Skin Mask Replica, Hunter Louis
The Missouri heat was damp and strangling, and her mother’s A/C was broken, so Soph spent most of the spring semester of 1L lingering as long as she could in the campus Law library or the nicer houses and apartments of her friends, riding the bus back across town well after the sun had set and the mosquitos had come out. She liked to leave her mother’s house before light, too, and so the morning of Moot Court tryouts, she climbed bleary-eyed onto a nearly empty bus in the nicest skirt she owned and her only pair of fake patent leather heels. Nerves sang in her chest and overrode any ordinary need for coffee or more sleep. She set her ratty purple backpack at her feet and pulled out her stack of notes, wanting to review her argument one last time.
Moot Court was competitive, and it was doubtful that a first year student who did not yet specialize in anything would win one of the few open spots. She knew her case by heart now, knew it so well that to reread it caused nauseating boredom, yet she still didn’t feel prepared. She clenched her hands around her notes to stop her hands from shaking and stared resolutely out the window at a sweeping empty parking lot.
The bus ride across St. Louis to her law school campus took an hour and a half, and there were only so many times Soph could read the same set of case notes, so she occupied herself watching out the window opposite her as the neighborhoods morphed from single-story shambles to crisp suburbs to slick high rises and sweeping old colonials. She liked watching the people who got on and off the bus. An old woman, who had been seated when Soph got on, departed in between a public library and a grocery store, and was replaced by a man in a gray wool suit who was already sweating as the day just began to light up.
The bus stopped in front of an apartment complex largely inhabited by grad students just as Soph’s phone began to buzz in her skirt pocket. She pulled it out, vaguely aware that there were footsteps drawing very near her. A blonde girl around her age sat across from her. She let the phone go to voicemail, and watched as the message notification lit up the screen. It was early for her mother to be up.
Sighing, she opened the message and lifted the phone to her ear. Her mother’s voice was especially hushed today, and Soph was reminded that it had been awhile since she’d made her go to one of the free group therapy sessions at the community center.
“Hi, sweetie, I see I missed you this morning. I just wanted to remind you to get cat food later, and maybe dish soap. No, wait, don’t. I’ll do the dishes today. I know it’s been awhile. Was there something big you’re doing today? I feel like you were telling me about something. Oh well, if there is something then good luck, I love you– And also, when is rent due? I feel like it’s soon. Should I have asked my manager for an advance? If you do stop by the grocery store, could you pick up –”
Something wet hit the floor by her feet.
“Oh!” She leapt out of her seat before she’d had time to process what it was. The blonde girl, who Soph could now tell looked incredibly hungover, had leaned over and vomited on the bus floor. Soph staggered and grabbed onto the bar above the seat as she tried to move out of the way of the creeping puddle, but it was already splattered on the toes of her shoes. In her hand, the phone continued to hum quietly with her mother’s voicemail.
She looked from her shoes to the girl, who didn’t seem to notice what had happened. “Are you okay? Hi, excuse me — are you sick?”
The girl turned her bleary eyes to Soph, then to the floor. “Shit.” Without another look at Soph, she stood, made her way to the front of the bus, and pulled the lever to request a stop.
Soph stumbled a little as the bus lurched, and then she was alone again with just the suited man and a handful of other passengers, who pointedly weren’t looking at her. She sighed and moved closer to the front of the bus, looking down at the toes of her shoes as an elegant Georgian floated by the window atop a green lawn larger than Soph’s mother’s block. The last page of her notes, she reasoned, weren’t essential to her case.
Forty-five minutes later, she arrived at her stop clutching a crumpled sheet of paper in one hand, her shoes cleaner but still with the sheen-killing crust of vomit in some places. No one would notice, she knew that, just as she knew most people didn’t notice when she wore the same skirt to every important event and presentation. She wondered if the leftover money from her last paycheck would be enough to buy new shoes. She knew it wouldn’t be.
