Girl Before A Mirror
Girl Before A Mirror
Artist: Pablo Picasso

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Loving Us

by Jennifer Byrne

The set and the shape of the eyes would always be the same. Unlike those snowmen they'd spent hours on as kids, adjusting the black tokens they had stolen from their own "Connect Four" game, their eyes were implacable in their twin skulls, sunken down deep as if they'd been dropped from a great height and had landed too close together. They were one thing Lila would never be able to fix. On some irrational level, she felt that they mocked her, eluded her, receding into their cavities like mollusks into shells. They were ugly eyes. She could change their color - from the color of dried mud on boots to the clouded blue of a lagoon filled with kicked-up sediment - but she could never change their character. They stubbornly stood their ground; too close together, too small, and ugly.

This was what she saw now when she spent time with Alma. The eyes. Their eyes. Alma made no effort to enhance hers, except for the occasional wire-rimmed glasses that were not so much adornment as practicality. For Lila, looking into those eyes was painful in many ways. They were her own ugly eyes, yes, but they were not. They were what the drab loam-colored eyes looked like when possessed by someone who accepted them. They were her eyes, in a loving home.

There hung in the air, with Alma, the question Lila had never asked outright: How can you stand it? How can you just stay this way? It was a question she never really needed to verbalize; her very existence posed this question every time they met. And Alma's existence always thrummed quietly with the same calm reply. It's just the way I am. It's just me. It was no longer just us.

**

"Apparently, you hit the genetic lottery," Adam said, smiling his endearingly crooked smile that made her feel ecstatic and desperate and frightened all at once. "Looks-wise, anyway. No offense against Alma." He dropped the faded Polaroid into the cup-holder, where Alma's wronged face landed awkwardly between a Dr. Pepper and a pack of Marlboros, smiling stoically upon impact. "You have gone too far," the navigational device's sanitized female voice announced, and to Lila, it almost seemed like this calm indictment was issuing from Alma's photograph.

"Shit," he said. "Is this thing right?"

"I think so," she said. "You'd better turn around."

His comment about Alma hadn't upset her at all. It was the kind of statement that boyfriends know they are perfectly entitled to make about their girlfriends' sisters with very little risk of offending them, and a much better chance of secretly pleasing them.

"Hang on there, missy," he said, and it almost seemed as though this testosterone-fueled one-liner was what powered the car, lurching it into a showy, gravel-spitting turn in a feed store parking lot. He smiled and winked at her, a combination of self-parody and genuine bravado. She tried to smile back in a casual, here-we-are-on-a-road trip way. She felt it fail. She felt the smile withering on her lips as she returned to the subject of her sister. "Alma never really did care about doing anything with her looks," she said.

"Yeah, I can see that," Adam said, glancing again at the picture, his eyes sliding from Alma's face to her own. She didn't know how to hold eye contact with a man whose scrutiny was ping-ponging back and forth between her face and another woman's, unabashedly comparing them. Could a woman ever meet such a gaze with any sort of dignity? "But come on, Lila, it's not as though she could really do very much with that."

She laughed nervously and discharged some sort of affectionate filler talk, something like, "Oh, you're terrible," or "Keep your eye on the road, will you?" But she felt suddenly the way a dog must feel when locked inside an airless car in the summertime. She cracked a window just to get some circulating oxygen from the outside world.

Adam was wrong. There was plenty that Alma could do with that. She knew; she had done it.

**

They'd started off as one person. This person had, in their mother's womb, decided to not remain whole and alone. This future person (which one of them, which part of her, was it, who'd made the decision?) had split itself into two halves that were supposedly identical. She'd read everything she could find about twins: they were as genetically similar as two people could possibly be. If either of them ever had children, their children would be considered not cousins, but half-siblings.

But she knew the truth; they may have been made from replicated material, but their renunciation of each other made them more different than they'd ever been alike. If there had been any real harmony of self, she knew, they wouldn't have split up in the first place. They'd emerged under identical faces, yes, but that was all; as soon as they could, they'd struck out on drastically different paths. Nature and nurture each had their place, but then there was that other thing, the thing that defied all measurable factors. She could call it the soul, or the self. But whatever it was, it had been at odds with itself while she and Alma had been one. That person couldn't continue.

**

They checked into a motel along the highway, despite Alma's insistence that they could stay at her house. It was the kind of motel with 50 cable channels and a motorized toilet seat cover that spooled out the vague insult of a fresh, new "sanitary" plastic cover — protecting them from each other! — with each use like a raucous, erratic treadmill.

