And Now for Something Creative and Slightly Unreal
It was the end of the seventies. America no longer wanted to do it one more time to Captain or Tennille. I was 5 years old and infatuated with Lorne Greene from the Alpo dog food commercials. It was a time when the most popular colors for dishware were olive green, mustard gold and dirt brown. It was also a time when my body was small enough to fit fully laid out in the back of my parents' silver Subaru hatchback and still have enough room for a week's worth of groceries.
The youngest of four children, I was often forced to find the narrow, airless spaces to inhabit on road trips and in daily life. Like an afterthought or the finally period in an ellipsis, my existence was reduced to the lowest common denominator. It became my personal desideratum to mutiny this forced oblivion. Children have little capital to wager power, but all the potential that becomes spent with age. My goal was to quantify my strengths and parlay them into a desirable future.
They say Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. His sorrow from being shunned by the image of his own face reflected in a clear fountain overwhelmed him. It literally drowned him. Imagine instead if he just learned to float.
In order to excavate meaning for myself on my little allotted space on earth, I would often spend time looking in mirrors. I would climb onto the edge of the faux marble sink in the upstairs bathroom and curl my brown legs into the oval basin. My toes clung to the silver faucet spout like a monkey grasping a spindly branch. With my face perched on my knees, I would stare into the medicine chest mirror for hours. I practiced the close-up frozen emotion shots from the end of soap opera segments. Shock! It's not your baby! Despair!His body was never found from the fire at the mill! Elation! She's back from the dead but she has amnesia! Minutes would pass without a blink, until salty tears strolled plainly down my wide cheeks. From an early age, I was an adept crier.
These periods of contemplation would be interrupted when my older sister would realize that I was missing for several hours. She would come pounding on the bathroom door.
"What're you doing in there, CHarmaine?!" she demanded loudly.
My first name is pronounced with a soft "Shhh" sound at the beginning, but my sister would always say it with a hard "Ch" sound. Like I was a verb describing what happens to overcooked meat.
"Nothinggoaway!" I would blurt as I jumped down from the sink and ran into my sky blue room.
My bedroom was adjacent to my sister's bedroom. Their themes were based on characters from the Strawberry Shortcake cartoon. My sister, being older and dictatorial, got the pink room dedicated to Strawberry herself. Her walls were as pink as fresh saltwater taffy and her curtains had images of Miss Shortcake galavanting with her pink kitten, Custard. My room was done up in the theme of Strawberry Shortcake's sidekick, Blueberry Muffin. This meant that my room was painted blue, like a boy's room. My parents felt that it was a cute thematic choice. However, the decidedly boy coloring coupled with the fact that I illogically got my brothers' hand-me-down clothes instead of my sister's made me feel kind of unfeminine. My mother also tamed my hair in the same manner as my male siblings, with the blunt kitchen scissors excising our black strands into a decidedly bowl shape.
Lacking a mirror of my own, I learned to be resourceful with what I did have. In the middle of my window, there was a shiny silver oval sticker. On the reverse side, the side facing out, was the reflective silhouette of a fireman carrying a child. The bold print words over his helmet read, "Tot Finder", a signal that a child lived in this room. With this admittedly less powerful mirror, I would continue to practice my regimen of facial expressions well into my early adolescence. By then, I had developed a subtle discipline for the art. It was during one of these sticker mirror meditations that I also decided that my nose was the problem. After consulting with the blonde, button-nosed girls from my Young Miss magazines, I became emphatically resolute.
I ran to find my mother and tell her that I needed a nose job. She was in the bathroom gently applying Oil of Olay in long strokes along her ivory cheeks. The clean gardenia smell was intoxicating. My mother had inherited the porcelain complexion of her German grandparents. The color of skin that many of the upper class Filipinos achieved through racial interbreeding with colonizing rulers. My father hailed from the lower island provinces. His skin, like mine, is brown like brewed iced tea.
"Mother. I need a nose job."
To emphasize my point, I squeezed the flat tip of my nose with my forefinger and thumb and pulled gently outward, creating the illusion of a long, sweeping bridge.
My mother glanced at me with no expression. She said too quickly, "You're right."
Not anticipating such easy agreement, I stood silently and breathed through my mouth.
"I tell you what," she continued, "If you still feel this way when you are eighteen, I will take you to the plastic surgeon myself." She then grasped my face in both her hands and smiled broadly. She shook my head back and forth. She raised her eyebrows and smiled pleasingly.
My mother's parenting skills were questionable at best. However, whether she planned it or not, her logic prevailed. I did not in fact want a nose job by the time I turned eighteen. This decision came to me after one of my cousins suggested sleeping with a clothespin clipped to my nose. She claimed a friend had tried it and woke up with a perfect Romanesque proboscis. All I got were deep red gouges like I was bitten by a mouse.
However, my image contemplations would never end. Mirrors would continue to dominate the landscape of my life into adulthood. Eventually, I would live in an apartment with no tables or chairs in the living room but seven mirrors. I lived with The Boys, three gay men whom I met in college. We moved together to New York City during my early twenties and they continue to reflect an image of me that soothes my inner Narcissus. Together, we collected these mirrors and lined them up along one wall of the narrow main room. Two of the mirrors were cheap, flimsy rectangles that we found abandoned in the street garbage outside our apartment building. The rest were collected from trips to thrift stores and rummage sales. They were sturdy wedges of thick glass framed in dark stained wood.
One evening, I sat in front of this long line of mirrors preparing for a date. The memory of my conversation with my mother came to me as I swept a thin layer of bronze powder over my cheeks. The Boys were scattered about the apartment immersed in their own reverie. The windows were open. Fausto stood outside his bodega on the corner below our apartment and played the accordion. He sang songs in Spanish about unrequited love that floated up through the night sky and died on the steel fire escape.
"Do you know my mother once told me I could have a nose job if I wanted?" I announced suddenly.
Patrick looked up from his sketchbook and snorted, "What?!"
After relaying the story of my nose and my mother's abrupt conclusion, Patrick and g8s began a tirade about unhealthy body images being perpetuated in society. Dennis had been sitting in the kitchen windowsill smoking a cigarette. He was uncharacteristically quiet and I watched him slowly inhaled and exhale long plumes of smoke. Finally, he walked over to the line of mirrors and knelt down near me and kissed me on top of my nose.
"Sweetie Darling, do you know what happens to girls who get nose jobs?"
I shook my head. "What?"
He smirked, "They live happily ever after."