The sight of campus was as reassuring and intimidating as it always was. Gray stone buildings infused with dignity were shaded with enormous old trees, beneath which lingered clear-eyed people in casual clothes nicer than the most expensive thing she owned. She considered, as she sometimes did on bad days, not exiting the bus, riding to the last stop and then back to her mother’s house and pretending she had never tried to belong here. She considered the neat stack of her remaining pages of notes, which she’d been up for three nights straight preparing, practicing not reading from as she spoke to her reflection in the mirror, trying to approximate the casual self-possession of her classmates. She stood and descended the bus stairs, a fresh breeze from outside soothing her too-warm face.
“Hey,” the bus driver said as she was about to exit. “Is there a smell back there?”
Moot Court practice was ordinarily held in a large lecture hall on the West side of campus. Soph had attended all their open practices, noting who spoke when, the cadence of their voices, the subtle shifts in their posture at key moments in their arguments. It was a realm of carefulness and confidence, clean and practiced and imbued with power. More than any of her classes, this realm projected her ambitions onto life.
The lecture hall was used for a class in the morning, so tryouts were held in an empty classroom. Soph took a seat in one of the chairs shoved up against the back wall to wait her turn. A long desk was set in front of the chalkboard for the current club officers to sit; it was to them she’d be presenting her argument. They were all 3Ls, not much older than her and yet infinitely more adult. Behind them, the half-erased board read ‘positive deviancy’ in left-slanting handwriting. Soph fixed her gaze on that, willfully ignoring the person currently presenting his case, the creaking of the other chairs around her, the shuffle of note pages, and most of all, the calm, piercing gazes of the officers.
The door clicked open, and a few more people stepped in to sit. A bright flash of the light caught Soph’s eye, and she turned. It was too fast, a frozen moment, but she was certain that the girl who had just walked in was the blonde who had puked on her. She didn’t have time to check though, didn’t have time to process, because the person ahead of her was done and it was her turn and she didn’t want to look at the girl again. Her knuckles were white around her notes.
“Sophia Esmond?” said one of the officers, the president, Nina was her name.
“No, yeah, I don’t really have notes,” a whisper to her left was saying. It was a feminine voice. Soph knew instinctively who was speaking, but she didn’t let herself look. “It’s just whatever though, right?”
“Quiet, please,” Nina said. Soph stood and walked to the small desk. There were a dozen pairs of eyes on her back. She was certain her skirt was wrinkled. She placed her notes face up, then flipped them face down, squaring her jaw. “Sophia, whenever you’re ready.”
If there was anything Soph was good at, anything that had gotten her into law school and kept her there, it was her ability to spin a story; so when she told her best friend Mikayla about her Moot Court tryout and the bus debacle proceeding it, she turned it into a triumphant tale of overcoming indignity, her self-deprecating smile almost erasing her interior discomfort. She had left out the detail of seeing the girl at tryouts, because she wasn’t sure if she really had. Her argument delivery had been a haze; she’d spoken unconsciously, trying to gauge the reactions of the officers and ignore the audience at her back. By the time she’d finished and been dismissed, she hadn’t even thought to look around the room for the girl.
Mikayla rented a house with four other girls a few blocks from campus, so after classes were over, Soph went home with her to study. Her crusty shoes came off as soon as she was in the door. This was a shoes-off house anyways, but she was beginning to convince herself that there was a smell, even as Mikayla repeatedly told her there wasn’t. Mikayla grabbed hummus and carrot sticks out of the fridge, both of which were clearly marked “Heather”, and ushered Soph upstairs before any of her housemates noticed them.
They liked to spend lazy afternoons like this, with the fan in Mikayla’s room turned all the way up, buffeting their books and outlines into a gentle flutter. It was easy to lose time there, so when the descending sun began to shine through the window at an angle that pierced Soph’s eyes, she was startled into checking her phone’s clock.
“Shit, I should head home.”
“Why?” Mikayla asked from the floor. “It’s still early enough. Hang around.”
This immediately roused suspicion; Mikayla only asked her to stay longer when she wanted to go out somewhere.