"Oh, the stories this place could tell," Adam said with happy grimness, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her down onto the king-sized bed. "A crime scene crew could come in here and find all kinds of scandalous stains."

"That's disgusting," she said, burrowing her face into Adam's shoulder. He was different from the other men she had been with. He had substance. She felt the panic of losing him come over her like a cold sweat.

"What's disgusting," he said, drawing her closer, "is how much more disgusting I want to make it."

She let the cold sweat pass, and she let him kiss her, and she gave herself a reprieve. She tried to let herself focus on loving him, rather than hating herself.

"You're just so unbelievably beautiful," he said, over and over again, bringing her back to the flimsy thread she was hanging by, bringing her back to her own scandalous stain. This was how she passed the night, secretly phosphorescent under a darkness that didn't know better.

**

Alma's hair was shorter now, which made the differences even more pronounced, and she was wearing her prescription sunglasses as she stood in front of her vegetable garden. When she took them off, her brown eyes caught the sun and their opacity was lit with shots of amber, and they were suddenly as dazzling as stained glass. Her tentative twitch of a grin, which Lila always imagined was an instinctive recoil against her, soon broke into the full, brilliant, gentle smile, a smile that was as slow and graceful as dusk. It was a complex and beautiful thing, Alma's smile, and it was full of mystery to Lila. Her sister's virtuosity in conveying grace and wisdom and empathy through her face, this flawed, neglected instrument - it truly fascinated Lila. Her own smile was stiff, angry, pained. She tried, but the sum of her beautiful parts was not beauty when she tried to stretch them into an expression of contentment.

"Alma, this is Adam Greenfield," she said, her voice aiming at cheerful clownishness, but falling short, even cracking slightly.

Adam was silent for longer than she would have liked; he usually rushed in with glib jokes, to smooth over moments of awkwardness. It was Alma who spoke first.

"Hi," she said. "It's good to meet you. You're the first guy Lila's mentioned in such a long time."

"Thanks a lot, sis," Lila said, rolling her eyes. "That doesn't make me sound too desperate."

"It's good to meet you, too," Adam said in a soft voice, making a weird little laughing sound.

"And this is my housemate and good friend, Martin Kline," Alma said, and Martin stepped forward to shake Adam's hand. Martin had been Alma's best friend since college, and they had formed something of a platonic marriage that would have been sad if they both didn't seem so content. He was a gay, dark-haired physicist with a quiet, yet deadly sense of humor and an inner fortitude that Lila found intimidating. Martin's presence emphasized even more the differences between the sisters. Alma with Martin looked even less like Lila than Alma alone.

In Alma, all Adam saw was a moderately overweight, homely woman: the nose that used to be Lila's nose, the hair that used to be Lila's hair; the pencil-thin lips that he would have been kissing, or perhaps would have chosen not to kiss. But he also saw that smile, that subtle sexiness that is the secret weapon of the unbeautiful woman who inhabits her body proudly.

"So here we finally meet," Adam said.

**

They started with a picnic by the lake. Alma had packed an absurd amount of food - a variety of cold cut sandwiches, fried chicken, pasta salad, fruit cup, chocolate cake. She sat there eating unselfconsciously in her bathing suit, which did nothing to conceal her heavy thighs, her flat, wide ass, and her tiny breasts. While she was talking, she collected her hair into a sloppy ponytail, a swift, seamless gesture that appeared to require no more thought than a hiccup. Lila, on the other hand, had her sleek blond hair carefully arranged around her freckled shoulders, catching the light reflected by her silver and turquoise necklace. She weighed a good twenty pounds less than her sister, and was scrupulously in shape, but she wore a pale blue sarong over her bathing suit bottom as she picked at a tuna sandwich. She couldn't bear to eat in a bathing suit; the exposed flesh was too much of a reminder of where the calories were going, and it also seemed a little dirty.

Adam quizzed Alma about her work as a physical therapist at a military hospital; he seemed especially fascinated by her work with war amputees.

"How do you get somebody through something like that?" he was leaning across the uneven topography of the blanket, staring at Alma as though she were a creature that had not yet been classified in nature.

"Well, my biggest job is to help them to accept the situation as it is," she said, gently flicking an ant from her knee. "These are guys whose physical strength and speed were an important part of their identities. They need to grieve that. But I can show them how to work with what they have, and to reestablish their sense of strength."

"You help them to accept themselves the way they are," Adam said, a gob of potato salad moving annoyingly up and down with his upper lip. Lila moved to wipe it, and saw that Adam seemed surprised that she was still there. "Oh, thanks, sweetie." That word, "sweetie" - so frothy and insubstantial - she felt it as a dismissal, a relegation to some lower tier of human interaction. She'd been banished to Sweetie-land. "That's got to be an incredibly difficult job, Alma."

