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Pretty

A Novel

Jillian Lauren - Author

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ISBN 9780452297340 | 288 pages | 30 Aug 2011 | Plume | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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An electrifying debut novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Some Girls.

Bebe Baker is an ex-everything: ex-stripper, ex-Christian, ex-drug addict, ex-pretty girl.

It's been one year since the car accident that killed her boyfriend left her scarred and shaken. Flanked by an eccentric posse of friends, she is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house, while trying to finish cosmetology school. Amid the rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails of Los Angeles, Bebe looks for something to believe in before something--her past, the dangerously magnetic men in her life, her own bad choices--knocks her off course again.



One

How I got here the long version is a longer story than I want to tell. How I got here the short version is the story of a night a year and a half ago. I was with Aaron, who was supposed to be the love of my life.

"Did I win, baby?" I sang out to Aaron across Raji's bar, pretending I was more stupid than I actually was. We had landed in L.A. six months before and that was when I really started laying on the dumb routine. I found it advantageous to be underestimated. You have to be careful how you fake it, though, because things like that can stick and before you know it you become what you're pretending to be.

Not that I'm some kind of genius but I'm not dull enough to think I lost even when the other guy sunk the eight ball. But I hollered at Aaron anyway because he was deep in red-bar-light, sparkle-eyed conversation with a smart, dainty blonde named Madison, for Christ's sake. Madison. Madison from USC film school no doubt.

It was a bad night already. Bad even before it got worse. I was pitched sideways with the cheap well liquor and the dope we'd smoked off foils in the bathroom and the lines we'd snorted off Madison's compact mirror. I had smoked cigarettes dusted with cocaine and was tumbling too fast. I flirted with Aaron's friends just to piss him off.

"Hey, Chaaaaaaas."

I baited my hook and let my line fly. Chas was such a ridiculous mark, with his wire-rimmed glasses and his over-sized-sweater-wearing, women's-college-going girlfriend. I like to taunt people like Chas because, really, what other power do I have? I have the power to make him think of me when he's fucking his girlfriend. Chas has all the rest. Chas will graduate from law school and make lots of money and the most I can hope for is that he'll still vote liberal so that when things get too bad people like me can get a bed at a state-sponsored rehab.

My mom used to say to me, "Pretty is as pretty does."

She's like the fucking cliché almanac, my mom. But she was pretty, too. Prettier than me even because she wasn't as tall and broad in the shoulders as I am. I watched her and decided that it wasn't true. Pretty isn't what pretty does. Pretty just is. Pretty is pretty and it can get you a few things. And it doesn't last long so whatever the hell you can get with it while you have it, go ahead and get it.

So that's all I was doing. Just trying to use what I had to wring the last electrical charge out of a night that was fast slipping through my fingers while Aaron turned his face away. When I remember it now I can almost see the red lights glowing in my eyes, the flecks of foam at the corners of my mouth—some animatronic horrible girlfriend monster.

I hopped up and sat on the edge of the pool table. I swung my legs and pouted.

"Be my savior, Chas. No one else is volunteering. Tell me. Did I win?"

I let it run right off the rails; let it get all out of hand. My love for Aaron was so acid it scraped my veins raw. He twinkled his liquid chocolate eyes at some other bitch, waiting a beat before he turned to me after I called out to him. I loved him so hard right then that I wanted him dead is the truth of it.

I could always see Aaron's head over the others in the bar. He was an explosion of dreadlocks and gangly limbs. He had an enigmatic not-white-not-black thing going on that inspired strangers to constantly ask him, "What are you?" Which bugged him to no end. I mean, what kind of question is that? He would simply answer, "I'm Aaron." He was nobody's easy anything.

Thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses cemented his face in place, but otherwise he was constant motion, constant, easy, seamless motion. And me, I was a long redhead glowing next to him like some Irish peasant from an old painting. What I thought when he stood behind me with his arms clasped around my waist in front of the full-length mirror was that I was something more glorious than I ever had been before. Someone I didn't recognize.

Aaron did love me. But not, I think, like I loved him. Not so that it twisted him ugly and desperate.