“There can’t be a party tonight. It’s Wednesday.”
Mikayla groaned, sitting up and entering Soph’s field of vision. She was pretty in an unfortunately Puritanical way, simple features and center-parted brown hair, but her eyes were carefree. “Why do you have to psychic-powers me like that?”
Soph laughed and closed her book.
“Ugh, okay. There’s this guy’s rooftop get-together thing tonight. It’s not a party, it’s just, like, people hanging out and drinking.”
“Give me a definition of party that excludes–”
“Okay! Okay, shut up, the counsel rests its whatever. It’s a party, sue me.”
Soph tried to suppress her grin. “I don’t know if there’s a real case there. I mean, what would it even fall under? Deceptive Trade Practices?”
“Will you stop? I’m trying to tell you information.”
“Fine. Explain me the party.”
Mikayla stood and stretched, plopping down on the end of the bed and crossing her legs. “So there’s this art student guy. He’s really cute, and tall, and he invited me to hang out with some of his friends tonight. You should go with so I’m not a loner weirdo, and also because when you spend every evening with your mom you turn into the loner weirdo. So, in a way, this is to benefit you too.” Her smile was open and eager.
Soph sat up, sighing, her elbows red where she’d been leaning on them. “A stranger puked on me this morning. I kinda just want to shower and sleep.”
“And you’ve responded to that unfortunate situation valiantly. Besides, be honest. If you go home you’re not gonna sleep, you’re just gonna lay around and worry if you were good enough to make Moot Court today. Which you were. Which is beside my point. Or possibly is my point. Look,” she said, springing up off the bed. “Just come out for a little while. If you hate it, you can leave.”
Soph’s phone buzzed. She didn’t look at it. “Okay, fine. But I’m borrowing your blue dress.”
Mikayla squeaked and darted to her closet, tossing the dress in question over her shoulder at Soph and picking one out for herself, chattering to her more about art school boy as another voicemail notification appeared on Soph’s screen. It wouldn’t hurt, she supposed, to listen to this one later.
The neighborhoods around campus were a strange mix of law students and art students, which mostly meant a strange mix of sleek fake-marble-and-wood cafes and purposefully messy restaurants that mainly served craft beer and french fries doused in truffle oil. Mikayla’s art student boy lived above one of the latter, in a yellow brick building that looked like it was once a factory but was now lofts. As soon as he opened the door, Soph could tell immediately why Mikayla would like him: he was in fact tall, so tall it moved out of the attractive range and into the comical, and he had messy curls and elegant bony hands. His apartment was dominated by paint-splattered drop cloths underneath enormous canvases laid flat.
“I’m deconstructing Pollock,” he told them, “I splatter the canvases like he did, but I’m aiming for something representational instead of abstract.”
Soph didn’t really know what that meant, but she liked some of the canvases — they mostly looked like the backs of people’s heads, but he’d dripped paint from atop a rickety ladder in the middle of his floor so that the colors composing the images bled outside the lines.
“It looks like her skull’s cracked open,” she said, looking at one with red splattered across it. The art student boy stood next to her.
“You’re being too literal,” he said.
Mikayla interrupted before Soph could argue and embarrass her. “So I was told there’s a roof?”
The boy led them out into the hall and up several flights of a narrow staircase, which opened onto the roof of the building. Several dozen people were already there, mingling in clusters with beers and plastic cups in hand. Soph recognized a few classmates, but most people there were unfamiliar to her. Beyond the edge of the roof, the wall of a taller building rose up to the side and back, with open air on the other two sides. The glow of a 7-Eleven sign creeped up over one edge. Traffic sounds mostly drowned out the music. A small speaker in the center of the roof was playing The Who as loud as it could, but no one was dancing. This wasn’t the dancing kind of party.
“You want drinks?” the boy asked. “There’s beer and wine, and sodas if you’d rather.” He looked at Soph when he said this last part. Her apprehension must have started to show on her face. She squared her shoulders.
