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North of Beautiful
By Justina Chen
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 17, 2010. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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It’s hard not to notice Terra Cooper.
She’s tall, blond, and has an enviable body. But with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably “flawed” face. Terra secretly plans to leave her stifling small town in the Northwest and escape to an East Coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. When an unexpected collision puts Terra directly in Jacob’s path, the handsome but quirky Goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about herself and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. With her carefully laid plans disrupted, will Terra be able to find her true path?
Written in lively, artful prose, award-winning author Justina Chen Headley has woven together a powerful novel about a fractured family, falling in love, travel, and the meaning of true beauty.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Return to Me
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NOT TO BRAG OR ANYTHING, but if you saw me from behind, you'd probably think I was perfect. I'm tall, but not too tall, with a ballerina's long legs and longish neck. My hair is naturally platinum blond, the kind that curls when I want it to and cascades behind my back in one sleek line when I don't. While my face couldn't launch a thousand ships, it has the power to make any stranger whip around for a second look. Trust me, this mixture of curiosity and revulsion is nothing Helen of Troy would ever have encountered.
Please don't get me wrong; I've got all the requisite parts—and in all the right numbers, too: one nose, two eyes, and twenty-four teeth that add up to not a bad smile. But who notices pearly whites when a red-stained birthmark stretches across the broad plain of my right cheek? That's exactly why I never went anywhere without my usual geologic strata of moisturizer, sunblock, medical concealer, foundation, and powder.
So what was with the crocodilian gaze, hungry and appraising, I was getting from the guest speaker in my Advanced Biology class? With-out thinking, I cupped my cheek in my hand. No matter how cleverly I masked myself, sometimes I still felt as conspicuous as one of my town's oddities, say, Mac's two-legged dog who walked on his hind paws. Or the doe with the cantaloupe-sized tumor on her belly who defied death, hunting season after hunting season.
I half expected the speaker to say something. People always did. I'd heard all the comments, too, ranging from the chummy ("My next-door neighbor thirty years ago had a birthmark on her face") to the urbane ("You know, I saw Gorbachev once and his birthmark really looked like it did in pictures"). Good-intentioned or not, every remark made me bristle. If you don't rush up to the grossly overweight with a "Hey, I know someone who weighs three hundred pounds, too," then why was it acceptable to remark about my face?
The researcher finished printing her name on the board, Dr. Noelle Holladay. Why do parents do that to their kids: make our names prime targets for teasing? The one advantage of mine—Terra Rose Cooper—was that the mapping terms that made up my name could almost pass for normal, unlike my poor older brothers, Mercatur and Claudius, who were named for some of history's most important mapmakers. Thank you, Mr. Cartography, our father. Anyhow, not one of the seniors in my class (me being the only junior) could appreciate the forced holiday cheeriness of the researcher's name, slumped as they were in various stages of post-lunch catatonia.
To dodge Dr. Holladay's probing gaze, I bent my head down and busied myself with finishing the compass rose I had started drawing on my jeans earlier that day. It was the old-fashioned kind that figured prominently in all the antique maps around my home and in my doodles for the last six months. As if by drawing and redrawing arrows and the cardinal directions, I might find True North. What most people don't realize is that our world actually has two norths: True North that stays in one fixed place in the North Pole. And Magnetic North that moves some forty kilometers northwest every year, following the ever-shifting gyrations of the molten iron within Earth's inner core.
Whether my compass was pointing to True North or Magnetic North would remain a mystery, because just when my compass was filling in quite nicely, the classroom dimmed. Dr. Holladay said, "I'm going to show you… show you… fate maps."
Despite myself, I was mesmerized by these huge pictures of fertilized eggs, so zoomed in, I could practically see the DNA strands waving like Tibetan prayer flags in the wind. Only these weren't imprinted with prayers, but with prophecies. What would mine say? She'll be great at snowshoeing. Shy in front of crowds. Obsessed with maps, yet perpetually lost. Stricken with wanderlust, but never allowed to go anywhere. (My parents considered Seattle, five hours away, an exotic locale.)
