#16: A Middle Ground

Five years ago. 

Krysta and her college roommate Sydney stepped out of the airport shuttle in front of Julie Ravner's modest Northshore home. As they left the safe confines of the van air conditioning, the humid Midwest summer air settled on them like a blanket. Anticipating the heat, Sydney wore a black tube top and shorts, her red hair shimmering in the bright sun. Krysta, still wearing her baggy, long-sleeve sweater, adjusted her glasses and fanned her face with a New Yorker magazine. Neither of the two had seen nor heard from their former classmate since she'd dropped out following their sophomore year and moved to Northshore. They were surprised when, a year later, Julie offered to fly them both out to visit for a long weekend.

Julie emerged from the front door and ran over to embrace both girls, who were shocked to see their notoriously penny-pinching friend clad in name-brand jeans with shiny new sunglasses sitting atop her salon-styled blonde hair.

"Welcome to Northshore! I'm so happy to see you two!"

"Same to you, Jules," Sydney said. "Now, I'm just going to jump right to this: how on Earth did you get the money to afford to fly both of us out here?"

"It's been an... interesting year for me, and, for various reasons, I can't tell you much about it. What I can say, is things have gone well for me the past couple months and I've decided to share my good fortune by inviting my old friends for a few days of summer fun and festivity."

"But how did you end up in Northshore in the first place?" Krysta asked.

"NU was my second choice after Stanford, and part of that was the city around it. Rent is way cheaper in this region, and after growing up on the West coast, I wanted to give the Midwest a try. And as a bonus, I get to finish up my degree in a place that doesn't drive people to suicide."

"Still in biology?" Sydney asked.

"Art, with an emphasis in photography."

"Well, that is great and all, but I certainly do not like the humidity," Krysta said. "I am already sweating. Can we go inside?"

"You could, ya' know, remove a layer," Sydney said. Krysta frowned at the suggestion and folded her arms underneath her sizable, yet fully covered breasts.

"You'll get used to it," Julie said. "There's an awesome swimming quarry not too far from here, some excellent restaurants, and even some swank bars along the main drag on Empire Street. We'll have plenty to do this weekend."

"Funny," Sydney said, lifting her sunglasses and looking around. "I'd never even heard of Northshore. I can't imagine much goes on here."

Julie gave a slight grin. "In some ways, everything happens in Northshore."

Indeed, it was a week of happenings.

In just a few days, Julie gave her friends the full tour of all Northshore in the summertime had to offer, which included campus tours, shopping, restaurants, and plenty of sun. Being the first such trip Krysta had taken since entering college, she was game to tag along for everything, though she always kept supplies in her bag she could break out at moments when things settled down—and there were several. She read the latest volume of the International Journal of Robotics Research while Julie and Sydney tried on swimwear, she discreetly proofread a conference white paper while they hung out at a cafe, and she responded to mathematics subreddit posts over tapas.

On the final day of their trip, Julie introduced them to the Kellsburg freshwater quarry for a Sunday beach outing. As her two companions returned from a swim in the cool, clear water, Krysta reclined in a folding chair underneath a wide beach umbrella reviewing the set theory textbook she'd be using next fall as a TA for Math 161. Sydney and Julie sported their new swimwear while Krysta wore a long, loose button-up shirt and running shorts over a one-piece swimsuit.

"You know, Krys," Sydney said as she applied a layer of sunscreen to her pale, freckled limbs. "It wouldn't hurt to step away from school for, I dunno, five waking minutes?"

"Come on, Syd," Julie replied. "You're better off trying to convince her to wear a two-piece bathing suit and take off that shirt."

Sydney snickered and lowered her sunglasses as a group of college-aged guys strolled by. The guys gave each of the three girls a once-over, drinking the bare skin of Sydney and Julie's bodies before their gazes settled on Krysta's buxom figure which, while well-hidden, was still quite apparent. Krysta made eye contact briefly, before frowning and turning her attention back to her book. One of the guys snickered, but all three got the unspoken message and offered a head nod to Sydney and Julie before heading on their way.

"Wow, Krys," Julie said, noticing the exchange. "You've been working on that 'get lost' look of yours. Last time I saw you, you avoided all eye contact whatsoever and hid behind baggy sweaters."

"It is too hot for a sweater."

"I'd just assumed you outgrew all of them," Julie said, studying the profile of Krysta's chest. "What are they at now? They look like at least an 'F' I figure."

Krysta sighed. "34Gs and growing. If I cannot hide them, I need to at least be able to get my message across."

"And I've been telling you," Sydney said, "that your 'not interested' look has got a few teaspoons too much bitchy. Give them just a dash of allure. It helps solidify who's in control. Otherwise, you just seem defensive."

"I am defensive. You think I welcome the assault of a thousand eyes?"

"If it puts it in some context," Julie said to Sydney. "When we were in eighth grade, some bitch soccer mom told Krysta her appearance was 'offensive' and asked her to leave the public pool, just because her teenage son and his friends couldn't handle the sight of breasts."

"Her husband was staring too," Krysta said, not looking up from her book.

"That's fucked up," Sydney said. "I hope you said something."

