Read Gay Haubner’s serialized memoir, North Country Girl.
I’m a woman, as the French say, d’une certaine age, and I battle that certain age with face creams that make more promises than my cheating, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, unrelenting exercise routines which feel like “Groundhog Day” all over again, minus the Buddhism, and a superfluity of cosmetics, including the Debbie Harry smudgy black eyeliner I insist will never go out of style. (Note to undertaker.) None of this is really working, so the phrase “lipstick on a pig” keeps rattling around my mind like a marble. It’s a sexist expression, right? You would never put lipstick on a male pig. That would just be weird.
I hope it’s not lipstick on a pig trying to stay flexible enough to put on my own shoes, suffering through yoga classes where my teacher insists that the pain in my knees is due to a psychic blockage and not to the fact that the cartilage there has abandoned me, absconding with my eyebrows and my waistline.
Or as Mrs. Freud may have said, sometimes a lipstick is just a lipstick. I don’t leave the house without a bright red slash on my mouth, hoping it will distract from whatever the hell is going on with my neck.
I try to counter all the bad things I do to my body (smoke pot, guzzle white wine, eat cookies) with good things (smoke pot, bike everywhere, down liters of the tasteless Costa Rican water). I watch as bits and pieces of myself falter and disappoint me anyway, like ungrateful children.
Mostly I mourn my looks. They were a fairy godmother’s gift, something I wished for more fervently than a pony. But outer beauty, the kind that counts, is as lasting as Cinderella’s gown and coach, only you never know when the clock is going to strike twelve and there you are, surrounded by rodents and vegetables.
I was a remarkably homely child; the eyeglasses and haircuts that were foisted on me did not improve the situation, and the adults in my life were not helpful. “Why I never saw such knobby knees!” exclaimed my grandmother, glancing up from digging carrots. “You certainly didn’t get those from my side of the family.”
“You can’t wear yellow, it makes you look jaundiced,” proclaimed my mother. (Yellow was my favorite color.) When my father (who never took me to do anything other than clean and pull my teeth) was supposed to drive me to the Lakeside Beauty Salon for my back-to-school scalping, he decided he could do a better job himself, using the first thing he found in the junk drawer, a pair of pinking shears.
Good looks were girls’ only currency when I was growing up in the small, cold Minnesota town of Duluth. Being smart in school was worth zero social status points, and often led to accusations of brown-nosing just because I spent the entire school day frantically waving my right arm in the air while the teacher sighed, “Yes, Gay. Anyone else know the answer?” Where would my smarts get me anyway? The most famous women of the time — Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot — were famous for their beauty and ability to parrot words other people had written for them. Jackie Kennedy was best known for being decorative, with her smart clothes and elegantly redone White House rooms. It wouldn’t be until high school that I learned of Madame Curie, Emily Dickinson, the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, and these role models were problematic: death from radiation poisoning, agoraphobic spinster, and forced to wear a fake beard. My highest aspiration was to be a stewardess for Braniff, jetting off to exotic locales in a fire engine red mini-skirted uniform, a dream that was squashed when I discovered that my eyeglasses automatically disqualified me from serving highballs at 30,000 feet.
Girls’ athletics? Ha! The only team sport I was ever invited to participate in was water ballet, my knees barely visible in the green, over-chlorinated Northland Country Club pool, my jagged pixie cut hidden under a rubber bathing cap, tightly strapped beneath my chin. No one rooted for the water ballet team; the audience for our aquatics was composed of bored moms trying to figure out which of the white capped, black swim-suited girls were theirs, shivering little kids eager for us to finish up so they could get back in the pool, and drunk golfers making highly inappropriate remarks, leering over from the veranda of Northland’s stately clubhouse. None of this led to increased confidence or self-esteem.
Northland Country Club was also the setting for the official ranking of fifteen-year-old girls, the agonizing rite of Cotillion, a fancy name for supposedly fancy ballroom dance lessons. The two old biddies who had been teaching gilded youth the waltz and the cha-cha since the days of the Kaiser were incapable of figuring out a way of pairing couples up other then letting the boys choose. At the warble of “Gentlemen, select your partners,” there was a stampede in the direction of the prettiest girls; when the dust settled there I’d be alone on the bench, doomed to be led around the dance floor by one of the instructors, staring into her gigantic lavender-scented bosom and stepping on her toes.
My mother, the former Miss Snow Queen, Miss Aberdeen, Miss South Dakota, and Miss Upper Midwest, a woman born to wear a sash and tiara, despaired. Her ideal daughter would have been Shirley Temple, talented, outgoing and adorable, not the shy, myopic, knobby-kneed bookworm reading on the couch, dressed in mismatched clothes, hair uncombed. In junior high, pixie cuts thankfully passed out of fashion and I grew my mouse brown hair to my shoulders, brushing it when absolutely necessary.
