The sun hovering above the horizon casts a harsh light at the distressed wood-framed mirror. The film of oil and dust covering it does little to soften the hard edges of the face staring back at me. I’m not exactly sure when the change began. Was it gradual? I suppose it always is, but it’s as if I am only just now seeing this version of me. As I anticipate the arrival of my daughter and son-in-law, I prepare to apply makeup for the first time in recent memory. Out of practice, I study a bottle of old foundation, the cream now separated from the oil, and shake it into submission. As I focus on the vertical lines between my brows, the horizontal ones creasing my forehead, and the thinning, pursed lips, I am transported to another time—the time when I began to disappear.
The year was 1969 and I was 13 years old. I lived with my mom, who was wholly unaware of the changing world around her. My dad had left us when I was little, and if my mom hadn’t already been severed from the outside world, then that abandonment placed the knife in her hand. She toiled tirelessly as a seamstress, closed up in our tiny, dilapidated house—and to call it a house was generous. Her customers were required to come to her, but she was good, so they did. Later, her malady would be referred to as agoraphobia. But if that word existed then, it didn’t in our world. Labels of all sorts didn’t seem to exist back then. People were just who they were, without the endless dissection and analyses of why they were who they were.
I don’t much remember my dad, or how my mom was before his departure. My mom’s brother, Charlie, lived next to us. I didn’t call him my uncle because I didn’t claim him as anything of “mine.” We lived on his land and we needed his help financially, so the unspoken fragility of that connection was ever-present. In retrospect, it became clear to me that Charlie was an alcoholic, though at the time, he was just an angry, hateful dictator we had no means to overthrow.
I’d walked home from school, as I did every day, and was playing with the frogs that made a sanctuary of the pond next to the house. I could feel Charlie’s probing eyes on me from the shed. I never turned to look, wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. Instead, I glanced up to find that Alfred—my schoolmate and nearest neighbor—was rounding the bend from the far end of our property. His wide-brimmed straw hat was unmistakable. Next to the frogs, Alfred was my only friend. In our small, non-thriving rural town, our sad little family was also one of the poorest. I was ever mindful of that reality, and hyper-vigilant of the girls around me in school, who if not obviously whispering degrading comments behind my back, were at the very least looking down their noses at me. It was different with Alfred, as he was a boy, and so I never felt that sense of comparison with him—never felt judged in his presence.
“Hey, you,” he called from the other side of the pond, hands in his overall pockets, taking me in with amusement.
“Hey, you,” I called back, biting my lower lip to hide a smile threatening to take over.
“Watcha’ got for me?”
“In your hand,” he said, a smile brimming his wide-open face.
Lowering my gaze to the frog in my hands, I said, “Oh, this is Clementine. She’s not for you.”
Seeing Alfred’s face drop, I quickly changed course. “I just mean Clementine doesn’t belong to anyone. She gets to belong to herself and not answer to anybody.” Lowering my gaze, then carefully returning Clementine to her pad, I whispered, “she gets to be free.”
“I’m just teasing you, silly. I don’t have any use for frogs, other than in frog stew.”
I didn’t know if Alfred was teasing about eating frogs, and I don’t think I wanted to know, so I just smiled.
“I do have something for you though,” he said. He bent down to pluck a lily from the edge of the pond, then came to where I was standing. He offered it to me.
“Hmm… they are my favorite, but is it really a gift when it technically already belonged to me?” I asked.
“You got me.”
We laughed and carried on for a bit about nothing important before he turned to leave. After a few paces, he spun around, tipped his hat, and bowed to me in an exaggerated display of chivalry. “See ya at school, frog girl!”
I watched him disappear, then examined the white lily in my hand, smiling. Then, Charlie’s voice bellowed behind me—insistent and frenzied—jolting me from my reverie.
“Who was that boy?” he demanded, slurring—eyes unfocused, yet managing to bore into me.
“That was Alfred, Mr. Isenhour’s boy from down the way. You’ve seen him.”
“What’s he want with you?”
“He doesn’t want anything. He’s my friend.”
“They all want somethin’. I seen the way he looked at you. You want the reputation of a whore?”
