Kayla didn't have many friends in primary school, but the way people talked about her, you'd think she was one of the most popular girls in her class. She wasn't.
She wasn't the prettiest girl, nor the easiest to get along with. Her humor was harsh and she didn't really know where to draw the line, so sometimes she would say offensive things, especially to people who hid behind their good girl façade. Pair that with her odd fascination with fantasy and books, nobody really clicked with her. Not in primary school.
Now that she's shed her younger self in search of who she is, she found herself worrying about appearances and as a result, people started to take note of the girl with the piercing gaze and jet black hair.
When she was younger, she often found herself under the sun and didn't care that she was the color of burnt coffee. But in a culture that prized fair skin, she was never spared a second glance that wasn't mocking or thinly veiled disgust.
As looking pretty began to take priority in Kayla's mind, she avoided the sun like the plague and paid more attention to grooming. It also helped that she spent a winter in Wales. The thick sweaters and overcast skies paled her skin into a porcelain sheen. An envy.
In her new school, she found herself the object of attention for the first time in her life, and it changed her. She tucked away her books, her daydreams, her passions, and she channeled her time and energy into being the kind of girl she imagined that everyone loved and boys chased.
And the boys did chase her. They gave her the kind of attention that her cute best friend received. Showered in little trinkets and folded notes with the messiest boy scrawl you could ever imagine. Some she kept, but most of them she returned or threw. She wasn't trying to be cruel. She was trying to be the girl she imagined other girls were. Take everything and you're just greedy. Accepting in kindness meant that you are easy. You can only take things from boys who fit a certain criteria.
If he's unpopular and unattractive, bin it. If girls flock after him, keep it. Isn't that the game we all play? Accept those who we consider the cream of the crop, and turn a blind eye to those that fall short?
Kayla didn't want to fall short. Kayla wanted to be adored. That’s why she takes piano classes on top of dancing lessons, why she tells her friends that she’s got to hit the library instead of joining them for recess, why she spends her nights scrolling through social media and imitates how pretty influencers pose and gesticulate.
Kayla’s heart skipped a beat because she knew what that notification meant. Who the message was from. The gleam of the smartphone lighted up part of a desk, stacks of books outlined by the ghostly glow. Kayla jumped out of bed and snatched up the phone hungrily.
The message was from Amber complaining about the lame girls in her new school and how she missed Kayla, whom she affectionately referred to as “Kiki”.
Everything Kayla knew came from Amber. She was the cute friend and she was overjoyed that Kayla started showing interest in boys, fashion, and makeup. She finally had a peer, a partner in crime. Life is more fun when you have someone to share it with. A convincing voice in your mom’s ear when there’s a party you don’t want to miss. An unfailing personal therapist that listens without judgement.
A friend that always has your back.
Amber was the one who guided Kayla through her transition from a child to a girl. When they went their separate ways after graduating primary school, they made a pact to stay best friends forever with hot candle wax.
Was it so surprising that it was Amber who told Kayla that thin, fair, and demure girls are found attractive? Is it Kayla’s fault that she believed her?
Maybe there is no one to blame but the flaws in our eyes. If we were all blind, we would be able to see clearer. Alas, vision is a lie that compels us.
Early the next morning, Kayla snuck out of the house so she didn’t wake the household and ran five kilometers before jumping into the shower. When she emerged, smelling of sandalwood and a hint of primrose, her mother was already whipping up a storm in the kitchen.
“Luncheon sandwiches or fried rice?” Her mom called out when she heard Kayla making her way down the stairs.
“Sandwiches, and can you make extra? The kids in class say that your sandwiches are the best.”
Kayla peered around the corner and caught her mother smiling to herself while pressing down on the sandwich maker. Her mom was a stunner, with gorgeous big eyes and a rosy complexion. When Kayla first discovered that her own tanned skin was considered dirty and ugly, she lashed out at her mother for not keeping her fair.
In hushed tones, her mother told Kayla that she loved her dark skin because it meant she cared about more than just appearance, but what teenager could stand to hear that? Looks matter. They are the only thing that decides how much attention you get.
