From WTP Vol. VII #2
By Beth Kephart
It wasn’t like me to startle her, to catch her Elizabeth Taylor eyes in a wistful double take.
You, she almost seemed to say.
Me. Her first-born daughter. A stranger.
I’d pulled my tangled hair from my face. I’d worn something that fit. The boyish and impatient and actual in me was not, in that moment, on display, and this was years ago, when she was well and I was young into my career and we’d met for lunch and my mother’s eyes said oh, and it was temporary. Beauty, with me, always is.
I’d had a harrowing decline into puberty. Crooked teeth. Product-resistant hair. No lessons in make-up, and so no make-up, and after I’d quit ice skating (where the beauty deficit is a judged deficit) and joined the track team (where it is not), my thighs thickened to tree stumps—a problem I assiduously cured by starving myself into anorectic brittleness. I’d achieved eighty-five pounds by my sophomore year at college. One large apple a day, one sleeve of graham crackers, a run across the city, a marathon walk in the afternoon, jump-rope drills, and still: I’d stare into the mirror and not see beauty. Beauty refused me.
What would it take? Why all the hungry sacrifices—the protein injuries to fingernails and hair follicles and bones, the harrowing distractions and the boy who tried to feed me green soup. Try this. Peas, I think it was, boiled in a pan on a hot plate that, for some reason, I remember propped up on the floor of his off-campus room beside the books he had borrowed for so long from the library where we both worked that the books had achieved an outlaw status: nearly stolen.
Green soup? he’d said. But I just couldn’t.
Thin was the thing that I’d become, not beauty. Thin was how I floated down the hall of my first post-college job. Thin was my defense against my poor fashion choices and my hair. Thin was, maybe, how the man who would become my husband noticed me, or maybe he noticed how I listened, or maybe how I loved how he drew better than anyone else ever could, or how he sang, or how he walked, but to write that this way would be to suggest that the man I loved somehow needed aggressive admiration, desired it, and to suggest such a thing would be to lie on this page, because my husband never did, he never would, he never has needed any version of admiration; he, in fact, disdains all admiration versions. Still. He married me. A beautiful Salvadoran man with a not beautiful American woman. A life-long glare of a disparity that other women, especially, have seen.
Funny, that. How women have always made certain that I’ve seen how they’ve seen the glare of the disparity. How they have sought to leverage it.
My beautiful husband had rules. No starving yourself. No mooning after starving. No even thinking about having a baby if you are still secretly starving. Slowly, it had to be slowly, I listened. We had our son. A gorgeous child with gorgeous Latin features. I would spend hours just looking at my husband and our son, their beauty giving me such pleasure, because beauty is (we can’t deny it, I’ll never deny it) pleasure.
I started writing this essay on a train. The girl beside me held a suitcase sideways on her lap, not a big suitcase, more like a traveling kit, but still the word suitcase came to mind. When she popped the latch, pressed powdered color was revealed, sticky pencils, tubes, and eyelash curlers. She talked to me as she did her work—about how she’d taught herself eye lining tricks, about the fallacy of the season’s new colors, about all the reasons she rarely strayed from neutrals, about YouTube beauty tutorials.
She gave me the names of the colors. She gave me the names of the tutors.
I told her about the words I’d been scribbling into my book—these words, the ones that I am writing. I told her I’ve never completed an expert eye lining, that I rarely get it right with blush, that my lips are too thin for lipstick. I told her I was going to New York to meet a very beautiful friend I’d not yet met in person. She only knows my voice, I said, and that was all I said, because it was early morning, after all, and the girl was young and I am not, and the train was doing just fine on its tracks, speeding us toward our destinations, and her eyeliner was on now, perfect. Her suitcase was closed. Her face ready.
I boarded my second train. I watched the landscape go by, the ghost of my face reflected in the window, the window like a mirror once we entered the Penn Station tunnel. The train doors opened. I hurried up the many stairs, down the crowded streets, texting my friend, blind, the way I do, hoping not to be late, but I was—my hair flying and dampening with the heat, my shoes scuffing. My friend was seated when I found her in the elegant restaurant she had chosen, and she was tall and lithe and exceptionally beautiful, all the more beautiful for making her beauty unintimidating, for crushing any possibility of a beauty hierarchy. All afternoon we talked, first avoiding the clock, then growing wary of it, now rushing our questions and rushing our answers, and I told her about this piece that I had started writing, this brief history of not beauty, how once, at the start of my career, my mother found beauty in me, and then again, in the final stretch of my mother’s life, a day I had gone to see her in the hospital—my hair swept up, a red dress on, sequins along the neckline, for I’d been dancing.
My mother had not yet had her last terrible stroke that last time, I told my friend—though that stroke was coming, it was near. My mother had thought, we had thought, she would get better. We had grown to be at ease with one another, and the hallway to her room was long, and the day was gray, and there were hardly nurses anywhere, hardly anybody anywhere, and now I was running, and when I entered my mother’s room, she looked up from her bed, slightly shaking her head of beautiful white hair and nodded toward the gift I had brought (orchids, the color of pumpkins, for this was October, nearly Halloween), and she smiled.
Beth, she said, you look so beautiful, and her eyes filled so that their purple-green was more purple-green, and I did not say no, I did not deny her, I did not diffuse the beauty she saw by confessing its source and inevitable dislocation—another had blown out my hair and pinned it up, another had drawn on my eyes, extended my lashes, and I already knew that I would never wear the red dress again; the plunge of its neck made me nervous.
No. I stood where I was, not moving, not breaking the illusion of my temporary self, just being what my mother needed, finally and especially then, toward the end of her living, to see—a first-born daughter in a red dress and smooth hair in a gray room of hospital machines, a pumpkin-colored orchid still in her hand, lending credence to the idea that it was only my mother’s illness that was temporary.
Telling my friend this story. Telling the page this story. Until the story fixed the beauty.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of twenty-four books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her new book is Strike the Empty: Notes for Readers, Writers, and Teachers of Memoir.