"Weird, isn't it? Someone's destiny, right here?" Karin murmured to me. She craned forward in her chair, studying the photo, magnified some fifty thousand times larger than life, as if she wanted her fate to be mapped out that neatly. No one needed a fate map, road map, or atlas to know all the points of interest that Karin had planned for her life—first stop: high school podcaster; final destination: her own daytime show à la Oprah.
Me, I just wanted to get away from here. That's why I've had my fate map platted out since junior high: finish high school in three years. Escape to a college far, far away. Graduate in record time, and land a lucrative job where I'd make so much money no one could tell me what to do, where I could go. So it may not have been my True North, but it was close enough. It was the destiny I chose, dictated by me, not my dad.
Just as I've done since I popped my early admissions application to Williams College in the mail, I ignored the sour backwash of guilt. I still hadn't told my boyfriend, Erik, about my fast-track plan. That our fate maps were diverging as soon as the school year ended. I couldn't let anything, not even a miracle boyfriend, tether me here.
"… the genome mapping project will unlock DNA," said Dr. Holladay, her face glowing with the promise of scientific discovery. "One day, we'll be able to… able to… ascertain the genetic markers… for every disease."
But all maps lie, I wanted to tell Karin and the rest of the class and especially this stop-and-go geneticist. Even the best maps distort the truth. Something's got to give when you take our three-dimensional world and flatten it down to a two-dimensional piece of paper: Greenland balloons; Africa stretches.
"You're the last person who needs a fate map," I whispered to Karin.
Apparently, Dr. Holladay boasted genetically superior hearing in addition to sticky eyes, because she asked, "Do you have something to add, Terra?"
"No, nothing," I said hastily. Karin raised a questioning eyebrow at me, and I lifted my shoulder in a half-shrug response. How the hell did the geneticist know my name?
In case Dr. Holladay believed in the Socratic method of teaching and was planning to interrogate me, I broke eye contact and kept coloring in my compass. I wasn't being facetious or a kiss-up with Karin; it was the plain and honest truth. Fate couldn't have been kinder to any girl, even if Karin swore her nose was wider than the base of Mount Rainier. Those were times when I wanted to shake her. Who cared about oversized nostrils when everything else about her was exquisite?
I, for one, was introduced to my flaws when I was four.
Mom tells me there's no way I can possibly remember something that happened twelve years ago with any kind of clarity. For the record: it's hard to forget the first time someone calls you ugly, especially if it's the prima ballerina of your tiny tot ballet class.
The second I walked into the ballet studio, Alicia—said diva-in-training—had complained, "But Miss Elizabeth, Terra is too ugly to be a princess." She tapped one foot impatiently, her pink ballet shoes scuffed on the toes like she was used to kicking girls who were already down.
Everyone, Miss Elizabeth included, turned to stare at me. So while Prokofiev's Cinderella swelled inside the studio, I felt like my cheek was swelling into a hot air balloon. If I couldn't be carried away to the far-off yonder, then I wanted to disappear beneath the cloying makeup I'd worn even as a newborn freshly released from the hospital. But that winter day, Mom was out of town, and my brothers had no clue, my father no interest in camouflaging me for dance. Rescue came in the form of Karin—the other new girl who was fresh from Los Angeles. She told Alicia flat-out: "You're uglier than the ugly stepsisters." To this day, Karin denies that what she actually said was "You're uglier than Terra." And she could be right that my memory might be colored (so to speak) because I'm hypersensitive about my cheek. But it doesn't matter whether she said it or not. We've been best friends since.
The lights flicked on, and without the cover of darkness, Dr. Holladay returned to pacing nervously in front of the classroom. Two dark patches of sweat stained the purple blouse under her spindly arms, the telltale sign of nerves. I felt sorry for her, almost ran up and threw my jacket around her. But her sweat would dry and disappear. In an hour or two, she'd be just another tourist visiting the Methow Valley for our two hundred kilometers of groomed cross-country skiing trails.