“I’m not a whore! I’ve never even kissed anyone. Take it back!”
Aware that Charlie would see that last bit as a challenge, and thus retaliate, I instinctively protected my left cheek with my hand, bracing for the blow. Apparently not too drunk to notice, and as if on cue, his left hand opened, releasing the half-full can. He immediately swung from around my blind spot of the unguarded side, simultaneously smacking my right cheek as the can smacked the solid earth, spewing a geyser of cheap beer between us.
Now, sliding my fingers along the hollowed contours of my once-plump cheeks, I grab a blush brush and attempt to mimic the rosy glow of youth.
I startle when the front door opens downstairs. Val and James.
“Hey, guys. You’re early. I’m not quite ready. I put out some wine and snacks.”
“Thanks, Ma. We paid the sitter to start early so we could extend our rare night out,” Val says.
The conspiratorial snickering from downstairs eases my nerves. I decide to apply mascara for the occasion. I typically don’t fuss with it, seeing as how it would take a lot more than a tube of black goo to make a dent in these resigned eyes. But today, I decide to allow myself some grace. I find that I’m pleasantly surprised how this simple act is beginning to brighten my eyes, and I pause for a moment to admire how blue they appear, even through the cloudy mirror.
It’s funny, the things our minds choose to catalog, the random moments it clings to, at the expense of other, likely more important ones. The year was 1974. I was sitting in my bedroom, which was more akin to a modest-sized closet—sans windows, but I was okay with that, as the poor lighting had reflected my dim mood of the previous few years. I’d finished packing the last of my things for college before wordlessly kissing my mom’s delicate cheek. I stole one final glance at my broken reflection in the cracked mirror. Having never bothered to replace it, I reasoned that it made sense to see myself as did everyone else… broken.
My aspirations of teaching—but more importantly, of escaping the prison that was my life—suddenly seemed within reach. My mom wanted to be happy for me, and she tried, but she wasn’t really, and I didn’t blame her. I felt love for her, compassion, even pity. But I felt none of those things strongly enough to stay in that place with her, to abandon my one and only chance of freedom, to feel at least as untethered as the frogs in our pond.
My one and only hesitation was leaving Alfred. I’m not sure why. We had not been close through high school, though I still considered him my only genuine friend. He didn’t come around as often, but it wasn’t hard to understand why. I wasn’t generally great company, as my bleak circumstances had dimmed any flicker of life I’d ever possessed.
I had long ago abandoned the notion that I could ever be accepted by the other girls there. Even if I’d had a friend, I couldn’t have brought them into that environment, trying to explain the baffling notion that my mom was more afraid outside of that awful house than inside it. And I could only imagine what might have happened had Charlie come sniffing around. So instead, I had spent the past few years hiding and planning my escape to a better world.
I’d been saving up from every odd job I’d taken on over the years so that I would have something to take with me when I left for college. I contemplated the wad now, admired the heft and density of it in my hand. It suddenly didn’t seem right, hoarding it, knowing that my mom had worked her arthritic fingers to the bone all those years, and had put up with so much from Charlie, just so we could survive. I should have contributed more all along. I would get my degree, and a good job, then I would take care of my mom properly, get her out of there. If she could only be in one place, it damn sure should’ve been a better one than that.
I’d won a generous scholarship, partly because of my excellent grades, but mostly due to need—and I did need. I peeled off a couple of hundreds, and slipped them into my satchel, leaving the rest on the vanity. I considered the remaining cash, picked it up, studied it, then replaced it, and walked out of the room—and out of that life—for good.
“What are you wearing, Mom?” Val calls up to me.
I have no idea, so I scan the room and make a last-minute decision.
“The cornflower silk top and cream skirt.”
“Aww, pretty. It brings out your eyes.” Val says.
I slip off the terry bathrobe, taking note, as always, of the sagging skin above the C-section scar, stretch marks like tributaries feeding into it. At the edge of that line connects another nearly 4-inch scar across the front of my right hip. I run my finger along its familiar route as I recall another lifetime ago.
