EYE OF THE BEHOLDER by Lorna Wood
It was hard to compete with her. She was tan, with beautifully cascading curls; I was ghostly pale, with stringy, straight hair. She had a dazzling smile; I had a gap toothed grin. She had gorgeous, bejewelled dresses with poofy skirts; I had faded jeans. She had delicate slippers; I had muddy sneakers.
She had all the gestures, too once I taught them to her the ones that make men and pageant judges take note. The stately pacing and turning, arms alternately held out over the skirt and brought up to convey heartfelt vanity and air kisses to the multitudes. The flirty hip jiggles and twerks to twitch the skirt. The lips poofed out (like the skirt), always with the waxed brows slightly raised, sometimes with an index finger or two pressed against the cheek. I never figured that one out, no matter how many times I watched her do it. Was it saying, “I’m kissable,” or “I’m so stupid I just don’t know what to make of it all”?
Of course, she would have been nowhere without me. I was the one who made sure she hit her marks, stopping for twirls exactly on the X’s taped to the floor. I not only taught her the regular moves; I showed her how to tap dance for the talent segment. I was always the brains behind her success.
But that was small consolation when she posed for pictures after a long pageant day, with the lights glinting off her tiara, her canned smile brilliant against her bronzed skin. Inevitably, I was the one lugging the rollaboard, the goody bag, and the trophy to the car while Mom socked away the cash and told her how proud she was of her star daughter. Like the shooting star she was, she just shot off to freedom until next time.
She never grew up. Never had to. Eventually her childish charms wore thin on me, and even Mom. I tried to leave her and the whole mess of my childhood behind, but I still always had a sinking feeling that I just wasn’t glamorous enough.
I think that’s why, a few weeks after my long-time boyfriend left me for someone younger and prettier, I reached out to her for help. To my surprise, she had her own problems. I’d expected to pick her up where we left off, with her twirling through life, relying on gentlemen callers to pick up the pieces from the messes she made, but she seemed faint and weak, and spoke in a little girl whisper, like a moribund Marilyn Monroe. At first she just told me to take care of myself, by which she meant take long baths, drink tea, and binge watch the latest streaming series. I’m a teacher, and it was summertime, so I could follow her directions, but I found myself wallowing more and more in self-pity.
She didn’t give up on me, though. On the contrary, she seemed to draw energy from my plight. She assured me my only problem was my attitude, and that I needed to prioritize “self-care.” She got more and more impatient with me.
Finally, she said she was going to help me set some goals. “Get naked and look in the mirror,” she said. “Really look. Can you honestly blame him for leaving? Now, make a list of the things you’d like to change and another list of the steps you’re going to take to make that happen.”
It seemed so empowering and responsible. “Maybe she’s grown up,” I thought, rummaging in a drawer for a permanent marker. Tracing it around bits of me I’d like to lop off, I imagined them melting away, and when I looked in the mirror, I imagined how I’d be without them. More like her.
She was a tough life coach. Whenever I complained about the lack of food, the gruelling exercise regimen, she would say, “Suck it up, buttercup. ‘Faut souffrir pour être belle.’ Beauty is pain.”
She was so sophisticated, with her French phrases. When I looked in the mirror, I could almost see her, just behind me, egging me on to be my best self. Oh god, I got faint just thinking about eggs. But she got me presents, too, like an exercise bike, and a precise scale to measure my progress, and some fashion magazines to inspire me.
After a couple of months, she didn’t seem so friendly. For one thing, she was in my head 24/7. When I looked in the mirror, she was always there, pointing out all the parts that were still too round. We spent a lot of time fighting. She got very upset when I told her I was too tired to exercise. But she promised that when I got down below ninety pounds, she’d get me something extra special.
It was so exciting when the scale read 88.7 one morning. And I felt great. Not hungry at all. Ketosis is like a miracle. I was a demon on the exercise bike. True, my breath smelled like nail polish remover, but hey, “Faut souffrir.”
She was over the moon. Right away she sent me the special gift, just like she promised. It was a magnifying mirror. 20x magnification with optical glass for clear focus on one side, normal reflection on the other. I mounted it next to the bed, so we could start to totally make over my face to fit my new body.
When I woke up just before dawn the next morning, I felt disoriented, but just as determined as ever. I pulled the mirror over to start working on my face, and then I just got lost. In high quality 20x magnification, my dry, blotchy complexion was like a lunar landscape, my crow’s feet like crevasses. I wandered around in the blue black pits under my eyes. I squeezed a pimple, and it erupted like a volcano.
Her voice startled me. “Hey! Thunder Thighs. Get up and on that bike. What are you thinking?”
This wasn’t like before, when I knew what she would say in my head. The voice was right next to me, and as she spoke, she reached over my shoulder and swung the mirror hard into my forehead.
I was already feeling weak, and I must have blacked out. When I came to, I immediately looked in the mirror. There she was, looking back at me. She was thin, tan, and smiling, glamorous as a Hollywood movie star. I tried to reach out to touch the fur trim on the collar of her robe, but my fingers hit glass. I pushed my face towards hers, but again, there was glass between us.
She laughed at me.
I didn’t understand. “What’s wrong? I did everything you said.”
She kept laughing, a long, silvery peal, and she threw her head back so I could appreciate her curls and the fine column of her neck. “Yes. I suppose I should thank you,” she said at last. “I haven’t felt so alive since—my last pageant, I guess. This little project of ours has completely revived me.
“But you—there’s hardly anything left of you, poor dear. You better just rest. I’ve got a lot of living to do, and I can’t be dragged down by a pathetic, worthless—”
She put her hand out and pushed me away. Only when I felt myself swinging back against the wall did I realize she had trapped me in the mirror. I panicked, feeling the mirror world close in on me. But I didn’t ask her for help, and I wouldn’t, never again. Somewhere deep inside, I still had some pride.
Her vanity was her undoing. She got all made up to go out, but she just had to check every detail of her makeup before she put on her glamorous gown. Flicking on the mirror light, she turned the magnifying side up towards her face. Maybe she didn’t realize I’d still be there—and stronger by a factor of 20x.
I punched my fist through and gouged her eye. She reached for me, too. Remorselessly, our fingers dug around the gelatinous bulb, nails piercing the thin skin of the eyelid, fingertips plunging, grasping tough fibrous muscles, bathing in the rich, thick gore spurting everywhere. Screaming and writhing, we were locked together in the pain and the power of our struggle. We both knew it would go on and on and never stop until, at last, ripping the optic nerve, we drew the eyeball forth in triumph.
It was over, and she had retreated somewhere. After the throat tearing noise, the stillness rang in my ears. Holding her eyeball tenderly, I got out of bed and went over to the full length mirror. She was lurking in there, but she didn’t look like a movie star anymore. Sludgy, dark blood flowed slowly from her empty eye socket. She was skin and bones. Her stringy hair was a mess, and she had lost her robe. She was wearing a workout tank and yoga pants that hung off her in bloody, baggy folds. I held up her eyeball, and she held up mine in a terrible pact. She could never look down on me again. We were equals.
“We can both be strong now,” I told her. “Pain is beauty.”