On Christmas morning I tear open the biggest present under the tree to find a life-size plastic bust of a woman staring back at me through a thin layer of cellophane, her wide eyes a deep sapphire blue, her full and slightly parted lips as pink as bubble gum, her shiny blond hair falling to her shoulders. She comes with a tool kit of accessories — hairbrush, barrettes, curlers, makeup, earrings — and she is just what I wanted. No instructions are included, but none are necessary. This is the game of beauty, and I am already learning to play it.
My family lives in a Southern California neighborhood that winds along the ocean, and I have recently begun noticing our neighbors down the street: tan, silky-haired women who lounge in their front yard in bikinis, the lower half of their bodies wrapped in bright-colored sarongs, their oiled skin catching the sunlight. Once, my mother sent me to their house to borrow a cup of flour. I knocked on their door, which opened to release a sweet and pungent smoke that tickled my nose. In the dimly lit living room the women sat with their long legs tucked beneath them on the floor or stretched out like cats on a ratty couch. Their laughter washed over me like a waterfall that I wanted to stand beneath with my eyes closed. These women are magical creatures, mermaids, sirens. With my skinned knees and sagging tube socks, I can’t imagine someday turning into one of them any more than I can imagine turning into one of the sleek seals that lounge on the reef near where I play in the waves.
My mother works a similar magic on nights when we have a baby sitter. Leaning over the cluttered formica counter in the bathroom, she rubs lotion into her skin until the light dances off it. The scent of sugar-dipped flowers lingers in the air like a spell after she has kissed my sister and me goodbye. Our father’s eyes shine as he reaches for her waist; my sister and I wrap ourselves around her legs, trying to make her linger just one minute more. Even the baby sitter swivels her head to look as my parents disappear out the door. Once they have gone, I sit cross-legged on the floor, in shorts and a T-shirt that smells like sweat and fresh-cut grass, racing my plastic horses across the clipped meadow of the carpet.
Later on Christmas morning my older sister and I sit stiffly in the back seat of our car, wearing holiday dresses. Between us our baby sister reclines in her car seat, her tiny limbs flailing in a sea of pink cotton. The air inside the car is thick with shampoo, after-shave, and anxiety. We’re on our way to see our grandparents, and visits to their home are always a formal occasion.
After half an hour on the freeway, we take an offramp that leads past strip malls and developments whose entrances bear Spanish names. Then we turn into my grandparents’ retirement community, where carefully pruned shrubs stand like close-shaven sentries at precise intervals along the sidewalks. There are no other cars — just a lone golf cart whispering down the street, its driver clad from head to toe in crisp whites that match his hair. In this strange neighborhood our parents seem to grow younger right before our eyes — their skin more radiant, their steps lighter. Before we get out of the car, my father tucks his shirt into his slacks, and my mother checks her face in the mirror.
The square of hard ground in front of my grandparents’ home is seemingly designed to repel children. Cactuses defend barren patches of dirt bordered by rocks of various shades of brown, sorted neatly by color. Boxy shrubs, manicured into prickly cubes, line the clean-swept walkway to the front porch, where my father lifts a brass knocker and lets it fall heavily against the door.
My grandmother answers, her eyebrows drawn so far up her forehead that she looks more stunned than pleased to see us. Her cheek twitches slightly, as if she has been smiling too long for a camera. She wears white polyester slacks, a starched shirt, and a shiny gold belt cinched tight around her waist. She takes a step back and clasps her bony hands together as if she’s just discovered a present on her doorstep, and though my patent-leather sandals pinch my feet, I spin on my toes the way a ballerina does to show her my red Christmas dress with the tiny ruffles on the shoulders, like vestigial wings.
“Look how pretty you are!” she exclaims, and the wave of pride I feel makes me briefly forget the pain in my toes.
Their home is neat and bland. Plush carpet, still showing the fresh tracks of a vacuum, muffles our footsteps, and shuttered blinds filter the sun to a weak glow. A duck theme unifies the color-coordinated décor: in the bedroom ducks in a green marsh take flight above a green bedspread; in the living room ducks soar into a blue sky above a pale-blue couch that cradles pillows with more ducks embroidered on them. My sister and I pull the arm covers off the couch and place them on our heads, pretending we are nuns with blue habits, and our grandmother wrinkles her nose at us.
“Oh, you little monkeys!” she says, snatching them from our heads and smoothing them back into place on the armrests, where they belong.