“I’ll have a beer.”
Mikayla nodded, and the boy slouched toward a cooler up against the low wall encircling the roof’s edge. Soph bounced on her toes a little, looking around to find again the familiar faces she’d seen. Her borrowed shoes were a little too big for her — Mikayla had taken them out of one of her housemates’ rooms, but they were still half a size bigger than Soph’s and a little loose around the heels. She made eye contact with a guy she was pretty sure had been in Con Law with her last semester. He waved, and she took it as an invitation to walk over and say hi.
“How’s it going?” she said, trying and failing to remember his name.
“Ben,” he said, sensing her hesitation. “Good, I’m good. Tried out for Moot Court this morning, so, you know.” He held up crossed fingers.
She smiled at the opportunity he’d presented her. “I did too, but, crazy story…” She told him her refined version of the bus incident, gathering attention from the others he was talking to, and allowed herself to relax as they laughed at her story and started talking about their tryouts. Mikayla’s art boy appeared long enough to hand her a beer, then vanished just as quickly.
Soph hated when Mikayla was right, but she was. The night cooled down the longer the roof party went, and Soph felt the tension easing out of her shoulders along with it. She’d lost Mikayla to the boy and a gaggle of art students early on, but Ben was funny and the beer made her loose enough to be sociable with the near-strangers she talked to. The traffic noise crescendoed, then quieted, and the roof was high up enough that she could make out some stars in the cloudless night overhead.
When her second beer was empty, she headed to the cooler herself, accepting Ben’s request for another. On the way there, she thought about turning her phone on. She’d sent a brief text to her mom earlier to let her know she’d be home late, if at all, and had turned it off immediately after. She was halfway to pulling it out of her pocket when a bright flash of blonde hair caught at the edge of her vision.
“No, I already know I’ve got a spot. Megan basically promised me,” said the blonde girl. Her face was clean, her hair brushed and her clothes neat, but Soph was certain this time that it was the vomiter from the bus. “I, like, didn’t really prepare my case, but I do better with improv anyways.”
A few people in the group around her laughed, that too-loud, trying-to-impress-you laugh. Soph knew she was staring, but it was hard to make herself stop.
“Hey,” said Ben, appearing at her side. “Sorry, I thought you got lost or something.”
She turned and made herself smile at him, handing him one of the beers in her hand. “No, I just got distracted. I thought maybe I knew that girl.”
He looked at the blonde. “Oh, you probably do. That’s Valerie, she’s a year ahead of us. Let’s say hi.”
Soph wanted to stop him, but he’d already caught the blonde girl’s attention and was walking over to her. She followed, cringing in anticipation of the girl’s recognition. Ben was already talking when she caught up to him, about Moot Court tryouts and Soph’s bus ride.
“It’s a really funny story, she can tell it better. Hey, there you are. You two have maybe met, right?” Ben said as Soph walked up, looking between the two of them.
Valerie gave her a once-over. It was a look she was used to getting from girls like this, an already dismissive gaze that only got less interested as she took in the dress that didn’t fit right, the shoes that didn’t fit right, her hair that wasn’t styled. Soph could recognize rich when she saw it, even in something as simple as a black dress and a shiny blowout, and she knew very well how obviously she herself wore poor.
“No,” Valerie said. “I don’t think we have.”
“Uh, just briefly,” Soph said. Internally she kicked herself for not going along, but she was instantly irritated by this girl. “You’re feeling better since this morning, I guess?”
Valerie crinkled her nose like she was confused. “Hmm. So did you try out?” she asked Ben.
Soph interrupted the beginning of his answer. “No, we have, because you were on the bus this morning, remember?”
“Oh shit, Valerie, did you puke on the bus this morning?” Ben asked, starting to laugh.
Valerie took a long, slow drink out of her cup, looking only at Soph. For a moment, Soph wondered whether she was about to get hit. “I don’t take the bus. And I don’t know you.”
