I’m six. It’s blustery out with a wind chill sharp enough to give me a cold. I don’t know all of what’s happening all day as everything is coated in a grey haze. The little boy with the bright orange Chef Boyardee stained mouth and grubby Greedo sweatshirt is in front of me in our newly formed line. Good, little soldiers waiting to brave our way back to overstuffed cubbies. He’s been turning this way and that, fascinated with the half-rotation his torso makes, back-and-forth. Then he notices me with my bright red turtleneck and corduroy pinafore dress. My normally shaggy, platinum mane is brushed clean and shiny, pinned back with plastic berry barrettes. I am pretty today, but my nose is runny, my cheeks flushed with fever. Still, I offer him my very best Laura Ingalls sunny smile. I like making friends. He smiles back, and I see the double gaps in his front teeth. Then he punches me in the belly, and the pain is instantly white hot there, and I can’t inhale at all. “Stop looking at me, UGLY!” he says, balling his freckled, tight fist at my face for show.
I’m ten. All of the fifth grade teachers have decided to have us put on a production of Cinderella. It’s the Cendrillon version, complete with mean stepsiblings, pumpkin coach, and glass slippers. Even at ten, I know glass slippers are an incredibly silly idea. After all, who could possibly dance in them? I wait for the cast list to come out, excited to even be considered. I know Maybe I’ll be the Fairy Godmother. Cinderella, quite frankly, would be pushing my luck. This is my second play. I was Ramona the Pest last year, and it isn’t until this very moment that I realize why I’d been cast as Ramona Quimby, Age 8. My mary janes are unbuckled. I have grass stains on my overalls. I wait patiently for my name to be called, the part I’m going to play. The girl who sits next to me in class is going to be Fairy Godmother. I’m not disappointed, really. She’s nice. She shares her Reese’s Pieces with me at lunch, and she has coppery curly hair. I hear my name and my role. Pageboy. I can’t believe I’m playing a boy. Right then, I’m more than aware of my hair. My mother had cut it so short above my ears, I can’t be anything but boy. Sigh. At least I’m not one of the stepsisters, I suppose.
I’m eleven. The youngest in my seventh grade class. This is the year my hair is unruly. The stylist my mom took me to insisted that layers would bring out my natural curls. It brought out something, just not exactly curls. My grandmother would tell me every summer from then on to comb my hair. This is also the year I’m forced to take a coed gym class with a pack of wolves. We’re seated on the floor while the gym teacher takes roll, belting out our last names like a drill sergeant. When he calls my name, I raise my hand dutifully, high above my head. The pack titters. Their leader leers at me. “You know what she looks like?” he says over his shoulder to the grinning bunch behind him. “That Exorcist girl. You know, the one that got her head all turned around. Threw up green shit everywhere?” Several members of the pack howl at this revelation. From that day on, I’m known as “Exorcist Girl” in and out of gym class.
I hate my hair.
I’m twelve. It’s later in the year. My mother had taken me and my sisters to the salon before we returned from Christmas break. I’m proud of my new, straight locks, polished gold. Since last November, I’ve been trying to make a friend. I think I may have one. That is, until she runs off with S. S. has a way of making me feel as if the school is constantly eating me alive, gnawing on my girlflesh and bones first, determining whether or not I’m actually a tasty morsel. Then it promptly spits my ravaged, gristly remains, an offering in tribute to S., the Empress of All Things Perfectly Seventh Grade. S. and her girl gang hover behind me at my locker. She flicks at the back of my hair with a sky-blue fingernail. Artificially blueberry scented. “You brushed your hair!” she says, directed at me but more so to her royal cohorts, urging them to giggle, which they do, and it’s not a giggle. It’s a chorus of squawks and cackles. And I catch a brief glimpse of wavy brown, feathered hair, a slight whisper of a presence, but it’s enough to let me know that H. had been indoctrinated into S’s courtly flock. So much for a potential friend.