The grown-ups pour themselves gin and tonics, the ice in their cocktail glasses clinking like bells, and make their way down the hall to the living room, where my grandparents’ neighbors sit beside the fireplace. John plays his guitar, and his wife, Lyle, sings Christmas carols off-key while the rest of us mumble the words. I wish I could be as bold as she is and not worry how my voice sounds or whether I’m in tune.
I have brought my Christmas present with me, and later I prop her blond bust on the kitchen table and lay out her accessories like surgical tools. Her face is flawless, pink and symmetrical, but her glossy hair falls limp against her cheeks, just like mine. I begin to French-braid it, but the shiny strands slip through my chubby fingers. So I tease her hair into a rat’s nest instead, combing it so roughly that strands snap. I apply purple eye shadow, then blue, a rainbow bruise over each eye. The doll stares right through me with a bright, vacant smile. No matter what I do, she appears the same: her face as perfect as an empty canvas, and just as boring to look at. She doesn’t even have a body, so I can’t dream up any fantastic adventures for her. It’s not yet lunchtime, and this Christmas present has already disappointed me.
It’s a late-fall afternoon, and I am walking home from school with my eyes on the sidewalk in worry. This morning a boy I didn’t know followed me off the bus and nervously handed me a ball of colored tissue paper: a present for my older sister, he explained. All day I kept it in the pocket of my jeans, but now it is gone. Perhaps I lost it when I hung upside down on the monkey bars, or maybe in the bathroom stall, where I carefully unfolded the wrapping, lifted out the shiny ring with the plastic purple flower, and tried it on my own finger. Now I’m wondering what to tell my sister. I’m also thinking of that boy: the way his voice trembled as he called after me, the way his face flushed and the words tumbled from his mouth as he pressed the ring into my palm. What strange power did my sister possess to affect him that way?
Ahead of me, shuffling so slowly she appears to be standing still, is a short, round woman in a mottled brown sweater, weighed down with overflowing shopping bags. Her back is hunched and round like a turtle’s shell, and when she turns at the sound of my footsteps, I see her face is weathered, leathery, and half retracted into the scarf looped around her neck. She smiles and gestures for me to come closer. I take a few hesitant steps toward her. She smells musky, like an animal. Her smile stretches across her bony face, and her eyes burn with a strange intensity, a sign of prophecy or mental illness or both.
“So lovely. So beautiful,” she mumbles, more to herself than to me, squinting at my face as if it were a piece of art.
That’s when I know for sure she is crazy. I have recently cut my own hair with my mother’s sewing scissors, and my bangs fall in a jagged line across my forehead. My front teeth are coming in off kilter, giving me a lopsided smile. My cheeks are too chubby, and when I purse my lips together, it only makes them look rounder. My sweaty T-shirt drifts upward to reveal my pudgy tummy, and my big sister’s hand-me-down jeans slip in the other direction. When I look in the mirror, I am exasperated by everything I see.
The woman raises one crooked finger toward the sun. “One day soon,” she says, “you will look up into the sky, and I will be one of those stars, shining down on you.”
She cranes her neck upward and drops her heavy shopping bags onto the sidewalk, as if she were about to float away. In all the fairy tales I have read, solitary old women are always evil characters, but when she looks back to me, her hooded eyes flash with kindness. She casts such a spell over me that I follow her finger straight up into that blue emptiness, and though the sun is high and bright, I think I can almost see a star winking at me from an impossible distance.
Then she picks up her bags and, without saying goodbye, waddles slowly away, like a turtle digging into the shifting sand, finding its way back to the sea.
In ninth grade alliances are made and broken without warning in the hallways of school, and there is an unspoken dress code I have been unable to crack. One day my best friend’s face is scrubbed clean, her hair pulled into a ponytail; the next her eyes are darkly lined, her hair framing her face in perfectly feathered waves. When I comment on these changes, she rolls her eyes and stares past me as if I haven’t spoken.
At home the air is becoming heavy and hard to breathe, and the rooms seem to be shrinking. I used to return from school to find my mother in the kitchen, poring over cookbooks and preparing elaborate dinners. She’d offer me a snack and ask about my day as she ladled homemade sauce over a casserole dish or tied string around filets of beef. But this year I return from school to find her hunched over a textbook at the dining-room table, her brow furrowed with concentration. She barely lifts her head when I walk through the door. She’s begun taking classes at the local community college — so dinner comes late and meals are simpler, which makes my father angry. In bed at night I listen to their loud, circuitous arguments: my father’s voice laced with contempt; my mother’s pleading and tearful, like a child’s. In the morning she seems to have aged, her eyes puffy and red, deep creases carved into her forehead, her lips a tight line. The fragile beauty of her face appears to be draining away as rapidly as the beer that disappears from the refrigerator.
