Now she looks at her face and wonders why she bothers. She traces the deep lines in her skin. The vertical line between her eyebrows that says she has spent much of her life scowling. The horizontal lines on the forehead that is part of her doubting look—she rarely believes anything the first time she is told. She uses her fingertips to follow the lines. She traces the grief lines, separate from the laugh lines. She wishes there had been less grief.
It’s time to get moving and she just can’t seem to manage. She knows that it is her job to sit here putting on paint until her actual face is invisible. This is an important party, after all. Her husband needs her.
He always needs her. Sometimes it feels like she is married to a fucking 13 year old. “Mom, where are my socks?” Sometimes he slips and calls her that too. It turns her stomach. This isn’t what she wanted from life. Every time she thinks that her eyes slam shut and her stomach hurts. What did she want, anyway?
She wanted to have one of those lives where people end up with lots of laugh lines and no scowl lines. She wanted to be a happy person. Is bitterness something that everyone feels? Money can’t buy happiness, they say. She laughs and thinks of her own selfishness and lack of charity. Who is she to complain about her life? Her husband doesn’t beat her or run around. He has just grown more infantile over the years. She micromanaged him until there was no him left to run. Just a puppet waiting for his next move.
Yet he seems to be able to perform on command. She knows she should be proud. They offered him partner this year. She thought it was hilarious that the senior partner in the firm called her yesterday to ask about some of the specifics. Everyone knew who was actually the brain in this family—but appearances must be preserved.
She looks at her face and thinks, “This is what the captains of industry are supposed to look like, not their space-cadet wives. I look wrong. I grew up to be the wrong person.”
What is right? What is wrong? Sometimes it seems like there is no coherent difference. She firmly believes that it is wrong that her husband has a job and she doesn’t. Her husband is one step up from a slavering imbecile. Her job is to sit here and make sure she looks pretty. It’s too late for pretty. That boat passed. That boat left her behind with her childbearing days. It’s incredible how much not sleeping for half a decade will age you.
She thinks back to that period, when the lines and the gray appeared. That was when her husband bought her the vanity. When her youngest was about a year old. She had a day when she was frantically trying to apply makeup in the bathroom while holding the screaming baby. He brought home the vanity less than a week later. He watched her blind panic and had no idea that she wasn’t putting the makeup on to look pretty. She was just trying to feel like there was some part of her that the little brat didn’t control.
Now she feels compelled. This is what she is supposed to do, right? She has this apparatus, no point in not using it. After all her husband is right, she is supposed to look pretty. She stops looking at her face and switches to her hair. Oh she has beautiful hair, everyone says so. Strangers on the street stop to tell her that she has beautiful hair. It’s a curse and a blessing.
When people tell you that you are pretty as a woman you are supposed to take note of what you were doing, saying, and wearing at the time. You are supposed to remember exactly what makeup you had on and what hair style you had. Then you just hit repeat forever because of course pretty is the only important part of your life. No one ever told her what she was supposed to do once pretty was gone irrevocably. There is a point at which striving for pretty is fairly ludicrous. She is striking. She is still attractive, of course. But there is an intensity there that prevents prettiness. She knows it and it weighs heavy on her. Just last night her husband says, “It’s like you don’t even try to be pretty any more—don’t you care if I find you attractive?”
Just like everything else all these years she didn’t say anything negative to him. She may scowl, she may be doubting, but she keeps her mouth shut. She put her head down and just said, “I’m sorry I have been so lazy. I will try harder.”
She feels like she is choking on the bile. She is choking on this unexpressed rage. She doesn’t know for sure why she feels so much rage. Her life really hasn’t been that bad. She’s been safe, comforted, and cared for as much as anyone can hope to experience. It came at a high price though. Sometimes she thinks the price was too high.
Pretty. The word makes her mouth tighten. That is all she should be. Not smart. Not important. Not decisive. Not effective. Pretty. She kind of hates herself. She wishes she had more courage. She always did the safe thing. There are women in the company. She has spent half her life listening to the asshole men who work there talking about the women in the company. They are never viewed as real and complete people. They are still evaluated solely on whether or not they are pretty. Ugly, mannish women. They have to work because no man would want them, so I guess we can tolerate them working.
She looks carefully at her face in the mirror. Is it too late? Is she even capable of pretty any more? Her face is hard. She stares intently wondering if she has any worth left at all. Her hair is still pretty. Her beautiful waist-length hair. It has never gone gray. It is still a gorgeous light blonde. From the back people still mistake her for quite young. Then they see her face.
Finally the staring takes on a different intensity. Impulsively she stands and pulls her robe off of her body. She looks in the vanity mirror at her body. She dresses very carefully these days. It’s not that her body is bad, for a 45 year old she is extremely hot. The gym will do that for you if you work hard enough at it. And starve yourself enough. Every time she thinks about all the years of denial she has been through she feels sad. She looks in the mirror and sees the hollowed out stomach. It is still soft and malleable after having children. She never wore a two-piece again. Her husband let her know how repulsive her post-children body was. If she wanted to be pretty she would have to dress very carefully.
She looked at her body and she looked at her face. They looked at odds. Her body was clearly still trying to follow all the rules. She obviously thought there was a standard of beauty she was required to maintain, other than pregnancy she had never been fatter than a size 6. Her mother told her as a teenager that if she gained weight her husband would leave her for a more attractive woman. She remembered that.
Now she looks at a body that is emaciated and stringy and thinks, “This is the end result of all that work? I look like a too-old-to-eat-chicken.” She realizes that there is nothing pretty about her any more. Except for her hair, of course.
This is an important party. This is the gala celebrating her husband making partner. She had to look pretty. All of a sudden her face lit up. Actually, she doesn’t have to be pretty any more. All of her work all of these years has been about getting Hank to this position. Now he is there.
She had a sudden thought and bit her lip. Would he ever forgive her? She hurried to her dresser and pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt. Her shoes were next to the door, she wondered if she would be able to get out without notice.
She arrived home a scant 45 minutes before the party. She would have to race upstairs and throw clothing on and leave. There was no more time to fuss about pretty or makeup or hair. It didn’t matter anyway. She would no longer need to play that game. Her husband was no where obvious so she assumed he was hanging out in his study. He rarely came out unless he had to.
She knocked on his study door five minutes after getting home and softly said, “Honey, it’s time to leave.” She stepped back and smiled at him. “I’m ready for our next step together, darling.”
His mouth dropped in horror. For his beautiful wife all of a sudden had a military style buzz cut. He couldn’t quite catch his breath. He saw the look of battle come into her eyes. He knew in that moment that it wasn’t worth an argument. This would be one he lost. Besides, she got all that obsessive pretty crap from her mom anyway. He caught his breath, reached out with his hand to turn her head from side to side.
“You have such beautiful bones. It’s nice watching you age.”
She closes her eyes and feels tears appear. Damnit. Really? That is what he says? When she opens her eyes again and looks at him he is smiling.
“I love you, Kate. Let’s go.”