Switch Flipped

She was too young. Even she knew that. And yet, being young was all about seeing how much you could get away with, including the painterly alteration of your face. Irina had started collecting makeup in secret almost a year ago now, when she was just eleven. And she had been able to stockpile quite a considerable stash. A bitch could make a lot of dough when she had grandparents and aunts and uncles furnishing her with a steady flow during every birthday, holiday and otherwise novelty milestone. Irina probably made more money than most working-class people—at least when taking into account that her “income” couldn’t be taxed. But Irina didn’t think about things in such terms. Like most “children” her age who wanted so desperately to rush into adulthood, she didn’t have a fucking clue how shitty it was to arrive there.

It was a place where a girl couldn’t even stare at herself in the mirror all day long if she wanted to. And lately, that’s all Irina felt like doing. Because really, she couldn’t help but notice how attractive she was starting to look, even if no one else seemed to see it just yet. It had nothing to do with a fuller chest or the formation of more noticeable curves. Maybe, in the end, it was just the makeup. Which she was only “allowed” to put on when her mother wasn’t around (with her mysterious father having already long ago “exited stage left”). Luckily for Irina, that tended to be most of the time. Alma claimed, of course, that she had to work, but Irina knew it was more than that. She wanted a reason to be absent. The pressure of being around a child all the time was too great for her fragile nerves. Apparently, running a high-stress kitchen at one of the premier hotels in New York was less taxing on her psyche than being around Irina for too long. Maybe if Irina could see things more objectively, she would understand that all mothers secretly resented their daughters. Not just for their youth that was essentially siphoned from their matriarch’s own nourishing womb, but for all the things that daughters prevent a mother from subsequently doing.

It’s different with the mother and son dynamic. The son can do no wrong in Mother’s eyes—probably because of a little thing called internalized misogyny that many women can never rid themselves of thanks to eons of inherited indoctrination. Hence, their contempt for the girl. The little twit of a do-nothing. What’s more, Alma couldn’t stand when Irina stared at her for too long. It made her feel uneasy. Like she was being appraised. Like the fucking bitch was plotting her death. Not because she wanted an inheritance, but, more likely, because she resented the fact that Alma wasn’t richer. Even at her present age of twelve, it was plain to Irina that she wasn’t like the rest of the kids she went to school with. Everyone seemed to have affluent parents. Maybe that was the curse of going to Vanderbilt Junior High. Something that only happened to her on a lark because her mother managed to get a rent-controlled apartment in that Upper East Side jurisdiction passed on to her from a close friend of her father’s. Perhaps that friend felt guilty in some way that Alma’s own father had absconded from his familial duties when she was younger, around Irina’s age. Or maybe the friend was just another perv who had a secret crush on someone inappropriate that could only be shown through material expression, if not consummated in physical aggression.

Whatever the true motive for Alma getting the apartment, it ended up actually making things worse for both mother and daughter. Mother because she never heard about anything other than what they didn’t have now that Irina had been exposed to how the other one percent lives and Daughter because she was presently doomed to be a social misfit. A charity case of a pariah. No one was “outwardly” mean to her, of course, That wasn’t really done anymore. Everything had to be “subtle”—passive aggressive. Still, Irina managed to make a couple of friends amid taunts like, “Irina? What kind of name is that? Are you a Russian spy?” With regard to those friends she did have, she wasn’t fully convinced they weren’t using her to garner some kind of clout. Maybe as “extra credit” for their college applications. But she tried to push such cynicism out of her mind. Such cynicism was something her mother would give in to. And Irina would do anything to avoid being like her. This was probably why she was so fond of “painting her face like a goddamn whore”—as Alma liked to call it (having caught her more than a few times “in the act”). Because Alma never wore makeup. Never had time to, as she so relished mentioning to Irina. “And you know why I don’t?” Yes, Irina knew why. But she would still give Mother the thrill of letting her finish. “Because I have to work all the time to support your lazy, useless ass.”

So one can imagine the severe state of Irina’s vindictiveness—her sheer irateness with Mother and the world—when she was given the opportunity to be left on her own more steadily than usual during a school break. “Left on her own” being polite code for “abandoned” because Alma didn’t want to deal with her and used work as the shield with which to avoid doing so. Well, let her avoid it. It gave Irina all the more chance to experiment with her maquillage. And while, yes, she wanted to retaliate against her mother with the vibrant rouges, bleus and violets of her palette, she didn’t exactly want to burn the house down. After all, it was the only thing that gave her jurisdiction for attending Vanderbilt Junior High—as Alma’s bank account certainly didn’t.

To use a lighting pun, Irina was still only dimly aware that there was a particular switch in the bathroom that had been strictly forbidden from being touched. Something had happened to it in the past month that caused the entire floor of the building to short-circuit whenever someone flipped it. This is what the electrician had told Alma the first time he came to give his assessment. For an extra fee, he said, he could actually fix it. In the meantime, he would reset the switchboard and generator. The landlord, Esteban, had been informed, but, thus far, no moves had been made to pay the electrician to actually fix the issue. Whatever arcane problem it might have been was, alas, made all the worse when Irina decided to absent-mindedly flip the switch for more lighting so that she might see her precious and beautiful face all covered in the fresh paint she had applied. So that she might admire the full weight of her Lolita powers.

Unfortunately, she only got to see them for a split second before everything went dark. Poetic indeed. For, had she known better, she would have fled from the apartment right then and there and made a career out of her looks (if you take one’s meaning). Because that fate would have been far preferable to the one that awaited once Alma arrived home to find it in pitch-blackness, the neighbors beating down her door in a rage—knowing full well that she was the culprit. Since a child of twelve couldn’t be held accountable for anything, much to Alma’s extreme dismay. And she took all that dismay out on Irina once the lynch mob had calmed down and the landlord was summoned, along with his own electrician (one of likely dubious qualifications in that he was “cheaper” than the man Alma had called in before). When Esteban told Alma that she was responsible for half of the bill because she had directly caused the latest “snafu,” that was all the license Alma needed to go completely insane on Irina, unleashing a torrent of verbal and physical abuse in concert unlike anything Irina had ever known. Nor would she ever again.  

As a switch had flipped literally, one had also been switched metaphorically, with something inside of Irina changing forever that day. She could no longer pretend she was an “innocent” girl of twelve. That being had died some time ago. And whatever was left, well, Alma had officially beaten it out.

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