I live for Saturdays, when I wake early and dress quickly, grabbing dirty clothes from my bedroom floor. After breakfast I pull my ten-speed bike out of the garage and ride to the horse stables, where one of the wealthiest women in town pays me to help maintain her barn. Like the horses she keeps, the stable owner is elegant and long legged, skittish and well-groomed. She follows me around the barn, tossing her shining hair, the heels of her high leather boots clicking over the concrete floor. She’s always sipping from a styrofoam cup she carries and rambling on about her youth. Her stories are entertaining — more so as the day goes on — but they never include her husband, to whom she has been married for at least two decades. It is as if all adventure ended the day she got married and each day afterward were as unmemorable as a stretch of interstate highway: no unexpected turns, no beautiful scenery, no end in sight.
When I’m moving hay bales or refolding horse blankets in the barn, I find empty glass bottles buried like eggs in nests of alfalfa or wool. I tuck these carefully into the garbage, beneath newspaper and cardboard, intuiting that they must remain hidden from view.
I can breathe more deeply at the stables than anywhere else, and I don’t have to worry about what I wear or how I look; there’s not even a mirror in the barn’s small bathroom. I discover that I am strong enough to stack bales of hay almost to the ceiling, skillful enough to drive a tractor along the perimeter of the riding ring. From morning to night I muck out stalls, heave manure, and oil saddles for two dollars an hour, but I would work for nothing just to be able to run my fingers through a tangled mane or lean my forehead against a horse’s broad neck. This is what I think heaven must smell like: alfalfa and manure, horse sweat and sawdust.
We’re eating in the cavernous dining room at the country club with my grandparents and their friends. Silverware gleams on white tablecloths next to pink cloth napkins folded into fans. Elderly couples shuffle slowly past, their walkers squeaking, and dark-skinned waiters serve my big sister and me ginger ale in wineglasses, which we sip from while listening to my grandmother’s neighbor Lyle — the one who sings carols with us at Christmas — tell a funny story in a loud, dramatic voice.
My grandmother’s conversation is like the cool air humming from the air conditioner: it makes everyone comfortable while drawing as little attention to her as possible. But Lyle’s conversational style reminds me of a wrestling match: she catches people by surprise and throws them off balance, making listeners laugh even when her words smart with truth — but always backing off before the pain becomes too much. Though Lyle is as old as my grandparents, her face is lit with mischief, and when she throws her head back and laughs, the sound that comes out is like the shriek of an exotic bird. She is one of my grandmother’s oldest friends; my grandfather was once her husband’s boss (a distinction that is very important to my grandmother but whose significance seems lost on Lyle). Her shock of platinum-blond hair bothers my grandmother, who, on the drive home from the club, shakes her head and mutters to no one in particular, “Poor Lyle. Doesn’t she know you can’t be a blonde forever?”
I know from the way my grandmother talks about Lyle that her behavior is inappropriate, but I can’t get enough of her. I love the way she asks me how I am as if she really wants to know. I love the way she elbows me as if we have secrets. Most of all I love the potential for surprise that she carries everywhere with her like a bouquet of wildflowers — a tangle of whimsy and unruly color. With Lyle in the house the conversation doesn’t just purr along like my grandfather’s big American car; it gains sudden momentum, takes sharp turns, makes me sit up and pay attention. She parts the heavy curtain on the grown-up world and invites me to peek inside.
One day, when Lyle hosts a barbecue at her house, I walk into her kitchen to ask for a glass of soda and find her standing at the sink, staring out the window with a puzzled frown on her face. When I follow her gaze, I see the men clustered around a grill, their bellies spilling over polyester slacks, thin wisps of white hair lifting off their bald red heads in the breeze. They all hold drinks, and Lyle’s husband, John, stabs at something on the grill with a pair of tongs.
Without taking her eyes from the window, Lyle speaks to me in a low tone that makes me feel like a trusted confidante. “Between you and me, Krista,” she says, “sometimes days go by, and that man and I don’t speak two words to one another.”
It’s as if she has slipped me a missing piece to the marriage puzzle. Perhaps it fits beside the warning glances her husband will flash in her direction, looks she ignores so completely that I think I must have imagined them. Or maybe it fits beside the empty bottles I continue to find in the barn and the stable owner’s conspicuous silence about the man to whom she has devoted her life. I wonder if it could explain the magic trick my mother has recently been perfecting: of vanishing without a trace even as she remains in the room. But I don’t know how to formulate these questions, so instead I nod and hold my glass against my cheek, as Lyle does, gazing into the backyard.
