It’s not easy, letting someone see you as you really are. Because then they see the worn look in your eyes, the clenched jaw, the slumped shoulders.
It’s not easy, letting someone in.
It's New Year’s Eve of 2009.
I open the door in my old robe, with a bowl in my hand. In that bowl are tiny bits of stale tortilla chips, found at the bottom of the bag. On those chips of chips, are half-melted cheddar cheese and some questionably tangy salsa.
Clint stands before me, in a pressed black suit and a silky purple shirt, looking like he climbed out of a glossy menswear ad. At 29, he’s the oldest of the three brothers at the end of the block who serve as my family by proxy.
I let him in.
He peeks into my bowl.
“What is that?”
“A very sad snack.”
"Come on. Get dressed. We’re going to the Surfer’s Ball.”
Big, black tie event at the upscale hotel here. He doesn’t want to go “empty-handed.” He’s a shy guy and needs me as social reinforcement.
“No ball, Clint, I told you before. I just don’t have it in me. And its 100 bucks to get in. I can’t spend that right now.”
My budget is tight. It’s always tight. It wears me down. Of course, it wears me down.
“Well, I’m paying. Besides, I probably owe you anyway.”
Yes, he does. Even though he and his family have a big, beautiful home at the end of the street, the "boys" spend a good amount of time here. I feed them, give them clothes, booze and bad advice. They break my stuff, use my shit and push my buttons, I'm guessing like real brothers are supposed to do.
“No, Clint. I wanna watch Criminal Minds and eat stale chips. Leave me alone.”
“You’re going. You said you were going.”
“Let me see your gown.”
“Clint, please leave her alone.” I sometimes refer to myself in 3rd person just to make people uncomfortable. I got it from Silence of the Lambs.
“Come on. Let me see it.”
I reluctantly walk into the bedroom and he follows. There it is, hanging from my closet door. A long black, silky gown. Very formal and pretty, mocking me. It's quite different than the “apathy robe" I'm wearing.
“Wow. It’s beautiful. Please, Beth. Come as my date.”
Clint and I aren’t romantically involved. I don’t date any of the brothers. That whole “don’t shit where you eat” philosophy, if I may be so crass. Having sex with them might cost me the only sense of family I have here. So I know what he means by a date. A make-believe date. A placebo date.
Looking at him standing there, tall, handsome and well-dressed, I realize a fake date with Clint may trump a show on serial killers. Maybe.
“Okay,” I mutter.
“Yes! Get ready now. It’s 10:30.”
Clint and I have this game when I undress in the bedroom. I don’t bother asking him to leave my room at this point. He’ll go on the computer or do something to avert his eyes. I enjoy it. Simply the act of undressing with a man in my room feels good between my legs.
I squeeze into this fairly tight gown and begin hating myself almost instantly. Why doesn’t it fit like before? Why is it betraying me so? I start taking it off, with a groan.
“Let me see it first.”
“No, Clint. It’s wrong. It’s…”
“Let me see it!”
I turn around and his pretty blue eyes light up. A tight gown means something totally different to him.
“Perfect. Now keep going.”
But I can’t. I’m stuck in mud, suddenly.
Clint takes over. He tells me what jewelry to put on, what coat to wear. He picks my shoes. He watches me apply makeup and tells me when to stop.
“Okay, that's enough. You’re pretty enough without it.” My face warms a little. The words feel good and hurt simultaneously.
I don’t feel pretty enough. Technically, I realize I’m an attractive person. But there’s this pervasive ugliness that lays its unwelcome hands all over me.
Living in this house doesn’t help. It’s an old family shore house that I moved into several years ago, so I could start my business. With both my parents gone, my brother has been the only person living here. He’s a hoarder. A Howard Hughes type. He doesn’t see the disrepair that everyone else does. Or he doesn’t choose to.
His shit was everywhere when I first moved in. It took me months to make it barely livable. I eventually hit a wall and could do no more. This house is beyond me. It needs a fucking wrecking ball not a “woman’s touch.”
Several weeks ago, I had a date over for dinner. He saw the ceiling tiles in the living room, falling in from a leak in the roof.
“Your ceiling really need repaired,” he says offhandedly.
“You free Wednesday?” I respond, with a spark of anger.
It’s easy for people with sturdy little houses and sturdy little families to make comments like that.