"So if I were you, I'd put your family's medical history on paper. Go back as far as you can," Dr. Holladay cautioned us softly.
Karin scribbled down this piece of advice dutifully. I drew the black ballpoint pen back and forth, harder and harder, until the nib bit through the thick material of my jeans. I didn't care if it hurt. I worked on my compass until it bloomed with thirty-two petal-like arms, each pointing in a different direction. There was no end to the places I wanted to visit. Kashgar or California, it didn't matter so long as it took me someplace other than here.
X Marks My Spot
YOU MIGHT WONDER WHAT WOULD make a world-famous cartographer transplant himself and his family to the Middle of Nowheresville, USA. I wondered, too—all the time and mostly in class where other kids didn't realize Kennedy High was just a pit stop in purgatory. (But then again, you might be wondering how a mapmaker could be a celebrity at all. Let me tell you that the least likely, most geeky person could be world-famous in the right circles—comic book creators, undercover bloggers, my dad and his mapping algorithms.)
Purgatory wasn't an ugly, godforsaken place. Hardcore sports enthusiasts actually consider the Methow Valley a destination hot spot: mountain biking in the spring and summer, ice climbing and skate skiing in the winter. Sunset magazine named it the best place to buy a second home. Even the New York Times did a full-blown article on my halcyon hometown, which had the ironic effect of driving everybody but the business community crazy with the influx of tourists and vacation-home seekers. Now, we actually have traffic jams on Main Street.
So here we've been since I was four instead of Seattle, Dad's hometown, or San Francisco, where Mom grew up. And all because of a map.
See, according to my brother Claudius, the only one who ever tells me anything, Dad had staked his considerable reputation on the theory that America had been first discovered by the Chinese—Zheng He, to be exact. That explorer led expeditions all through the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and apparently to America if you believed the bronze plate map that had been "found" fourteen years ago. My father, Dr. Grant Cooper, did. He himself had endorsed the China map—incontrovertible proof that the Chinese had landed on U.S. soil, predating Christopher Columbus by a good sixty years. His name, his research, his doctorate—Dad had gambled it all. So confident of its provenance, he even commissioned an expensive etching of Zheng He's recovered map.
It took two years, but like the Vinland map before it—that calf hide map that supposedly proved that the Vikings had set foot on American soil in 1440—the China map was also proven a fake. A clever fake. But a fraud nonetheless. I hadn't seen Dad's copy of the map since we moved. No one had.
Luckily, one day and seven classes were all that stood between me and Thanksgiving break. In thirty minutes, I'd ask Erik to drive me to the post office, where, with any luck, my early decision letter from Williams would be waiting.
When the bell rang, I wasn't surprised at how fast everyone else jumped up, mouths hastily wiped of nap drool, notebooks slammed closed, sneakers pounding toward the classroom door. What surprised me was how reluctantly I got up to leave. After a full hour of feeling like some researcher's private peep show, you would have thought I'd be elbowing my way out. Excuse me, pardon me, move it! But the idea of facing yet another empty post office box when I knew acceptance letters had been mailed last week made my heart work overtime even as every other muscle went flaccid, already on break.
Karin pointed to the compass on my jeans and said, "Cool. Can you do that to mine?"
I looked down at Karin, feeling gangly next to her scant five-foot-one. Not that she'd ever want to, but Karin could still shop in the kids' department, she was that tiny and bird-boned.
"Sure." I slung my backpack over one shoulder and grabbed my notebook while I ignored the panicked voice that demanded, And where the hell are you going to find a spare second, Terra? I couldn't even keep up with my own doubled-up school load, not to mention I had already promised Erik I'd redesign the logo for his wrestling team sweatshirt over Thanksgiving break.
"Today?" she asked.
"Oh, I can't. I'm working tonight, remember?"
"Oh, right. So this weekend?"
"Sure." I sighed as I followed Karin to the door. The problem was, I had already committed virtually every working hour, Friday to Sunday, to the Nest & Egg Gallery. Not only was there a new exhibit to set up, but I still needed to update our Web site.
