The White Dog
Beauty and the Beast was the first story Mother ever read to me. I have read it myself a myriad times in a variety of forms and seen countless dramatic renditions of it. At each telling or showing or reading, I have felt, for a moment, a sense of contentment. That is, until I fathomed that this was a fairy tale and had nothing whatever to do with me. Oh, it’s not just that it’s a fairy tale—everything is a fairy tale from my vantage point—it’s that the Beast is a man and I am a woman.
What difference? Merely this: An ugly man may be saved by character; even the most hideous of men, as the fairy tale illustrates, can be loved for kindness and humor and a host of other qualities that fall neatly into a package labeled ‘inner beauty.’ But an ugly woman … well, I quickly learned that by no combination of graces or talents or virtues can she be considered lovely.
Humorists make a tired point of it:
“I’ve fixed you up with a date,” says the sit-comedian.
“Oh?” responds the object of his largesse. “What’s she like?”
“She has a great personality,” he is assured.
Whereupon the charm-challenged moron moans tragically, “Oh, God! She’s a bow-wow!”
The media assure us that the corollary is also true—a man will tolerate any amount of inanity and selfishness to adorn himself with Beauty; all stupidity can be forgiven it. In the female of the species, beauty can redeem a lack of character, but no amount of character can redeem a lack of good looks.
This is not to say that Gorgons don’t have friends, for there is a certain type of male who will befriend the charmless female for no other reason that, early in life, she seems almost ‘guylike’ in her gracelessness. Later, of course, he will abandon her, lest someone get the idea that they are an ‘item,’ but by this time, she will be much sought after by other, more attractive young women for the simple reason that they look good in comparison.
I’ve always thought the jealous Aphrodite was a fool not to have made Medusa her bosom buddy. How much simpler to have given the feckless Paris the choice between herself and the Gorgon—she’d have had the apple and the guy. Anyone stupid enough to even notice Medusa would have ended up as an ornamental coat rack in the goddess’s front hall.
Am I comparing myself to Medusa? Yes, though I flatter myself that the comparison is favorable. After all, she turned men to stone for all eternity. My personal best is only five seconds.
Let me make it clear that I am not homely. (Now, there’s a word! So old-world, so comfortable-sounding—as if the woman in question were a favored but dilapidated love seat.) Nor am I unattractive, nor ugly. I am nothing short of grotesque. Hideous. I enter a room and conversations cease, heads turn and quickly return. Men turn to stone.
I was four, I think, when I became aware of this. My mother’s and father’s eyes had that myopia that is peculiar to parents, but in the eyes of strangers, teachers and family friends, I saw distress, veiled revulsion, and pity. In the eyes of other little girls lurked something like horror, while boys peeked at me with speculative amusement. I was slow to understand this, until I came to realize how different my mirror image was from theirs. They had glossy, colorful hair, and eyes of brown or blue or gray. Their cheeks were rosy, their lips pink, their faces a balance of normal human features.
I am shrunken, and colorless, as if water runs in my veins instead of blood. My flesh is like rice paper, its fine mesh of veins clearly visible, and my hair—if that really is the word for such an anarchistic mop—has all the vibrancy of cellophane. One of my young faux-friends referred to me once as the ‘visible girl.’ It stuck.
Oh, and my eyes—how can I possibly describe them? They are not gray or hazel or even albino white, but are as devoid of color as a glass of water. “Jesus Lord!” exclaimed my friend of the ‘visible girl’ epithet, “you’ve got puries!” “Oooo-ee-ee-ooh,” school mates intoned when they passed me in the hall. “Spooky,” the girls called me, and, “Ghost.” The boys were worse: “Pasty-face” and “Slug” were two of their less innovative offerings. When I was about nine I realized that I looked, more or less, like the archetypal Whitley Streiber alien. I had by then lost count of how many Roswell jokes I’d been the butt of.