"You Shook Me All Night Long" came on the jukebox and it is a universal law that all strippers must dance whenever that song comes on no matter where they are. And that's what I was by then—an exotic dancer out at Jet Strip by the airport. I had meant it to be an emergency measure, something to get us by until Aaron could score another gig.

When I met him, Aaron was playing the horn on tour with Billy Coyote, a pretty well-known jazz guitarist. One humid Thursday in July he had walked into Rusty's where I worked in Toledo. My real pop was a horn player, too. There's a lot I can't remember about him, but I remember hearing him play. I live my life now with two trumpet songs like sad angel voices in my head—Aaron's and my pop's. Sometimes I can't remember anymore whose horn was whose, except that Aaron had a flaw that Billy berated him mercilessly for. He could be tentative with how he finished a phrase. Sometimes when Aaron took the horn from his lips you had the sense of another note hovering somewhere in a parallel universe, a note he could have chosen but didn't. Not so with my pop. He always hurled himself at the finish line.

When I first started working at Rusty's, Rusty had called me into the back office and showed me old pictures she'd kept of my pop. He was tall like me, taller than the other guys on the cramped stage. In my favorite picture, my pop is blowing his heart out in the smoke haze blue spotlight. Wide-collared suit, a lock of greased hair falling in his face, forehead glistening with sweat, eyes closed. I wondered where, in the Toledo I knew, was anyone half as cool. If I met someone as cool as that, I vowed I would follow him wherever he went.

And then in walked Aaron. When Aaron's band left Toledo the next morning that was exactly what I did. I climbed into the bus with them. And when I say that pretty can get you a thing or two, that's what I mean. I mean it can get you a bus ride to the West Coast with a jazz musician who hardly knows you but might already be suspecting that he loves you. We were headed to San Francisco at the end of it all, Aaron had promised me. He told me there was even a church in San Francisco that had canonized John Coltrane. Clearly the place for us. So L.A. was never really the plan, but when we got stranded here and Billy's ex-girlfriend offered to help me get a job at the club where she worked, Aaron and I both thought it was a good idea. Here's another thing pretty can get you—it can get you a job. Me being a stripper seemed real jazz to Aaron, kind of picturesque and romantic. That's how it was in our minds before I started.

Aaron and I strolled with our fingers intertwined down Hollywood Boulevard to pick out the shoes, while I wondered where the hell San Francisco had gone. Wondered what the hell Pastor Dan would say if he could see me now. Wondered how we had wound up in this desert buying a pair of heels to go hit the airport clubs for work. Wondered how many other girls had thought the very same thing walking into the very same store. I opted for the black shiny ones with the platforms and the long, thin, tapered heels. They're remarkably durable. You can get most of the scuffs out with alcohol. Dancing was another one of those choices I made that I didn't know until way later what it really meant.

By that night at Raji's a year and some change ago, dancing had shifted from an emergency measure to just being my deal. It was what I did, and I couldn't remember anymore what I had started out wanting to do. Had I wanted to be a singer? A jazz wife? A California bohemian? I don't think I wanted to be a drunken stripper. Not that it was so bad, but it wasn't so good. I mean, what it does to how you look at your real boyfriend. How all that lying all night long and all the laps of all the men can make you kind of angry and how being angry and smiling is a bad habit to get into. You can blow up and do something cruel one night. You can do something stupid that maybe you'll regret forever and that will ruin the rest of your whole life.

So "You Shook Me All Night Long" came on the jukebox just as Chas looked at me all starry-eyed, like the dork he was, and said, "Yes. You won."

"You're saying I'm a winner?"

"You are."

"Well, we should celebrate, don't you think?"

I held his gaze, got up on the pool table, recently cleared of balls by the game I had won, and handed him my pink heels. He held them away from his body like they were either worth two billion dollars or they were on fire and he couldn't decide which.

"Now, don't get all crazy and go drinking champagne out of those, 'cause I might need to walk home in them if Aaron keeps acting like an ass."

I gave him a wink. He was so easy. All Aaron's friends were jazzmen and phony intellectuals and chatty college girls. I would never fit in with them so I settled for the next best thing and acted the wild one. Sometimes it was true.