After their argument, Kayla’s mother helped her achieve the light skin she craved by buying whitening lotions, sunscreen, and UV-blocking jackets. She went to Wales with her to visit her sister, Kayla's aunt. What her mom couldn’t help with was the way Kayla felt. The more she conformed to the standards that Amber has set, the more she was revered by her classmates. Reinforcing the idea that looks are, in fact, everything.
Who could have known that Kayla would be consumed by obsession?
It was late morning and the sun bore down unforgivingly, making the classrooms unbearably stuffy. But it was almost the end of the class, so the boys were particularly rowdy. It was Wednesday, too, which meant that they were P.E classes in the afternoon. The anticipation leeched any excitement out of history class, disseminating the distracted energy into bursts of chatter.
“You girls want to have lunch together? We’re headed to Johnson’s.” One of the boys slid over his desk to ask Kayla and JinJin, who were secretly doing their Chinese homework.
Kayla flashed her practiced winning smile and tried to sound gracious, “That sounds lovely, but I want to finish my homework.”
“You know why they call it homework?” He asked with a delighted grin.
“Why?” JinJin asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Because you’re supposed to do it at home!” The boy guffawed.
Both girls laughed politely and JinJin turned to Kayla, “He’s right and we need to eat something before P.E. Do you want to go?”
Kayla shook her head, “No, you go ahead. I don’t feel like going all the way to Johnson’s.”
“Don’t be such a bore!” JinJin chided, “We always eat in the canteen. Let’s go have something delicious for once.”
“C’mon Kayla, Jace and Boon are all going. Don’t be a stuck up.” He said, teasing.
“O-oh,” Kayla hesitated. She didn’t want to be considered stuck up, but she also didn’t want to join them. “My mom packed me a large lunch and I don't want to waste it. I’ll join you guys next time!”
Dan looked crestfallen but nodded, “JinJin?”
A proper lady should never be seen in the sole company of other boys, so she shook her head and repeated after Kayla, “Next time.”
When the school bell rang, the boys and their untucked uniforms rushed out the door. Glad, for the one and a half hours of freedom that they would have with their schoolmates and friends.
Kayla packed up her things and decided that she would finish up her homework at the canteen. It is usually deserted at this hour since everyone would take advantage of the long break to venture to nearby shops for their meal. Students who stay back would much rather seek out the air-conditioned library or computer lab. She would have stayed in the classroom, but she didn’t want to draw any attention to herself by not mobilizing with the rest of the class.
After settling into an empty table at the canteen, she took out her half-done homework and continued writing her Chinese essay. As she was mulling over a particularly challenging Chinese character and trying to figure out how it is written, she saw a girl with a short skirt and overlong socks walking towards her with a tray.
“I’m starving,” JinJin said, “It’s a good idea not to join the boys. I mean, can you imagine having to walk fifteen minutes to Johnson’s? On top of that, we’d probably have to wait for them to cook our order, by the time the food arrived, I’d be a skeleton.”
Kayla forced a laugh and scrambled for an excuse about why she wasn’t eating the lunch she told Dan her mother had packed for her. Her panic was gratuitous and short-lived, because JinJin pushed the tray towards her, explaining, “I am so hungry I bought way too much. Do you want to share?”
Biting her lip, Kayla glanced at the food and felt a gurgle building in the pit of her stomach.
“I was wondering what you were going to eat, since you gave your lunch away during recess. I guess you must have forgotten. Go on, I’m not going to be able to finish everything by myself.” JinJin smiled widely.
Kayla let her eyes fall on each item on the tray. Muffin, five hundred and ten calories. Six hundred in Hainanese chicken rice. Two deep fried drumsticks, three hundred each. A boba milk tea. Three hundred.
Without preamble, JinJin dove into the chicken rice, mixing it with chili sauce on the side. Four calories.
“You must be hungry.” The short haired girl insisted while appraising Kayla’s expression and reaction.
The fact was, Kayla was famished.
She has been starving ever since her hunger for compliments awoke.