Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness something incredibly fucked-up and terrible and strange. You know, like a car accident, only not nearly that bad, but this is my journal and I can amplify all minor inconveniences into gorgeous cataclysms, as everyone knows; anytime you ever read anyone's journal they say something nonsensical like that, even though we all also know that the most important thing is "to thine own self be true," because my father quoted that to me when I was going to college. And anything my father knows, everyone must know, because my father most certainly is not a celebrated and vaguely reverenced Princeton-educated historian.
But you should know your Shakespeare, my chicks and dees.
So what happened was: last night I went to a ridiculous art opening, hosted not by the IR or any of her assorted lovers or pals, but by a friend of a friend or someone; I was dragged there by my difficult college friend Cromwell because some girl -- slight, adequate, with inky hair and a profusion of silver jewelry -- was going to be there, and I was meant to assess her. I made him buy us whiskeys at a little nearby bar before we went, but then he made me pay for my whiskey, so it was more like I made him just have a whiskey with me, but anyway I went in nervous but interested, because I feel that I understand artists but that they don't often understand me. It was one of the lovelier art openings I'd ever been to, because it was an environment, I think of the Garden of Earthly Delights or something, so all the food & liquor was set up in strange ways in all the tiny rooms of the gallery -- bottles buried in a weird sink of sand, so you had to dig to get them out, and the cups hanging overhead from thick twisted ropes like fruits in a tree, and apples and pomegranates just lying around in heaps in the corners, and you cut up the pomegranates by shoving them into these knives that they had coming into the walls, and then there was a big cake you could eat shaped like a naked lady. Sometimes it was even difficult to see what was food & what wasn't -- there was a whole wall in this one room that was full of jars of hearts and little bird-bones. It was funny because it wasn't at all the IR's scene & yet I think she tends towards making stuff like this -- ridiculous mythic baroque collages & constructions. Anyway I drank a little and a lot and Cromwell bobbed his head when he introduced me to the young lady, who was named Agatha and who was wearing a very tiresome turtleneck and lots of eyeliner. I had no patience for this & spoke to her for a while about absolutely nothing & she gestured vaguely & rolled her eyes and looked bored so I snuck away to pretend I was interested in other things. Then of course I got into some ludicrous conversation with one of the artists about this weird construction with gears that he had jammed into the naked-lady-cake. Mostly I continued to drink out of the bottle and laugh and finally the artist tried to follow me into a bathroom to kiss me and I had to lead him on quite a goose-chase to escape, and things were getting difficult (I was telling him that I was only fourteen years old, that I hadn't gotten my period yet, and he was saying, "Old enough to pee, old enough for me," and I was nearly in tears) when someone else grasped my hand very firmly and pulled, and a voice said, "There you are! I've been looking for you everywhere, baby." And I was practically in tears again, because I was like, what is this, a meat market? But the voice was warm and masculine and good, like the voices I dreamed about when I was three years old whilst riding a hobby horse, and I followed my hand to spin into this person's arms, who buried his face in the crook of my neck and shoulder and pressed me against him very firmly until I heard the old-enough-to-pee man say, "Sorry, man," and shuffle off. I was relieved, because the new man smelled clean and kind of sage-y and I figured I had traded up, and if I had to be groped by strangers this might not be so bad.
But as soon as the artist-pee man had gone, I was released. I looked up, and realized with some horror and some joy and lots of disbelief that the smooth, oddly chiseled face hovering over my own was Stephen's.
"Yikes," I said.
"That was a close one," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm just here. I'm here with a friend. What are you doing here?"
"My ex-girlfriend has a piece here," he said. "The naked lady cake."
O fuck. The artist-guy wasn't even an artist guy, was he? I explained myself, and laughed, and wobbled, and steadied myself on his shoulder. We went and sat on some bench and he drank out of my bottle and he said that he couldn't believe he ran into me, weren't we supposed to have a drink, and I said, yes, well, we are now, and he said, yes we are, and we laughed, but I didn't drink anymore as I was quite all right for drinking. Cromwell wandered by to complain about his girl -- he thought she had been making fun of me when we were talking earlier, and also she said "yeah" a lot -- but eventually he got uncomfortable with the fact that I was lolling all over Stephen and wandered off to start a fight with some skinny guys in Dashboard Confessional T-shirts, and maybe to dance vaguely with Agatha, who knows.
