I wasn’t allowed to go out of our home in sweat pants, but I did once when Rich was sick, to the corner 7-Eleven. He wanted ice cream. I remember bounding in the front door with the brown paper bag containing two pints of Ben and Jerry’s, one for him and one for me, and feeling “the look” before I saw it. It was a look only he could deliver, and only I could receive. I can still feel how it crippled me on the inside, brought me down and beat me beneath the dirt under our home’s foundation. Always shocking and with no consistent pattern, anticipating “the look” made me feel like a clumsy dancer in a minefield. It was typically followed by verbal firestorm and ended with my softest conceding, “Honey you are right. I need to always look my best, even when I am not with you. I’m so sorry I embarrassed you. I knew better. What I was thinking.” Total and complete submission was the only way to bring my real husband back, the one I loved, believed in and wanted to grow old with.
We lived in a little house on the corner of South Holly and Monroe in Medford, Oregon. Just like our marriage that house had been through a lot, but with painstaking care we scrapped the old paint, sanded, and applied new. We painted the old wood siding a creamy oatmeal-ish tone, and for the trim around the windows and for the front door, we chose a deep burgundy. It was like adding the perfect of lipstick to a china doll face.
Most couples in their early twenties didn’t own a home, drive two new cars, and have thousands saved for a rainy day. YUPPIE was an acronym used in the 1980’s for Young Urban Professionals, usually just out of college with high paying jobs. We couldn’t say we were YUPPIES, but I had finished Beauty College and worked in a high-end salon. With no college behind him, Rich went from apprentice funeral director to top regional funeral insurance salesman in two and a half years. His commissions climbed to nearly $80,000, and he was only twenty-three. He liked to call us DINKS: Double Income No Kids. Oh, I wanted a baby, but he didn’t, and he made sure every morning I took my pill. He didn’t need to keep asking me every day, because I would have never dared not take it; but he did ask, and I know now it was just another way to keep me under his control.
I have always been a large girl, the tallest of both sexes in my school classes from kindergarten until probably the ninth grade. My mother is a petite 5’2”, and her mother was only 4’11”. By the time I was twelve years old I towered over both of them at 5’8”. My hands grew like every other part of me, spanning exactly nine inches from the tip of my pinky to the top of my thumb. With my long limbs and size twelve shoes I must have looked like a Neanderthal’s daughter dragging her knuckles across the ground.
I wasn’t aware of how others perceived me until the seventh grade. Out of the blue Trudie Magnuson called me an ass for looking at her during our warm-up stretches at the beginning of P.E. class. Trudie’s blond hair fell in soft layers, flowing as she moved. Her pale blue eyes and high cheeks were complimented by a little make-up. She was naturally thin and her skin was Coppertone tan. She had straight white teeth, and dimples that flattered the upturned corners of her mouth, an effect that made her appear to be smiling, even when she wasn’t.
As I looked away from Trudie my face burned, beginning at my lower neck, until the stinging reached the rims of my eyelids. I pretended to be stretching my leg muscles as I sat on the gymnasium floor, just a few feet from Trudie. But really, touching my outstretched toes gave me a reason to bury my head into the tops of my knees and let the tears run down. That day Trudie taught me my place and hers. She, so beautiful, would never be my friend; and I, an ass, would never advance to her high caste.
Seventh grade was the year of the Bee Gees, Mork and Mindy, Grease, and Disco. I learned indirectly about bullying, drugs, and French kissing. My innocence peeled away one layer at a time. Something happened the summer after seventh grade that changed me. It wasn’t an event or anything marking time, but a gradual transformation, like a butterfly emerging from her chrysalis.
In the bathroom mirror, the one that still hangs in my parent’s home today, I examined the familiar dark spec on the edge of my iris. Mom always said the spot meant something was not right with my digestive system. My otherwise clear denim-blue eyes looked back at me. Not my mother’s eyes; I didn’t know who’s they were. Originals, I guessed. I picked up my sister’s hand mirror to view myself from the side. Oh. I tilted my head forward and then back again. I had never seen my own profile before this. My nose was steep and strong. It wasn’t turned up and cute like Trudie’s, but it was defined. It looked good on my face and I decided for the first time I had something. Something I liked about myself.
I pulled back, and still using the hand mirror I turned around and examined the back of me, while running my fingers through my long, stringy, dirty-blonde hair. I set the hand mirror aside and faced the large mirror again. With a yellow plastic comb, I tried parting my hair down the center between the cowlick at my crown and my bangs in the front. This was the style in 1978, a center part in the hair and “feathered” on both sides of the face, but I couldn’t get my bangs to feather even on a good hair day. I continued with the comb and split my bangs, carefully trying again. My heavy uni-brow (which wasn’t yet a word in 1978) accentuated my low forehead. With my bangs parted in the middle and plastered down, I decided I looked like a grumpy old man. There was nothing I could do to fix my forehead, nothing I could do to make my bangs look like Trudie’s. I gave up and gathered all my hair into a mock up-do. Standing further back now, I smiled and set one shoulder back, and bobbed the other up and down, as if I were having a conversation with Cody Winn or John Clark. I had never had a real conversation with either, but John Clark let me take his picture with my Kodak camera at the bus stop. At least he knew I was alive. I had his picture laminated and carried it in my wallet.
I relaxed, slumped, and faced my reflection. Nothing seemed terribly out of proportion. My body was just like the Trudie’s really, except mine was, well, not skinny, not tan, and I had no make-up. I picked up the hand mirror again and reassured myself that all was not lost. I did have one interesting feature: my nose.
On a sunny Sunday, after church and dinner and naps, Rich and I stretched like lazy cats on our big bed, listening to the kids play downstairs. It was a hot day for May, and little box fan was propped up in the window humming, muting the chatter of little voices arguing now over whose turn it was to push the dolly in the toy stroller. Rich and I talked about death, and what each of us would do in the event of the other’s passing – someday, far, far in the future, of course. Lying around and talking, there was no tension. I craved these rare kinds of days with him, and when one would come out of nowhere, I’d think to myself, finally, things are good between us. Finally.
“Honey,” I said, “if I became disfigured, burned from head to toe, would you still be able to love me?”
He didn’t even have to think about it.
The summer after seventh grade I asked my mom to cut my hair shoulder length and into layers, and to give me a perm. I began washing my hair every morning, blowing it dry. Big hot electric curlers smoothed the frizziness of my perm into stiff curls that sat at attention on the top of my head. When I took a wide brush to them, carefully drawing it straight back from my forehead, up and over my scalp, perfect layers would descend over one another into beautiful feathering.
It took some time for me to build the courage to ask my mom if I could wear make-up. I was sure she would say no, but she surprised me and said yes. Having studied Seventeen Magazine, and read the directions on the makeup labels, I applied a new face for myself, being careful not to use too much. My new Cover Girl liquid foundation smelled like combination of an old leather shoe and a grapefruit. It felt thick on my face, but all the values of my peachy flesh blended, and softened my ruddy skin. I batted my eyelashes, feeling the heaviness of the mascara. This would take some getting used to. I rolled my lips together to smooth the lip gloss – the finishing touch. I liked it. I hoped everyone would notice, but not too much. I was more like Trudie now, and we even had friends in common. Thinking of Trudie was a mistake. It reminded me that underneath it all: the big hair, the mascara and the lip-gloss, I was still homely, and I still knew my place. Trudie would always be more popular, have the perfect body, and she would always have a trail of boys following her.
I was almost 16 when I met Rich, and he was 18. He swaggered into Ferron Merc where I was a cashier, hoping for a job, and was hired as the store’s butcher. It was like he had just walked out of a Hollywood movie set and into my life. His frame was tall and thick and he towered over me. I imagined his arms would wrap nicely around my waist, making me feel petite, even though I was not. His milk chocolate eyes and thick determined eyebrows melted me when those on-purpose/not-on-purpose looks between us were first exchanged. His nose, his smile, and his shiny brown locks – everything about him – “perfect.” He was an Adonis. I couldn’t believe my luck, that out of all the girls he could have easily had he liked me. Like a thousand wild horses stampeding, our chemistry ignited, and it wasn’t long before I knew I wanted to marry him.
