Susan M. Silver
Sometime in the last century, but neither long ago nor far away, a woman of strange beauty was a familiar presence on Fifth Avenue, both uptown and down. At just over six feet, she stood literally above the crowd like a graceful poplar. Close up, it was disconcerting to look directly into her black-lined almond eyes, which were as intensely green as those of an Egyptian mau cat, and not without the flicker of vulnerability. Wisteria was her name, and it worked well because of her wistful yet regal aura.
A suburban refugee, she had been lured to the city as a steel-and-glass Shangri-la of possibility. Here, she believed in her bones, the promised blessing of a special destiny would take shape. Lost in a youthful labyrinth of choice—between degrees, between careers, between lovers—she moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law in a pre-war building on Lower Fifth Avenue, just north of the square. She shuttled between the hurly-burly of the Village and the Upper East Side’s serene Historic District, where she worked at the office of a doctor whose ingenious cosmetic techniques made him a celebrity magnet. Her duties consisted largely of patient hand holding and psyche-soothing, during procedures and otherwise. Gliding through the rooms wearing a lab coat over a silk shirt and slacks, she looked like an artist’s model from old money. Of course, she was admired, envied, and imitated.
Meeting aspiring supermodels, who flipped their conceit and insecurity like a two-sided coin, and wilted movie stars, seeking to preserve their looks like old flowers pressed in a book, held a special appeal for her. Early on she had been hypnotized by the old movies from the thirties and forties shown on television; the vintage celluloid visions completely absorbed her consciousness and lingered in her imagination, movie posters of the mind.
This passion inspired another. Even as a child, Wisteria perceived that the onscreen beauty of Marlene Dietrich as a Blonde Venus had been alchemized through cosmetics to achieve goddess level. With its clipped nose, prominent chin, and spherical cheekbones, hers was a face memorable in its imperfect perfection. But she saw it as flawed and drab. Over time she learned to use line, contour, and color to enhance her face. She applied the various makeup products layer by layer with the flair of an artist. Few had any idea of the intricacy of the ritual. To her, what she created on a daily basis was not a mask but rather a finished painting over an elemental sketch. It served as part of the basic costume necessary to take the stage that is New York City.
Until, in an improbable turn, her face simply rebelled.
Lazing on the tightly knit green that sloped towards the innocent boat pond, Wisteria and her friends sat on a blanket, eating hot salted pretzels from the vendor. They often took their half-hour lunch in Central Park, particularly in the hushed urban heat of August.
“It’s like running against the wind,” lamented Amber, who typically found solace in rock lyrics. She was referring to being pressured into commitment by two boyfriends, neither ideal. A brunette Meryl Streep limited to self-drama, she was working as a nurse until the overdue arrival of happy domesticity. “’I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind,’” she sighed, picking up her knitting to soothe herself.
“Exactly!” said Misty. “One of my patients this morning told me it gets hard-ah as we age, hard-ah!” she emphasized, betraying her Brooklyn roots. She was a dedicated marathoner whose fragile blond physique belied a tough core. As head nurse, she supervised a staff of fifteen with easy charm. “What do you think, Wisteria-Mysteria?”
Wisteria spoke for the most part with her cat’s eyes. So a few choice words from her were coveted, the equal of a girl-talk fortune cookie. But unbearable pain rendered her wordless. Her face suddenly felt like an egg exploding in microwave heat. Excusing herself, she ran back to the office and returned with her face stripped bare, naked.
“What happened to you?” Misty blurted, her signature bluntness tempered with a little laugh.
Still framed with light brown hair threaded with early gray and bobbed to perfection, Wisteria’s face in its natural state was curiously lackluster.
“I think I had a reaction to makeup or something,” she said, trying to suppress the web of fear starting to crawl through her psyche. “I’m sure it’s temporary.”
“It doesn’t mad-dah,” said Misty, repeating her catchphrase, which meant the exact opposite: it mattered. “Just don’t show up to work looking like that again,” she teased. Had a drop of schadenfreude just spilled out?
“’The look that she wore sees the love there that’s sleeping,’” Amber offered, garbling the George Harrison line.
Wisteria sought the sanctuary of her room in the Village apartment, a converted walk-in closet fitted with a cot.
It’s not true, it can’t be true, it’s temporary, she reassured herself as she finally lapsed into troubled sleep.
Experiment after experiment with various products the next day yielded the same result: face-breaking pain that subsided only when every speck of makeup was scrubbed. She surveyed the damage. The eyebrows were threadbare; the eyelashes resembled fraying fringe; and the lips, drained of color, disappeared. The fabled green eyes were surrounded by a charcoal moat that neutralized their power. Perhaps worst of all, the unadorned face and the metropolitan wardrobe were now mismatched, incompatible.
Clinging to her closet-room, she went out only very early, when the street lamps meet the sunrise, and after dark, when the city turns into a carnival of lights. She stopped going to work. Parties and tap dance lessons were crossed off the calendar.