Mom forced a set of Norelco hot rollers on me in the hope I would turn my bird’s nest into a beehive or anything resembling a hairdo. (Mom had no need of such a contraption, thanks to her twice-weekly shampoos and sets at Lakeside Beauty Salon.) Inspired by the swinging hairstyles of the Shindig! dancers on Channel 6, I tried to use the curlers, which looked like miniature spiky torture devices, something that would be rolled over a prisoner stretched out on the rack. I managed to get two curlers in my hair before burning my fingers and giving it up, only to find that those bristly rods were so entangled in my hair that I had to cut them out with nail scissors, leaving two shorn patches above my forehead, a punk precursor. (Ever since, my hair and I have an agreement: I leave it alone, and it leaves me alone.)
Then 1968 showed up, tripping its way north to the high latitudes of my small town and it was farewell to pageboys and updos, penny loafers, face powder and rouge, kilt skirts held together with gigantic safety pins, Gant shirts, garter belts and nylons, plucked eyebrows, and mohair sweaters. “Aren’t you going to put on some make-up?” yelled my mom as I headed off supposedly to a school dance, in actuality to sit in a car in the parking lot, passing a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, squashed in with eight of my best friends and looking for boys.
At 16 I traded my coke-bottle glasses for tinted contacts that turned my eyes sea green, and left to its own devices my hair grew thick and shiny, although it never reached the proportions I dreamt of: long enough to sit on. I forced my unhappy mom to return the White Stag, Ship ‘n Shore, Gay Gibson, and Bobbie Brooks jumpers and cardigans and skirts to The Glass Block and Maurice’s Dress Shoppe and went full-tilt hippie in bell bottom Levi’s and gauzy Indian shirts. Around my neck I draped a length of love beads I found at the Woolworth’s jewelry counter, dropped down among the clip-on earrings and gold-plated circle pins. I gazed in the mirror and thought “Who is that?”
A billion years later, I am again looking in the mirror at a stranger; that can’t possibly be my nose, my breasts. Even my ears are unfamiliar. It’s not quite as bad as waking up a cockroach but every morning there is that twinge of despair: it’s gonna be worse tomorrow.
I’m losing my looks to the point of being invisible. A few months ago, I was supposed to meet my husband at a local beach bar. Because we are so bad at making plans —“Noon? Yes. No. One. No, noon is fine. Where are we meeting again?” — my husband showed up fifteen minutes after I had polished off my second beer, gave up waiting for him, and biked home. He asked the bartender, “Was there a woman here just a while ago?”
“A woman? I don’t remember seeing anyone.”
“Blonde? Drank Coronas with lime? Had a dog with her?”
“Nope, didn’t see her.”
I was the only person at the bar.
My friends confirm that age has bestowed on us the cloak of invisibility. We should turn criminal; we could pull off heists, because who would notice us plucking paintings from the wall of an art gallery? What witness could give a reliable description of the older woman who dashed out the door of Tiffany’s, diamond bracelet on her wrist?
This is Groundhog Day-ish too, a turn of the dharma wheel, as I was every bit as unseen during my early teens. I was a dull little moon, visible only in the reflected glow of a star, a prettier girl, or even better, one with bigger breasts. I was desperate for a boy to glance my way and ask me about anything other than math answers.
I’ve gone through enough men to not give a crap about male attention anymore. The guys I talk to the most, my husband and sons, seem oblivious to my changed appearance; I am the home they have lived in so long they don’t notice that it’s falling apart. My sons might comment if I grew a second nose or ballooned up to 300 pounds, which may happen: I have told them if ever I am given a diagnosis of six months to live I plan on eating everything not nailed down, with an emphasis on donuts and Humboldt Fog cheese.
So why do I care that the only eyes that look at me now with longing belong to my dogs, anticipating their next meal? I’m not trolling for a lover, or weighing candidates for a second husband. I’m not even that concerned with attracting my own husband’s attention, if by some miracle he ever looks up from his fantasy baseball/football/curling/women’s hockey leagues.
I’m willing to entertain other theories for my obsession, including “silly old woman,” but I suspect that my wretched attempts to hold on to my looks are for that plain and desperate child who was me, a lonely girl conjuring up fantasies where Napoleon Solo or Peter Noone recognizes my true beauty, wraps me in his arms, and spirits me away. If time is that elastic loop quantum physics insists on, maybe my thoughts can boomerang back to the night of the ninth grade dance, where I was Cinderella’s stepsister, soignée yet as unwanted as Ivanka, left holding up the wall watching everyone else have a good time, a memory I would pay to have erased from my data bank. I’d hover over that crying girl, curled up in bed like a peeled shrimp, and whisper in my own ear like a fairy godmother: “Your wish shall be granted.”
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