When Lyle’s husband dies unexpectedly in a traffic accident, my grandparents wonder if she will move away, perhaps to be closer to her daughters, but she stays in her house, using part of the insurance money to buy herself a sports car. On a visit to my grandparents’ home I see the car crouched in her driveway like a wild thing, threatening the nervous conformity of her neighborhood, and I decide to stop by and say hello.
Lyle swings her door wide and invites me into her home, which seems twice as big, and darker in the corners, without the presence of her husband. She asks me about college, and I tell her I’ve been assigned The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, which I’ve been staying up late to read, underlining sentences and scribbling thick exclamation points beside passages. She tells me about a bus trip she recently took to Las Vegas, how a widower with an offbeat sense of humor sat so close to her that she felt the heat of his thigh against hers. Then she asks about my love life.
I am still dating my first love from high school, the boy with whom I discovered sex, studying it with more single-minded focus and dedication than any of the extracurricular activities I listed on my college applications. Each weekend night of my senior year he picked me up in his parents’ station wagon, and we went in search of dark, uninhabited places: empty parking lots, the clearings behind water towers, service roads that led to high fences and abandoned fields. We folded down the back seat, unrolled a sleeping bag, and spent hours conducting elaborate experiments on each other’s bodies. Afterward we lay breathless and entwined, our knees and backsides burning from the rough upholstery.
My boyfriend had good grades and brought me to church with his family, and my parents liked him because he talked easily to my mom and willingly ran errands with my dad. He had tight black curls, coffee-colored skin, slippery white teeth, and streaks of acne like war paint on both cheeks. I always undressed clumsily, my head hitting the car roof and my jeans catching around my ankles, but all my shame and self-doubt burned away in the heat of his desire. He told me over and over again how beautiful I was, whispering the words like a prayer. But I could bathe in his adoring gaze for only so long before, as in a hot bath, the temperature cooled, and I needed to stretch my legs.
One night in the station wagon he propped himself up on his arm and said: “Do you know what I want to do?”
I’d been imagining what it would be like to have sex in one of the cool streams in the valley, where if you sat perfectly still you could feel the lips of tiny fish nibbling your thighs.
“I want to be a dentist,” he said.
I stared up at the car’s low vinyl ceiling, trying to picture this: his long, slender fingers in latex gloves, holding a drill to someone’s open mouth.
Now we are at different colleges. In our conversations, while I feed quarters into the pay phone in the dorm hallway, he has begun to talk about marriage. I love him with careless abandon, like a screen door swung wide on broken hinges, inviting in the bugs as well as the breeze, erasing the boundary between inside and outside. But I do not understand how that kind of love leads to marriage; instead it whets my appetite for more experience. If a shy, lanky boy like him can make my body hum with electricity, then what about all those awkward college boys: the one who works beside me in the cafeteria, his cheap polyester uniform stained with sweat; the one who takes such frantic notes in class that I know the top of his head better than his face; the one who stood hesitantly at the edge of a bonfire at the beach, his chin tucked into the collar of his jacket?
All my doubts come tumbling out of me in Lyle’s living room. When I am done talking, I wait anxiously for her to speak, feeling ashamed of what I’ve revealed. She does not offer advice, as I was expecting. Instead she begins to talk about a wedding she recently attended. She describes the bridesmaids’ dresses — which matched the centerpieces on the banquet tables and the boutonnieres in the groomsmen’s lapels — and the bride herself, wrapped in billowing layers of white like a lavish present.
“The decorations were all so pretty, and the bride was the prettiest of all,” Lyle says wistfully. And then her gaze settles on me, and she wags her finger knowingly.
“But you . . . you are different.” She hesitates for a moment, as if unsure whether to continue, and then declares, as if it were a statement of fact that left no room for argument, “You are not a pretty girl.”
I cannot believe what I’ve just heard. Though I’ve harbored the same thought for some time, I haven’t dared verbalize it.
“You just aren’t,” she says, smiling and shrugging her bony shoulders as if to say, So what?
These words would have seemed cruel coming from someone else, but she spoke them in such a carefree and even encouraging way that I’m not hurt, just speechless. In the dim light that filters through her heavy curtains, Lyle sits with her shoulders curled inward, her cheeks sagging like empty pouches. But beneath her curls, her eyes shine with love and admiration. She is not pretty either, but there is something irresistible about her.
