Confession of the Ugly Girl

Cynthia Reeves

We were the ugly girls. You know the ones, our hair hanging limp in oily strands pulled tight with red rubber bands. Glasses slipping, perpetually slipping past the deep red gouges, like third eyebrows, bridging our noses. Whiteheads blistering, rimmed with purple rings. We jabbed our glasses with thick fingers. We picked and scabbed. We scarred easily.

We were the ones the schoolyard bullies skipped and danced around, ring a ring of roses, ashes and falling and socks pulled down, puddling around our ankles, angry circles circling our knees where the elastic cut us.

We were the ones whose first experience with love was a mistake — the boy who kissed us on a dare as if our hearts were somehow different from the beautiful girls’. Heartbreak is a muscle torn in half, same for everyone.

Yes, we overheard those boys trading snickers in the stairwell — “like kissing a dead turtle,” they’d say, or simply “cooties” — passing the experience along with a touch to the next boy’s elbow, like a twisted game of tag. As stupid as they thought we were, we were smart enough to realize we’d been duped into believing Sister Mary Benedict’s version of love.

“Girls,” she’d say as we eleven-year-olds gazed up at her in health class, trusting, innocent in our bodies newly deformed by hips and breasts and acne, “someday someone will see past the exterior to the person you’ve cultivated into a vessel of pure soul.” This was the same nun whose name refused to resolve its own sexuality. The same nun who punished us when we violated the vivid white line of the recess yard boundary so that no one could see us cry, proctored the inevitable detentions where we wrote, “We will stay inside the white box,” 500 times on thin sheets of pink onion skin, forced our small hands until the pink was obliterated by black clouds of graphite as our sweaty palms smeared the careful script.

Sister Mary Benedict believed in this soul business on account of our donating the nickels and dimes and quarters we’d stolen from our mothers’ purses to buy more pagan babies during Lent than any other homeroom at St. Lucia’s. St. Lucia’s. Our school named for the holy girl who had her eyes plucked out rather than marry a heathen prince and become his vessel of corruption. And what did every five dollars we’d collected buy us? The chance to name a third-world baby Mary Elizabeth or Mary Francis or Mary Grace. Were those babies ever real? Where are those little girls now?

The best thing about being one of the ugly girls is that eventually the bullies move on to screwing the beautiful girls and no one notices us anymore. If we killed someone in broad daylight and the eyewitnesses tried to place us — people who’d looked right at us — they might say, “Brown hair, medium height, heavy, maybe, eye color? … I don’t know, she was wearing glasses, I think.” As if glasses cloaked us, invisible.

By the time we arrived in college, we acquired a new, collective name. Pigs. The boys would study the pig book, an orientation-week staple that contained head shots of all incoming freshmen. These boys, they’d sit there practically tearing the pages to ogle the pictures of beautiful girls, blonde hair cut straight as a ruler or brown hair dappled with sienna highlights as if the sun set within them. As for the ugly girls, the boys would laugh at the wine-colored birthmark blooming on a too-wide cheek, the badly repaired cleft palate, the slalom that defined a nose twice broken in childhood — and because I was one of them, they never noticed I was one of them.

Beautiful girls never sent in photos with their faces broken out from surreptitious midnight chocolate binges. They weren’t compelled to tape Milky Ways and Mars bars behind their headboards because their mothers doled out Halloween candy caramel by caramel so that it lasted till Easter, rationed food as if we were trying to survive the siege of Leningrad. Our mothers never could quite understand how we managed to gain ten pounds every winter when they’d been oh-so-careful. They did it because they loved us, of course.

Beautiful girls never had pretty sisters who left scribbled notes taped to leftovers in the refrigerator reminding us that food was the reason we ugly girls struggled through life, food was not desire, food was not love. Ugly girls know all about slow metabolisms, the beauty of dark places. Hand on skin in the night, whether a boy’s, a girl’s, or your own, doesn’t differentiate size, discriminate deformity, discern scars. Skin is skin. Touch is touch. It’s all feeling, nothing more.

We pinched our pretty sisters on their too-thin asses, pretended we couldn’t hear them cry out, wondered aloud if they were finally “filling out.” We were experts at the casual remark, tossed off while we bit into our fifth stalk of celery. (I’d say to my own sister Mary Jo, “Have you noticed how your chin is starting to look a little like Mom’s?” And listen through the bathroom door as she gagged on her fingers.)

We starved. We binged. We purged.

We watched the beautiful girls eat their way through box after box of expensive chocolates and down each piece with a swig of syrupy Coke and lament the passing of their latest boyfriend while we inhaled the scent from the twisted wrappers, or snuck a piece, chewed until it was liquid velvet in our mouths, and finally spat it out. The flavor lingered on our tongues. We were, then, mere acolytes of unfulfilled desires.