And of course Stephen said something to the effect of, well now it looks like your friend has other stuff to do, and I didn't want to contradict him, and when he said the liquor was getting to his head too fast because he'd had nothing to eat but apples and pomegranates, I agreed with him, even though I'd eaten quite a lot of naked nipple cake. So we got out of there and walked through the rivers of knee-deep slush in the streets, and breathed the new nearly-spring air with fine grateful lungs, and I told him a couple of Irish fairy tales and the myth about the king who would die if he didn't rest his head in the lap of a virgin every night, and how one day the virgin he usually used was raped by some henchman and in the night she said to him that she was no longer a virgin but a woman, and how I didn't remember what happened next. And he said, what distinction is this between a virgin and a woman? And I said, kind of a beautiful one, like a virgin is someone in a chrysalis, and I knew it was sexist but I still thought it was kind of beautiful anyway. Of course this conversation led to me telling him how when I was ten I was in the interesting position of being both a wife and a virgin, which made me kind of a woman because I was married and could drink hooch, but was not a woman in any sense that would satisfy the moderns or the ancients. The casual way in which I said this made him think I was wounded and exceptional. He expressed disbelief and made me tell him about it but also tightened his hold on my trembling fingers.
We stumbled into a little falafel restaurant that was open late and shared a big plate of hummus with red powdery spices all over it and huge delicious beds of lettuce and onions and things, and I looked at him long and hard and loved the smooth slopes of his delicate cheekbones and the little pit of a scar on one of them, and his marvelous strong teeth and his long eyelashes and his dark eyes, which might have been brown or jade-green or lapis-blue, I don't know, and he was wearing a great olive-green suit jacket that someone might have worn in an 80s movie, and I was thinking that he was the first man in forever that I could maybe get worked up over, not that I believe in saying things like that, but I believe in getting worked up. Why not, right? I wondered if I looked okay, and I went in the bathroom and put on more lipstick and shrieked a little and pulled up my stockings. (I was wearing this weird garnet-colored tunicy dress with little jet beads on it and also black gloves, which is absurd, but what could I do? And a red fake camellia in my hair.)
But what did it matter, how I looked, I thought, because when I came out of the bathroom he was gazing at me like nobody's business, and he put my coat on me and we stood around outside the place and we were thinking, what do we do now? and he suggested somehow that we go to his house, because it was not far, and we walked there and the sky was ashes-of-roses and he lived in a real apartment building with lobby and plants and everything, and his apartment was masculine and blue and green with a tasteful kitchen and carpeting and a big navy-blue-sheeted bed, which was really the only thing I noticed, because it was where I spent the next ten hours or something. Because of course we slept together, and I won't go into details, for reasons which will become clear later, maybe.
Afterwards I lay in the darkness, hardly thinking of anything, vaguely conscious of the cool sweetness that, in the wake of all that hot sexual fluttering, the twisting and turning and teeth-gnashing and biting and beating and crying out, seemed to have descended upon me like a dusting of powdery snow. I let my eyes open slowly and saw that he was looking at me with moist, puzzled eyes. I traced the little furrow between his eyebrows with my finger.
“You’re not beautiful,” he said.
I opened my eyes wider. He had fit one of his feet against my foot. “What?” I said.
“You’re not beautiful.”
I thought for a minute. “What makes you say that?” I said. “I mean, what made you say that right now? I don’t want to know how you arrived at that opinion. I just want to know why you said that, right now.”
“You were expecting me to say something,” he said.
“No, I wasn’t,” I said.
“Yes. You were expecting me to tell you you were beautiful. I wasn’t going to lie.”
“I wasn’t expecting anything. What are you talking about?”
“You were going to ask.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes, you were. You were going to open your eyes halfway, and you were going to turn your face around and ask me if I thought you were beautiful."
It occurred to me that maybe I was going to ask that, but only for a second. "Why would you assume I was going to do that?"
"Because you were. And if you weren't, you were going to wonder, because you saw I was looking at you and you thought I was thinking how beautiful you were, but I wasn't. You're probably used to it, right? After you make love with some guy, he turns to you and he cups your face in his hands and he tells you you're beautiful. All the time, right?"
"Well, yes, I suppose so."
"Wel, I'm not going to do that."
"Okay, fine, but you don't have to tell me that I'm not beautiful."
"But I do. I want to be completely honest with you, you know? I don't hold with building relationships on deception."
"It wouldn't be deception! I didn't ASK! You could have just not said anything."
"But that would be a sin of omission."
"No it wouldn't! It wouldn't be a sin of omission. It wouldn't, and anyway, I don't understand why you would feel that it's so important to be so honest--like, people are constantly telling people they're beautiful, just casually, just to be nice . . . it's normal . . . "
"Yeah, just like all those guys who told you you were the most beautiful thing they'd ever seen, or whatever -- I don't hold with that flattery shit, either. What's the point of it? You're a smart woman, you're smart and you're mature and you're an adult and you don't need to hear all that bullshit."
"Maybe it wasn't bullshit!"
"Oh, it was bullshit."
"What do you mean? Just because you don't think I'm beautiful doesn't mean that other men haven't thought I was beautiful. I'm not objectively unbeautiful!"
"Well, I would say that you were not objectively beautiful. I would say that."
