What some call holiness—that hard to measure, out-of-the-blue goodness—can take root in strange places, at unexpected times. Think of that cool Christian miracle of Jesus sashaying over water, the tale of the Good Samaritan, and Mother Theresa’s strenuous dedication to feeding Calcutta’s poor—although in her case, her holiness is rightly contested; she may well have been a Fascist.
Anyway, this story is not a religious parable. But if it were, there would be some sort of symbolic crossroads, a dusty wooden signpost in the Judean desert of the soul. There would be a choice to make, a ballsy, real-life decision with hard-to-measure moral consequences. Not a shower of blood or a body turned to salt or a long plague of frogs. But something perhaps equally punishing.
Instead of a parable though, what we have here is more of a vignette. This vignette might have happened—if it happened at all—a few years in the past. Not so long ago we’re talking lack of electricity or Hula Hoops or the pre-invention of Wifi. But definitely before Barack Obama began his first term as President.
The story has a simple premise—one I believe should be familiar.
A young man—possibly as young as eighteen, most definitely in his early twenties—sits quiet and solemn before a small dressing table. He’s naked from the waist up. He has the smooth, concave chest of an addict; flat, generous nipples; and arms dotted with goose pimples in the cold.
His dark hair is shorn down to a desperate quarter of an inch.
The dressing table is vintage and made of teak. It contains a single long drawer and an oblong oval mirror into which the young man now stares with a somewhat fearful expression. In the reflection he sees his self: busted nose, high Roman cheekbones, an awkwardly jutting jaw with skin as soft and pure as that of an average newborn. Behind him, lips pursed, and perhaps the reason for his distress, stands a middle-aged woman who looks not unlike the young man, with the same high cheekbones and thin, sensual mouth. This woman wears her black hair curled. It’s graying now at the temples. She has an inelegantly made-up face, heavy with lipstick, and wears a cheap cotton dress from Zara, the color of wild roses, stretched out obscenely at the waist.
After a few seconds of frowning, and shunning physical contact, the woman opens her mouth, revealing tiny, smoke-stained teeth. She appears about to say something and then reconsiders. Instead she reaches out, placing her hand on the bare shoulder of the man, and squeezes very tentatively, almost shyly, but with a clear and undeniable affection.
The calloused hand, the roughness and the heat, the memory—are like an electric jolt of energy through the young man’s body. He studies her ghost-like reflection, the familiar determination in her jaw, not quite trusting what he sees.
Above the desk, a small, vintage clock ticks down the hour.
Since this is only a story, let’s say the young man at the dressing table is me.
And let’s say the woman with smoke-stained teeth is you.
“Will you help me?” I ask you, in English.
In the mirror, you find my eyes, their greenish-grey stubbornness, and your own gaze softens.
You begin, with some awkwardness, to caress the back of my neck.
“Si, mi amor.”
You help me, then, in your own way, while I slip on the black bra, fastening the old-fashioned clip as I hook it behind my back, nodding as I shape it and fill it, make it sexy and full and believable, like a woman’s.
As I line my eyes, you pass me the eyelash extender, marveling at how long and curved and beautiful I’m able to make my lashes.
You hold the small compact as I prepare to make up my face, brushing on the good foundation, smoothing it out around the eyes and at the jaw and on the neck and on the forehead. You help me choose the right shade of lipstick—midnight cerise—from a tiny Maybelline travel bag, and pass me a piece of Kleenex so I can properly blot the lips. You even clip on the earrings, a turquoise, heavy pair shaped like baby clamshells I bought at an antique market in Berlin.
We don’t talk, though while we work, you hum: a few stabs of guttural music that might be the blues or flamenco. From the window, which is open half-way to the sunny plaza below—where women of your age and appearance sell bread and flowers and tobacco—the gunfire staccato of Castellan, a gaviota choking up the last bony remains of a catfish, a backfiring Vespa from one of the nearby cafes. As you help secure the necklace, your jaw moves slowly beneath your own made-up face. I can see the deep yellowness tainting the whites of your eyes and the sallow complexion of your skin and your unsteady, shaky fingers, but also how focused you are, how important this offering is to you. Even your breath, warm and smoky against my neck, feels measured, unselfish, given over to the cause. In the heat of your touch and the rhythm of your breath, I remember how easily you used to hold me to your chest, how we’d fall asleep at the beach every summer, curled together under an umbrella, shaded from the sun. Or how you’d take me with you to the salon and I’d camp under one of the hair dryers and turn it on to the lowest setting and read my X-men comics quietly, watching Tia Juanita make her loud and dramatic pronouncements.
Now, your hands are familiar. So warm, so safe, even with the trembling.
“Estás bien?” you ask, and I nod, eyes blurring, wanting to reassure you.
Near the end, you arrange the cotton blouse around my shoulders, make approving sounds in your throat as I fasten each of the silver clasps.
Finally, you help me with the wig, slipping it onto my shaved head, smoothing down the silky mass of blond curls. There’s nothing to untangle, but you take the time to make sure it’s perfect, fingering a few of the curls, primping just enough. You stand back for a moment to admire who I’ve become—this voluptuous, pale-looking woman, this rubia—whistling in a campy fashion under your breath. In this particular vignette, in that safe place locked in my mind, I even see you smile, bending down to whisper a few fierce words of praise into my ear, in the way you used to do when I was small.
“You look so beautiful, mi hijo! ¡Que divino!”
After that, when everything else is done, you turn, collecting your purse and kissing me for the last time—and then you close the door behind you, slowly and without a fuss, so it makes only the softest click on your way out.