The receptionist at the compound pharmacy I visit often was a person who made me stare the first time, a woman who looked just as I had always wished that I did.
Alanna had gorgeous, reddish-roan hair with naturally lush curls, the kind I always wanted instead of the lank and luster-less brown hair I got. (There was hope in the early days, when I had hair the color of newly hatched chicks, but as I grew taller, my hair grew darker.)
She had large, luminous eyes, unlike the tiny blue ones that seem inlaid in my face like the raisins on a gingerbread man, pushed in by thumbs eager to get a tray into the oven. Alanna’s were a mesmerizing shade of jade, color-flecked with brown in a way that made them seem like those geode rocks in mountain tourist traps, cracked in half to reveal their multi-faceted crystal sparkle.
Her skin was covered in adorable freckles instead of the rashy, pasty dermatological covering I wound up with, itchy and filled with blood-red pinprick spots from an as-yet undiagnosed autoimmune condition.
She smiled to greet me as I surreptitiously reached down to scratch the rash on my calves, and I was filled with the kind of envy other women have for Beyoncé or Selena Gomez or Priyanka Chopra or supermodels in string bikinis. Even her name was perfect—all pleasure and vowels that rolled around in my mouth. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever met in real life.
My sporadic visits gave me a view of Alanna’s evolution into her own version of beauty. First, it was the bright red facial skin I couldn’t help but notice when I entered the waiting area. A skin peel, she explained happily. Her dermatologist had told Alanna that with enough peels, her freckles would fade so as to become practically unnoticeable. I tried to smile as I signed for my prescriptions with the pen that hundreds of hands had touched.
I visualized the skin “imperfections” of my loved ones: the keloid scar on my wife’s throat that reminds me how lucky I am that a possible medical diagnosis was wrong; the spots on my mother’s hands (the ones she says make her look old) that are part of the gentle hands that have hugged me for years and intertwine with mine when we walk together these days; the strawberry birthmark my sister once had on her shoulder—gone now, but marking her invisibly as the precious human she is. My skin, too, reflects my travels through life (including a bout with chickenpox), and while I would love to lose the current rash, I will gladly keep the rest as a reminder of who I am and who I used to be.
Her hair shaded progressively darker until Alanna had a mane of glossy dark chocolate, without a trace of the red that had made it so irresistible to me. Several weeks later I walked in to see that Alanna had started going to the hairdryer blow out places that are now so popular—her gorgeous curls now in straight lines, lacquered in place as if with corset stays.
Then it was the tinted contacts, in a violet color that no doubt looked ravishing on Elizabeth Taylor, but looked so wrong on the green-eyed receptionist. At least she still had her freckles. They were somewhat faded, but still quite visible. I sighed in relief. The skin peels must have been too painful or too expensive. Thank goodness.
At my last visit, Alanna’s deep brown, straightened hair had been chopped off into something a magazine must have proclaimed to be “short and chic.” She sat with the same smile, but with fake hair and fake eyes, and I realized her freckles were gone. They marked her neck and cleavage and arms and hands in the array I loved, but they had been erased from her face, which was the color of printer paper.
I cried out inside. For her at 40, when she has grown into herself as a woman and realizes, as all women do, what beauty they had but never saw at the time. For her at 70, when she realizes she has lived more than half her life in the wrong skin. For her mother, who gave birth to a baby who fought so hard to change her looks, the looks her mother must have loved, the looks inherited from generations before her. For her sisters, whom she said looked “just like her,” who would never again see themselves reflected in her face. And for her future children, who may one day emerge looking as Alanna once did. Children who, as they grow, will be unable to find themselves in her.
Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, and an unwieldy herb garden. A Pushcart nominee, her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Bacopa, Entropy, Fourth & Sycamore, The Quotable, Rabbit, Touch, and other great places for readers and writers. Find her at http://www.sgbigham.com.