She stayed for another hour. Mikayla had initiated dancing with the art boy and a few other people Soph didn’t recognize, so now half the people on the roof were crushed together in the middle jumping gracelessly and singing along to the music. Soph stayed to the outer edge of the roof, making idle conversation with the other law students she’d met. Ben had talked to Valerie for a little while and then came back to Soph, but she let their conversation peter out with one word answers and strained smiles. Soon she found herself leaning up against the half wall alone, wondering if she should try to find Mikayla to tell her she was leaving. She didn’t particularly want to go home, but she didn’t want to be here anymore either.
She pulled her phone out and turned it on. Old messages started coming through, the notifications buzzing one after the other as her phone caught up. Eight voicemails. Soph sighed. She should never have turned it off.
“Do you have a stalker boyfriend or something?”
Soph jumped. Valerie had walked up next to her. “Um. No. It’s my mom.”
Valerie frowned. She was swaying a little, and the way she spoke was slightly too deliberate, like it was hard for her to talk straight. “Why does your mom call you that much?”
Soph clicked on the most recent voicemail, her thumb hovering over the play button. She didn’t have to explain herself to Valerie, she knew that, and she rarely explained her mother to anyone. “She just needs me is all.”
“Because she fucking does, Jesus.” Soph started to walk away.
“Hang on, hang on. Shit.” Valerie grabbed her elbow. “I’m sorry, that was rude. I actually came over here to apologize to you. I feel like I was a dick before.”
Soph shook her hand off, but didn’t leave. “You were.”
“I know. It’s just, this morning was like the worst of my life and I just didn’t want to talk about it. But I shouldn’t have pretended not to recognize you.”
Soph looked at her closer, then. Beneath the perfect dress and hair, she actually looked tired. She remembered Valerie’s earlier confidence, her apparent lack of preparation for her tryout. At the time, it had seemed like exactly the sort of thing someone like Valerie would take for granted. “You tried out this morning, didn’t you?”
Valerie snorted. “Yeah. And I was garbage. And it sucks because like, it’s not like I need it-need it, I can get internships and shit, but, I don’t know, you know when you’re just trying to do something real? Know what I mean?”
Soph kind of didn’t. She took a moment to respond, sipping her third beer. “I mean, yeah, I guess. I’m worried about getting job offers and stuff like that.” An embarrassed silence hung in the air. Soph wondered if Valerie had felt the wall up when she’d replied, been offended by it. She didn’t know if she minded.
“I saw your tryout.”
“What?” She’d put it together already that it really had been Valerie at tryouts, but the sudden jump in the conversation took her off guard.
Valerie nodded. “You went a few people before me. I saw you present your case. You’re gonna get a spot.”
“I don’t know. Some of the people who went before me –”
“Weren’t as good as you. Seriously. I’m not, like, a complimentary person, so you should believe the nice things I say to you.”
“Are you planning on saying more nice things, or was that pretty much it?” Soph wanted to apologize as soon as she’d said it, the words just snapping out of her, but Valerie just laughed and didn’t answer.
They stood next to one another in silence, leaning their hips against the wall and watching the dancers. Soph’s feet were starting to throb, her ankles protesting all the wobbling she’d done in her too-loose heels. Sighing, she kicked them off and put her bare feet on the cold concrete, wincing at the sting. She felt Valerie watching and turned to meet her eyes.
“Sorry. I’m just still wondering about your mom. Just because, not many people I know, like, take care of their parents. Or at least that’s what I assume is… Never mind. You don’t have to tell me.”
Soph stayed quiet for a moment. “She just has bad depression, is all. I live with her to help her take care of herself. And she can’t pay her rent.”
“You pay her rent?”
“Most of it. She has a part-time job.”
Valerie sighed. “Wait here just a second.” She walked off, around the dancers, and Soph couldn’t see where she went after that. After a few minutes, she could see the door to the stairs swing open, and Valerie walked back towards her with a clutch in hand.
“Here,” she said, holding out a few bills. Soph stared for a moment.