"She didn't," Julie said, "but my fourteen-year-old skinny ass had a thing or two to say about it. Long story short, by the time I got through with that bitch, both of us got kicked out, and we've been pals ever since. Krysta, as you can see, still hasn't gotten over it." Krysta did not look up from her book, though she did shake her head dismissively.

"Well, I still think that look of yours needs work, but I'll drop it for now. In the meantime, I've got a look of my own to cultivate." Sydney stood up, faced towards them, and straightened her sunglasses. She held her phone in front of her and took a variety of selfies with the beach behind her, before handing the camera to Krysta, who snapped a few more.

"For posterity?" Julie asked.

"Instagram," Krysta said flatly, handing the phone back to Julie. "It is a new photo-based social network for narcissists. How have you not heard of it?"

"Because I do real photography."

"Whatever," Sydney said. "It's an absolute dream-come-true for us web models. I've been on for a month, and I've already got over three thousand followers. It's also a great supplement for my webcam career. My goal is to save some money and hopefully dance my way through grad school. I keep telling this one to hop on the web model train, but yeah, no."

"I do not dance," Krysta said.

"You don't have to! Shit, Krys, just sit there on camera, read a book, and bounce one of your giant-ass jugs in your hand. That alone would be worth at least fifteen bucks a month out of most guys' pockets. There are girls without even half your goods that are making bank doing this."

"Topless or not, I could do a really tastefully sexy shoot for you," Julie said, "You'd be beautiful in front of the camera." Julie turned to Sydney. "Believe me, I've seen this girl in pretty much every state of undress."

"I will never consider it," Krysta said. "I am a mathematician and a robotics geek, not a model, but...thank you for the compliment."

"No problem," Julie said. "I've said all I need to. Now, you two shut up and let me get my hour of sun."

"But I like this blouse!" Krysta said.

"Yes, and if you were going to a job interview, you'd look perfect. But we're going to a club, and while I realize we're all freshly twenty-one, aiming for late thirties is a bit much."

"It's a lovely blouse," Sydney said to Krysta. "You've also got a lovely bosom that's absolutely lost inside of it." She reached over and unbuttoned three buttons, pulling the corners down until the edges of Krysta's black bra were visible. "Now, that's more like it."

Krysta gaped with horror at her reflection in Julie's bedroom mirror. "I am not going out looking like this."

"We're thousands of miles away from anyone you would know. You'll certainly get some stares, but nothing you haven't handled before. Come on, for just one night quit being Lan Dinh, Stanford honor student and be Krysta, the sexy, busty Asian chick."

"But try so hard not to be her," Krysta had to pause and run over what she'd said in her head a couple times. "Wait—"

"That admission right there tells me volumes," Sydney said, turning to Julie, who smiled in agreement.

"Really, Krys," Julie said. "It's a good look for you. Moreso, it's the right look for you."

Krysta studied her reflection more closely. It wasn't that she didn't recognize the girl in the mirror. She did recognize her. She saw some of herself. She also saw another girl: the girl who let her sex appeal define her. She saw the girl that didn't need to major in Mathematics at Stanford because she could find some rich guy to pay her bills for her. She didn't want to be that girl.

"I know what you see," Julie said, putting her hands on Krysta's shoulders. "There is a middle ground, you just need to stop being so defensive, and take control of who you are. All of who you are."

Krysta took a breath and straightened her posture, then looked down at her bountiful cleavage in all its glory. "It is quite the look." Krysta removed her glasses, squinting at her reflection in the mirror before tossing her hair and looking back at Julie and Sydney, straining to see across the room. "Eh? Glasses off?"

"No," both said in unison.

For Krysta and Sydney's final night in Northshore, Julie took them to Vino Veritas, where the three girls shared two bottles of wine and several rounds of hors d'oeuvres. Krysta chatted with the bartender, who explained to her the different types of reds, offering her a pinot noir on the house. A couple hours later, the girls, in high spirits, made their way down the street to The Sensation, where they danced, drank, and laughed until well after midnight. Krysta, having consumed more alcohol in the last few hours than she had all week, let herself relax and enjoy the company of her friends, as well as the attention of more than a few admirers. She'd left her bag of books at home, and she would only pick up her phone to look up lyrics to an '80s song.

Towards the end of the evening, a tipsy Sydney asked a bartender to take their picture, and she stood in the middle as Julie and Krysta flanked her on each side. The DJ announced last call, and Krysta and Julie headed to the bathroom while Sydney pulled up the group picture. Krysta had leaned into the photo, displaying an almost breathtaking chasm of cleavage. As much as Sydney knew Krysta would hate it, there was no way—particularly as drunk as she was—to convince herself not to post it. This picture would be social media gold, and she'd ask for forgiveness later.

In #Northshore partying with my girls. For once, I feel a little overshadowed. #vavavoom #nightlife

The photo had the intended effect, and then some: the post gathered as many likes in two days as Sydney had followers—twice over. Krysta reacted to her public unveiling remarkably well, and—after several glasses of wine—stopped in to say hi to her new fans during one of Sydney's chats. Within a month she had started her own Instagram, and in another month, she'd garnered more than twice as many followers as Sydney (who had doubled hers since the summer). By Christmas, Julie was flying out to Palo Alto with her camera for a private photo shoot as a present for her friend.