I am called a “hair salon technician,” the glorified name for shampoo girl. Of course, I was qualified for something more. But I asked myself, “How many professions are there where you can lose yourself in the hair of beautiful men, let your fingers linger behind their ears, run circles around their temples, their widow’s peaks?” When I’m lucky, they don’t open their eyes from whatever daydream they’re having, don’t open their eyes and see that it’s only one of the ugly girls with magic fingers, fingers which have long since memorized the places on her own body most responsive to her touch.

When Beautiful Man finally looks at me, my breath close enough to stir the short hairs of his moustache, he has to acknowledge me.

“Pretty name,” he says, inspecting the plastic badge on my chest. “Marie.”

Is he kidding? I smile my brightest smile, my hundred-watt smile of the otherwise-invisible-woman.

I’ve had a string of beautiful roommates. Beautiful girls prefer a roommate like me — docile, eager to please, a cipher. My theory is that they don’t like the challenge of another beautiful girl, and they look even more beautiful when their boyfriends hold me up for comparison.

My first roommate — I don’t want to tell you her name — was a friend of a friend from college. She needed a cheap place to live, and I’m nothing, nothing if not accommodating. She was a waitress, but she told everyone she was an actress.

Let’s call her Camellia, like the extravagant flower Florentino offers Fermina in Love in the Time of Cholera, beauty, love, and death folded into its white petals.

Need I tell you Camellia was one of the girls whose mothers let them wear make-up at ten? who beat off boys in middle school bathrooms during activity period? who lost their virginity in the backs of high school buses under tents of winter wool coats when they were fifteen, just to say they were no longer virgins, to laugh at those of us they assumed would be virgins for life, roll their eyes when we exited bathroom stalls after overhearing overheated descriptions of the strangled noise Jimmy made when he came, as if we lacked imagination, as if we hadn’t spent endless hours alone watching The Age of Innocence and Dirty Dancing, first in the back of darkened, sticky movie theaters and then in the movies’ second lives on cable.

In between auditions and flirting with the truck drivers who frequented the diner where she worked, Camellia spent most of her time sleeping with her boyfriend. It wasn’t hard to convince her that her big break was just around the corner. It wasn’t hard to convince her that no, there certainly weren’t a hundred beautiful, semi-talented girls just like her willing to do anything for that break. It wasn’t hard to convince her to go on that audition. It’s easy for beautiful girls to believe.

I found the ad in the personals section, but left her only a name and a number inked on her Hello Kitty message pad. A callback, I wrote. It was a lead in a “gentlemen’s” movie that earmarked her for nights of tears, days of sitting around in navy sweats, piling up soggy tissues, twisted candy wrappers, silver spoons, lines of white powder marking the short road from Los Angeles back to Kansas.

Roommate number 2. Natalie sprayed Sun-in on her blonde hair and claimed she was naturally that unnatural shade of platinum. Slathering moisturizer on her body was a daily ritual she practiced with the same devotion a cloistered nun brings to prayer, every night white-faced with expensive creams she claimed took ten years off her age, as if being sixteen again was something devoutly to be wished.

She didn’t much talk to me unless it was to ask me to bring her something back from town — lip balm, jet-black eyeliner, personal lubricant. I was just a black polyester uniform and a nametag. Marie Brown. An ideal name for an ugly girl, suggestive of mud and UPS trucks. In high school I’d doodled five-petal daisies over the lower-case “i”s until Mary Jo one day turned all the daisies into obscene gestures. So I glued her notebooks shut.

With Natalie, I discovered a little Red Devil lye in Sun-in is all a beautiful girl’s hair needs to sizzle, fall out in large clumps, singe the scalp. She couldn’t prove a thing. She packed up and left the next day while I was at the salon — no card, no rent, no two months’ notice.

I’ve outgrown such childish retaliations against invisibility. Can you ever be forgiven for something you didn’t do? A sin of omission? Should I have heard what wasn’t there? The sound of absence? The last rhythmic beat of my sister’s flutter kick against the water? Beautiful girls think they’re immune to everything, even death.

Which brings me to Elise. She reminds me of Mary Jo, who swam or ran ten miles every evening regardless of weather. Like a postman — rain, earthquake, gloom of night. Like an anorexic, arrhythmic heart — tick, tick … ticking.

Elise comes in from her run this morning decked out in gray sweats with the waistband folded down to her protruding hipbones and her boyfriend’s see-through wifebeater cut to show her bare midriff. Her lips are smeared with cherry-red gloss, her hair pulled up high in a ponytail that swings like a golden tassel. Even pouring sweat, she has to know she’s caused every man in town to get whiplash when she jogged past.

“Hey, sis,” she says to me before she scampers off to her bedroom to shower, “be a doll and make me some coffee.”

You are not my sister. You are just like my sister.

I have news for the pretty ones — every girl feels the same in a dark room on a dark night. Our big sisters assume we’re safe. Who’d want to take us, after all?

When we’re just sixteen, these sisters take us to their freshmen dorm party when our parents are out of town. They’re supposed to be watching out for us. They think it’s all a big joke.

