Monthly Archives: February 2015
“You look very pretty today,” my neighbor said to me the other day.
She had greeted me after I had come back from a job interview, and I nodded my head in thanks as I unlocked the door to my apartment. My black shift dress and matching liquid liner with contact lenses were standouts from my usual t-shirts and jeans with thick-framed glasses that she sees maneuvering around the halls.
It was an outfit I knew made me look good. But at the same time, her compliment caught me off guard. She meant well, but it got me thinking about how I have been hearing my friends and acquaintances paying me those compliments a lot more lately. Pretty. Beautiful. And my feelings about those compliments are ambivalent at best.
It used to be that I wasn’t considered these things. At my heaviest, I was a 300-pound, 5’11 bespectacled nerd girl, in your face, happy, opinionated and strong. There were many words used to describe me — bubbly, friendly, loud, stubborn, eccentric, weird. But beautiful nor pretty were ever in there. In fact, you could have probably call me the DUFF, or designated ugly fat friend. It’s a term that seems to be getting more recognition as of late, particularly with the movie coming out of the same name.
My ex never called me beautiful, either. His voice would get nasal and irritating as he called me “sexy” or “hot,” making me self-conscious. His tone of voice was one where I knew he was lying, because when I would ask him if I was beautiful, he would never say that word back. The so-called compliments from him that I knew were real were those he used without that nasal inflection, like “irresponsible,” “difficult,” “too independent” and “living in a fantasy world.”
Beautiful and pretty were things I assumed would never happen to me, although that wasn’t to say I stopped trying to fit the description. Red lipstick would be darted across my lips and dresses and tops were donned that showed off my ample breasts. It was my own odd version of the topic of pretty. In a world where a certain size is the normal one and my body never fit the standard of feminine beauty (both in height and weight), it was easier not to conform. Rather, it was simply good enough to be something that made me feel beautiful when I walked out the door into the world, both in clothes and attitude, and not think about everyone else.
When the weight loss came, both before and after my split, I began to see the change in how people would respond to me. Then after I took off my glasses and began wearing contacts, it became even more palpable. It was like people finally realized that I was a feminine woman — why taking off my glasses proved this, I don’t know. But then the compliments followed.
I would go out and my friends would start saying how beautiful I looked. People would ask me how I lost the weight. (Answer: Poverty and stress.) Guys started leaning in to ask me questions with their heads tilted to one side while girls would jump in and try to steal the conversation from me, trying to pretend I didn’t exist so they could get the guy who was paying attention to me.
So I’m pretty now, I guess. When I was younger, heavier and nerdier, I would have given anything to be told how pretty I looked on a regular basis, be flirted with and receive those words from the people around me. But now it feels like the wrong pair of shoes; they look nice on your feet, but then you walk around in them, and you don’t feel steady.
The compliment of “pretty” feels good… for about five seconds. It can be like a drug for many of us. We can’t hear it enough, and when we don’t hear it, we get hungry for it again. We buy the makeup, work out for hours in the gym, spend hours looking at ourselves in the mirror and taking selfies in the hopes that we’re going to be called “pretty” by anyone and everyone — whether we have a partner or not. It’s a never-ending cycle of trying too hard, and after a while, I get tired. Pretty needs constant maintenance, and it doesn’t last forever.
It was something I thought about when I sat in a job interview for a company that made me take a standardized test before I arrived. Sitting across the table from four men, I watched one of them whose body language very clearly said I was pretty (either that or he had never seen a girl before and was mesmerized by my existence), but I wondered deep down why they brought me in. It certainly wasn’t to ogle me. When I asked them how I scored on that standardized test and why that led them to call me, one of the other guys answered back frankly but sincerely.
“Well, you’re a writer, so we expected for you to score high on the verbal,” he said. “And you did, you got the 97th percentile. But we also found that you have great math and spatial skills as well, which isn’t as common for writers. It made you different than the other candidates.”
There was the sense of a compliment in his tone of voice, and it sang out how smart I was. It was the first time in ages that I had been called that. In my unwieldy mind, a match was struck and it wouldn’t go out. Unlike red lipstick that fades, smart doesn’t go away. You can’t wash it off and it doesn’t disappear into the clutches of time. And despite the fact that I didn’t get that job, the compliment of “smart” stuck in my brain and made me feel better than I had in a long time.
