How to be Beautiful

When I was a child,
Beauty was whatever my mother was.
It didn’t matter if she was tall or short, fat or thin.
How curly her hair was, the shade of her skin.
Because when I was cold, she gave me cocoa,
when I was hot, lemonade.
She quenched my thirst with what she made,
so I knew what beauty was:
It was the hand that took ‘need’ from the present,
and moved it to the past.

But I’ve grown;
I’ve learned the art of spoon + mug.
I’ve even bought a jug,
but the mirror still hasn’t told me that I’m beautiful.
Why?
Because magazines make the mirror lie.

They teach us to emulate images that are two-dimensional,
which is a problem
because it means it’s impossible to be picture perfect
from more than one angle at a time,
but we have so many angles, all on display at once.
And since I’m not made of glossy paper, I’ll never shine
which is bullshit.
I shine when no one is looking
because I’m so radiant that’s the only time
I won’t cause an accident.

It took me years to teach myself to think this way,
because I have seen dresses reduce brilliant women to tears,
held a high-waisted skirt in hand like a cross I had to bear,
longed for smaller shoulders, wider hips,
curves in all the right places when I only had them in the wrong ones.

So, I don’t know how to be beautiful,
But I know I want to burn all of my magazines for lying to me.
Pointing. Laughing.
Telling me ‘you can never be me, but try.’
And whispering, ‘you should see what I look like from behind.’

It has long been the obligation of all women to
know what beauty is and try to achieve it.
But, I don’t follow trends,
and, I’ve burned all of my magazines.
So I didn’t have pretty paper on hand to guide me
down the paved roads and well-marked streets to
to the house where Beauty lives.
My journey was off-road, with worn tires, a loud muffler,
and not a map in sight.
Sometimes the car overheated; sometimes it ran out of gas.

I had two guides: landmarks, and memories.
They led me backward more often than forward,
but that’s alright,
because my answers were behind me,
finger-painted on the dirty windows of a half-built house,
which read in daylight,
‘Look no further’ and
‘You already have the answer you’ve been seeking.’

I remember that house so clearly:
from the aged wood to the octagonal attic window.
The cracked walk. The unfinished garage.
The aura of despair.
The old man who wandered silent as a shadow,
from window to window but had no face
save the flickering shadows of features
illuminated by candlelight.

That house was haunted.

I knew because I lived in a town where
everybody knew everybody,
but nobody knew him.
I didn’t realize it was because nobody had ever knocked
until my best friend pulled me to the door.

The old man had a face after all –
weathered and weary, with eyes like amber,
but a face like any face:
memorable when you’re looking at it,
but easily forgotten when not in view.

There are very few things in this life that I know beyond doubt,
but I know when someone has a story to tell:
when they’re breathing.
You can hear it rattling around in their lungs,
like loose change begging to be spent.

What rattled in that old man’s lungs
was the memory of a young woman with scissors
bent over a table spread with magazines,
Frankensteining her dream home,
one window, one tile,
one piece of crown molding at a time.

He, a younger man, puzzled over the papers and
-nail by nail-
transformed them into something that could stand on its own.
It was hard work, but he didn’t mind,
if it made her happy.

I can see it so clearly,
the labor that that gnarled his hands before
age ever got the chance.

I can hear the empty echoes, when he tells me
that she was gone before the task could be finished.

He doesn’t know where to hang the photographs,
what color she wanted the walls.

Time faded the paper, darkened the wood.
Dust and cobwebs claimed the windows,
and the crown molding, too.

Alone in that half built house,
time also weathered the man
before age could claim credit for the task.

At night, he wanders from room to room
as if one might still hold a trace of her scent,
a lock of her hair,
a corner of crumpled lace belonging to a nightgown he once called yellow,
which she demanded was cream,
and fifty years later he still doesn’t know the difference.

But he knows that this house
was supposed to make her happy
so can’t believe that she’s not still here somewhere,
maybe between the walls, maybe beneath the floor,
maybe bent eternally at the table,
with scissors and glossy paper.

As time wore on, I forgot that story,
not completely,
but just enough that I no longer felt it tickling my bones,
licking at the inner surface of several layers of skin,
clinging like dirt beneath my nails,
tangled at the nape of my neck like poorly combed hair.

But, years later, when they demolished that house,
I came close to tears,
because even with forgetting, I knew what was being destroyed,
and it wasn’t a house;
It was the ghosts sitting at the kitchen table
imagining a future that would never come.

I should have become a carpenter,
and built, from memory,
the aged oak,
the covered walk between the house and garage,
the octagonal window of the unfinished attic
where I could see the fingers of a child had written
in the dust ‘You Are Here’.

If I listened
they could have told me what color to paint the walls
– yellow, or cream –
and where to hang the photographs.
Which side of the bed was his, which hers.
And it wouldn’t matter if I got it wrong,
because it would still be beautiful.

But, I don’t know how to be beautiful without dimensions.
I don’t know how to say:
‘I want you to see me, but only the good parts’
and not secretly hate myself for it.

I only know how to be beautiful like a half-built house:
a little haunted, with weathered bones and as story to tell.

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