The Pretty Girl

“Am I pretty?” she asked as she stared into the full-length closet mirror. A box of clothes waiting to be unpacked or shipped off to Goodwill, another bit of clutter from her childhood, dominated the closet. Later, she will fall asleep on the shirts and pants they have all outgrown. 

After shutting herself up in the cool darkness, she will only open the door to allow Penny, the cat, who is the same age as her, to comfort whatever childhood hurt she is avoiding. Her sandpaper tongue will kiss the girl’s forehead and hands. Her kissing cat has the kind and generous soul of a dog.

The woman slipped off to the kitchen to light another Salem off the gas stove. The smell of her hands as she touched the top of the little girl’s head, grazing her cheek to flick away the lengthy ash, will stay with the girl for the duration of her life.

The little girl has struggled with beauty all of her life. 

Even into womanhood she will still wonder if she was pretty. Her hair, mousy brown and pin-straight, too ordinary to be interesting, was just a part of the package. Eyes that were not quite brown, but not exactly green, seemed a hazy and muddied shade of indecision. They remained crossed for the first few years of her life. The girl wore a brown patch that covered one eye. Even as an adult, she still feels the coarse texture and remembers the strange feeling when it was removed—as if the missing and darkened half of the world had finally returned. 

She had two surgeries to correct her eyes and another at age eight. That one she remembers. Her entire face stung with pain, but she amused the kids at school with tales of the eyeball that rolled off the operating table and was chased across the OR floor. She wonders if she should be grateful to her crossed and lazy eyes. Perhaps it is because of them that she became a strong storyteller. Her imagination and humor deflected some of the hurtful comments that the girl’s circumstance, as an orphan, dictated. 

“Of course you are pretty, my honey. You are beautiful.” She was not her mother, but rather the woman who cared for her five days a week.  The little girl’s grandmother, whom shed been sent to live with, shipped her off in favor of a job. To be fair, the grandmother was done raising her only child, the girl’s mother, who had the misfortune of dying of a drug overdose 1,000 miles away. 

The mother ran to the opposite end of the world and raised another womans child—her boyfriend’s child. The little girl felt sure she both disliked and loved her mother’s new little girl. She often pretended she was her sister. At other times the girl stuck her with a fake sword while she watched as her mother’s new child, the one she’d chosen to raise instead, vanished into dust. The little girl’s feelings toward her imaginary sister were not fair, but little girls care little about being fair.

Soon she discovered that life was not, and never will be, fair. It was a hard lesson, one the girl learned as she watched those around her pull away or die. The woman there, with her, back in 1980, attempted to assuage her little girl fears and insecurities. She died of a brain tumor when the girl was 21, but first there was a surgery and relearning of the alphabet at age 60. 

Again, the girl had lost another mother. This mother was not a ghost she’d never known—like the first one, the biological one, the woman who was an addict. The addict was far too sick to care for the girl, her child, though she seemed to love the other little girl, on the other coast, with the other ocean.
When the girl was little, she did not miss her biological mother, but rather the idea of her and all that a mother and normal life symbolized. 

For the girl, life had never been normal. 

Because of this, she learned how to adapt and how to survive. Her thick skin grew and molted even though she was, underneath it all, a sensitive child. Her sensitivity and circumstance led to questions of worth and value. They forced her to ask the question she never wanted the answer to, “Am I prettier than her?”

This question was about another little girl, one they’d seen while running errands. If the smoking woman said no, it would crush the girl. If she said yes, the little girl would never be sure if it was true for she had also learned to question the truth in everything.

Pretty was and, as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, still is important.  Not pretty—but beautiful. In an attempt to prove her worth, she will dye her hair in every shade as she works her way through the full color palette and teen angst to early adulthood. She will eventually, ironically, settle on a shade much like the mousy brown of her youth. Nostalgia can be as much of a bitch as a reward.

“Of course, honey,” the woman who was not her biological mother, but somehow the girl’s true mother, said. She will doubt this truth and every other sentence about her worth for the rest of her life because she never felt complete or whole or beautiful.

As she aged, much to her dismay, her worth tied even deeper into beauty. Other women wore the marks of life with pride and honor; while she continued to hide and fight hers. It wont matter that her body, so compact and resilient, birthed four human beings—nursing them and providing comfort as they grew into their own adult versions of themselves.

The little girl, who grew into a woman, carried on with her life. She did her best to cover the ugliness of birth marks and any other flaw while she moved through the proper milestones within her improper childhood.  She went to college and graduate school, fell in love, divorced, had children, remarried, and built the life she’d always hoped for. 

This life contained a much milder level of dysfunction than the sort that plagued her childhood. She embraced the flaws, or tried to. She attempted to find the beauty inside; even though it was bogged down in the ugliness she’d spent a lifetime building around herself as a means of protection.
Now, she wants to feel worthy so that people will treat her with value. She wants to hide the holes and emptiness from her children. She hopes her life lessons are ones she will never have to teach her children. 

These lessons scar and damage as they are learned. 

She attempts to instill feelings of worth and value to the little girls and boys, her own children, that she now raises and nurtures as her true mother once did with her.

Unfortunately, for her it was too late. Some damage can’t be undone. 

The little girl, who is now a mother, wants more for her children. She wants more for herself. Because as far as she has come, as different as she is now, some part of her is still the little girl. Sometimes she is greeted on the tired and overwhelming mornings by her former self. 

The little girl stares back at her from her distant past, from the other side of the mirror and whispers, “Am I pretty?” 

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  1. Struggle(d) with it myself. Well put. (And agreed that lazy eyes lead to better storytelling).

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