I danced there, my bare feet on the green felt, flipping my hair back, swaying my hips, and leaning with one hand onto the low, swinging lamp. The glowing green platform was the only gash of color floating in a brown bar full of gray smoke. Glasses of one amber liquid or another reflected people's faces all distorted on their curved surfaces. Wafts of a bad smell you just ignored blew over from the direction of the crowded bathroom.

Aaron finally walked over and stood in front of me, looking concerned or annoyed or something. Chas left my shoes on the edge of the table and melted into the crowd. Aaron's forehead creased in the uneven way that it did when he was disturbed. He held his arms out to me like you would to a kid on a high wall, in that way that means jump and I'll catch you. I kept dancing and he stood there and I see him now like that, his arms extended to me, but he is moving backward away from me, getting smaller and smaller, and I am high above him, higher than the pool table even, and he is falling down a dark well. He held his arms out to me and it stopped me in mid dance move.

I ended my little performance, put my hands on his shoulders, and jumped off the table into his arms. He lifted me gently down by the waist like I was a ballerina, toes pointed, riding gracefully through the air. When I touched down I clasped my hands behind his neck and stood on his boots with my bare feet. Then, with his edges hugging mine, we danced slow like in an old movie. I don't know when he learned to dance like that or when I did. I understood that it meant we were starting over.

But even with the missteps of the evening forgiven, even with a fresh start, I was hungry and falling apart. When I was with Aaron, my molecules vibrated so fast that they flew off their gravitational path. I split into a thousand humming pieces. I closed my eyes and swam in a black velvet galaxy with no floor beneath me while I braced for my impact with the bottom. I remember thinking: I don't know if I can live with this.

We held on to each other for a minute like that, swaying dreamlike in a bubble. The rest of the room went quiet and it was just us. And if I could rewind it, I would rewind it to there.

I broke the mood and put one leg up around him, grinding on him like he was a customer. I was laughing; I was joking around, but he didn't think it was funny and he pushed me off.

"What's the matter? You want to fuck her?" I asked, meaning Madison.

"What are you talking about? Why do you always have to ruin shit?"

We were making a scene, but it was a bar where scenes happened pretty regular. He acted superior, pretending like he was holding it together, but I could tell he was all tilted and too high and too drunk, same as me.

Aaron was into the drugs but he wasn't starving hungry need more all the time like I was. He usually kept it a little more in control, but that night he didn't. That night he was gone.

"Don't tell me how to talk, asshole. Maybe you want to talk to your fancy friend over there instead. I'm sure there's some French fucking film she's dying to discuss with you. I'm out of here," I said, fumbling for the keys in my purse, hopping and putting on my shoes as I left. I was always testing him, wanting him to stop me.

He followed me out the door and we stood on the trash-strewn sidewalk, illuminated by the headlights whizzing by.

"Give me the keys," he said. "You can't drive."

"You know who I'm talking about. You want to fuck her, you should do it. I fuck other people. Whoever I want. You don't own me. You're not my father. So go ahead."

It was a lie. I never touched anyone else if you don't count work. And you don't count work. I don't know why I said it. Maybe to see if I could make him really lose it. Maybe to measure how much he cared by how bad it could get. I was going to tell him later that I had been kidding.

Aaron grabbed my wrist hard and twisted until I dropped the keys. He leaned down to snatch them and when he stood back up I swung my arm to try to knock them out of his hand but I cuffed him square on the side of the head instead, throwing him sideways off balance. He was so calm when he righted himself that I could have sworn I knocked him sober. He turned and walked down the street and I trotted after him, trying to keep up with his long steps. I didn't want to be left behind.

"Don't say another word," he said, flat and mean. "Just get in the car."

I already regretted what I'd said, but I was still high with self-righteous fury so I wasn't about to retract it yet. I practically believed my own lie. And why shouldn't I, anyway? Why shouldn't I fuck other people? It might even the score a little bit. It might make him feel that private humiliation of knowing that you're not quite loved enough, not quite wanted enough, not quite important enough. It might make him hurt for a heartbeat like I hurt for him all the time.

There were no more words. I pulled my cheap Melrose Ave. dress out of the way of the heavy car door on Aaron's beat-up '68 Cadillac and slammed it closed. I settled down into silence, laying the bricks of a wall of indignation between us. I was convinced he was fucking that girl Madison. And if he wasn't already, then he wanted to. And even if it wasn't Madison, it had been hundreds of others and would probably be hundreds more. That's how I saw it. That's what happens to your eyes when you spend your nights in the laps of everyone else's husbands.