Suddenly, I saw a different set of compliments fluttering around me. Sure, there were the people who told me I looked beautiful in a given moment; I saw it, accepted it and then let it flow off of me. But at the same time, there was the woman who called me for a phone screen for a job and told me how lovely my energy was. Then my cousin who told me I was the most ambitious person she had ever met. In the background were my parents who told me how courageous I was in the face of rejection and despair, and my strength in getting up and fighting on. The feeling of my friend as she told me how much she loved the words I wrote for this blog. And how, after I told him one of the most horrific details of my life, a boy held my hand on a park bench, hugged me tight and told me how amazing my spirit is.
Looking into his eyes, I know that he could have told me I was beautiful a hundred times over and it wouldn’t have made a dent. Instead he made my heart sing by telling me how much he respected me and how I could have been a different person given what life has thrown my way. Yet I was “optimistic,” “funny,” “kind” and “brave,” among other wonderful words that my gut told me he sincerely meant. And every adjective I could use to describe him — warm, brilliant, sensitive, affectionate, dedicated, ambitious, and even gentlemanly — have nothing to do with how he looks on the outside. It’s recognizing the humanity in him and having him see it in me.
Exterior is just one facet of what makes us who we are; inside our minds and through our actions, we contain seas of valuable treasures only we can share with the world. It can be loyalty, intelligence, sincerity, ambition or even a dash of courage. We can do so much better than pretty; after all, beauty can only heal the world up to a limited extent, and may mask more than its contributions in true value. We should compliment the insides too, and as often as we can.
The night was so dark that I can’t escape my mind. The lights on the 405 were a bright fluorescent orange, covering my body in the glow that nothing natural in the world could make. It was the first moment I processed the darkness that was starting to consume me, that unholy ghost of trauma that was beginning to take residence in my body and I’m still desperately trying to shake out.
The road construction led the entire place to a dead 1 a.m. standstill. I looked in the passenger’s seat and saw everything that was precious to me that I took from a home I could never return to: A menorah. A photo of my grandparents. Little pink bowls from my grandmother’s house. My prayer book. I picked up the book and turned the pages until I found the traveler’s prayer and began to say the words in Hebrew.
My mouth stuttered as I leaned the prayer book against the steering wheel. I spoke the words my ancestors said to the stars as they lit candles and went down to the docks in Toledo, Spain. They were the words on my great-grandparents’ lips as they fled their respective countries to America. And in the most solitary moment of my existence, I sent the same words up to the heavens. The only one that could hear me pray was my car.
In late 2006, after the death of my beloved Camry and a brief two-day stint with an Avalon, I inherited my mother’s Silver Saturn. Its first act as my car was to drive head first into a Christmas tree that was left on the 118 freeway while heading to work. I was the subject of many weird looks as I pulled pine needles from my bumper. But that was my car, and would be for the next eight years of my life.
It was far from perfect. The all-black interior made the car sweltering during the hot summer months, irritating my skin. Although the car ran well, the electronics were faulty. The clock always ran too fast. The horn eventually gave out, and the air conditioning did too. You always knew I was coming, because the music would be blaring loudly with my windows down, with me either singing along if I was happy or yelling at stupid drivers if in Los Angeles.
I was never in love with it. In fact, if you ask me about the car, the superstitious side of me will come out and say the Saturn was bad luck. Almost immediately after my mother bought it back in 2002, she was in a major car accident with it, rear-ended by a truck at 55 miles per hour at a stoplight. This was followed by the health decline and death of both of my grandparents.
When it was passed on to me back in 2006, it was like the bad luck transferred. The promising life of a young, determined girl somehow flew far off into the distance. Every plan for a future became off kilter, every job interview a folly (whether I got the job or not), and my romantic life found nothing but disaster. There were more tears shed in that car that if every one were a dollar, I’d never have to work again.
It had its share of accidents with me too, ranging from hitting at Corvette to a crazy lady who tried to steal my wallet after backing out and tapping her car and a bicyclist plowing into it midnight on a Saturday on the way home from a party. By the end of its life, the Saturn’s passenger side mirror was attached by duct tape, the windows were barely lowering and driving it had become an overall death trap. It had been flying on nothing more than a prayer.
However, despite the bad times, there were many adventures to be had. The Saturn drove up and down California like a champ, even once making its way to Las Vegas. The hours I spent driving along the coast, looking over the big blue ocean during the day and staring at the full moon reflecting on the water at night were happy. The wind blowing through my hair down windy roads was always peaceful. There was no denying the joy that I felt driving by myself or when my friends sat next to me, laughing at the decrepit state of my car and the fact I could never keep it clean to save my life, thankful for the rides I gave them.
I saw myself change in it, and not always for the better. The ambitious woman fell away to the person who would yell at me constantly that I drove like a maniac, never even allowing me to touch my steering wheel when he was with me. The day I hit the Corvette, I forced myself to have a panic attack so he wouldn’t come after me with his screams of how I was a money suck. When it came to driving, I was an irresponsible baby and deserved what I got.