“I don’t need help. I don’t need your money. What, you think I’m –” Soph felt her voice go up, wavering on hysterical.
“No, because I ruined your shoes. Take it.” She kept holding it out, then sighed and grabbed one of Soph’s hands, placing the money directly in her grasp. “Look, I’m gonna feel bad if I have to think about you walking around in, like, gross sticky shoes. So just take it.”
She walked away as soon as Soph closed her hand around the bills. It was a stack of twenties, totaling $140. Much more than what she’d paid for those shoes in the first place. In her other hand, her phone buzzed again, a new voicemail.
“Hi, Sophie bunny, I know you’re out and you’re busy, but if you get the chance, we really need cat food. And dish soap. I didn’t do the dishes today –” her mother’s voice broke, a little choked off sob. Soph felt involuntary tears well in her own eyes. “–because we were out of soap, and I was going to go to the store, but I didn’t, so if you have time. That’s all. I love you.”
Soph wondered if wet wipes would be able to fully clean her own shoes, once she retrieved them from Mikayla’s house. She clenched her fist around the bills in her hand, considered tossing them off the edge of the roof. What would it look like, to watch them flutter down into the darkness below? Sighing, she put the wad of cash into her skirt pocket, knocking back the last of her beer.
She found Mikayla talking to Ben. They both had their phones out, showing each other something and talking animatedly. Art boy was nowhere to be seen, and Soph wondered if Mikayla had already gotten bored of him. She tapped her friend gently on the elbow.
“This was so fast, I can’t believe. They must have been deliberating all — oh hey!”
“Hey,” she said, offering Ben a smile. “It’s late, I gotta go.”
Mikayla grabbed her wrist. “Have you checked your email?” she said, her voice high and loud. Soph glanced around. Many of the other people at the party, the ones she recognized as other law students, had their phones out too.
“Uh, no. Why?”
“Moot Court sent out decisions already! Look, look now!” Mikayla shook her. She opened her email in a haze, and there it was at the top of her inbox. “Open it!”
Soph stared at the notification. “Uh. You do it. I can’t.”
Mikayla grabbed the phone from her hand, opened the email, and screamed, drawing attention from everyone around them. Before Soph could react, she was enveloped in a hug, the smell of Mikayla’s shampoo and sweat enveloping her. Ben grinned at her over Mikayla’s shoulder. Slowly, she grinned back.
“I gotta go,” she said, extracting herself from Mikayla’s arms. The grin didn’t leave her face. “I gotta catch the bus.”
“Okay, but call me tomorrow! We have to celebrate!”
As she left, she caught sight of Valerie, back in her crowd of admirers, phone in hand. She was smiling a dazed, giddy smile. For a moment, Soph thought she would be caught staring, but Valerie didn’t look at her, and she didn’t look at her friends. She tilted her chin back, blonde hair tumbling off her shoulder, smiling up at the stars. Soph looked away. The neon sign of the 7-Eleven caught her eyes. It probably sold dish soap and cat food.
About the Author
Hannah Friedrich · Trinity University
Hannah Friedrich is completing her B.A. in English, with minors in Classics and Philosophy, at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. She has lived in San Antonio all her life, but will be leaving to pursue her J.D. in the fall. “Trying” first appeared in The Trinity Review.
About the Artist
Hunter Louis · University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin
Hunter Louis is an illustrator and printmaker based in Milwaukee, WI. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art and Design with an emphasis in Print and Narrative Forms from the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin in May 2021. In his academic career, Louis received the Greater Milwaukee Foundation Dorothy G. and Ruth M. Smith Fund Scholarship, the Mary E. Deven Memorial Scholarship, and an Outstanding First Year Program Scholarship. He also received two consecutive years of Student Undergraduate Research Fellows funding while studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His work has been shown in invitational group shows and juried group shows in the Milwaukee area. Louis has work belonging to numerous personal and private collections, including the UWM Library’s Special Collections and the UWM Union’s permanent collection. This piece first appeared in Furrow Arts Magazine.