He gripped the wheel with both hands and glared straight ahead, teeth clenched so tight that I saw his jaw muscles twitch. I could tell he was livid, but he was also wasted. He held on to make the world stop spinning. I stubbornly sewed my mouth closed as he peeled out and headed too fast toward Sunset. I wasn't going to be the one to show weakness and tell him to slow down.

Then there was the red light and the momentum of the car, how he didn't stop. I think he simply didn't see it. He was concentrating so intensely on not weaving that he didn't even look up to see that the light was red.

I saw it coming and tried to yell for him to stop but I'm not sure the sound ever came out. It happened fast and hard. Not slow like some people say. Not slow enough to see my life pass before my eyes, whatever that means, and anyway I'm glad I didn't have to see that slide show.

It was a red minivan that T-boned us. Aaron's side completely caved in, crumpled like it was made of paper. I've seen the pictures. The impact was so massive that the van pushed the car forty feet and into a streetlight, which was what stopped us. My window was open is how my head didn't go through the glass but just got banged around pretty hard. The crash tossed me sideways and I collided with the door, then the dash. It was one of those old cars with only a bottom seat belt.

Aaron's door crushed in so far that he was practically in my lap and when I turned to see him there wasn't enough of him. Strings of blood hung off his face and off the ends of his hair and my first thought was his glasses—he lost his glasses. I grasped around for them but they were nowhere and anyway everything was turned inside out and I couldn't tell where I was reaching, what I was touching. He breathed gurgly sounds and I couldn't see his eyes through the wet, through the red. He wouldn't look at me. There was no world outside to see, only the diamond-studded spiderweb of the windshield.

I pushed open my side of the door as far as it would open, which was barely enough for me to slide out. I crawled away from the wreck over the glass on the pavement, which made a sound like ice dropped into warm water and seemed to crumble into dust under my weight. It didn't hurt at all. I was fine. I reached the wall of the storefront and propped myself against it, arranging my skirt modestly over my knees, and then I saw the blood streaked across my legs, the blood smeared across my lap. I wondered whose blood it was, where it came from. I looked at the shattered glass all around me, tiny triangles of it glinting in the streetlights. It was almost pretty. I clawed at my legs because they were suddenly unbearably itchy, and that was when I noticed all the shards that were ground into the skin along my shins, my knees, my palms.

By that time a crowd of people had gathered around. Concerned faces pushed in at me amid a sea of legs and an unintelligible chorus of low, freaked-out voices. When I saw that Aaron was still in the car, when I realized that I had left him alone in there, I stood to run back to him but I was too dizzy. I tried to crawl but the amoeba of people held me back. The sirens and the blue red blue red washed over me like forgetting and I couldn't see clear; the scene shifted in and out of focus like I was twisting the ring on a camera lens.

They had to open the top of the car up with one of those huge mechanical can openers to get him out. It made a sound like ripping the sky in half. It was then that I remembered to pray but my brain was all wrong. I couldn't remember my prayers. I could only mouth, "Please, Jesus," over and over and even that got fumbled up. My mouth was full of something that tasted like pennies.

The paramedics took Aaron away on a gurney and he was still slick and purple and streaming in blood like he had just been born. They cut his shirt open with scissors as they rolled him away.

They took me next to a hospital so fancy it was practically a hotel. The emergency room wasn't some decrepit free clinic like the ones I'd seen before, but instead it was nice and clean with warm colors and framed prints of the desert. Attractive nurses floated by in pink scrubs and clogs with clever patterned socks peeking out. It was near Easter. I remember little bunny socks. And I was all right, a concussion and two broken ribs and lacerations, a lot of lacerations. Pain stabbed at my side but I hovered somewhere far away from it in an opiate haze.

They told me I couldn't see Aaron yet. He was still in surgery. There was no way of knowing. It would be hours. I went over everything I wanted to say to him when he woke up. I'd apologize for everything and make it right. We would do better. We would start over. I succumbed to the brain rattle and to the morphine fuzz and faded away wondering how we would ever pay for it all.

