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FICTION
Phasing Out
AnnElise Hatjakes

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After the sixth period bell rang, Jolie and the rest of the teachers at the Future Stars Academy of Las Vegas picked up the trash, gadgets, and books that’d been left by students who were too eager to begin Physical Rejuvenation Break to take stock of their possessions. She stood outside of the runway model teachers’ circle that’d formed in the teachers’ lounge and tried to listen in on their predictions about the Annual Aesthetic Guidelines. Sarah, who was the nicest of the group, turned her body to permit Jolie’s entrance into the circle. The women made her feel impossibly short, but she didn’t mind since the top of her head being level with their shoulders also made her feel like their kid sister despite the fact that she was at least ten years older than most of them.

“Are we still exempt from the chest and hips requirements because of the sample sizes?” They all scanned each other’s faces, and Jolie offered an answer even though she didn’t know it.

“I’m pretty sure people in your profession are exempt from a lot of them. It says on their website, though, if you want to double check.” She left the circle on a high note of helpfulness and walked to her car. One of the dance instructors, Cory, stopped her steps from her sedan, and she hoped he couldn’t tell that she was walking to her old car, paint peeling off of its hood as if surrendering to the Vegas sun.

“Some of the staff is coming to my apartment at five for a guidelines viewing party if you care to join.”

“That is so sweet of you, Cory.” Jolie typically preferred to watch the guidelines on her own, but this might be a good opportunity to get to know the other teachers better. She was surrounded by students all day, but by the time she got home, she also felt a hard lump of loneliness forming in her gut that she washed away with a vodka and anti-anxiety medication cocktail. She still hadn’t adjusted to the silence of the apartment she’d shared with Xander until he left her a year before. Her online therapist recommend that she take back ownership of her space by creating a new routine. So, every day, the moment she walked through the door, she turned on her stereo and the TV out of fear that quietness would force her to listen to her own thoughts, which grew darker with every day that brought her closer to the wrong side of forty. Then, she’d apply a hydrating face mask, a detoxifying foot mask, and cuticle cream before sitting motionless on the couch for twenty minutes. “I’d love to go, but I’ll need something nicer than this.” She pointed at her pink shift dress, which was already off trend even though she’d bought it that month.

“A little cocktail dress should be perfect.” He unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt and did a half-pirouette as a way to spin toward the direction of his parked car. The teachers were always showcasing their talents outside of the classroom, supermodels doing runway walks to the teachers’ lounge and singing teachers like Jolie belting out lunch orders in the highest notes they could reach.

Jolie opened up her car door to let some of the trapped heat escape, and she watched it exit the car in wavy lines that distorted the shape of surrounding cars. As she waited for the car to cool with more optimism than past experience merited, she gathered up the courage to let the back of her legs make contact with the faux leather seat, knowing that she’d have to peel herself off of that seat once she arrived at her destination.

She decided to drive to J’adore, which was out of her price range and above her newly attained VIP status. The saleswoman near the door seemed very aware of both inadequacies as she evaluated Jolie’s dress, now wrinkled from the sweat that’d collected beneath her hip bones.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked in the form of an accusation.

“Yes please. I’m looking for a cute cocktail dress. Something basic is fine.” Jolie smiled so big and for so long that she could feel the front of her mouth drying out. As a way of honoring her father, she chose to take his advice to kill them with kindness at every opportunity as a way of honoring him. The saleswoman’s high heels clicked on the tile as she led Jolie to a rack of black dresses. Jolie tried on several and chose the least expensive one even though it was also the least flattering. She was close to exceeding her credit card limits, and the all caps word APPROVED on the credit card reader reminded her of when bouncers would let her into a club after a visual assessment. She changed in the strip mall bathroom.

Cory had decked the place out with streamers, cardboard cutouts of celebrities, and an entire table lined with bottles of champagne, which he’d placed into ice-filled gold tins. Jolie wondered if he’d tapped into the teacher resources fund to pay for all of the decor.

“That dress is fabulous,” Sarah said and turned her lips up in a half-joking, half-genuine smile.

“But you’ve got a little something here.” She pulled at something at the back of Jolie’s neck. Jolie didn’t let her expression betray the surprise that the tag she’d purposefully left attached so that she could return it was dangling outside of her dress like a pathetic catch at the end of a fishing line.