"You know," Karin said thoughtfully, "you could make a killing doing art on people's jeans."
"This isn't art."
She frowned. "I think it is."
It used to bother me how effortless Karin's self-assurance was when my confidence was of the hothouse variety, carefully cultivated under highly regulated conditions. One wrong look, one mean comment, and my façade would wither. Nothing fazed Karin though—not a presentation in front of the entire school, not even podcasting when she didn't have a clue how to do it.
I was so close to the door and the post office and my future when Dr. Holladay called, "Terra, one second."
What now? I'd seen that well-meaning expression on Dr. Holladay's face before, which always prefaced the did-you-know-there's-something-wrong-with-your-face conversation. Why, no, I never noticed I wore a quarter-inch-thick layer of makeup on my face; thank you so much for pointing it out to me.
A self-preservation instinct—no doubt a gene some geneticist would isolate and identify one day—took over. I yanked the door open and hissed, "Come on," to Karin, before shooting over my shoulder, "I'm sorry. I've got to get to work."
"This is important," she insisted.
And then, Mrs. Frankel—traitor, our biology teacher who had been completely silent during the entire class—miraculously recovered her voice. She now chimed, "Remember what I talked to you about last week?"
God. Last week, Mrs. Frankel actually had the gall to tell me privately, "You know, you'd stop breaking out if you didn't suffocate your skin under all that makeup." Being holier-than-thou about skincare is an easy position for the wrinkle-free to take. After all, Mrs. Frankel might be approaching fifty, but you'd never know it. Even her lips were naturally plump as a young woman's, though they were now pursed into an earnest line.
The last person I wanted to witness an intervention for my face was Erik, but Karin qualified as a close second. So I muttered to her, "I'll call you later." Thankfully, she nodded and left.
Without preamble, Dr. Holladay said, "My sister has a port-wine stain." Her fingers brushed a delicate path from her temple to her inner eye and then, finally, a clean sweep of her entire cheek. "A V2 distribution, like yours."
I gritted my teeth. Did she actually think that telling me this made her open-minded? That throwing around a dermatological term to describe my condition made us instant friends? Or that we, God forbid, shared a karmic bond?
"That's nice," I mumbled.
"No, it's not!"
I stepped back, blinked hard at Dr. Holladay's ferocity. Then I lobbed an accusing glare over at Mrs. Frankel. With a wry smile and hands folded neatly on her desk, Mrs. Frankel explained so carefully she could have been testifying in court, "Noelle's sister was one of my best friends growing up."
"So you told her about me?" I asked, my voice going squeaky and high, a mouse caught in a trap. God. And Karin and Erik both wondered why I was in such a rush to get out of our small town? I might as well string a welcome sign around my neck with an arrow pointing north: TOURIST TRAP AHEAD.
"Look, I didn't mean to upset you. My sister had laser surgery a few months ago." Dr. Holladay approached me cautiously, the way you would a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. One wrong word and it would be forty-five minutes of soothing and backpedaling. "You can't even see her birthmark anymore."
"The surgeon is right in Seattle…." Her voice drifted off, expectantly.
I just smiled politely back at her.
Dr. Holladay's eyebrows furrowed, unable to comprehend why I wasn't beyond excited. "You're not interested?"
She cast a bewildered look over at Mrs. Frankel. "I thought you said she'd want to know."
I shook my head. Sorry, no.
Mrs. Frankel stood up behind her desk. "You wouldn't have to hide anymore, Terra."
"I'm not hiding." The sharp corner of my notebook cut into my chest, so tightly was I holding it, this flimsy shield of paper. Quickly, I lowered it to my side.
Dr. Holladay asked, "Do you realize what this could mean? Your entire life could change. You're really not interested?"
"I'm really not," I told her truthfully. There was a time when Mom and I obsessed over every last technological advance—the newest laser, the latest techniques. That was before I went to a convention about port-wine stains in downtown Seattle almost four years ago, when I was twelve. For months after Mom had heard about the conference, she planned our trip, a military assault orchestrated down to every last minute. She compiled hit lists of specific surgeons for us to hunt down. Sessions we would divide and conquer to maximize our time: Hemangiomas and malformations (me). Laser therapy (Mom). Smart Cover Cosmetics makeup clinics (both of us).
