By Sophie Coats
If there was one place Katerina hadn’t expected to end up, it was here. Her hair was wet and she was cold, shivering so hard her teeth caught onto her lower lip and drew blood. When he told her to take off her clothes, she had given him a wide eyed look, and he responded by saying, “I showed you the examples, didn’t I? What did you expect?”
She wasn’t exactly sure what she was expecting. Honestly, she had been trying not to think about it at all, but she knew that she had found herself caught in her own naivety once again. When she had accepted the job, it had been a moment of desperation. But she knew, no matter how reluctant she was to admit it, that was not all it had been. She thought the man with hazel eyes and a one-thousand dollar camera who offered her money in exchange for taking her photos could make her feel something. She didn’t know what.
She took her arms from across her chest. The camera flashed.
A week ago, Katerina Stokes had worked at The Downtown Bean. She had worked there for three years, wandering into the small café during her sophomore year of college. She had reeked of desperation, the need to shrink the beast of looming college debt. The place was nice, with its soft, cool music that rolled out from the speakers, settling over her skin like a comforting hand. The chipped wooden booths had only added to its charm. It was an extra bonus that the owner seemed to be so willing to hire someone with little to no waitressing experience. Later, she found out why.
The owner of The Downtown Bean was not what she was expecting. With its vegan meal options and allergy-friendly menu, she had expected some sixty-year-old hippie with glasses and a friendly smile. Instead, she found a middle aged man with a beer belly and a mustache that he liked to pet as he talked. His name was Samuel Weaver. He liked her to call him Sam. Except when he was mad, and he had forgotten what he had told her, and yelled at her for calling him Sam, insisting she call him Mr. Weaver.
She had been the victim of his volatile tantrums enough times to know the signs of his anger: the reddening cheeks, his fingers running over his mustache, dramatic and slow. She knew them like she knew the Bible verses. Before she had traded small town life in the Midwest for city life in the north, her parents had forced her to go to church. It was okay in the beginning because the job was supposed to be temporary, but after numerous internships and interviews, nothing seemed to work.
Today was the first of April, and final exams had taken up most of the space in Katerina’s head, so she had spilled water right as Mr. Weaver had walked out from the kitchen. She had seen the familiar signs of anger, and she had had enough.
Before he could finish his rant on the horrendous effects of her mistake — someone could fall. I could get sued. I will be broke because of you — she had taken off her name tag, set it on the counter, suggested Mr. Weaver see a therapist (specifically one that dealt with anger management), and walked out.
It was during the walk from The Downtown Bean to her apartment that Katerina began to stress, really stress, about what she was going to do after she graduated college. Her mother had started calling her more frequently, asking questions about her future. Questions she didn’t have an answer to. Most of them began with “so, I’m sure there’s someone that’s caught your eye.” Her mother didn’t understand the idea of being alone, especially the concept of wanting to be alone.
At first, neither did she, but after her first boyfriend, Jason—the lawyer, as she’d come to refer to him later when she explained to friends why they broke up—Katerina was starting to feel like being alone was the best choice. When she first moved to Brooklyn to attend Fordham University (her parents only let her go knowing she was attending a good Christian school), she had been overwhelmed by the mass of people. Even the smell was different. Jason had swept in with his quick wit and city blood. He had made her feel safe; not so alone. But as Katerina learned the ins and outs of life in the city, she also learned that Jason had been with her because it satisfied some caveman instinct to protect. She was fed up with his comments on what she wore and what she did.
“Should you really be wearing that?” he had said to her one night during sophomore year. They were supposed to be going out to dinner for their one year anniversary. His feet were on the bed in her dorm room, his lips tilted downward in that condescending scowl.
“What’s wrong with it?” she asked, picking at the edges of her flowy, white skirt. So it was a little short. It’s not like it didn’t cover what it needed to.
“To be frank,” he said, fixing his glasses on the bridge of his nose, “it makes you look a bit slutty.”
It wasn’t the first time he had said something like this. She felt her blood boil. “To be frank,” she answered back, giving him a pleasant smile, “I’m not sure if it should be any of your business anymore.” With that, she had left her room, walked downstairs, and called her friends for a night out.
She had a temper like a shaken bottle of Coke. It fizzed and fizzed until finally it flowed over the rim. She blamed it on her father. While her mother was blunt to the point of rudeness, clear when things displeased her, her father was a quiet man. He took her mother’s attitude with a shrug of the shoulders. It was the little things, the off-handed comments, that sent him over the edge and ultimately lead to their divorce.
She took the stairs to floor six and unlocked her apartment door. It was a simple place with two bedrooms and a kitchen connecting to a living room littered with tea mugs. The living room had plain white walls, no decorations due to her OCD-like habits when it came to straightening the picture frame. It was never right. Always too far to the left or a little too much to the right. She grabbed her Snoopy coffee mug, only for private use, off the coffee table and filled it with tea. She sat on the beige couch and looked out the window at the sidewalks below. She saw the people, watched the baggy jeans and suits and high heels pass by. She needed a job, and if she was going to avoid living with her mother after college, she needed one fast.