“Shit. Thanks.” Jolie tucked the tag back inside her dress, preferring the skin irritation over the embarrassment of people seeing the original price violated by a red slash and a lower number scribbled beneath it. She found her familiar circle of music teachers, and Dean welcomed her into the group by putting his arm around her. Dean maintained a baseline level of repulsiveness, especially when he was drinking, but he was handsome enough for most women to overlook it. His appearance reminded her of the citrus air fresheners in public bathrooms, intended to cover up something unappealing, but failing.

He held two champagne flutes in his hands, and was already wobbling. Jolie acted as the flesh anchor that kept him from falling over, and with each wild gesticulation as he outlined his aesthetic guideline predictions, she worried that champagne would spill on her dress, eliminating the possibility of a return.

“I don’t care what the YouFriend universe or so-called experts on TruthSayer have been saying. Hourglass is coming back this year, bigger than ever. Better start doing squats, ladies.”

“I hope not,” a quiet chorus of women said, and Jolie shared that hope, though she didn’t say so out loud. Her skin on her chest had gotten so thin from a series of six enlargement and reduction surgeries that it was almost translucent, and she didn’t want to carry around the extra weight of double D’s again. She’d also bet on the guidelines returning to a flat chest even though the odds were ten to one, so she stood to make a good amount of money if Dean was wrong. Maria, her best friend in the music department, grabbed her hand and pulled her away from Dean as part of a familiar rescue mission of women trapped by men who felt entitled to a conversation.

“Thank you,” Jolie mouthed, and both shook their heads as Dean nearly fell over.

Cory popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, which drew the guests’ eyes to the corner of the room.

“Thank you everyone for coming to my little get together.” His TV beeped, alerting him that a new model was available, and he hushed it. “I’d like to propose a toast to the people who are responsible for cultivating the next generation of talent and—” He waved his hand in an apparent effort to dry the champagne that’d dripped on him and then patted his lapel as if searching for a speech he’d prepared and hidden in a pocket. “Anyway, it’s time.” He clicked on his TV, which was at least two models newer than Jolie’s. She couldn’t bring herself to buy a new one. The new models didn’t offer any new features over the old ones. The only reason to upgrade lie in the shame of company seeing the old model number, and she hadn’t had anyone aside from Maria over since Xander left.

On the TV screen, the Plastic Surgeon General appeared behind a podium. His features were too sharp, the imminent threat of his jaw bone piercing through his skin increasing with each movement of his mouth. Jolie preferred the old PSG who’d been humbled by a botched eyebrow lift, which made him appear surprised by each of the guidelines he announced.

“After careful deliberation with the members of the Public Health and Pulchritude Council, I have constructed a list of this year’s Annual Aesthetic Guidelines,” the PSG said. “I would like to thank members of the public who have voiced their evaluations of potential guidelines. Please know that your voices were heard. We will begin with the guidelines for men.”

Jolie grunted and walked to the champagne tin to pour herself a glass. She poured quickly and avoided eye contact that might lead to a conversation. The guidelines for men only took a few minutes to go over vague information about haircuts, fashion trends, and body types, while women’s guidelines took a minimum of thirty minutes to outline. Jolie sipped from the glass, bubbles tickling her nose, as the PSG made his final comments about men’s bodies: “lean rather than bulky muscle definition.” She guessed that the government was trying to curb the use of steroids after the five-year streak of a bulky muscle guideline.

The air conditioner kicked on, and Cory apologized for the noise and turned up the volume.

“Women should maintain between 15 and 17 percent body fat and should have visible bicep, quadriceps, and calf muscles when flexing. We no longer recommend that women have visible abdominal muscles,” the PSG continued. Jolie took out a pen and small notepad from her purse and started to take notes. Even though the guidelines would be addressed on all of the major news networks and discussed at great length on talk shows the next day, Jolie couldn’t help herself. She’d always been a diligent student. Maria laughed at her.

“It is recommended that non-white women maintain a skin tone between D-3 and W-1. While a tan can be superficially applied to the skin, the board does not recommend that women attempt to suntan.” Everyone in the room turned to the nearest non-white person and frowned in a show of sympathy. In Jolie’s case, she turned to Maria, who shrugged, unsurprised by the continued trend in skin lightening.