I don't know how long it was before I woke up. Before I could slog through the heavy waters behind my eyes and find my way to a desk to ask where he was. Every breath I took felt like shards of glass had lodged themselves in between my ribs on my right side. The feeling was so convincing that I actually lifted my gown to check. And when I looked at my stomach, fish belly pale and mottled with strange bruises, I remembered a dream I'd had. I dreamed of the accident, except that when the paramedics came I was still in the car. I was entirely bisected by a pane of glass, straight through the stomach, straight through the seat belt. I knew they could never remove it because if they did I'd split in two like a magician's assistant after a trick gone horribly wrong.

Dragging my IV next to me, I padded down the hallway in my bare feet to see Aaron behind the last doorway on the right. The hallway wasn't long enough. I was at the last door on the right too fast. The hall smelled like floor cleaner and like cooked food in plastic lids and it made me gag a little. I walked in.

What I saw was, he was smaller, sizes smaller, shrunken. My Aaron whose feet hung off the bottom of every bed. How did he shrink?

He lay alone in a room so small it looked like a monk's cell. There were bandages all around his basketball-sized head and over most of his face. What little skin he had that wasn't bruised purple looked white. Not white like a white person but white like the dust on a red grape.

His bed nearly filled the room, which didn't smell of food like the hallway but smelled of nothing at all. He was attached to some mobile contraption—a fake set piece with mechanical breathing noises like Darth Vader and those green moving mountain range beeping lines. The front of his head was shaved and the few dreadlocks that were left escaped from his bandages like dark ropes on the white pillow. A child's drawing of a sun with the lines bursting out around it that means shining.

The sheet only covered him to his waist. His arm was in a brace and a block of white plaster encased his leg. His sunken, nearly hairless chest moved mechanically up and down. He looked uncomfortable, like they had laid him down awkwardly with his one good arm partially wedged underneath him. Everything was off kilter and too crowded. His eyes were slightly open, half-moons of white. He shook epileptically. The shaking is what you don't see on the TV comas. A thick breathing tube obscured his mouth.

First thing I did was stand there like someone had hit me in the face.

Second thing I did was I cried. I laid my head on his chest and cried and hoped my tears would spark him awake like the snow on the poppies in The Wizard of Oz.

I talked to Jesus a lot in those days. That was before I stopped bothering. So the third thing I did was I fell to my knees on the cold linoleum and prayed to Jesus like I never had before. I pressed my bandaged palms together and prayed with all my heart to Jesus Christ to please save his life. Promised Jesus that if he would only be with Aaron right then, if he would only wake him up, that we'd be spiritually reborn. Just save his life and we'll live in the light of God's love and never stray again.

When I talked to Jesus that was how it came out. It was etched into my brain that way after so many years at Zion Pentecostal. So when I wanted to talk my own way I sometimes talked to my pop. Because even though I knew that Jesus was boundless compassion, that Jesus was love, that Jesus was forgiveness, still somewhere I thought that maybe a dad who loved me crazy but still drank himself to death would offer forgiveness of a different sort.

So, I prayed to my dad. Pop, I fucked up. Pop, I'm sorry I did this to me. Pop, can you help save his teeth, can you help save his hands? I didn't mean to be this. But we're not just this. You should see us in our dreams. You should hear him when he plays. I'm unforgivable but forgive me, forgive me.

In my peripheral vision I saw a nurse come in and stop in her tracks, hovering there, unsure of what to do. Hadn't she ever seen anyone pray before? I looked at his trembling body then turned to her.

"He's cold."

"No, he isn't."

"He's shaking. Can we please have another blanket?"

"He's not cold."

I put my hands to his bare chest and could feel against my wrists where my bandages ended that he was warmer than I was. I was so cold that furious goose bumps covered every exposed inch of my flesh. I placed one hand to his heart and one on his belly like I was a preacher with healing powers. Like I had seen work a hundred times before back home. You may doubt it; you may think it was some kind of a sham, but you'd be wrong. I know what I saw was real. Anyone could be a healer.

The nurse left the room.

The fourth thing I did was that when I was done praying to Jesus and my pop I talked to Aaron. I told him that I was just kidding what I had said. I told him that God was going to give us another chance. I told him that I would learn how to love better, that I wasn't sure how I had gotten it so wrong.