I’m thirteen. It’s spring. The school I’m currently enrolled in is a strange, international affair. Its language, tangled. The American portion of the school has me amongst the 7th to 12th graders. There’s no junior high, no middle school here. The juniors and seniors look after us awkward ones still searching for our identities in the mix. There’s an interesting boy in my class, T. He has thick, rich, dark hair and naughty liquid eyes. I’m growing into my role of wannabe author. While my penmanship needs a considerable amount of practice, it doesn’t stop me from Possibility. I write lengthy, beautiful notes in jagged cursive. I write them mainly to myself. I believe in the concept of practice, practice, practice. The words I write to T. have to be flirtatious yet cool and casual. I have to be breezy, light, fun. I have to seem like I don’t care even though I really, really do. After 56,799 drafts, I think I’m finally ready to send him my note. In eighth grade though, notes mean desperation. Unfortunately, no one has taught me this. After T. reads the note, I become invisible. His friends spend the rest of the year making fun of him, making fun of me. I hate that I love to write even more than I hate the way I look.
I’m fourteen. A new school yet again. British history class. So many houses, royals, dates, and scandals to memorize. The teacher—white-haired, reedy and tweedy—isn’t interested in engaging his students whatsoever. In the future, I’d learn the value of the maxim “Always know your audience.” Now, though, my audience exists solely in my head, an audience of new friends and the inkling of possibility. So far, however, I’ve not made any friends. I’m doing my best Andie Walsh impersonation with my mother’s long skirt, pink cardigan and a pair of muddy brown, heeled Oxfords she had worn while she was in high school. “Where did you get those shoes?” whispers the girl behind me. There’s curiosity in her tone. She genuinely wants to know, and that makes me happy all over. The idea of a friend. When there’s a brief break in our teacher’s droning lecture, I tell her. She’s silent for a long minute before she answers, “They’re so ugly.” I officially hate everything I’ve got on.
I’m sixteen. I’m without a home at school. There are others like me, wanderers somewhat interested in being accepted by a group but much more terrified by the notion of being the brunt of the group’s gags. There’s a new boy in my English class, E. He’s got sandy hair and strange eyes, and he laughs at my poorly timed jokes while everyone else around us pretends as if I never said anything. I embarrass them. Later, I foolishly pull a seventh grade move on E. Unlike T, however, E. writes back. It’s kind. It’s crushing. It says there’s Another Girl, a cheerleader. Of course. Cheerleader has the freckled, sunny face of all-American girl with a pert nose, smiley eyes, wide smile. Her hair isn’t anything special, but it’s long, permed, and sprayed big. It’s the trend, and as my mother has often reminded me, “Trends die.”
I want to be part of the trend.
I’m seventeen. I hate my nose. I never thought much about it before. It only takes one person, R., to point out what I’d bypassed for seventeen years. I like R., and I detest him. His honesty is refreshing and cruel. He’d once called over the break to ask me to attend a show in the city with him. Archaic and charming, a teenage boy like that. Later, however, he told me I’d been his alternate, a last minute decision. His first choice, Cheerleader. Thin-lipped, Honor Roll smart with sprayed, big, brown hair. As R. notes, it isn’t the hair. It’s my “big” nose. Why, then, did he bother with me? I made him laugh. Still, though, the nose.
I’m seventeen. I’ve learned a lot being with R. We’re not a couple, of course. It would be unseemly. He’s interested in a nice girl from the Dance Team. Many years later, he’d rediscover her, marry her, become Family Man. A traditionalist. I’d come to his wedding with a man who’d crush me. Now though, I ask R. to Sadie Hawkins. It’s the only way I can attend a dance with a boy. No one has ever asked me otherwise. While there, a friend of his, a popular boy I cannot stand due to reasons that are never clear to me until that point, sees him with me and makes a face at me. A face that’s supposed to mirror my own, I assume. A face crinkled, pinched, ugly with disgust. At that moment, I suddenly feel sorry for R. and his wayward decisions.
I’m seventeen. My education regarding my own appearance continues. R.’s just told me to simply avoid E. “He’s not a nice guy,” says R. I’m intrigued, of course. My thoughts are jumbled with possibilities, everything but the obvious. I egg R. into telling me, but he remains steadfastly mum about the whole thing. In the future, E. would send a lengthy email of apology, and I won’t care much about it, that is, until now. My education solidifies when I graduate and come to the conclusion that secondary school was meant to be cruel about appearances.
