to Derek’s nerd rants in her free time), but he has a surprisingly big following in Denmark.
“What’s your next episode about?” I ask.
“Landfills,” he says. “Did you know there are over twenty billion disposable diapers dumped in landfills every year?”
I wrinkle my nose in disgust as Evelyn sighs.
“I can’t believe I have to say this to you two, but can we please not talk about diapers at a time like this? Jolie, what’s your emergency?”
I turn to face her. “I’m dying.”
Derek drops the fork and it clatters to the table.
“Ohmigod!” Evelyn says. “Are you sick? Do you have black lung?”
“Why would I have black lung?” I ask. “Isn’t that something coal miners get?”
“We learned about it in history class last week and it’s been stuck in my head.”
“So you failed your last pop quiz but you do remember what black lung is?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Diseases are easier to remember than dates and names.”
“Coal mining,” Derek says, his fork back in his hand as he fidgets. “That would be a good topic for Deep Dive.”
“Do they have coal mining in Denmark?” I ask.
“The people of Denmark aren’t my only listeners,” he counters.
“Right.” I smile. “There’s me. And your mom.”
Evelyn snaps her fingers. “Uh, hello? Are you just going to drop that you’re dying and then not finish the thought?”
Derek grabs my hands and inspects my fingernails. “No coal dust. I think you’re good.”
I pull my hands out of his. This isn’t going like I’d planned. “I’m not dying, like, right now. But I could die. In the hospital.”
Evelyn and Derek stare at me in silence for a minute. Then Derek says, “Have you been watching Worst-Case Scenario Television again?”
I squirm a little bit. “Yes, but…”
Derek gives me a serious look, then firmly says, “You’re not dying. Evie, tell her she’s not dying.”
She reaches up to adjust her glasses. “It’s not like you’re certainly going to die. But … well, it could happen. Sometimes people go under anesthesia and never wake up.”
“See!” I point triumphantly to Evelyn.
“My uncle had to have jaw surgery when he got hit in the face during a softball game,” Derek says. “And all that happened was that part of his bottom lip went a little numb. Literally the worst thing about it is that sometimes when he’s eating dinner he doesn’t realize that a piece of corn is stuck to his mouth until we laugh at him.”
I throw up my hands. “So you think I should be totally chill about facing a life of having unnoticed corn stuck to my face?”
“All I’m saying is that you’re not going to die in surgery.”
I turn to Evelyn. “You know my ‘Things to Do After Surgery’ list?”
She nods encouragingly. “Vampire teeth, apple eating. Yes, I know it.”
“Well,” I say, “I need to make another list. ‘Things to Do Before My Surgery.’ You know, in case I die on the operating table.”
Evelyn leans forward. “What’s on your list?”
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Derek says, sliding out of the booth before heading toward the back of the restaurant.
“I don’t know yet,” I tell Evie.
Evelyn leans back. “Just think about what you would regret not doing if you died.”
“I guess … I want to finish Jane Eyre.”
Evelyn notes this in her phone. She has a list for everything (“Things I Need to Do This Afternoon,” “Films I Need to Watch Before I Turn Twenty”), and I know she’s just started another one: “Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It (Which Is Super Unlikely, but Still, It Could Happen).”
“Let me get this straight,” Evelyn says. “You have two months left on this Earth, and you’re going to spend it reading? I mean, no offense to whatever Brontë wrote that, but…”
Evelyn doesn’t understand because she’s never been a huge fiction reader. Her shelves are filled with, like, weird German art books and other stuff she uses for inspiration. She says she doesn’t see the point in reading a book that’s been around for hundreds of years when she could be making something new … which I guess is a good point, but I like those books that have been around for hundreds of years.
“I wish I had time to read the entire literary canon, but I don’t,” I say. “So I’m going to focus on Jane Eyre. I don’t want to end up in the afterlife wondering if she ever gets together with Mr. Rochester. Oh! Okay, I have another one. You know that cliff that hangs over Brentley River?”
“You mean the one with the sign that says ‘No Jumping’?” Evelyn asks.
“Yeah, I want to jump off that. And,” I say, ticking things off on my fingers as I really get rolling, “I want to eat every appetizer on the menu at Applebee’s. We always get the Chicken Wonton Tacos and mozzarella sticks, but now that I’m staring death in the face, maybe we should branch out, you know? And I want to go to a real bar. And…”
I trail off as I think about my list of things to do after my surgery. Sure, I’m looking forward to biting into an apple, but what I’m really concerned about is kissing a guy. What if I die before I get the chance? Maybe I need to bump that one up, just to make sure I don’t turn into a sad ghost who can’t move on to the afterlife because she keeps floating around haunting cute boys she never had the chance to kiss.
“And I want to kiss Noah Reed,” I say, folding my hands in front of me on the table.
Evelyn’s eyes widen as she types in what I said. “Damn, girl. Aiming high. On that last one, anyway. The first one should be easy to accomplish.”
Derek sits down again, and we fill him in on the list we’ve just compiled.
“You know there are literally two bars in Brentley, right? And we’re sixteen?” Derek asks.
“And I might never get the chance to turn twenty-one!” I practically shout. A drunk dude at the bar sits up, scowls at me, and slumps over the bar again.
“You’re not going to die,” Evelyn and Derek say at the same time.
“And Noah Reed?” Derek asks. “Really?”
“Do you have something against Noah Reed?” I bristle.
Derek shrugs. “I just don’t see what the big deal is. You could choose to kiss any dude in school and that’s who you pick?”
Okay, well, I can’t really choose any guy to kiss, and finding a way to kiss Noah Reed is going to be a challenge, but whatever. I’m not going to argue that point right now. It’s not like Derek would even understand that Noah Reed’s hair is so fluffy and perfect that it’s basically sonnet worthy.
“I get that you guys don’t understand why I want to become more literate or kiss someone before my surgery,” I say. “But this isn’t your list. If it were, it would include, like, competing on Project Runway—”
“Please.” Evelyn sniffs. “I would blow them all out of the water.”
“Or getting syndicated on NPR—”
“No thanks,” Derek says. “Independent media is the future.”
“Whatever!” I shout. “That’s not the point! The point is that I want to do these things. I could die, and if I do, I want to be more well-read, and to have kissed somebody, and to at least know what the inside of a bar looks like. Even if it is Happy Endings. And even if I have to sneak in the back door or get a fake ID.”
“My cousin could help you with that,” Evelyn says, just as Derek says, “That’s super illegal.”
Evelyn puts her phone down as a waitress lays two plates on our table.
“Chicken Wonton Tacos and fried mozzarella sticks,” she announces before walking away.
“Here’s to branching out—next time,” Evelyn says, toasting me with a mozzarella stick.
Copyright © 2018 by Kerry Winfrey