Maybe quitting The Downtown Bean was a bad idea, but it was her senior year. Shouldn’t she be working some job that required her thinking skills and not just a smile, sometimes a low cut shirt, and a “have a good day,” to earn a good tip? After all, she had worked a few internships. Only one was ever paid, and each one she hated more than the last. Accounting was probably the wrong major, but she had liked the monotony of it. Once she learned it, she didn’t have to think about it any longer. It was easy.
She heard the door crack open.
“Well shit, you’ve pulled out the Snoopy mug. What’s up?” Alicia, a tall girl with hair cut in a short black pixie, asked as she walked through the door, dumping her beat-up denim purse on the stained, beige couch. A camera hung from her neck. She took it off gently, resting it on the coffee table.
Katerina turned around, sighing. She put a finger in her tea, swirling it around and enjoying the nearly painful heat. “I quit my job today,” she said.
Alicia raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. Katerina had told her, or more like ranted, about her less-than-even-tempered boss. Alicia tapped a finger over her lips before saying, “Not that I blame you, but we still have to pay this month’s rent. Save the quitting and shit for after graduation.”
Katerina winced at the mention of graduation. Alicia would be moving in with her boyfriend of three years, leaving Katerina to figure out what to do next on her own. “Couldn’t we just stay here?”
Alicia sighed, rubbing her hands on her acid wash jeans. Katerina knew what was coming. “You know I love you—” she began.
“But you love Kyle more,” Katerina finished.
Alicia smiled, taking those perfect eyebrows and wiggling them up and down. “Not exactly, but there are certain benefits to living with Kyle.”
Katerina held up her tea and walked to the kitchen. “Say no more,” she said.
“Don’t hate me for this, but you could always live—”
Katerina put the tea down and glared at her roommate. “Don’t.”
“With your—” The intensity of Katerina’s green eyes silenced Alicia for a moment. Then quietly she finished, “parents.”
Katerina poured the rest of the tea down the drain and stared at her Snoopy mug. “Alicia,” she asked, “do you know where the tallest bridge in NYC is?”
Alicia frowned, speaking carefully. “No, why?”
“‘Cause I’d like to know where the best bridge to throw myself off of is.”
Alicia rolled her eyes, dark laughter puffing from her lips. She joined Katerina at the sink and said, “You’re being dramatic.”
Scoffing, Katerina tapped her fingers on the countertops. “You don’t know my mother,” she said. “She'll set me up on dates.”
Alicia gave her a cross-eyed look. “And that’s bad because…?”
“You remember Chad right?”
“Black guy with glasses who liked to argue with me about the world’s impending doom and climate change.”
Alicia burst into a fit of laughter, ignoring Katerina’s serious expression. As the laughter continued, some of the edge melted off Katerina’s face. “I’m serious, though,” she said. “I’m not sure I can do that again.”
“Look,” Alicia said, “If you’re that desperate, I can hook you up with a job.”
“What kind of job?”
“My friend’s doing this photo series. He needs models and you’re perfect.”
It was Katerina’s turn to laugh. “Me?” she said, shaking her head. “That’s a good joke.”
“I’m serious.” Alicia’s face reflected her statement. “You’ve got this whole exotic look going on. It’s hot. Especially if you play it up a bit.”
She groaned. With her green eyes, brownish skin, and curly, brownish-blackish hair, it wasn’t the first time she had heard that. Jason used to call her exotic. She’d hated it then and she hated it now. “I’m not photogenic,” she said.
“You could be if you tried,” Alicia said, running her fingers over the edges of Katerina’s hair. “Plus it pays well.”
She sighed, leaning against the counter before asking, “How well?”
“Enough for rent for at least the next three months. Four if he likes you.”
She tilted her head. “Likes me?”
Alicia mimicked her motion. “You know what I mean. The way you photograph.”
Katerina didn’t answer, but Alicia gave her a card with the studio address on the top. In pretentious cursive, it read Mike Santano. She slipped the card into her pocket only to pull it out the next day. She put on her army green rain coat after classes and in a split second decision, navigated her way through the sidewalks and taxis towards 57th street.
The studio was in the basement, which was odd for New York; most things went up and not down. It was tiny, with white sheets hanging across one wall. It looked like it needed to be redone. She walked in slowly, with her coat clenched together in her hands. There was a man who appeared to be in his late thirties. Instead of the artsy look she had expected, he wore simple baggy jeans and a black t-shirt. His hair was short and curly, his skin a smooth, olive tone.
“Excuse me—” she began, but was cut off by the man in front of her.
“Oh, you must be Katerina. I’m Michael Santano.” He smiled and held out his hand. He had a very warm smile and a strong handshake.
Distracted, Katerina stumbled through her words, “Yeah...yeah. Um, I just thought…my friend told me you had a job for me?”