Here endeth the lesson.
I’m nineteen. It’s summer. I’m enrolled in college, in between my sophomore and junior years, enjoying the concept of conditional freedom. I’m also in love, or at least what I consider to be “love,” with P. P. is a few years older than I am but much more impetuous and irresponsible. He excites me. I see him every day at my temporary summer job, and I’ve pursued him to the point where his interests become my interests. I’m too naïve to think ahead. I’ve not had much experience with this at all. Boys, now men, have never once looked my way. P. and I, we don’t share the same ideologies, the same beliefs about everything around us, and that will inevitably trample us both, me especially. All I care about now is that he thinks I’m beautiful even when I don’t, even when I’ve been reminded otherwise so many times by so many different people.
I’m twenty. My hair is long, curly, and lush after so many years of having it in boyish cuts. A minor act of rebellion against my mother, who, I’m convinced, wanted me to “match” her style. She insisted for years that Vidal Sassoon cuts were classy. I never knew how to tell her that they made most women look like SS Officer Helga von Schmallippig. I’m twenty, and P. loves my hair. He has just introduced me to the concept of “trophy wife” when he says he can’t wait to take me home, show his “trophy” off to his friends and family. I don’t know this is wrong, wrong, wrong, so wrong. Instead, I’m flattered. He thinks I’m beautiful.
I’m twenty-one. My wedding day. I look in the mirror, a last up-and-down to make sure everything is in place. We can lie all we want about a wedding, that it’s a day of ceremony and bonding, holy matrimony and whatnot. In truth, it’s a day about beauty. It’s a day where everyone remarks on the bride’s appearance, the sole centerpiece. I hate my back, my upper arms, my paleness, my girth.
The centerpiece is flawed.
I’m twenty-three. I’m living in the armpit of the South due to my husband’s job. He’s left me for months, a volunteer assignment in Saudi Arabia. The oppressive heat and stifling ignorance are getting to me. My hair has been cut short to keep the frizz of it out of my face as I spend my days at an Olan Mills, taking pictures of wilted housewives, their mad array of wild children, and their permanently scowling husbands. They are there for the free eight-by-ten advertised every week in the paper. The proof consultant is a cranky, crinkled racist, a relic of what the South once was, what this place, though, remains. Once, a photographer in another town told me I was entitled to a commission on top of my miserable minimum wage. This would’ve been the case had the proof consultant not offended the majority of our customers. This would’ve been the case had we been working in an area of the country that wasn’t drowning in poverty and mud. The proof consultant also reminds me how fat I’m getting every day that P.’s gone, every day that I’m alone, every day that drudges onward. She pokes the side of my belly with a yellowed, cracked fingernail and grins toothily at me as she says, “What’s he gonna do about that when he gets back?” She tugs at the hair to the side of my face. “And that,” she cackles. “You’ve got some sideburns. Think he’s gonna like that?” I didn’t know my cut had come with sideburns until that moment. When I get home, I stare at them in the mirror for a good hour before I take out the scissors. Of course, I’m not a hair stylist at all. I just make things worse for me, for any semblance of beauty I may or may not have left.
I’m twenty-four. P. is home and hates everything I’ve done to myself, everything I’ve not done to myself. I’ve been unhappy. Alone. Why can’t he see that? He doesn’t look at me when he talks to me, when he talks at me. Instead, he devotes his full attention on our dog. At least the dog never lets him down. I get a letter in the mail. I’ve been accepted to an MFA program at the local university, the smidge of hope this area has shown me since we moved here. That same evening, P. tells me we’re moving again, this time, far, far away, to another life across the Pacific, to Exotica. He’d volunteered for a new assignment without consulting me at all, but what else can I expect from a man who won’t even look AT me anymore.
I don’t exist because I’m back to Ugly.