The PSG consulted his notes and hesitated before reading the next recommendation.

“I recommend that women remove all breast and buttocks implants and attempt to reach the guidelines without the aid of invasive surgery.”

Jolie nearly choked on her drink. Cory hushed everyone, but he couldn’t quiet them once they all started talking. The collective shock manifested in people speaking a half-octave above their normal voices. There was no way the PSG, a traitor to his profession and perhaps the country, would be allowed to finish out his term. The party guests quieted as they traded in their face-to-face conversations for virtual ones, scrolling through every news source and social media platform on their phones. President Sekler herself had already released a statement on Friendly, Photolife, YouFriend, Tellit, MyVids, and TruthSayer denouncing the comments of the PSG. Jolie hadn’t voted for Sekler, who’d had a highly visible breakup with her husband/reality TV co-star/political opponent Zane Deeks, but she did like seeing a woman in office.

“The champagne isn’t going to drink itself,” Cory announced as he refilled everyone’s glasses.

“How long do you think before they can him?” Maria asked.

“I don’t know.” Jolie lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m relieved. We can spend our whole break actually relaxing instead of scheduling procedures, figuring out downtime, and going through all of our cosmetic discretionary spending in one go. Keeping up with everything is its own full-time job, don’t you think?”

Maria nodded and pointed at Dean. He’d found a new woman who was the appropriate height to be situated underneath his arm. He then traded her in for a cardboard cutout of the football player, Jackson Mendoza, which he began to waltz with. Within an hour, all of the champagne was gone, and Jolie’s stomach was upset. At some point, the mood turned somber. A couple of streamers fell from the ceiling, and the cardboard cutout of Jackson, now bent in the middle from being Dean’s dance partner, fell to the ground.

Jolie and Maria were the last ones left with Cory. They offered to help clean up, but he said he’d take care of it the next morning. He looked more pale than before, still wearing the shock of the announcement despite the fact that it didn’t really affect him.

*  *  * 

Jolie offered to buy drinks for the rest of the night with her bet winnings. They made their way to the outskirts of Old Downtown so that Jolie could collect her winnings from the High Desert casino. A group of men catcalled as they walked in. Maria was wearing a low-cut emerald green dress that reliably earned her comments like “damn girl” and high pitched whistles. They went to the bathroom to reapply lipstick and adjust their body parts so that everything was in its correct place.

Jolie used her ring finger to dab lipstick slightly above her Cupid’s bow.

“How does your skin still look like that? Seriously.” Maria asked as she adjusted the straps of her dress. Jolie hadn’t had to undergo the ultra-aggressive skin resurfacing procedures that her friends had, but she thanked good genetics for that. From the photos she’d seen of her mother, her skin looked smooth. So did her father’s, but he’d had enough money before he was phased out to have access to bi-monthly facials and neurotoxins to avoid wrinkles.

Jolie looked around her shoulder and beneath the sound of flushing toilets and inter-stall conversations, then said, “I get a lot of my products from South Korea on the dark web.” They’d had this conversation countless times, but Jolie decided this time to tell the truth rather than vaguely referring to genetics and luck.

Maria’s eyes widened. “Do you know how much the fines are for that if you get caught?”

“Probably a lot.” Jolie smiled. Possessing products that weren’t created and distributed by Age Rewind Pharmaceuticals was a criminal offense—the only one that Jolie had ever knowingly committed aside from when she gambled with her father when she was a teenager.

The two made their way to the line that extended past the sportsbook booths, through rows of video poker slots and between a few table games. Jolie fetched drinks from the closest bar while Maria held her place in line.

“I guess I’m not the only winner,” Jolie said to Maria once she returned.

“The season finale of Survive Antarctica and Becoming Royalty were also tonight, so a lot of people probably bet on that,” a man standing behind them offered.

“I forgot about that.” Jolie and Maria pulled out their phones to check the results. Jolie hadn’t gotten into either show, too many others competing for her attention. The last season of Becoming Royalty was exceptionally bad. All of the women trying to marry Prince David were dull aside from one woman from New Jersey who spoke in an exaggerated accent and had fake nails that were sharpened to a point.