My husband was not an alcoholic, exactly, though there are varying degrees, I suppose. We met near the end of college, and he began our courtship as a classically handsome, kind, and charismatic man of whom my girlfriends were most envious. Ever the doting partner during my first pregnancy, he would guide me into restaurants with his hand protectively resting on the small of my back. We would sometimes stay up until near dawn, imagining how this miracle we’d created together would turn out. But what I would soon learn was that the day-to-day inconvenience of dealing with a demanding child, along with all the life changes it necessitates, does not suit all men. He’d become unsatisfied with his job, his life… me. This man with whom I’d had no reservations beginning a shared life, had managed, in a few short years, to morph into a desperate, agitated, and generally diminished version of the original. The less control he perceived of his own life, the more he took of mine.
Though given to fits of rage, Mark had never actually hit me. At times, he would squeeze my arms until they bruised in order to make a point, clutch my shoulders and shake me like a child, or push me into a wall when he was especially frustrated or had consumed just enough liquid courage.
We’d decided early on that I would put my teaching career—the career I’d barely begun—on hold until Val started school. She had proven a difficult and demanding child. Wracked with the guilt only a mother could feel, I’d secretly craved that milestone, a reprieve from her insatiable hunger for everything life had to offer to someone who didn’t yet understand limits; I yearned for someone else to feed all of those things to my child, someone with the wherewithal to do it willingly and properly, not tainted with obligation and resentment.
A month before Val turned four, I found myself pregnant again. The second pregnancy was infinitely more challenging than the first, in nearly every way. Gone were the days of massages and tenderness from a loving husband anticipating the joy that was to come. The novelty was no longer… novel. I would slog through the tedium of each endless day, trapped in the liminal space defined by four claustrophobic walls and my mounting disquietude—perpetually steeling myself for Mark’s return, bracing for fight or flight—no idea how he might walk through the door.
It was during the third trimester of that pregnancy which proved to be the proverbial final straw, and there always is one. Until the final one, there are many along the way, all with justifications and rationalizations attached—until one day, the discomfort of staying outweighs the discomfort of the unknown. Every woman remembers that day.
Mark had walked in from what was clearly a bad day at work. And to be fair, most had become bad days. But on that particular day, from the moment he’d crossed the threshold of the door, I could feel the tension fester, simmering just under the surface. I’d become so attuned to his volatile moods—the subtle shifts and nuances—a necessary skill acquired to allow myself the best chance of predicting when the volcano might erupt.
He’d become enraged at some banal thing, and he’d been holding something in his hand that I can’t recall. I’ve replayed the day so many times in my mind that it has become a continually edited video, replacing the actual day itself, each time a different item clutched in his angry hand. Something I’d said—or something else in his mind entirely—prompted him, without warning, to hurl said item in my direction, smacking solidly against my hard, swollen belly. The pain and immediate shock of the blow propelled my body forward, catching my hip on the sharp, unforgiving corner of the solid coffee table, slicing wide open a jagged line of white, delicate flesh. This part of the video always has me wondering why we would have kept such a piece of furniture with a small child in the house.
Lying on my side, arms wrapped protectively around my belly, watching blood spill onto the cream carpet, what I recall most vividly is willing myself not to cry out any more than I already had, so as not to wake Val. Mark didn’t come to me, didn’t check on me, just kept repeating “I didn’t hit you. I didn’t mean to anyway. I swear. I meant to toss it into the corner. It slipped out of my hand, or I misjudged, or…” The pain, so intense, that once I caught my breath, I vomited onto the cream carpet, inches away from the small pool of bright, hot blood. I was helpless to move from my protective position, but from behind me came Valerie’s tiny, trembling voice, “Mommy?”
“Mom? Do we need to send up a search party for you?” Val says.
“Leave the poor woman alone,” James chimes in. “It’s a big night.”
“Thanks for that genuine concern, you two. I’m almost ready. Just have to fix my hair. Are you guys having the wine?”
“Uhh… well, we had the wine. You didn’t want any, did you?” She says, and I hear them both giggle like school kids.
“No, I’ll have a glass at the restaurant.”
