I've never felt pretty, not one day in my life. Well, there was one day. It was a few months before I became engaged to you. We were eating burgers in your car and I was wearing a yellow dress that I actually kind of hated, but my mother made me wear it. "Boys want their girls to at least try to look pretty," my mother said. "You could at least try." I was 21 and living at home still, going to school, and my mother was nearly frantic to get me married off. When I started dating you, her eyes started dancing with wedding dresses and linen napkins and matching silverware.
The truth was that I wasn't so sure about you then, and I don't think I ever told you that. But that day in your car I had made some joke, and you laughed a genuine laugh, and I felt a warm glow in the center of my being. And I felt my whole body kind of turn without physically doing so. I was a flower leaning into the sun, and I turned my face up, and you leaned down in all sudden seriousness, and I thought we would kiss. But just as our lips were nearly touching and I felt with surprise that my heart had started a sort of frenzied rhythm, you whispered, "You've got ketchup on the corner of your lip." My hand flew up in surprise and touched my mouth. Ketchup. Of course. I couldn't be lovely and elegant if I tried.
But your eyes were kind as you reached for a napkin and wiped the smudge of ketchup. I wiped my fingers absently on my yellow dress and a second later realized I'd left a smear of red. "Shoot," I muttered. "I'm such a mess."
And you, my kind husband, stopped me from rubbing at the red stain and leaned down and then you did kiss me. It was a long, sweet kiss, one hand in my tousled hair, a natural golden color then, and your other hand just to the side of my thigh. And when you pulled away every cell in my body leaped toward you, shouting, "Come back!" And you did come back, for another, more brief kiss. My skin was singing.
"You're not a mess," you said with a grin. "I love you."
Love. There it was. And before I could even think it through, I said it back. "I love you, too," I said, and the joy flooded your face as you squeezed my hand. "Good," you said. "It's good to have the love of the most beautiful woman in the world."
In that moment, I knew it so certainly. You were right. I was the most beautiful woman in the world.
I'm sad to say I spent the rest of my life chasing that feeling and I never quite found it. It wasn't that you weren't sweet and loving, you certainly were, but I never again felt a moment blossom quite the way that one did. A moment that reached into my core and changed me into something more than I figured I was. Even on our wedding day, standing there in that huge, elaborate white dress, my hair done up just so. You smiled with all the warmth to be found in the world, but it all felt so rote. So routine. This is just another part of my life was actually a thought in my head as I walked down the aisle. This is not to say I was unhappy. I was -- I felt pleased, mostly. Like it was the right thing. I made a good choice was the other thought I had, standing next to my new husband.
We had a good long time together. We went through the whole thing: the jobs, the houses, the cars, the kids. Our lives were settled and the kids were off to college and then we went through the last thing a couple like us will go through: you clutched at your heart after breakfast one morning, your plate of half-eaten toast clattering to the floor. Right before my eyes you fell to the ground and gasped and gasped and as I ran frantically for the phone you stopped gasping, and I wasn't even at your side when your eyes stopped seeing.
This wasn't a thought I had then -- of course it wasn't -- I was too stuck in time, lurching from second to second as I struggled with what my life was without a Jim in it -- but the thought was that beautiful was dead, too. And the things that added up to joy for me now added up to nothing.
I resigned myself to a life without beauty then. Not outside of me and certainly not in me. In my eyes everything looked gray and flat and endless. Our children clucked at me over the phone. "Mom, I'm worried about you," said Jack. Amanda sent care packages, things she knew I loved: honey butter and shortbread cookies and citrus hand cream and a silk scarf in brilliant colors and music so lovely you could weep -- but I didn't feel any of it, not even that little zing of the pleasure you get when you possess a thing of great beauty. Nothing.
Until I had the dream. It was the oddest dream, and I kept having it. Night after night. You and I were on a boat in the middle of a blue sea that glinted under a sun that was all gentle warmth and a benevolent yellow. There was a breeze that felt like blessings through my hair and everything was so silent. Just the occasional call of a seagull and the soft lapping of waves rising and collapsing in the gentle tug of the wind. And suddenly in the dream I knew: you were about to die. But I didn't feel sad or scared, only full of light and joy, because we were both ready. You smiled at me and I smiled at you and then -- and this is the weird part -- you turned into a goldfish. A beautiful orange goldfish with rainbow-tinted fins. You laid there in the boat, thrashing and gasping for air, and with a start I knew what I had to do. I picked you up in my hands, and kissed you, and sent you to the sea. And you were gone.