I’m twenty-five to twenty-six. I don’t matter. Exotica has offered nothing but the constant reminder of what I’ve become. Doughy. I’ve been reminded of this every day that P. offers a new teardown to my sense of self worth, or at least, the remnants of that self “worth.” Once in awhile, he resorts to something childish and violent. He throws things at me. He pushes me. He strikes me. He questions me again and again. He compares me to the tiny, exotic women, women I am nothing like. After I return from a trip to the States, a family visit where my pretty mom and pretty sisters look on at me in pity and my dad ignores it all, he confesses something I already had sensed during the long car ride home. He says with a sneer, “I should’ve left you at the airport. Just left you there. You disgust me.”
I’m twenty-seven. Something’s happening. I don’t understand what it is exactly. It isn’t self-awareness. That comes much later. I’ve left P. back in Exotica to be with his Exotic mistress. It’s the least I can do. My weight has fluctuated up and down like a sideshow attraction. It’s the stress; it’s the strain; it’s the expectations that never come. I am no longer alone: Anxiety is my new bedfellow.
I’m twenty-eight. I’m doing what my mother demands of me: attending graduate school. I don’t like my course of study, but it pleases my mother. I’d rather write with the creatives, but this, it pleases my mother. I’d rather work downtown at the newspaper office, but this, it pleases my mother, so I keep everything silent. Right now, I’m in the midst of an argument in a downtown bar with two men who, incidentally, live across the hall from me. We came to this place together, to get away from our studies. They don’t understand why I’m angry. I’d only agreed to join them as I thought since they were graduate students, they’d talk of culture and policy, of injustice and philosophy. My mistake. I am treated as a peer, just not an intellectual one. The two of them spend the evening gaping and commenting about every other girl in the bar, how she looks, what she’d be like in bed. They nudge me, as if I’d join them, as if I am truly One Of The Boys. I remind them I’m not. One of them rolls his eyes at the other and says several words I cannot hear over the din with the exception of one: “Feminist.” I know that word, and right there, I fight for it, claiming it with a sense of empty obligation—empty because the girls there at that bar, waiting for Mr. Right Away, would never know. The argument hits an impasse when the other turns to me in the booth we’re sharing, smiles, and says, “You’re attractive, too, so why so offended? It would be different if you were ugly.”
I silently agree to be reduced to the sum of my parts.
I’m thirty-six. I’ve been building a life on my own, and I find I’m utterly inept. Debt collectors call me. Bills are left unpaid. One day there may be electricity. One day there may be food in the fridge. Contingent faculty life. Listen, I’m doing what my mother wants. It’s the Right Thing for me. I think I may have forgotten what I like. The man I’d loved for years, the man who’d attended R’s wedding with me, who currently lives hundreds of miles away, I learn, is now married with a baby on the way. I call my closest friend around, a gorgeous woman, and she ignores me. I call again. She ignores me still. I get an email from her, telling me to stop calling her, and I don’t understand at all. Another friend pipes in, “She’s jealous.” Jealous of what? I’ve nothing to offer, nothing but debt and solitude. Then I realize, she’s jealous of the solitude, the sense of independence, all the while she’s delved into another superficial relationship, this time, with a stockboy who refuses to grow up. I realize people like her, people who’d been all around me since I was young, would never change their ways. I look tired in the mirror. This time, apparently, the concealer doesn’t work, and I find it doesn’t matter much. There are bills to pay.
I’m thirty-nine. My mother has had another breakdown due to the prednisone. She breaks away from the restraints of reality — my father’s care — and rushes naked down the street, screaming that my father’s trying to kill her. The EMT crew and police are called, and she lashes out at them. My father is exhausted. My mother finally sleeps, sedated. When I finally arrive, barely acclimated from my jet lag, I visit her in the hospital. She’s awake, alert, and talkative. She beams at me. It’s probably the last smile I’ll see from her that’s genuine, a smile not concocted by a combination of prednisone, N-acetylcysteine, and azathioprine.
“Beeb, you look wonderful,” she says as I sit beside her on the bed.
I understand perfectly well that it’s never been about my looks. It’s that I’m there, she’s there, and there is nothing else that matters but what we find meaning in each other, in ourselves.
I finally receive my graduate degree in existentialism and ditch the lipstick altogether.