Sitting in my bedroom after dinner, he looked around at the hodgepodge of random artwork I have up and the many layers of paint carelessly slapped on the wall. My room offended his sensibilities, I could tell. I kept thinking, hell dude - if you think my room's a wreck, wait till you get a load of what's between these ears of mine! After that night, I didn't hear from him again.
“Come on, Beth. Focus. It’s quarter of 11. Do your hair,” Clint says.
I brush my hair and pull it up on my head. Then take it down. Then put it back up. He doesn’t know I’m on the verge of tears. Or perhaps he does.
“How about a glass of wine?”
Clint leaves my bedroom and makes his way through the maze of blankets we have hanging up throughout the house. We have no central heat here. The bedrooms and the kitchen are heated by space heaters. The hanging blankets, like those ceiling tiles, inflame the shame, infect my spirit.
But Clint has seen my hanging blankets and falling tiles. He’s done repairs here. Perhaps he’s doing repairs now.
When he comes back in the room, my tears have been neatly placed in the jewelry box.
“You look amazing.”
I try to smile.
"Is my room...weird?"
"What?" He looks around. "No. I always thought you room was kinda sexy, in a gypsy sorta way."
The house I grew up in was nothing like the Joneses. After my dad died, my mother worked full-time and came home exhausted and depressed. The house suffered. Holes in the rugs and furniture, fleas on the dogs, dishes in the sink. I couldn’t stand it.
When I had slumber parties, I’d clean that house all day yet feel so self-conscious and nervous when the other girls would arrive. You can’t clean away that awful feeling, no matter how hard you scrub. And something would always happen. One girl was allergic to fleas and got bitten repeatedly. She had to leave.
The next day, I sprayed bug killer everywhere, even on my bed and pillows. I’d be prepared for the next visit. As if there would be one. As if I could kill that feeling of shame with a can of Raid.
I read once that shame is one of the most corrosive and useless of emotions. Guilt can spur an apology when needed, for instance. But shame? It serves no purpose other than to make you feel like a first class piece of shit.
Clint plays music on the computer. I pull out a red lipstick from my makeup bag and take a sip of my latest find, a very good California Syrah. My favorite wines are almost always from California.
It’s funny. Even with all my broke-assness, my tastes have gotten nothing but finer. My mother used to laugh at my lofty inclinations as a child.
“I swear, you’d think you’re a Rockefeller or something. I don’t know where you get it. Just a head’s up, girl – we’re poor!”
She was the one who taught me to have good taste. Even broke, we’d occasionally go to fine restaurants, to expand our culinary horizons. She took me to the movies constantly, so I could "see the world." She taught me manners, core manners.
She had impeccable speech, an extensive vocabulary and read several books a week. She was genteel. She was also draining and narcisstic and extremely depressed. If I complained about the house, she'd bellow:
A house is supposed to look like it's lived in, damnit. You try raising 5 children on a secretary's salary! You try coming home and cooking dinner and cleaning. You see how it feels! No one appreciates the work I do. No one!"
The lipstick is a blazing red - a real power color. It does some of the work for me, thankfully. After applying it, I “unveil” myself to Clint, though he’s been watching me on and off the whole time.
“Very much so,” he says kindly.
"Thank you, Clint," I say, gratefully.
Oh, doesn’t he seem like the sweetest guy? Well, that's because this is a story.
Real life has fleas and worn spots in the rugs. In a few nights, Clint will “jokingly” tell me several times that I "owe" him since he bought the ticket for me. I will become irate, detailing the countless meals I’ve fed him, the times he’s stayed at my place, borrowed my car...
No one appreciates the work I do! No one!
I explain how his jokes slowly erode that special feeling I had New Year's Eve. She needs to hold on to that feeling right now. So back off. You hear me? Leave her alone!
It is New Year's Eve, 2009.
Clint puts my long, black coat with a faux fur collar on me and opens up the front door, which is starting to fall of its hinges. We take a step out on the icy front porch, caving in from age. The full moon and blast of arctic air instantly charge my spirits. The night becomes me suddenly.
I could probably fly there, if so desired. But I'd rather drive with Clint in his old red Ford pick-up truck and sing to the tunes on the radio. We links arms, so I don’t slip on the icy, sunken steps. His arms feel so big and blue collar.
For a moment, she feels safe and pretty.