“Yes, of course.” He clapped his hands together and tilted his head. “You’re every bit as beautiful as Alicia said you’d be.”
Startled by the compliment, she tucked her hair behind her ear and shifted awkwardly.
“We’ll have to work on that,” he said, so quietly she wasn’t even sure she heard him right. “Would you like to see my work?”
“Of course.” She nodded vigorously.
He went over to a desk in the corner and opened up a folder. The first picture was of a man around twenty. His hair was wet and his head was down. There was mud splattered on half his face. The next was of the same man, except this time, he was naked. His eyes were fixed on the camera, wide, sad, and unyielding. The next picture was of a girl and her skin was a deep brown, her hair in a braid on the side of her head. She had her head tucked between her knees. The next photo was almost an exact replica of the previous one except the woman wore nothing except her skin.
“So…can we pick a date?” Michael's voice pierced through Katerina’s head. “I’m thinking Friday.”
Still looking at the photos, Katerina was silent.
Michael put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be perfect. It’s nerve-racking,” he said, “the first time.”
Katerina turned around slowly. She hadn’t noticed how pretty his eyes were until she was staring straight into them. She felt transfixed by the hazel-eyed stare and she gently nodded her head.
“Does Friday work?” he asked again, the hand pressing harder.
“Yeah, I can do Friday,” she said.
Friday came faster than she would have liked it to. She threw herself into her schoolwork to avoid thinking about it. Besides, she had a lot to study for. Try as she might, the day came with a literal bang—thunder and lightning. By the time she made it to Michael's studio, her hair was wet, dripping all over her clothes, and her jeans were stuck against her like a second skin. In her haste, she had forgotten her umbrella.
That was how she ended up there, soaking wet, nervous, and naked from the waist up. He told her to sit on the floor and hug her knees. She tried not to show how grateful she was that she got to cover herself. There was a flash and she blinked. He sighed. She had a habit of blinking, ruining all the shots. She had tried to warn Alicia before; she wasn’t photogenic.
After a few more photos, Michael finally clapped his hands together and announced that they were done. Katerina breathed out a sigh of relief and slipped her wet sweater back on.
Michael came around and smiled. She wondered if he was faking it. He had seemed so annoyed with her during the photoshoot. She didn’t blame him. He put his hands on her shoulders. “Katerina, you did wonderful,” he said.`
She laughed in surprise. “If you say so,” she said, “then it must be true.”
“I’ll give you a ring if I ever have another project I need you for.”
Katerina nodded. She didn’t tell him that this would be the first and last time she ever posed for him, for anyone. Walking back home with her arms crossed over her stomach, she was suddenly struck with a bone-jolting thought. What would her parents think of her if they knew? They’d be horrified. And suddenly, she began to laugh, stomach jolting her arms up and down as she turned onto her street and went up to her apartment. Who the hell cares what they think?
Katerina fell into bed, abs sore from laughing, mind tired from thinking. Despite her rebellious thoughts, she knew she was never going to tell her parents. Maybe she wouldn’t even tell her next boyfriend. Or maybe she would. Maybe she’d do up the story so that it was scandalous, describing the way the photo shoot went as if she wasn’t scared out of her mind. She’d make him feel lucky. Lucky to be with someone like her. A model. She laughed again, laughed until she fell asleep.
When she got the prints in her mailbox a week later, she took them out gingerly and spread them across her bed. Various versions of herself in black and white. She ran her fingers over a picture of a girl who looked like her: curly brown hair pulled up over her shoulder, dripping, big eyes you couldn’t tell the color of. Katerina was struck by how lost they looked. Lost, but not empty. There was a vulnerability in the way she looked at the camera, more than there was in her own naked body. It was not necessarily a bad thing; there was bravery in vulnerability. She knew she could never make the story sound scandalous.
For a second, she was terrified. She wanted to call up Michael and give him the money back, to beg him not to let anyone see. Then she reached for the envelope, realizing there were more photos. They were not of her, but a collage of other people, and when she lined them up, she did not want to take her own photo out. She touched each photo once, then paused on the picture of her again, the one where she was staring into the camera. She was not looking down or away and her shoulders were straight, unhindered by fabric. There was a defiance in that gaze that she had never really seen in herself before. And when she woke up the next morning, she thought of that picture. She went to the mirror and stared at herself, thinking where is that girl? I need that girl.
Sophie Coats was born in Texas but raised a Jersey girl. Junior year of high school she traded out public school life for the boarding school experience at Interlochen Arts Academy, where she studies creative writing. She is now a senior. Sophie was awarded a Gold Key for flash fiction and a Gold Key for poetry in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and her work has appeared in the Red Wheelbarrow. She is currently co-Editor-in-Chief for The Interlochen Review.When most people are sleeping, Sophie can be found either reading under the covers with a flashlight or eagerly writing a story while trying not to keep her roommate awake. She writes a surprising amount about food.