"What do you mean?" I thought of all the boys and guys and men who had ever kissed me in my short life full of its kisses. I thought of the face of my first husband, Irwin, during our illegal marriage ceremony. I thought of how Douglas' eyes filled with tears the first time he ever saw my breasts. I thought of my college boyfriends muttering, "You're so pretty, you're so pretty" into my hair. I thought of some lady in high school telling me I should be a model. "You can't say I'm objectively not beautiful! What about eye of the beholder? I know for a fact that the men who said I was beautiful meant it. I know for a FACT."
"Maybe some of them thought so, but I doubt it," Stephen said. "Probably they were just trying to flatter you to get into your pants."
"So you're saying I'm ugly?"
"No, for God's sake, you're not ugly! You're just not beautiful. Listen, not everyone can be beautiful. Everyone wants to be beautiful, so people pretend that everyone is, in some way or other, but it's not true. To be beautiful, you've got to be significantly better-looking than most other people, and so most people can't be. It's just math."
"Just math, huh?" For some reason I spent the entire conversation in a kind of shock, and hadn't really been thinking about how insulting and humiliating it was, and suddenly I started thinking about that. "Well, what the fuck were you doing having fucking sex with me if I'm so physically repulsive to you? Like, what the fuck just happened? What the fuck was all that tenderness and the kissing and what the fuck am I doing still in this fucking bed, huh? I'm getting the hell out of here. I'm getting the hell out."
Stephen seemed genuinely alarmed. "Oh, geez, I didn't mean to make you feel that way," he said. "I was just trying to be honest with you, Nonnie, I mean, I really like you, I really like you a lot, and I want to spend a lot more time with you, and I didn't want to base our relationship on some kind of convenient lie, so I just -- geez, don't go, come on, Nonnie."
"That's bullshit," I said. "Why the fuck do you want to spend more time with me if I'm so fucking ugly?"
"Not ugly," he said.
"If I'm so fucking not beautiful, then."
"Because you're fascinating and strange and funny and gifted and sarcastic and mean and sweet and vivacious and smart as a fucking whip," he said.
"Yeah, but why do you want to fucking sleep with me, if you're not even attracted to me? What are you, sick?"
"God, I didn't say I wasn't attracted to you, Nonnie. I find you incredibly attractive. Really, really, really attractive."
"Attractive, but not beautiful."
"Right, exactly. Attractive, sexy, I mean, you're great to look at, I love looking at you, I just recognize that what I love about looking at you isn't beauty, it's grace and charm and sexual energy and freshness and elegance and a lot of other stuff, compelling stuff, you know, but just not beauty."
"And that doesn't bother you."
"No, no. I've been with beautiful girls before, it's not so amazing, it's nothing like being with you."
"Do you think you're beautiful?"
"Well, I mean, guys aren't usually beautiful. But, yeah, I'm good-looking, I'm handsome."
"Admit it. I'm handsome. That's just one of my assets, it's not a big deal, it's just objectively true. Come on, Nonnie. Come on, don't overreact like this. I really like you, I like you tremendously, I think I might be falling in love with you even, and I'd hate to lose you over something stupid and frivolous like this, so, come on, calm down, let's get some sleep, okay?"
He was looking at me with actual fondness and concern and I didn't know what to do, and I didn't want to think about it, so I went to sleep.
When I woke up a few hours later, Stephen had wrapped his arms and legs entirely around my body. It took some effort to extricate myself, but he kept sleeping, and I went into the bathroom to take out my diaphragm and look in the mirror and see if I was really not beautiful.
And I looked in the mirror, and I think I was. By which I mean, I think I am. The trouble with this whole beauty business, I thought, wasn't just that Stephen was weird or psychotic or cruel or misguided about honesty, but that what he said had contradicted a lifetime of thinking that I was beautiful, that I am beautiful. Our conversation wasn't, like, ego-shattering the way it might have been for a girl who was insecure about her looks; I can even imagine some girls accepting it, thinking, well, it's true, I'm not classically beautiful, no one would ever call me beautiful, aren't I lucky to have found a man who loves me anyway? I've even known girls like that, who readily admit to not being beautiful, who flip through magazines and talk about being intimidated by the models because of their beauty, because they themselves can never be so beautiful. And yes, I've noticed the skinniness of models, or their pouty cellophaney lips, or their legs going all the way up, but it's never in my life made me feel less beautiful. I'm one of those women who believes that everyone is beautiful, who despite her bitchiness and jealousy and cynicism has always believed her friends to all be just gorgeous, just gorgeous, and who in her secret heart has always believed herself to be the equal of any woman you can find. So being told I'm objectively not beautiful: objectively! It's not even an insult: it's a strange revelation, a puzzle, as if someone has given me a Rubix cube or something. What is this? How do I understand it?