"It's challenging, sure," Alma said, nodding her head, her eyes sliding toward Lila's, seeking her out, for what? Was she preaching to her? Scolding her? Or apologizing? Or what? "But it's what I do best."

"Wow," Adam said, turning now to his girlfriend, whose beautiful body - the result of ruthless refusal to accept herself the way she was - had so enraptured him the previous night. "And to think we write advertising copy for erectile dysfunction drugs. I feel so irrelevant."

Lila felt her face grow hot with anger. He was apologizing for both of them, for the vapidity of their lives. He had no right to apologize for her.

"Hey, don't knock it," Martin said, salvaging the awkward moment. "It seems to me you're helping folks with the loss of an appendage, too."

Scattered laughter stirred up the air like a much-needed breeze. "I'm going in," Alma said, brushing the crumbs off her hands and jumping to her feet, her soft flesh rippling slightly with the effort.

"Go for it," Martin said with a clear fondness. "I don't think I'll be joining you, though. That water is freezing."

Alma first walked, then ran toward the lake, scissoring into the water in a zigzag pattern that was unmistakably exuberant and fun.

"Wow, you two really are different," Adam said, still focusing on Alma's tiny head as it sunk under the water and resurfaced again. "You'd do your best to avoid getting your hair wet, so you wouldn't mess it up."

Lila was furious. This wasn't cute or funny. He was polarizing her, casting her as the shallow bimbo to her sister's soulful earth goddess. She'd endured this before, but never from a boyfriend. Usually, the men she dated saw Alma as a mousy nobody. What hurt the most was that Adam's appreciation of her sister was probably an indication of his quality of character. He was proving himself worthy of her, just as he was figuring out that she was unworthy of him.

"I'm going inside," she said, walking toward the house.

**

She hadn't done what she'd done to hurt Alma, or even to differentiate herself from her sister. She'd done it simply because they were unattractive, and she didn't want to be. It had never seemed to bother Alma; nothing did. In this way, she convinced herself that she'd done nothing wrong. If Alma was not bothered by their shared ugliness, then how could she be insulted by her sister's desire to disown it? And yet, it was probably more complicated than that. It seemed unfair to Lila that she couldn't simply hate herself like everyone else. She couldn't repudiate the unfortunate hand she'd been dealt without rejecting Alma by extension. Sure, everyone knew the pop psychology bullshit about how self-hatred was damaging and wrong; but in most cases, it at least seemed to be a victimless crime.

She'd changed her hair first, in ninth grade. She'd gone from that tragically boring shade of cheap pantyhose to the bright corn silk color she maintained to this day. Despite the years of bleached-out damage suffered by this hair, she managed to pull, iron, condition, and sculpt this hair into the appearance of health. There's no such thing as healthy hair, anyway, she thought, scoffing at her bottles of fancy conditioner even as she used them up. She knew her science: all hair was dead material, from day one. Health for the dead: the notion made her laugh. If her hair looked good, it was healthy enough.

By her senior year of high school, she'd saved up enough money from selling popcorn at the movie theater to afford the nose job. This had made a huge difference. After three terrifying weeks of seeing her face deliberately bruised and ballooned, her nose indistinguishable from the rest of the nebulous bloat, she began to heal, to take shape. The neat, straight little slope that emerged was smooth, feminine, no longer hooked and resentful-looking in profile.

It was at this time that her face ceased to be identical to Alma's. People who met them after this point no longer concluded that they were twins, but instead remarked only on a "family resemblance," which was a polite way of saying they looked like a before-and-after picture. Lila also began to diet and work out obsessively, reshaping their wide, stubbornly flabby lower body into a toned-yet-curvy physique. This was when she began to turn heads, to attract attention. Mercifully, she was away at college during that time, and Alma was at home, commuting to Rutgers. Her mother had been upset initially by the fact that Lila had "un-twinned my twins," as though she had somehow tampered with both of them. But after a while, even she had to admit that Lila "looked lovely" in her dramatic new incarnation. Even her mother, who had loved that face that only a mother could love, was charmed by the renovations.

**

She'd had only one conversation about it with Alma, who'd been remarkably silent on the whole matter. She marveled at her sister's apparent indifference. Had Alma not noticed that they were far from pretty? Had Alma not been listening when, walking home from school in fifth grade, Andrew Spinks had called them "Ugly-Squared"? Had she not sat with her on the same gymnasium bleachers at the school dance, decanting goldfish crackers from Sno-cone cups, excluded from the tentative sexuality hovering all around them?