His thin frame shook and his rib cage moved up and down to the mechanical rhythm. Up and down. I can still hear it sometimes when I'm trying to sleep. I shake my head to make it stop. When I start to hear the ventilator, I get up, go downstairs, and turn on the TV.


After the strokes that stopped his brain, it was Aaron's mother who signed the paper to turn the machines off. She didn't speak much to me, but we sat together. We sat together with him when he died but that's the part I'd rather not get into now because that's the part that lives like an overhead projection superimposed over all of my days. When I first sobered up I actually tried banging my head on the wall to get rid of it, but the folks at the detox threatened to put me in a whole different level of lockdown if I didn't get a grip and anyway it didn't work, it just added a headache layer on top of the firebrand memory. Eventually what I figured out is that I can nudge it out of the way for a minute here and a minute there by pressing the rewind button and seeing instead the moment when I was on the pool table and my alive boyfriend stood in front of me and reached out his arms as if to say go ahead and fall. Fall and I'll catch you. And that was all I had ever wanted—someone to catch me.

"Jillian Lauren writes with stunning, furious authenticity about self- destruction and the bitter road toward redemption. Pretty will knock the breath right out of you."
-Janelle Brown, author of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

"An utterly riveting, and compulsively readable saga Jillian Lauren renders the taste and feel of wretched excess - be it sex, drugs, food, or Los Angeles - with a savage veracity and style all her own."
-Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight

Pretty deals heavily with addiction and Bebe's life in and out of Serenity. How did you go about constructing this book? What sort of research did you do? What drew you to the topic?

I always included details from my own life in my fiction. Though the narrative isn't autobiographical, Pretty is a collage of people I've known, places I've lived and questions I've struggled with.

Addiction is one of the themes of the book from which I drew heavily on personal experience. I've battled addiction issues for much of my life, as have many people I love. I think addiction is a trope that eloquently expresses the compulsive rhythms of contemporary culture. Addiction is also a great vehicle with which to explore the theme of faith. Substance abuse is a monstrous, ruinous thing and it's nearly impossible to overcome without a profound shift of consciousness on the part of the addict. I suppose there are ways other than faith to achieve that shift, but I personally don't know of any.

However, there are aspects of Pretty that required more formal research, such as the worlds of mental illness and religion.

The book is told from Bebe's point of view. How did you go about building a "voice" for Bebe? What was the most challenging part about being in her head?

The voice of a particular work is usually the first thing that comes to me, and that was certainly true for Pretty. I can always tell that I've got a new project brewing when there's a voice in my head clamoring to be heard and that voice isn't mine. Voice is actually the most mysterious part of the writing process for me, because the formulation of it isn't conscious and it's not a function of craft or discipline or any of those other things that come into play later on. When it comes to the voice of a character, I think of myself more as a channel or a conduit and figure my job is just to open up and listen

Los Angeles is framed as an unintended landing place for Bebe. What is your personal experience in L.A. and how much did it inform the writing of this book?

Unlike Bebe, I moved to Los Angeles intentionally. But I never intended to stay. Yet ten years later here I am and a move doesn't seem to be anywhere on the horizon. So I guess Bebe's relationship with Los Angeles and with her whole environment is about my own experience of finding a home in an unexpected place. That theme is so important that Los Angeles turns into almost another character in the book.

There's a fair amount of attention to beauty, "prettiness," or traditional notions of what "pretty" means. Where do you stand on the culturally constructed idea of prettiness in this country? What did you want to say through this novel?

My own relationship with culturally constructed beauty ideals is complex and I wouldn't say that I have a clear-cut ethical stance on the matter. But I do recognize the damage these ideals can do to a woman's concept of self-worth. Pretty is set in the world capital of the over-valuation of physical beauty. Bebe is dealing in with feeling twisted and ugly, so that's set into stark relief by the value system that permeates the culture around her.

At the same time, much of the humor and friendship in the book happens at the beauty college Bebe attends. So while Bebe's struggle with beauty leads her to some very dark places, it also provides a context for the wisdom that eventually becomes her salvation.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a book about how we construct identity, as explored through the subject of adoption.


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