And that is when I always wake up.
It was the first beauty I've seen since you died. And I got to see it every night.
This dream started invading my days, Jim. I started daydreaming about those waves and that wind and that sun and your rainbow fins glinting as you swam away from me. This kept happening and happening until one day I was at the mall shopping for Amanda's birthday present, and I passed by the most incredible skirt. It wasn't meant for someone my age; music was pumping and blaring through the store entrance and the lighting was dramatic and the clothes were youthful and multi-colored and frenetic, almost. But this skirt.
The skirt was a silent bloom in the middle of all that color, white and billowing with what looked to be incredibly soft material. That material was sprinkled sparsely with silver sequins, just enough to catch the light in such a lovely way. It hit the tall, skinny mannequin at upper-thigh, so I knew it would be way too short on me. But I needed this skirt then. I needed it like the body needs water. My whole self turned to it just like I turned to you that day in the car.
Is it sad that my first glimpse of beauty came from something like a skirt, and not, say, light sliding down through a canopy of green leaves? Oh, but it just didn't matter. This was my light through a canopy of leaves, and I had to have it. This skirt would change me, I felt sure. This skirt would make me feel beautiful again.
When I walked into the store I saw a giant mural on a far wall, featuring models wearing clothes from the store. These young, beautiful men and women were decorated so perfectly, walking down a city street. They all looked like best friends, and in the middle of the group was my skirt. Or more precisely, it was my skirt on a model with a cascade of blond hair. She was wearing that skirt, white tights, white saddle shoes, and a white blazer. She was riding a white bike and the skirt was billowing out and her hair was flying and her face was light with the joy of living.
A prickling awareness came over me then, a tingling, coming-alive kind of feeling. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I felt the most incredible surge of longing for everything in that mural. Even though I knew on some level that it wasn't a real moment, I wanted it to be mine. If I could live in that mural, even for just a moment, I felt like my heart would know beauty again.
So I bought that skirt without even trying it on, as well as the blazer and the tights and the shoes. I was almost afraid to look the young cashier in the eye because I was so embarrassed. But that skirt! It nestled so neatly into my bag with a silent woosh, and billowed out the sides of the bag just a little, and I carried it with a reverent kind of pride as I walked through the mall and out to the car without even getting a present for Amanda.
From there I went straight to a nearby bicycle shop and bought a white bike. I got home and spent the rest of the evening assembling, into the wee hours of the morning. I used your tools, Jim, and I felt so near you right then, holding the red handle of the screwdriver you'd used so often on odd jobs around the house. Opening the toolbox I inhaled the smell of you, that oddly pleasant grease smell. You. You, you, you, inhaled right inside my pores.
And so when the morning dawned the first and only thing I wanted to do was put on that outfit, that gorgeous outfit from the mural, and jump on that bike and ride it down the street of our neighborhood.
Getting dressed felt like something I'd never done before. It felt like a performance or like I imagine a great artist would feel when he'd created something amazing. There was a settling in my chest, a firm weight of certainty. I felt whole, Jim. I know it sounds stupid. But pulling that skirt up over my legs and feeling it fluff around thighs was a magical act. It filled me up and made me whole again. I knew I didn't look like the girl in the mural. I knew I was too old for this skirt. But at the same time I really wasn't because beauty found me right then. I was the living, breathing embodiment of beauty. I was the space between your hand and my thigh that day in the car; I was the ketchup on my dress and the startled O of my mouth when you said "I love you."
I love you. I got on that bike and heard you say the words in my head. You're not a mess, you'd said. And my heart was turning toward you the whole while, becoming something else, becoming yours. Beauty belonged to you. To you, in your hands, and you gave it to me just then, in that magical moment that reached inside of me and yanked me inside out in the most lovely, lovely way. I was balancing on the bike and waiting for another one of those moments. I was finally open and ready for it, ready to feel beautiful again. The love of the most beautiful woman in the world, you'd said, and just then my hair lifted in the wind and I pedaled, your voice in my ear and your hand in my hair, and it was true then, again.