Now for the hair—once thick, dark, and sleek, but after chemo, grew in dull, sparse, and wiry. I could color it. Most women my age did. I could force it into some semblance of the way it was before. But before, I was someone without cancer. I’m not who I was before.
I remember everything about the day I received the news. I can tell you what I was wearing (a navy pantsuit—I wanted to feel dignified), what I had for breakfast (nothing), every picture hanging in the doctor’s office (all generic). I still remember exactly what the doctor’s earrings looked like (tiny gold hoops with an emerald in the middle). When you’re preparing yourself for news that will forever alter the trajectory of your life, you look around and take in every inch, every moment. Because all of that will become your “before.” Once you walk out, now carrying the weight of that knowledge… well, that becomes your “after.”
“Cancer,” she’d said. Actually, what she’d said was a string of words, some of which seemed vaguely familiar. But what it meant was cancer.
I also recall those first hours after the operation. Even through my post-surgery haze and lingering effects of anesthesia, I remember the warmth of Val’s hand squeezing mine too hard as she made her way through the mountain of cards from well-wishers, reading aloud every word to me in exasperating detail, if only to mitigate the silence. She went on to describe the plethora of flowers taking over every square inch of the tiny room, this caricature of a floral landscape that had made me claustrophobic and reminded me more of a funeral parlor than a hospital room. I wondered if everyone assumed I wouldn’t make it out of the surgery alive. But my loving, grieving daughter needed to perform this task for me, and I granted her that small gift as I lay staring at the ceiling.
“These lilies are lovely. Who is Alfred?” she said.
“An old friend,” I said. Have I never mentioned him?”
“No, but this is the first smile I’ve seen from you today, so perhaps you should mention him.”
“I’m not smiling.” I slurred, as I drifted back to sleep.
“Umm… if you say so.”
The doorbell chimes.
“He’s here, Mom.”
“Be right down.”
I study the grimy mirror and decide to wet a hand towel and give it a good once-over. I stand back, taking in my full self, a rare act, sliding my hands down the front of my silk blouse where my breasts once were. I suppose one never truly becomes accustomed to such a thing. After developing early and having grown into a D cup by sophomore year in high school, I’d never felt comfortable in my own skin. I’d always wished they were smaller and less noticeable—that I, myself, were less noticeable. Then a double mastectomy at 57. Isn’t life something…
It only now occurs to me that until this moment, I saw beauty as a thing that one is given—bestowed as a gift to be worn, like an accessory. But true beauty is earned. We may not recognize it when we see it, because it doesn’t look like we were always told it would.
One day, if we’re lucky, each of us will look in the mirror and we will understand that we are being presented with a choice. We get to choose what we see reflected back to us, and we will make the choice to see the story that our bodies are begging to tell. The conflicts, but also the resolutions. The suffering, but also the survival. The defeat, but also the glorious rising from the ashes—the proof of all of it manifested in every wrinkle, scar, stretchmark, imperfection… Only on that day can we claim that gift of beauty that we’ve earned—the beauty that comes from acceptance of a life fully lived. For me, it seems today is that day.
I descend the stairs as I hear James’s voice. “Well, here she is!”
I take in a long breath as I reach them. “Here I am.”
“Mom, you look… What’s different about you? You’re glowing.”
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate ten years cancer-free than a double date with my daughter.”
Alfred stands before her with a bouquet of white lilies. He takes her in with wide, searching eyes.
“Alfred, they’re lovely. Still my favorites.”
He says to no one in particular, eyes never leaving mine, “I’ve loved this woman since we were 13. It just took her over 50 years to see me.”
I smile because he’s had it backward all along. “We only see what we’re ready to see. I always saw you, Alfred. I just couldn’t see myself.”
About the Author
Bobbi is a graduate of Indiana University in Bloomington, where she resides with her partner (a screenwriter), two teen daughters, and two neurotic dogs. She has worked as a real estate broker, legal assistant, and school literacy coach.
A well-traveled introvert, she values introspection above all things and can be found walking, reading, journaling, or connecting with her small, trusted circle. Her work has appeared in Shorts Magazine, CaféLit, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and Bright Flash Literary Review.