"Look, I appreciate your concern, but nothing has worked," I told them.
"But this is a new procedure." Dr. Holladay crossed her arms, disapproving now.
"They all are."
"Don't you know what's going to happen?"
"Yes." That single word was whip-sharp, the way Dad sounded on a bad day, but I didn't care. As if I could forget how some of the conference attendees had looked wistfully at my smooth face while their birthmarks were hardened and purpled and cobblestoned? How they'd comment offhandedly that sometimes their birthmarks bled spontaneously, stigmata without any hope for redemption. How I knew that looking at them, I might as well be staring at my own reflection as I grew older. I gripped my notebook to my chest again to stop from shuddering.
"Then why?" Dr. Holladay's smooth forehead wrinkled with dismay. Like all judgmental people, she thought she knew best, and that I was simply wallowing in my small-town ignorance.
I wondered briefly what she would say if I told her the truth, played out the scenario: Okay, let's say I wanted the surgery. Let's say I told my mom about it. Oh, and let's remember that a gossip columnist is better at keeping secrets than my mom. So, of course, Dad finds out. Did Dr. Holladay have any idea—even the tiniest inkling what could happen if my father—Mr. I'm Not Wasting Another Penny on Your Face—found out? I think not. But I didn't say a word, because in my family's unwritten code of conduct, what goes on at home, stays at home.
"I've got to go," I told them.
Dr. Holladay shrugged in what I wrote off as defeat, but she had one last volley in her: "This totally changed my sister's life. You can't tell me you wouldn't want yours changed. No matter how beautiful we thought she was, she always felt like an impostor."
The truth of Dr. Holladay's words stuck to me like thick glaze, unpleasant and hard to shake off. Flustered, I couldn't move, not even an inch off the square grid of linoleum where I stood. For all adults go on and on about beauty being skin deep, let's be honest here. When your dermis is filled with rogue blood vessels that have been herded under the thin skin of your face, you get mighty suspicious whenever anyone mentions anything that sounds remotely like Inner Beauty.
Dr. Holladay went to her laptop computer then, and I thought she was just powering it off, packing up to leave, her job here done. Instead, she dug inside her briefcase and brought a brochure to me in five efficient steps. "At least take this. The dermatologist's information. In case you change your mind."
"I won't," I told her even as I reached for the brochure, ever the sucker for lotions that infomercials vowed would make blemishes disappear. Ever the collector of treasure maps that promised the world but led nowhere.
BY THE TIME I MADE it outside, Erik was in his truck, one of the last ones in the parking lot. As usual, the thumping bass emanating from his pickup was so loud, I could have been approaching the town pub on karaoke night. Erik didn't notice me, too busy playing the drums on his steering wheel, until I opened the passenger door.
"Sorry I'm late." I practically had to shout to be heard over the music. I shoved my backpack, bulging with my usual library of books and binders, onto the floorboard.
"What took you so long?"
"A guest speaker wanted to talk to me after class." While I turned the volume down, I waited for Erik to ask me for more information, but he just nodded and threw the truck into reverse.
"I got a new idea how to drop three extra pounds before the season starts," he said.
"I'm gonna wear a plastic bag over my parka. See if I can sweat off my weight that way."
"Good luck with that. Hey, could we drop by the post office first?"
"Sure." He was so easy, my Erik. I felt like an idiot and an ingrate for being annoyed because all he could talk about was wrestling, making weight, and building lean muscle mass. I knew better than anyone it was a minor miracle he chose to be with me.
My palms, clammy when Erik drove up to the post office (please be an acceptance letter) were corpse cold when we pulled away. How was it that every bill collector and catalog company had found a way to contact us, but not Williams College? I stuffed the junk mail into my backpack, so disappointed I couldn't muster the energy to think of a single thing to say to Erik.