“That’s what I bet on. I picked out the former navy SEAL as the winner from the beginning. Who knows if they made that backstory up, but all that matters is he won and I get fifty bucks out of it.” Jolie tried to imagine what the man looked like based on his voice, a skill that she often tried to hone. The amount of baritone made him seem tall with wide shoulders. Maybe a little stomach pooch, but the kind that represents a small reserve of strength, one that’s easily concealed under a dress shirt with vertical stripes. She guessed he had dark hair and a wide smile. When she turned around to look at him, only the prediction about the hair color and stomach paunch proved true. He was almost as short as she was, and she felt sorry for him. He probably couldn’t afford to get any of the bone lengthening surgeries, or maybe he didn’t think the pain was worth the shot at improving his status.

Jolie tried not to let her pity show in her smile, but knew that it probably came through. It didn’t matter, though. He never looked up from his phone.

After almost an hour and three drinks each, they approached the cage cashier. Jolie pulled up her bet on her phone, the cashier scanned it, and gave Jolie a small stack of chips before shooing her away and waving the next person in line toward her.

“Can I get cash instead?” Jolie asked, but by that point, the cashier had already moved on, and Jolie didn’t want to bother her. The poor woman looked at least a few years older than Jolie and probably was on the brink of being phased out.

“Well, I guess the universe wants us to double this at that blackjack table,” Jolie said as she split the stack of chips roughly in half and gave the larger stack to Maria.

“I don’t usually play.”

“I know, but blackjack is the easiest. Get as close to twenty-one as you can. If the dealer is showing a six or less, don’t hit no matter what. They’ll most likely bust.” Jolie could see that Maria’s eyes had already begun to glaze over. Like many children of gambling addicts, Maria had trained herself to be uninterested in gambling altogether to protect herself from a future like her father’s.

She agreed to play anyway, and Jolie instructed her when to hit and when to stand. A woman who looked even older than the cage cashier took a seat at the table, and Jolie was grateful that she left an empty seat between them. Four deep lines extended across her forehead, running perpendicular to the one between her eyebrows.

Jolie stared and nudged Maria, who started to stare as well. Right after the crash and the whole social capital movement, Jolie had promised herself that she’d be an Aging Ally. Aging was the great equalizer, after all; even the most beautiful people would eventually look like the apples forgotten in the fruit basket. But as Jolie focused her gaze on the woman’s wrinkles, she couldn’t help but wear the feeling of muted disgust on her face.   

The dealer, however, seemed completely unfazed. He dealt the woman in, and Jolie looked at her and Maria’s cards. She instructed Maria to stand.

The dealer appeared to press a button under the table.

“Can’t I give her advice?” Jolie asked. Heat rose up to her cheeks, and she had the same feeling she had when she was twelve years old and Mrs. Kennings caught her passing a note to Destiny and read the note in front of the entire class.

“Nope. You’re fine. Tell your friend to keep the cards above the table, though.” He nodded toward Maria, who flushed and apologized.

Maria’s stack increased, and Jolie’s dwindled, the inverse relationship between them increasing with each hand.

“Shall we?” Jolie asked once she got down to her last two chips.

“Sure.” Maria tried to spin one of her chips, but it fell over before making a complete rotation. As the two scooted out their seats, which was difficult to do as the chair legs got stuck on the carpet, Jolie saw a pair of men wearing Council uniforms approach the table. One whispered something into the older woman’s ear. She nodded and began to cry, her tears darkening the velvet mound they’d all been resting their forearms on moments before. “I’ve played my last hand, huh?” the woman said as the other man gently stood the woman up and fastened her wrists behind her back. “I told them already. I’m not taking the exam. Just ship me off with the other fogies. I’m tired.” The dealer sealed her remaining chips in a bag and handed them to one of the men. Jolie felt a heaviness in her chest. Despite the fact that she was still up thanks to Maria winning several hands in a row, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something else--something much bigger and more important—had been lost.


AnnElise Hatjakes holds an MFA degree in fiction from the University of Nevada, Reno. She lives in Reno with her husband, two cats, and five chickens, and she teaches English at a school for gifted students. She is currently completing revisions on a satirical novel, from which this story is excerpted.