After I was tired of looking at my tired, kiss-swollen face in the bathroom, I gathered up all my things, slipped my dress over my head, and tiptoed barefoot out of the apartment and into the street and hailed a cab. And went home and slept until the sun had set, and drank pot after pot of mint tea, and thought that I would surely, surely, surely die.
Oh, the weather outside was most certainly frightful, but at last I'm home, and snug and drinking cocoa out of a bowl, and in retrospect the fire also was delightful. I spent the long weekend in a little condominium in Vermont with some friends; it was odd because I was the only one who skied, even though we'd gone out of our way to rent this condo that was literally ten yards from the foot of Mount Snow. While I skied, the rest of them sat around in the livingroom in their jammies listening to disco hits and occasionally running outside to pour maple syrup on the snow and see if it turned into candy. It didn't.
But I had a wonderful time skiing, even though my fingers were awfully cold. I went up to the summit and it was like a fairyland, or a sentimental novel about New England: the whole ride up I was surrounded by the furry, misty, brown-and-white mountains that spread themselves all over the countryside, underneath a sky that was laced with silver-blue clouds; beneath me I could see pine after snowy pine, looking as if they had been stolen from a Christmastime model-train-set; and at the glacial, unforgiving summit all the trees were glazed thickly with ice, like diamonds. At one point I was skiiing through a ridiculous grove of glittering trees, with great shafts of sunlight coming through them, and if I were the sort of woman to fall down on my knees I would have.
Anyway there was of course a blizzard & we were of course stuck drinking cocoa in front of the fire and reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Russian, or at least pretending to read it.
After much trouble I was able to book passage on a southbound train, and when I finally boarded I found I was in a car with a gaggle of sixteen-year-old snowboarders. I had written them off as rowdy and irritating, and settled into my seat to listen nostalgically to Liz Phair and draw pictures of ladies in my pocket notebook, when the tousled-haired lad sitting across the aisle piped up with some comment.
I took off my headphones. "What?" I said, expecting an insult.
"That's really good," he said.
"What is?" I said, thinking he had probably heard Liz Phair talking about jumping when you circle the cherry through the headphones, and was making fun.
"Your drawing," he said, sweetly. "Do you do that for a living?"
I laughed and told him I was a cultural anthropologist, and said thank you, and put my headphones back on. But half an hour later he spoke again.
"You might think this is really weird," he said, "but do you think you could do a picture for me?"
"A picture of what?" I said.
"Anything that comes to mind," he said. "Can you do landscapes?"
"Not really," I said. Just do anything, then, he said. But I was adamant that he had to pick it, because I'm not going to draw a goose with the head of a woman and a six-breasted dancing girl for the sixteen-year-old snowboarder. We went through the list of things he liked: snowboarding -- could I draw a snowboarder? Hockey. Mountains. The Grateful Dead.
"I can't draw any of those things," I said.
"What about planets? I like space," he said.
"Okay, I'll draw you a picture of space," I said. So I opened my book and drew four or five little planets, some with rings and some with Jupiter-style swirls and some pitted with asteroidy craters, and I drew a spangly comet and a bunch of five-pointed stars, and then I thought it looked boring so I added a tiny spaceship with two engines and three-pointed flames coming out of each engine. I had to do a test drawing of the spaceship on another piece of paper, because the only spaceship I'd ever drawn before was an X-wing, and that was only because this guy I was dating drew the X-wing for me and made me copy it, because we were bored and waiting for a bus or something. But I drew the spaceship, and I think it was pretty cute, actually. I made sure to do lots of cool-looking stippling and shading on the planets, so that they looked textured and comic-bookey. When I was satisfied that there were enough heavenly bodies on the page, I applied myself to coloring all the negative space in the entire postcard-sized composition black, using only a fine-tipped rollerball pen. This was extremely difficult & took about half an hour, but it was also extremely satisfying. I did that thing you did when you colored stuff in as a kid, where you created little swaths and shapes to fill in to make the task seem more manageable, and it was incredibly fun.
Of course, the whole time I was thinking that it was odd that the Deadhead snowboarder wanted a picture at all. I mean, little kids want pictures all the time (on a Eurostar I once drew a self-portrait for a trilingual five-year-old who wanted "a lady, like you") but teenagers only speak to older people in order to deride and humiliate them. I was half-certain that I would look up from my careful inking to find that someone had made off with my wallet, or that I would hand the picture over only to have the kid show his friends how corny it was. Still, it was something to pass the time, and when it was finished, the kid said, "Wow, thanks! This is exactly what I wanted!" and bounded off to show it to his other friends, who pronounced it "cool."
Then we talked about the economy and Canada and hockey and where his sister went to college, and we had a nice time. I think maybe he wanted the picture because he was a little stoned -- smoking pot has led me to exchange manicures for slices of pie from three-year-old girls, after all -- but he didn't seem that stoned, really. I think he was just a kid who wanted a picture of space. Weird.