As the truck trembled in neutral in front of the Nest & Egg Gallery, I looked over at him, wanting him to say something to me. To assure me that a letter would arrive tomorrow. That my dad would be so proud he'd send me to Williams, no problem. But that was as much wishful thinking as Erik actually asking me why I've been compulsively checking the mailbox for six days in a row. He was singing to the radio under his breath, off-tune and always a word behind.
I grabbed my backpack with one hand, the door handle with the other, my body executing an escape plan I hadn't realized I wanted. As I slid out of the truck, though, Erik called, "Hey, Terra."
Hopeful now, I turned and waited. Tell me, Erik, say the right thing. "Yeah?"
"You forgot something." He scooted over to the warm spot I had just vacated, meeting me more than halfway, and kissed me.
The first five seconds of that kiss did everything I'd hoped his words would: anchored me in the here and now. Stress vanishing, I breathed in Erik's scent, knowing I'd always associate fresh-cut wood and worn leather with him. I wrapped my arms around him, toying with the short hair on the nape of his neck, softer there than anywhere else on his body. His hand snaked under my jacket, grazing the side of my breast in a way that made me want to slip into the narrow backseat with him, but his hand continued its one-way path down my back to slide inside my jeans. I don't know why it irritated me now when from the first time we hooked up, his hands had been Lewis and Clark, exploring north and south of my waistline, all expansion ho! Not that I ever did anything to stop him.
Only today, I pulled away. A slight, confused frown creased Erik's forehead.
"I'm late for work," I said with a chagrined smile.
"You're always so busy, working, studying."
"I'll make it up to you later."
His chagrin turned into a full grin. "I'll hold you to that," he said, reaching for me again. I kicked myself for letting him grope me, because he slid the brochure from Dr. Holladay out of my back pocket. "What's this?"
"Nothing." I reached for the brochure, but Erik blocked me with his shoulder while he glanced through it, flipping it from one side to the other before handing it back to me.
"So," he asked, "you going to do it?"
"Why not what?"
"Why not fix your face?"
That question yanked out every memory of my being called ugly, each episode a different reference point that made up my map of reality. Like the time when my brother Claudius was studying French in high school and hit upon a term he didn't understand—jolie laide. Dad had translated, "Pretty ugly," and then continued, laughing, "like our Terra." He might have chuckled, and that laugh may have blunted his words, but it only sharpened his message. As mapmakers and adventurers alike know, all you need to figure out where you stand is a single reference point on a map.
I sucked in sharply now. Like all those times at home or after my laser treatments when I couldn't wear my usual makeup, I didn't show my surprise, couldn't show my hurt. How could I if I was going to be impervious to Dad? If I wanted to continue to be the ballsy, unflappable girl Erik thought I was, the one who snagged him on Halloween night over a year ago?
Karin's dad lived for one day all year, and that day was October 31. To say Mr. Mannion decorated for Halloween would be like saying that Colville is small. Two years ago, the utilities company actually issued a warning for the sheer wattage his 60,000 orange lights consumed. So last year, Mr. Mannion had restrained himself by constructing a mock cemetery lit by old-fashioned lanterns for Karin's annual Halloween party—Ghouls Gone Wild.
By the time I arrived the morning of that party, Karin's bedroom had transformed from podcasting studio to Museum of World Fashion, beginning with Cleopatra's robe, complete with asp, hanging from her door. On her bed lay an exhibit of colonial America as interpreted by Hollywood—a Native American dress (very short, beaded, and made of faux deerskin) and its Puritan counterpart (very long, white collared, and made with yards o' faux cotton).
Karin pointed to them. "We could go as Thanksgiving."
And guess who would be wearing the Mayflower muumuu, all guts, no glory? "God, I might as well dress as a turkey."
"That could be cute." She looked thoughtful.
"I was kidding."
"You know, Dad's got a brown bodysuit from the time he went as Dirt, and Mom and I went as paparazzi, remember?"
- On Sale
- Feb 17, 2010
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers