Beauty: perhaps the most common imposter of love
The top shelf of the closet was high, so I used a stool to reach its contents. An old duvet took up most of the space, like a big marshmallow bolder blocking the entrance of a cave. I slipped my hand underneath the duvet, going elbow deep into the shelf. My fingers felt the hard shell of the shoebox and I pulled it out; the thing I was looking for was inside.
I had always hoped a day would come when I would be happy enough with Alana to throw it away. But that day never came.
Alana was on vacation with her mother in Marbella. It was nice having the house to myself. The distance allowed me to find her mildly enchanting again. I didn’t have to listen to her laugh at her own inane jokes, eat tiny overpriced dishes at soulless restaurants with white table cloths, watch her roll her eyes at me when I say something she disagrees with, or change out of my favourite grey tee and wear a starched collared shirt because she wants us to look smart. “I am smart and I have the bank account to prove it, so I don’t need to look it,” I tell her, but she goes on and on and on about what a slob I am and how my attire does not match her Dolce & Gabbana dress. I tell her that people who feel the need to dress to the nines every time they step out of the house are probably insecure and need their designer labels to mask the fact that they are actually not very bright or capable. I hope she gets the message. But it is lost on her as usual.
Maybe this marriage might work if I could just frame her and stick her up on the wall, right next to the ludicrous Rothko hanging in front of our bed. That thing makes me anxious in the morning; I feel the colours shouting at me, screaming that something’s not quite right. Last year, over the course of a week, Alana had developed an interest in abstract expressionism, so I was coerced into shelling out a revolting amount for what looks like a large lurid bruise. Her desire for Rothko started around this time last year, after her mother, a vapid real estate agent who is obsessed with the royal family, gave her a coffee table book from the National Art Gallery for Christmas. I tried explaining to Alana how she could probably find a much better painting from a more talented, less famous artist at a quarter of the price, that would actually compliment our carpet and blinds. She was not happy with my response and accused me of being cheap and tasteless, then as always, she got what she wanted.
I met Alana at a cocktail party in Chelsea. She had just turned 21. She was an assistant at an art gallery and had big plans to become an art dealer one day. I liked how ambitious she seemed, but after I married her two years later, I realised her feisty go-getter attitude was a front. She quit her job at the gallery because she didn’t like one of the new girls that the owner had hired. She moaned about how hard her life was, how she had to start waitressing at seventeen, and how she hated all the lecherous men she had to deal with when she was a receptionist at a law firm – the job she had between waitressing and working at the art gallery. She made it very clear to me that she did not enjoy her four long years of having to sing for her supper. She settled very comfortably into doing little else other than waking up late, having expensive lunches with her girlfriends, getting facials, massages, pedicures and various other beauty treatments, buying herself nice things, decorating our house with mid-century antique furniture and cooking elaborate but bland dinners for us in the evenings.
Before I bought her the painting, she was fascinated with Rothko and could not stop talking about how brilliant she thought he was. But she has since forgotten all about him and is now keen on some surrealist called Miro. Thankfully, mother dearest suggested a girly getaway, which I was happy to pay for, so at least she wouldn’t be bored lounging around at home all day in her designer lingerie, dreaming about the Miro that she would soon manipulate me into buying.
Perhaps things might be easier if I married someone who wasn’t twelve years younger than me. I imagine it could be more pleasant to share my life with someone who actually made herself useful now and then, someone willing to stand on her own legs, someone who wasn’t a materialistic, emotional leech like Alana. But that would probably mean that I’d have to settle for a plainer specimen I suppose, because girls who are built like Alana seldom excel at putting anyone before themselves.
When we are out and she starts sulking because I don’t eat where she wants to or buy her something she likes, the lyrics from that Jimmy Soul song starts playing in my head. “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife, so from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.” Should’ve paid more attention to him before I bought her the four-carat diamond ring.
Alana likes telling people that she works, but making and selling little silk pouches for mobile phones at weekend flea markets is not exactly what most rent and bill paying adults would consider a real job. She likes to think of herself as an artist, even though she’s only sold four pieces since she started her little mobile phone pouch hobby eight months ago. And the people who bought them were her friends – layabouts like her, who don’t quite know what to do with all the pocket money their husbands or fathers have given them. This little project of hers lets her pretend she’s a grown up, that she’s some kind of creative businesswoman who is going to turn her little past time into a meaningful and profitable venture. Before the mobile phone pouches, she had me pay for a course so she learn could how to be a chromotherapist, that’s a person who works with colours to balance people’s energies; before that she was going to be a Kundalini yoga instructress, and before that she wanted to start a shop selling vegan coconut macaroons.
Whenever someone actually buys one of her garish and flimsy phone pouches, for the next three days, I’d have to listen to her tell me what a gifted artisan she is and how “just you wait”, she will be the next big thing. “You see this piece, the way they sequins glitter just so. I call it ‘the right light’, because when you find just the right light, everything changes. Isn’t it gorgeous? There were like a dozen stalls at the fair selling mobile phone accessories, but this lady took one look at mine and said the others were crap, mine were the best! I bet once her friends see ‘the right light’, I’ll be getting lots of commissions. Designing is my destiny. I am sooo good. I should really just charge more of my pouches, don’t you think?” My skin crawls every time she uses the word “creation” to describe those useless little rags. I wonder what Alana would do if I told her the truth, not just about her silly phone pouches, but about how I really see her. But I spare myself that trouble, because she’s so exasperatingly thick that nothing really goes in anyway.
Alana is used to always being told she’s right because she has the advantage of physical perfection. Most people, myself included, condone her haughtiness and keep her blind to her lack of wit or spine because she is so damn gorgeous. She’s one of those women who come from a different mould. One of those birds so aware of the brilliance of their own feathers that they’ve become accustomed to always being venerated, pandered to and adored. Always looked at with admiring eyes and spoken to with gentle words.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but really, there’s a universal template –symmetrical, striking, youthful facial features, a slender, elongated body with curves in all the right places, a full head of hair, smooth, taut, flawless skin and a high level of touchability. Beauty is powerful, because even when you become aware of its trappings, it’s still so addictive. When I look at a beautiful woman, I feel pleasure. I feel for a moment as if I am a more important, more interesting man, living a larger, more exciting life. Gazing upon female beauty is a transcendental experience, and looking at a pretty girl makes me feel vigorously alive.
But the longer I am with Alana, the more my vision becomes augmented. I see what one might see if they looked at a butterfly or their own mite-infested pillow with a magnifying glass. Things start looking pretty scary. I wonder why I chose someone like her to spend my life with. I couldn’t say for sure, but I think I was just afraid of growing old alone, of having nothing but work to get excited about. I was afraid of letting another beauty get away. These seemed like good enough reasons to marry the bitch who is now my wife.
I had been thinking about ending it for a while now. But I didn’t know how. I planned to tell her, “I love you, but I don’t think we are good for each other. You are a really special woman and I know you’ll find someone better,” something along those lines. But as soon as she stepped through the door on Thursday, I took one look at her long legs, which looked more delectable than usual with her tan, and we ended up having sex. By late Saturday afternoon, we began to pick at each other again. We were watching a beauty pageant on TV. There was a segment where a humanitarian award was being presented to the contestant who did the most charity work. It showed Miss Vietnam, a pleasant looking but flat-chested girl with a slightly crooked smile, talking to scraggy looking little kids in some mountain village in a developing country. The camera zoomed in on the faces of the poor village girls. “She’s cute. Urghh, that one is just scary, her nose is so big and snotty, she looks like a boy,” I said. Alana shot me a glance that made me feel like a cockroach. “Dom you’re so fucking shallow! These are poor, starving little girls for goodness sake. You’re so judgmental. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Darling, you’re the one who wanted to watch this crap. I’m just getting into the spirit. Don’t get on my case.” And like our many domestic scuffles, it escalated to the point where I just wanted her to disappear. As was happening more frequently, our disagreement about a simple comment I had made escalated into a full-scale battle. Her troops were how everything I do and say is wrong, and my troops were all the ways that she is a controlling and emotionally volatile cunt. She was so mad at me, she yanked the phone out of the wall socket, I think she might have been planning to smash my head with it. I slept on the couch that night.
Our marriage was over a week before Christmas, and by Christmas Eve she had moved all her things to her mother’s. On Christmas day, I went to my secret shelf and took down the shoebox. Enshrined within the cardboard walls of what was once the packaging for a pair of Nike Airs, were mementos from my past loves. From the mixed tape with too many Air Supply songs that Juliet made for me in high school to the polka dotted bra that Natalia left in my dorm room after the two of us celebrated our graduation. Here were all the trinkets from my life before the hot, young soon-to-be ex wife. Photographs, postcards, letters and mix tapes from all my honeys of yesteryear.
Buried under all these love tokens was the red, leather bound address book.
I put the book away when I asked Alana to marry me. Having easy access to it made me feel like I was being unfaithful somehow. In my teens and twenties, this book was the heart of my romantic life. This was before emails and Facebook and what not. Strangely enough, after I got married, the book became more precious. Like that secret stash of candy you keep under your bed as a kid. It became a symbol of what was left of my free will, my right to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with whomever I wanted. Knowing that I could open that door if I so chose made me feel less caged. Like I still had my balls intact.
Within its pages were names with sumptuous memories attached to them. The best memories men have. Memories of flirty glances, knees brushing under tables, brassieres being unclasped, of flushed cheeks, damp panties, wet lips, moans and lung crushing embraces. When my thoughts linger on these past loves, I see them as they were then – nubile, malleable and gorgeous. I’ve always had a weakness for pretty girls, and when at fifteen, I realised how easy it was to bed them and keep them for a while, I felt like I had discovered the secret to the universe. I’d like to imagine that if I showed up at their front doors right this minute, they would all still sigh, pull me into their bosoms and bury me in hungry kisses.
Near the end of my marriage, when I really started to dislike Alana, I would entertain the idea of calling one of my old flames. Leyla and Maartje come up in my thoughts often. Maybe I could call one or both of them to “catch up”, complain about my ex-wife a little, or maybe arrange to meet up and fuck?
I even considered calling crazy Carmen once or twice. I still have the mala beans she gave me in the box. Carmen was a yoga teacher with washboard abs, a short bob, creamy bronzed skin and the cutest little pixy nose, but she was too intense. I enjoyed Carmen nonetheless because she always told me nice things about myself. In her eyes, I could do no wrong. Compared to Alana, Carmen treated me like a king, and she made really good tea too, milky and sweet. But between having sex, watching foreign films, listening to her dissect her childhood and then gush about how I was the best thing that ever happened to her, I couldn’t quite relax with her. She was a nervous one, suffocating in her eagerness to please. So I cheated on her and she left. I let her come back a few more times, but she irritated me, and I wasn’t very nice to her, so after yet another reunion, and yet another blazing row, she left again and I stopped answering her calls.
Leyla left me a tarot card, with a picture of a fool and his dog on it. Actually she didn’t actually give it to me, she was doing a reading on the bed in one of my old apartments and it fell through the gap between the mattress and the wall. I only found it after she was gone. She was a Turkish siren I had met in a bar. She had come to London to study graphic design. She would invite me over to her small bedsit in Camberwell where she’d roll me joints, read my fortune with a pack of tarot cards before putting chocolate ice cream all over my balls and licking it all up. Leyla was a real bohemian roller coaster. After about a year of pot, divining the future and sugary testicles, she got restless and decided to spend a year backpacking in India. She wrote me a few times, but then she met a German named Carl in Kerala and that was the last I heard from her.
I kept a postcard that Maartje sent me from Paris. All it said was “Wish you were here. XXX M” with a drawing of a heart on the right corner. Maartje was a tall, full-breasted, round-assed blonde air stewardess. The kind of girl that turns heads and gets wolf whistles. But she was frightfully jealous. Once, we were watching The Deep, and Jacqueline Bisset shows up on screen in a wet T-shirt. My balls happen to itch, so I reached into my Y-fronts for a scratch. Maartje freaks out. She starts screaming at me, telling me how disrespectful I am, pulling my pecker while she’s sitting right next to me. In her rage, she turned into a Nordic Amazonian with piranha-like teeth. I was terrified. That was the end of Maartje and me.
Then there was Laura. I kept the playbill from one of the plays she was in. Laura was an actress at the Youngblood Players. She never got the lead roles because she was average looking, ordinary. She had wide hips and narrow shoulders, pale freckled skin, light ginger hair and eyelashes that gave her face a strange albino-like glow. She was always cast as the lady in waiting or the secretary, or the spinster sister. Though she wasn’t conventionally pretty, there was something about her that just drew people to her and made everyone adore her. I don’t know what it was. She was forthright, intense, animal-like, quick, clever and cool, the girl that most of the boys, and some of the girls secretly had a crush on. She had sparkly blue eyes, the most heart-warming smile, and she knew just how to make me laugh, long hard laughs that were so pleasurable they would bring tears to my eyes. I always had a good time with her, even when we disagreed about things. She was like good coffee, she always perked me up and I didn’t get the jitters after. When I was alone with her, I felt like a child, safe and free. We could talk about anything, and I would always want to reach out and cuddle her. I remember one morning, after a debauched night in bed; she got up, walked over to the mirror, took out a pair of tweezers and pulled a hair from her chin. I don’t think she knew I was watching her. We had been living together in her flat for almost a year, but that afternoon, I told her I thought the place was too small for the both of us, and that it would be better if we lived apart. We continued to date, I’d meet her for meals, movies, picnics, for little strolls along Camden or Portobello market, but once I moved out, we spent less time together and eventually became just friends. I don’t think she ever knew why we stopped being lovers. But I knew.
A friend once told me that he spent almost a year wooing a model, some catwalk superstar who was pals with Christie Turlington and Heidi Klum. When he finally bedded her, he woke up disappointed and a little sad, because with her naked body just inches away from him, this creature whom he was accustomed to seeing in a state of absolute flawlessness on billboards, Vogue covers and runways, was just a mass of skin, bone, hair, pores and freckles. Up close, she became of this world, and the magic dissipated.
By year two of marriage, I had stopped wanting to have sex with Alana. I used to enjoy stroking her long dark silky hair, but after a while, I started noticing her greasy roots. At night, when the calluses on her heels rubbed against my shin, I pulled away and kept to my side of the bed. Married life induced in me a state of mind-numbing lassitude, so I had to think of other things to get me going.
Alana is slim, a little skinny in fact. Before, she looked statuesque and regal to me, but as my missus, she just felt too bony for any fun. I spent more time petting her like one would a kitten than ravaging her the way I had in the early days. Sometimes, I’d find myself staring at the ceiling, imagining a fleshier, rambunctious Laura rubbing her thighs against mine. Sometimes, Leyla or Maartje would supplant Laura in my fantasies. Maartje had great rhythm and the vision of her creamy ass bobbing up and down in my palms, her straw coloured locks whipping against my cheeks often did more for me than the sight and smell of my prissy wife.
After Alana left, I took a week off work. I bought a stack of Xbox games to kill time in the evenings. But I got tired of shooting monsters and driving recklessly. I felt restless. I’ve always worked like a fiend managing hedge funds, and even though I make more in a month than most men make in a year, I am always afraid I’ll never have enough.
I find it difficult to switch off from work. There are few things that can hold my attention as well as the prospect of making money. At the end of the workday, I need a break, but I don’t know how to stop thinking about or doing all the tasks that I associate with acquiring wealth. I need the company of a beautiful woman. Having one around calms me down in some strange way. Looking at Alana’s pretty, young face and near perfect figure made me feel like I didn’t have to keep chasing something. Even when she was being difficult, she was so easy on the eye that she softened up the very bleak reality of day-to-day life. Having this good-looking woman in my home somehow made waking up at five every morning, sitting at a desk for ten hours each day and all the other tedious life-stuff like paying bills and buying milk worth it.
Sometimes, I think beauty is a necessary diversion when one sees clearly the awful reality of life: you are alone; you experience briefly the joy of closeness; you are separated from everyone you love either by circumstance or death, then your body and your mind starts failing you and you die. I constantly attack and accrue because there’s a part of me that believes that if I keep taking, making and achieving, I won’t die as quickly or horribly as the rest of the world through poverty, disease and starvation. And as long as I’m busy acquiring wealth and power, I won’t have the time to think about the inevitable. But the trouble with attacking and accruing, is that those with a talent for it will need to attack and accrue with an ever-growing frenzy in order to keep themselves in the manner to which they are accustomed. No matter how good I get at this game, I know I’ll still die. And like everyone else, I will die alone. Because beauty is youth, beauty is perfection, beauty is fantasy. By feasting on it, I can distract myself from acknowledging the reality of my own impending death.
I tossed the address book up in the air with my right hand then caught it with my left hand. I picked up the phone and dialed Laura’s number.
“Hello? May I speak to Laura please?”
“Yes. Who is this?
“Dom? Wow, I haven’t heard from you in yonks. What have you been up to?”
“Aw, not much. I was just thinking about you, and I found my old address book with your number, so I thought I’d call and say hi, that’s all.”
“What a lovely surprise. How you doing?”
“Oh, could be better. I’m getting a divorce.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. Don’t get mad now, but I’m not that surprised that you got divorced. I’m a little surprised you even got married to be honest.”
“What do you mean?”
“You remember my friend Ruby? She was a secretary at your firm? She’s since left. I think she’s with Goldman now. Anyway, when she told me you got married, I told her, you’re not really the settling kind and that I’d give you three years. No offence! You just never struck me as a go-the-distance type.”
“Still as in-your-face as ever huh? Well, smarty-pants, you got me wrong. I was married for five long years. Why would you say I’m not the type of guy who can go the distance?”
“Well, you’re wonderful Dom, you know you’re a real catch. Hell, all the girls new it. But lets just say, if we were both in the ocean and a shark was headed our way, I just don’t think you’d throw your body in front of its gapping jaws to save my life.”
“What idiot would? Wow, that’s what you expect your man to do Laura? Make chump of himself to prove his love to you?”
“Something like that. Henry would.”
“Is that your man?”
“My husband. Yes. We’ve got a couple of years under our belt. And two lovely boys. Josh is eight and Timothy is six. No more kids though, enough beasties under one roof!”
“Well, I’ll be damned. I never figured you’d be ‘appy wife, let alone mommy. I figured you’d be on your way to Hollywood by now. What does he do, this Henry? For a living I mean.”
“He’s a manager at a hardware store. And I work at a travel agency.”
“Yes, gotta feed those growing boys. The acting was a blast while it lasted, but it doesn’t pay the bills and I’m too much of a wimp to handle the rejection, over and over again. Believe it or not, I like my life better now. Peaceful and drama-free. Until the boys hit puberty at least.”
“But you were such a good actress. No one commanded the stage like you. Remember the time when that fat drunk guy from Glasgow climbed up on stage and chased you for a hug?”
“Oh yeah, I remember. And you just sat there laughing while I was terrified and embarrassed as all hell. Oh, those were the days! That was all too much hard work though. The directors will tell you it’s about talent, but that’s a lie. Twenty percent is about talent and the other eighty percent is about how you look. They’ll never admit this, because they want to seem deep and intelligent, but for the meaty roles, they only want the really pretty girls, and then they want them never to look tired, never have a bad hair day, never get fat, and never grow old. They just want them to stay thin, young and pretty. And I wasn’t even pretty to begin with and I’m only going to get older, so why bother going down that path I thought.”
“So you’re a hag now Laura, is that what you’re telling me?”
“Hah, still the smart ass. Hmm, wonder why there’s the Missus isn’t around anymore? Let’s face it, I’ve never been good looking enough for the stage, just like I was never good looking enough for you. But we were good together. You know, the year you moved into mine, I would wake up before you did, go the bathroom, floss, brush my teeth, mouthwash and all, brush my hair, wash my face then put moisturiser and lip gloss on, then get back into bed before you woke up. Crazy huh? I had a feeling something was wrong about that, but oh how I fancied you. I must admit, it was a real relief when you left! The things I did to keep you sweet Mister…weren’t you lucky.”
“Yes, yes I was. I was very lucky.”
“Alright, enough of the nostalgia. I have to go. I’ve got to get Tim to soccer practice. Listen, it was great hearing from you. I hope the other numbers in the book still work. Take care and good luck. I send you lots of love and good vibes. I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Bye Dom.”
I hung up the phone and crawled into bed. A dreaded lonesomeness crawled in with me. I stared at the Rothko. Two windows of colour, a block of vermillion and a brilliant slab of mustard yellow set upon a muted grey background. I always noticed the loud red and yellow that jumped right out at you, anyone would; but this time my eyes settled on the grey that ran along the edges of the canvas and cut through the two colour blocks. As I focused on this shade, it became clear that the painting was actually of a canvas painted entirely grey with the red and yellow thrown it as sideshows. The grey was soft, rich, deep and rewarding. It looked like it went on forever underneath the other more comical colours. I relaxed, and slowly the painting didn’t look as bad.
Copyright® Michele Koh 2010