“Is anything wrong, Miss Wisteria? I mean, are you feeling okay?” inquired Orlando, her favorite doorman, crisp in his military-style uniform, as she tried to cross the polished chessboard lobby floor unseen, a six-feet-plus streak in New York black.
The Ukrainian shoemaker, Dimitri, an inveterate flirt, charged her double. “Sorry, no discounts,” he snapped, closing the discussion and looking away.
If her beauty had not been damaged, it was altered. She was at war with her own image, which was unacceptable, almost absurd. She had been betrayed. What possible transgression against the Universe had provoked this sardonic little slap?
The part of her that held out hope pushed her to venture into the midway that is the makeup section of a large department store. Amid the kaleidoscopic frenzy of dozens of competing counters, all saturated with pulsating dance-party music, she sat on a black stool. A pony-tailed salesman, alternately a chorus boy or model, applied a bit of concealer and lip gloss on her, all the while engaged in a streaming monologue. Within seconds her face felt as though it was breaking apart from within. She fairly ripped the paint off.
The salesman regarded the failure as a personal insult. “Our brand is the ultimate. You won’t find anything with purer ingredients. It’s hopeless, my dear,” he concluded, dismissing her with a wave of his hand.
The makeup artist, a compact multiracial beauty with three feet of wavy black hair, listened solicitously to Wisteria’s story. “I’ve never heard of anything like that,” she declared. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and walked away, turning her attention elsewhere.
No more support was forthcoming from Wisteria’s own flat-mate sister, a no-nonsense college professor who considered makeup a frivolous pursuit. "Get over yourself!" she admonished while fashioning her near-platinum locks into a single chunky braid.
“What’s the big deal? Just get on with your life!"
In the lonely cocoon of her condition, she continued to question the Universe. She feared her identity was unraveling. Which was the true face, and which one was false? After several cloistered weeks, Wisteria fled. It was as if she was running out of her own skin. She ran through a blur of jazz boîtes, bars, barbershops, Indian clothing stores.
She was drawn to a ruddy-brick church, a moody and majestic time capsule from the previous century. “SEND FORTH YOUR SPIRIT, O LORD, AND RENEW THE FACE OF THE EARTH,” read the sign outside the entrance. She took a seat on a burgundy-upholstered pew in the empty sanctuary. Antique golden light penetrated the stain-glass windows, illuminating an altar embraced by silver organ pipes. In the sacred stillness, she felt protected, a cupped flame. But answers still eluded her.
Traveling along an anonymous street north of Little Italy, dotted with boutiques and cafes, she stumbled on a secret Eden behind vine-covered gates. The garden was a giant green bouquet of grasses and trees, sprayed with brights: hibiscus in holiday red, galvanized-purple petunias, milkweed in megawatt orange. Exotic sculptures were scattered whimsically throughout. She sat for a time opposite an open-air temple, absorbing the eccentric mantra of the wind chimes. Having sidelined herself, unsure she belonged, she was intrigued by the invitation to reconnect.
After a short while, one of two mirror-image stone lions, standing astride a pedestal, deigned to speak.
“My beauty endures, impervious to subzero blasts and thrashing thunderstorms. But there is a price to pay: I am immobile. What a blessing it must be to stretch and yawn, to dance, to compete with the wind! Even more troublesome is my facial expression, a forbidding snarl. My very magnetism is a self-contradiction because it forever distances me from love.”
Smug and self-possessed, a pair of identical twin sphinxes locked eyes with each other, indifferent to all else.
“Although universally admired, my beauty poses a problem,” spoke the bolder sphinx. “It is solely external; I have no access to my own heart. That is why I stare at my sister, seeking reassurance and comfort. But she is a mere reflection of my own vacantness. If I am in love with myself, as some contend, then the truth is that I am in love with solid marble,” she admitted.
A shivery butterfly, her gleaming black wings edged in iridescent blue, flew past before lighting on a flower.
“My beauty is unchallenged, but I will lose it at month’s end, along with my life,” she shared solemnly. “While vulnerable to time, your face, whether decorated or without artifice, is beautiful. Embrace both images equally. There is no true face or false, faux or genuine. Beyond that, have the courage to accept your many selves, sick or thriving, distressed or serene, young or old. In wholeness, within yourself and in your connection to the cosmos, there is true beauty. And in beauty, my friend, there is healing.”
The lessons of the sculpture garden never left her. In time Wisteria tolerated makeup again, but she no longer depended on it. Those who perceived her as a style-setter adopted her naked-face look, but it was of no consequence to her. Her friend Amber had it right: The look that she wore sees the love there that's sleeping. She had awakened self-love, and, through that, she discovered the nature of beauty. Indeed, the Universe had set her free.
Susan M. Silver is a New York City-based freelance writer with credits in People magazine, Us Weekly, the New York Daily News, and The Saturday Evening Post. In addition to Breath and Shadow, her fiction has appeared in Wordgathering, Lifestyles magazine and Short Stuff.