These were the questions she'd always had for Alma. The closest she'd ever come to getting the answer had been when she was twenty years old, home for Thanksgiving with her college friend Liz Arnaud. Liz was a dramatically glamorous brunette, editor of the school newspaper, actress in school plays, uniformly adored. When she'd met Alma, she'd been polite and friendly, but with a hushed note of pity in her voice.

"Your sister must have had a hard time, growing up with you," she'd said that night, as she and Lila were washing off their makeup in front of the mirror. "I don't know how she managed to not be consumed by jealousy."

Lila didn't know how to answer. Suddenly finding herself on the outside of her shared experience with Alma made her feel strangely lonely.

"She's not the jealous type," she said, realizing as she said it that it was true, that they hadn't truly shared the experience of being ugly, not in the same way.

The next day, making stuffing in the kitchen with Alma, she had examined her sister's plain doughy face, additionally fattened by the institutional starches of college, her stringy hair grazing the shoulders of her ill-fitting T-Shirt.

"I like Liz," Alma had said, chopping celery in a methodical way that seemed inherently mature. "She's interesting, and not snobbish all."

Lila had felt a creeping terror beneath her skin. She didn't look at Alma. That face. She couldn't. "Promise you won't tell her," she said quietly, staring down at the uneven pile of chopped onions on the cutting board.

There had been a long silence, a respectful observance of the fact that this was a topic they had avoided for good reason, and would avoid again in the future. It was silence designed for the sinking in of full implications, for Alma to understand exactly what Lila was asking her to deny.

"I don't blame you for it, Liley," she said, using the childhood nickname, her eyes on the chopped vegetables that would be soon shoehorned in where the turkey's real organs had once functioned. "I won't tell anyone."

**

It took Adam more than an hour to come back to the house. She saw him through the window, walking with Alma and Martin, his shirt off, his shoulders red in a way she found oddly embarrassing. He was laughing at something Alma had said; there was a word for the way he looked, and she didn't want to choose this word, not even in her head. But there it was: he was awestruck. She could reject that word all she wanted, but it wouldn't change the meaning of what she saw through the window.

Usually, when they fought, they were that cheesy dramatic couple that savored making up. She would storm off, and he would follow after her, and they would pretend to be angry for five minutes before collapsing into a paroxysm of apologies and kisses. It was the kind of relief that you need to suffer a bit for, and usually it worked. "Time well-spent," Adam liked to say.

But this was different, she thought. She wasn't even sure he had noticed she was angry at him. This time, it wasn't even necessarily a fight. It was something without precedent. She didn't know how to make up from this, or if making up even mattered.

"She wasn't lucky enough to be born with what you have," he said, his eyes on the razor he was drawing cautiously across his jaw. "She got the short end of that stick, for sure. But she's just so comfortable in her own skin. She accepts herself. There's a beauty in that. Have you noticed how she gets prettier the more you talk to her?" Yes, she had noticed.

They were preparing for dinner; he was sharing his thoughts, oblivious to what they were doing to her. There it was again: the topic of luck and acceptance. He had no idea what he was talking about.

"A person has to love themselves in order to be loved by anyone else," he added.

And why is that, exactly? She wondered. Why should the people who already love themselves get everyone else's love, too? It was like a reward for a reward. Love should be given to those who don't have it, she thought, not those who do.

"That sounds a lot like the rich getting richer," she said blithely, combing her hair.

He looked at her as if her sentiment was just silly, unworthy of a real response, but she didn't care anymore. How did he know, for example, that Alma wasn't the lucky one? As he'd said, she had always been comfortable in her own skin, she had always accepted herself. She'd never been driven by the need to be more, by the tortured self-loathing that had propelled Lila. Wasn't that kind of contentment a gift, just as much as blond hair and blue eyes were a gift? Wasn't it even more so?

She cracked the bedroom door, watching Alma set the dining room table, her Irish setter dog trotting alongside her anxiously. Alma's hair was still wet from the swim, and her skin was browned from the hours out by the lake. She moved around the tiny house with a swift seamlessness, her movements almost dancelike in their grace. The cheap foldout table had been borrowed from their mother and never upgraded. She was good at living in her house.

She was good at living as herself.

Jennifer Byrne's writing has been published in Per Contra, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was a finalist for the 2007 Per Contra Fiction Prize, and was a top-25 winner in the Writer's Digest Short Short Story competition (her entry was published in an anthology by the same name). She was awarded 2nd Place in the Literary Short Story Category at the Philadelphia Writer's Conference, and received Honorable Mention in the 2007 Writer's Digest Writing Competition for "Loving Us."


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