With Rich, I felt protected, loved, and small. Yes indeed, I was a lucky girl because he wanted to marry me, too. He was going to take me places, and he would no doubt be successful with his confident red personality. Being from the city, he was eager to get me out of Ferron to show me what life was like in the real world. I was pale, moldable clay, ready to be twisted and formed into something truly beautiful for him. We married September 5, 1984, eighty-nine days after I graduated from high school, and 50 days before my 18th birthday.
In our cute little house on the corner of Holly and Monroe, I zipped my black evening dress, and slipped into my black pumps. I tried to replicate a Gibson-girl up-do, and I thought it looked good enough, considering I had done it by myself. Rich was waiting for me in the living room, already on edge. This was not a good start for the evening. I coached myself inside my head: Don’t be stupid and set him off. Stepping nervously into the living room, I announced I was ready to go. Looking me up and down, he swore and said, “Like that?!” Then he shook his head, looked down, and coughed out, “Haven’t you forgotten something?” clearly annoyed. I turned around to face the full-length mirror in the hall. Confused, I felt my hair, my bracelet, my chandelier earrings, and my rhinestone necklace.
“I’m wearing makeup.”
“Well try again. And do something different with that ridiculous hairdo.” He swore at me, called me a name, and at the same time threw his keys violently at the floor, demonstrating his irritation. I could hear him still cursing at me from the bathroom. With a tissue I wiped the Carnation Pink from my lips and replaced it with the darker burgundy he liked so much. It was a stark contrast to my pale, powdered face.
I could not see him from the bathroom, but he knew I could hear, “You look like a man without makeup.” He spat the words out like sharp knives. “Did I ever tell you that, Baby? You look just like a ****ing guy.”
I rarely think about the events that shaped my self-worth in the seventh grade. A few months ago, however, a little red notification, a number one, appeared over the friends icon on my Facebook wall. Trudie Magnuson Cox wanted to be Facebook friends with me. I didn’t hesitate to accept, and I was delighted to learn Trudie is just as much of a doll today as she was in junior high. Still, she graces a dimpled smile. She’s still thin, and still lovely. She grew to be beautiful on the inside as well. I smiled thinking back on the days when I thought friends and the flowy hair were all that mattered.
I don’t think much about my fourteen year to marriage to Rich either. The violence, the belittling, the controlling, the anger, the fighting, the lying, the addictions, the abuse, and the death threats are all safely tucked away in my past.
What I do often think about is my life now and my future. I enjoy watching it unfold with all its bumps and twisty turns. I cannot pinpoint when it happened or how, but some time between the divorce and the present, I became aware of my own beauty. Perhaps it was that man on the street, the one who called me pretty on a day when I felt especially plain, that started it. Maybe it came from raising my children, and teaching my own daughter that beauty isn’t about make-up or being skinny.
I’m certain Keith has had more to do with the confidence I carry than he would ever admit. He has shown me more tenderness, more kindness, more patience, and more love than I ever thought I was worthy of. I would have been satisfied just to never hear him swear at me, or raise his voice or a hand at me. But he has exceeded my expectations, never criticizing, never unkind, and always, always putting my needs before his own. He loved me without reserve, even when I gained 50 pounds, even without make-up, and even when I was wrong.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon we were making the long drive from Green River, Wyoming to our Idaho home. I had my (now) size thirteen bare feet propped up on the dashboard, and he was chewing on sunflower seeds to keep awake. I asked him, “What if I my face and my body were burned beyond recognition? Would you still love me?”
Without a thought he said, “Of course!”
If I could have one wish granted, it would be to go back in time and have a visit with myself in 1978. I’d tell the twelve year old me that she is competent and beautiful, no matter what anyone else says, and to never forget that. I’d hold her close for a few minutes, and she’d feel very uncomfortable, because no one ever hugged her like that before. Then I’d kiss her pretty cheeks and try to explain her wonderful nature, her talents, and all the glorious miracles she had in store.
But I know her well, and I know how she would respond. I am fairly certain, after seeing me in the flesh, she would not believe me. She would think I was a silly dream, and forget every word I said.