My mother liked to style her hair based on the white magazines, Vogue, Cosmo, the nice ones that she had to get a special subscription for, 5.00 dollars every month and delivered straight to our front door. The beautiful white model, carefully protected from the mud and dirt and grime of nature. The mailman made sure to hand it directly to our mother, the pages reeking of fragrant perfume. The same magazine lay on the counter, the shiny tresses of the women on the cover creased over and over again as my mother brought them to the salon to show to her stylist. She likes to do the same ones on us. Sometimes I liked to look at the magazines, at the beautiful women on the cover. I studied the slopes of their noses, and how the light reflected off of the shine in their eyes. After looking at the magazine, I always looked in the mirror, rubbing my fingers across my dark skin, comparing my features to theirs, my wide nose, dark almost dull eyes. Sometimes I thought about hanging the magazine on my mirror, framing myself and the entirety of what I should become. Sometimes in those moments of pondering, I would catch my sister glancing at me as I did this from across the room. Something lingered in her eyes, what exactly, I could not tell.
Tonight was a big night, so my mother told us, where all of her coworkers and superiors would be present. Something about her coworkers, beautiful and pale, was innately disquieting. Maybe it was their smiles, a little too wide to be normal. Maybe it was their clothing, always looking like they were pulled off a rack, beautiful, but lifeless. Or maybe it was their smell. The stiflingly sweet aromas, not comforting like my grandmother’s sweetbread, or rich like the spices in the candied yams that my mother made for dinner. But sweet, overpowering, covering something that lurked just beneath the surface. Something ugly, something —
Or maybe I was just overreacting. My mother loved them. Loved their smiles, their clothes, their hair. She especially loved the way they treated her when she tried to look like them. It was a study, my grandmother told me. To look at them not how we look at them but how they look at each other. Neither me nor my sister were entirely sure what that meant at the time. But maybe we get it now. The women with bigger, shinier necklaces, or silkier hair, or stronger perfume were heralded. They paraded themselves like shiny trophies hiding the truth. Something about that was appealing to my mother. She knew how they acted, around women who looked like herself, scoffing at the ones they saw on street corners, or in the grocery stores where they weren’t used to shopping. My mother did everything to not be treated like that.
To prepare: We burned and dyed and drowned all of which constituted us as beautiful to fit what made them beautiful. The truth, we, died beneath the layers of what they thought was pretty. My mother, flaunting in her gown, usually fit for someone of pale complexions, was decorated much like an ornament, yet was an eye among them. They praised her dress, her silky strands, comparing them much to their own, the sweet, sensual perfume masking what festered, grew underneath with each of their words.
Come over here, she mouthed to my sister and I, cheeks pulled up gauntly into a smile. In our polished leather shoes, we shuffled, awkwardly, to hide behind our mother. With our approach their coos became louder. As I glanced over at my sister, I knew their words were indiscernible to her. Their flushed red faces gawked as they fawned over us, pinching our cheeks and pulling at our hair. In the same way as our mother, they complimented us, complimented her, for being created in their image. Their words of adoration echoed through my ears, seizing my heart and soul. I became cognizant, remembering the small tear in my tights and the straight-ironed coil that had fallen out of my hair. My back straightened, covering for these flaws as my own cheeks warmed in response to their attention. The shift in my energy was palpable to those around me, my mother’s hand becoming a warmer presence on my shoulder. I stepped out into the white light of the room, opening myself to them, but knowing what I lacked. My sister hid, still, covering herself in the shadow of my mother.
I could understand my mother. Understand her love for them, wanting to be like them, wanting to be them. I remember her telling me of the first day she walked into work, as poised and refined as one of those ancient statues, they first gawked, then praised her. Revelled in her. My mother spent most of the month’s rent to buy the clothes she wore to work that day, and yet, there was not a shot of regret in her eyes. We were upset in the following weeks, as there was barely enough money to buy the necessities. My sister cried herself to sleep almost every night.
But I understood her. I wanted their dresses, and their hair, and their smiles, and their perfume. Most importantly, I wanted their attention. Under their gaze, I died, but I grew. I grew from the parts of myself that I wanted to throw away. I grew for them.
I looked over to my sister, my cheeks encased in a rosy grin. Her face startled me, much unlike those that were around us. Much unlike those that reflected beauty and poise. Much unlike those whom I wanted to be. Looking at my sister, her almost lifeless eyes a grim mirror of my own. I could now recognize what I was seeing in her eyes. It was her expression, the contempt, the anguish, most importantly, the horror that hid behind her dull eyes, it was all directed towards me.