The Saturn was my fortress when I watched this same person threaten my life as our existence together crumbled. In those days after, it became a war room to plan an escape. Then it became the horse to ride off into the dark to try to find a better life, with a prayer echoing on my lips under those fluorescent lights. And for the past three years, the Saturn was the only thing that seemed to stay together while the rest of the world was falling apart.
Reclaiming myself over that time was an arduous process; I saw myself grow with ambition, determination and pure hustle. There was roadblock after roadblock, but with my car, I could steer through any hardship that came across my path. And I would keep doing it until it died.
When the mechanic came out of diagnostics to look at the awful shake and lack of acceleration it was starting to experience, he said, “What if I told you you’re going to need a new car?” I nodded, knowing that this day would come eventually. As he rattled off the list of everything wrong with it, I thought about my parents’ mechanic who told me that, at 210,000 miles, the Saturn would go downhill very, very quickly. The car was at 211,000.
Three hours later, my parents came to me at a local cafe. “Without a car, you can’t keep the apartment,” they said. “You can’t afford to live there anymore without steady income, and we can’t afford to get you a car. You have to come back home.”
My body started to shake as much as my car had, flashing back to three years before where everything was swept out from under me, from home to marriage to job. I was left in the Saturn with nothing but a prayer. At least back then, I had a horse to get me to where I wanted to go; now I was stranded by the side of the road.
The last ride with the Saturn was planned out: I had to take the car to two job interviews. As it shook under its age and couldn’t accelerate, the tension rose in me. I had to drive miles around to my destination because my car wouldn’t make it up hills. It roared in desperation as I screamed and cried, listening to all the horns honking at me as to why I could barely go over 30 miles an hour.
There was the rich guy in Beverly Hills in the open-buttoned suit shirt and sunglasses with a wooden cross around his neck. He walked into the middle of the street when I could barely stop. When I yelled back my apology about my rolling stop due to fear of the car stalling, he yelled back with a cocky grin, “Not my problem, bitch!” He never had to worry about things that I did. Probably never went hungry. Never had to flee in the dead of night from his home. Never had to fight desperately for everything that he got.
When I drove away from that interview and by the ocean near Dockweiler Beach, I tried to find happiness. I attempted to shake off the mean people who were swerving around my dying car, praying that it wouldn’t stall or kill me before I got home. My inadequacy crashed over me. I wanted to know that my life was going to get better, but there were few guarantees and no setting sun over the blue ocean could comfort me.
The morning before the car would be towed away, I went down one more time to empty it, like I had with my cars previous to this. It was like an archeological exploration: Old photographs of me as a so-called happy wife. A bathing suit now three sizes too big. A blanket to lay out on the grass for movie nights in the summertime. My copy of Cards Against Humanity; a mainstay just in case my friends needed to play a game.
For some odd reason, my mind took me back to one sunny day in late May, back when I was still married and I knew my place in the universe. One of my closest guy friends was on my speaker phone as I was cleaning out the car, talking about my priorities at the time, which was to protect my cousin since her mother’s untimely death several weeks before.
As he talked to me with wonderment and respect for my desires in his voice, he couldn’t possibly know what the future would bring us. Then again, neither did I. I didn’t know this car would be an unlikely stand-in for a savior in my hour of need. I didn’t know that my cousin would find much more sorrow in her future than at that minute in time. I didn’t even know that I would later fall in love with that boy on the phone and soon after lose him for good. All I knew was that this car would take me from point A to point B. It was the present and the priorities I put in those moments that mattered. It was all that was worth anything.
As the tow truck driver pulled up on my street, we spoke briefly as we talked about the $300 that my car would be getting.
“Are you getting a new car?” he asked in his soft Latin accent.
“Nope,” I replied. “Can’t afford one. I can’t even afford to stay in my apartment.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I only get $25 per car I tow. It used to be $45. But I am thankful to have a job.”
As I went through the car one last time, I found an unusual item. It was bright emerald green and the driver thought it was perfume. It wasn’t; it was a wine bottle stopper made of delicate blown glass. And I looked at the man who was struggling just as much as I was, who saw me just as much as I saw him. And I offered it, with his face looking incredibly honored and stunned.
“What do I pay you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “If you feel the need, pay me in blessings and good fortune.”
It was dramatic, sure, but all I had was how I treat my fellow human being, and in the present moment it was worth more than the cash value of the Saturn. And as I walked away from the truck, I walked as I did that night down the dark path before I got into my car: right foot first, looking back as you go, moving forward into the unknown with what you’ve got.