Guys chug beer directly from the keg, ogle us like so much chattel. What do they see? A girl who has a headache … shaped like a woman … all she needs is a little mary jane …

“Come with me,” one of them says, swaying in front of her. Or maybe she’s swaying.

She follows him up three flights of stairs to his dorm room. He tells her to make herself comfortable, hands her two Excedrin, plain old Excedrin, and a glass of water. She doesn’t really have a headache, but she takes the pills, stretches out on the bed, and inhales the salty scent of sweat. She thinks she wants this. The lights go out. The dim yellow streetlight throws a shadow-grid of institutional windows against the far, white cinderblock wall and outlines this boy-man and his torso and his hands touching her through her clothes. She’s lying motionless, as if this alone might give her the secret power of invisibility, and he won’t notice the stretch marks and the pock marks and the marks no one can see.

It’s possible to become as flat as a sheet, she thinks, flat as a bed.

The pine of his Speed Stick mixes with the sugar of her Love’s Baby Soft. The long fold of blanket underneath her is a rope pressing into her spine, into her hips, her thigh, her calf. Everything is shadow — the bed whose blankets tumble to the floor like a swollen river, a yellow river of dirty light. She prays to her absent sister.

Rescue me. The sister might as well already be a ghost, her body emptied of itself, the anorexic heart a year away from giving out while swim, swim … swimming her endless laps on a warm summer night in the lighted pool beneath her little sister’s open bedroom window.

Rescue me.

What she knows of the boy is his dark hair, his pale, freckled skin. This is all she’ll ever know. Not his name. Not even his name. She’s afraid to move because she thinks he’ll think she’s responding to her longing. She’s never responded to a boy’s touch, to this desire even more powerful than the lingering taste of chocolate on the tongue.

Say “no.” But she’s young so she bites her tongue.

Say “stop.” The tip of her tongue is mottled with blood.

Say “I’m a pig.” Why doesn’t this matter tonight, in the dark, transit of Venus across the night sky and words — no, stop, wait — pulsing in her veins?

“Are you all right?” he asks. Maybe she nods or maybe she doesn’t. But she thinks, incongruously, of health class, of Sister Mary Benedict and sex, of pleasure and death.

She’s still. Everything’s still, except his hands on her breasts and the rapid rise and fall of his chest. Her leg has gone numb where the rope of blanket has cut off her circulation. She tries to fall into love’s baby softness and disappear, but her heart betrays her, beats faster. She wonders how common it is to die at sweet sixteen of a heart attack.

“Jesus, take me now,” she prays aloud.

The boy only moves faster within her.

Her heart leaves her body, rests on the sheet, pulses there. She’s otherwise so still she might be dead.

Didn’t you notice the silence? her mother had screamed. You were right there, she was swimming right outside your open window. My beautiful Mary Jo!

But what sound does silence make?

The dorm room turns silent. She’s underwater, her heart pulsing above her on the bed’s surface. She can see it there, in a sliver of dirty yellow light, the pinpoint she flails toward erased as the young man rises above her like a cloud rolling across the sun.

Elise, oh my pretty roommate number 3. Is it your fault you were born with twin planets spinning in your eyes, eyes that mesmerize every guy who comes into your orbit? Maybe it’s the perfect row of white teeth framed by come-hither lips, or the hair that moves like wind through a summer window. That’s why you have Rob, his chiseled arms and shock of blonde hair and hands capable of cupping just about anything you have to offer. His hard body sinks right into you, through you, as he plants those sweet lips, sweet hips, mows you down.

“Oh, stop, Robbie, I’m all sweaty,” you say when he grabs you after your run and pulls you into the bedroom.

I wait for the coffee you ordered to hiss and spit. I hear your ah, ah, ah and imagine your head arched back into the pillow, your eyes squeezed shut. You don’t know I know exactly what it feels like.

The two of you stumble out of the bedroom. Rob flicks his tongue over your cherry-red lips, licks you like candy. You tilt back your head, laughing. The white ribbon of your throat gleams in the kitchen fluorescent. And then you lift the coffee I’ve prepared for you (no sugar, extra cream), smile through the breath of steam rising from the mug, smile at nothing over its rim, smile at me.

Maybe Mother was right.

I sit in the bath’s scalding water as the tub slowly fills. My skin turns bright pink, as if I’ve stood too close to the sun. In a minute — there’s still time — I will close my eyes, hold my breath and slide under the steaming water. In darkness, I will picture the moment you realize the sweet taste of your lip gloss has masked the arsenic that slowly kills, just as slamming a window against the water’s silence killed, effective as a guillotine. I will imagine my sister one last time, stroking smoothly toward the pool’s rainbowed, underwater light, stretching for the cement wall as she enters her forty-ninth flip turn just as her heart gives out. I will hear once again the silence that follows and share with her that final pinpoint of pure light through our shuttering irises.

about the author