On the drive back to the dorm I think more about her comment. Pretty. Even the word sounds delicate, the tongue fluttering against the roof of the mouth like a trapped butterfly when it’s spoken. Alone in my room I take a look at myself in the mirror. I could almost be pretty — I am tall and long limbed, with blond hair and blue eyes — but I’m not. My hair is one problem: straight and limp, never blown dry or styled with products whose fruity stench burns my nose. And I have too much body hair: soft and blond, short and brown, coarse and wiry, invading all the places women are supposed to be smooth and hairless. And then there is my face: even when I paint them with color, my lips are too thin, and my strong jaw makes me look determined, not helpless, like the models in magazines, with their pillowy lips and longing looks. My breasts are compact and hidden beneath the loose clothes I wear, far too small to offer up in fleshy mounds, even with the help of the padded, push-up bra I recently purchased and that now stands at attention where I dropped it on the floor. Though my legs are long and toned, my knees splay out in two different directions each time I sit down, making it dangerous for me to wear miniskirts.
I think of the prettiest women in my dorm, the ones with perfect figures and flawless skin who eat plain popcorn for dinner and spend hours in the bathroom, artfully applying makeup and styling their locks. When I try to look like them, I feel like an overeager child in an ill-fitting Halloween costume going door-to-door, my hand outstretched for something sweet: approval from parents, desire from men, admiration or envy from women. But, like candy, these rewards dissolve too quickly, and I’m left craving more. Plus, the costume makes it difficult for me to move, and beneath the brittle mask I find it hard to breathe. The beauty I’m drawn to is unmasked, sometimes unsettling, usually fleeting and unexpected. Lyle’s face in the late-afternoon light was naked with loneliness and humor, wisdom and fatigue. That, I realize, is what makes her beautiful to me.
I am home from graduate school for a brief visit with my grandmother before leaving for Delhi, India, where I’ve landed a summer internship in the office of an Indian company. My grandfather has been dead for several years, and my grandmother is confined to a nursing facility off an eight-lane freeway. When I arrive, I find her curled into a ball, covered by a thin sheet. Her hair, usually so carefully done, stands up in angry gray tufts, and I barely recognize her without her bright lipstick. I am frightened to see this woman I love in this sterile place, where the sound of traffic blends with the whir and beep of the machines that are keeping her alive. I had looked forward to this visit, but my grandmother’s vacant gaze makes me feel like a stranger. I sit by her bedside and speak to her, but she turns toward the wall, as if she wants to sleep.
I stand up and pace the shining linoleum floor of her room, which is hermetically sealed from the outdoors by thick glass windows that don’t open. There is no human commotion, no clutter of busy life, no smells of cooking, not even any plants. Some framed family pictures on the nightstand are the only artifacts of her long life.
I pick up a picture of my grandmother and hold it close to my face. She must be around forty in the black-and-white photo, but compared to the woman in the bed she looks like a child. Her sleeves are rolled up, and she is bent over to work in the garden. Her hips are shapely in her work pants, and her head is turned as if the photographer has caught her by surprise. She is laughing at the camera.
“You were so beautiful,” I say softly.
I thought my grandmother was asleep, but now she makes a sound of disgust at the back of her throat.
“I was fat,” she says.
Less than two weeks later I step out of the Delhi airport into a heat that makes me queasy, wrings sweat from my pores, and melts my thoughts into a disoriented blur. Pollution, thick and black, stings my nose and throat, and the dizzying throng of humanity pouring through the city streets gives me vertigo.
Delhi’s three-pronged assault of temperature, crowds, and filth nearly brings me to my knees each time I go outside, and yet, over and over, I stumble upon beauty. A young boy at a produce stand flashes me a smile through a cloud of flies, startling me with his perfect white teeth. In a dirt alley I pass a white cow with black eyes who steps gingerly around puddles of putrid water like an elegant, white-haired lady in her Sunday best. In the aisle of a crowded bus that reeks of sweat and exhaust, the gold thread of a woman’s red sari runs in rivulets across her hips, catching the sunlight. On a street corner at the break of dawn I watch a Sikh taxi driver unfurl the turban from his head, loop after loop of saffron-orange cloth. He dips his long hair into a rusty tin bucket, lathering and rinsing, the bubbles frothing like sea foam between his fingers, and when he sits up straight, his hair falls like shimmering black velvet down his back. I have never seen such beauty. There is nothing pretty about him. And then the morning sun hits my eyes, as bright and unapologetic as Lyle’s platinum curls.