I don’t remember my mother’s face. Just her voice. I was about three years old when I awoke to sounds of screaming. Between her huffy sobs, I heard these words streaming from my parents’ off-limits bedroom:
“They are monsters! Ugly monsters! How could anything so ugly come from inside of me?”
What I learned later was that my mother, Lucinda, began her life when she was fifteen, on the day she won a teenage pageant. After that, her own mother, Mrs. Forsythe, martyred herself by giving up her own career in order to accompany Lucinda across the country to attend other such events.
Eventually, the slender, curvaceous, bombshell Lucinda got knocked up with twins and she was coerced to marry a man she probably loved anyway — he was a very handsome, cool guy, my father — and above all, a good provider.
Mrs. Forsythe was the enforcer of Lucinda’s banishment from the beauty business. Marriage was the only answer, or possible punishment, depending on how you looked at it. Lucinda’s unscrupulous behavior is what destroyed Mrs. Forsythe’s hopes and fairytale fantasies as well as Lucinda’s storybook future. Lucinda got what she deserved.
Lucinda and her lover settled on a farm tucked away in the backwoods. My mother dispassionately carried the babies in her womb. The disgusting swelling that distended out from her body remained taboo to the touch, even to her husband. God forbid anyone might see her in such a fattened state. Even Mrs. Forsythe couldn’t bring herself to visit during Lucinda’s confinement.
When my sister and I were born, before our mother had a chance to lay eyes on us, she suffered the most horrific postpartum depression. Because she was so downtrodden, and wanting to hide her flabby abdomen, she took to her bed and demanded that no living soul be permitted to gape at her ugly twins.
I was born ugly. My whole life has been a response to that indelible, painful truth. Had I not started out with these misaligned horse-like lips and bulging frog eyes, among other features, I would not presently have a story to tell you. To this day, my nose is broad and flat with hardly a bridge. From certain angles, the middle of my face reveals two nostrils surrounded by a bump of sorts like the front part of a pig’s snout. My twisted smile competes with my gigantic crooked teeth. Oh, and then there’s my red and scaly alligator skin.
But, more on that later because a description of my singular ugliness warrants so much of your time.
As the story goes, the one that I gleaned as I grew, my mother was unable, or should I say unwilling, to take care of us. Without forethought, my father randomly chose one of us and sent her, my sister, Drizella, to my mother’s mother to live in the Forsythe mansion. When, as an adult, I learned of this separation, I didn’t understand, nor could my father articulate, what behooved him to so readily give away one of his children. Why couldn't he fight off my persistent, never-take-no-for-an-answer grandmother as she bellowed her desperate need to whisk Drizella away under grandma’s wing, pledging to save Drizella from a life of despair.
Nowadays, except for some get-togethers with a few of my colleagues and neighbors who no longer wince or avert their eyes when they greet me, I live an unapologetically solitary life. I’ve never told my story to anyone. Today is my seventy-fifth birthday. I'm ready to satisfy everyone's curiosity. Throughout my public life, most folks wanted to but couldn't bring themselves to stop me on the street and ask, “Why are you so ugly? How can you stand it? If I looked like you, I would kill myself!”
So, here goes...
To sum up my life before my life: I had a twin sister but for many years, I didn’t consciously remember that I did. After my mother died from “heartbreak,” or from starving herself to death, my father and I resumed our lives together at the farmhouse. My father never spoke of Drizella and, apparently, I didn’t ask. I forgot she even existed. Many times, I found myself looking around for someone who I thought was watching me. I even heard giggles and whimpers, in my imagination, of course, and was always searching for someone who didn’t materialize. When I first read about Halloween, I wondered if that’s what this personal spirit was — a ghost or something. To this day, even though for years now as an adult, I keep contact with Drizella, I still find myself looking around as if that unyielding soul actually lives within me.
As the only daughter of my father, Dr. Van-Heusen (he was a veterinarian), I grew up. However, the journey to adulthood was an onerous one. You probably already guessed that the children at school were brutal to me. I had no friends, except for my father, of course, as well as the animals in his small hospital where he housed the most innocent and beautiful creatures.
The worst of the verbal assaults came in the form of chants. The children linked my father's being a veterinarian to my ghastly physical features:
She’s an Animalda,
Her daddy puts her in a cage,
To live with Dogeraldas.
Yes, Esmeralda is my name. My father chose Drizella for one girl and Esmeralda for the other. We wore clothes made of identically colored plain fabrics chosen by the nursemaid my daddy had hired. Word has it she couldn’t even tell us apart. When it came time to give one of us away, just to shut my grandmother up, Dr. Van-Heusen grabbed one of us and mechanically plopped her into Forsythe's clutches without thinking about which girl was named which.
Esmeralda is the name of the gypsy girl who loved Quasimodo, the hunchback, and it means emerald. When I found out there was another sister, I believed I was the lucky one by having Esmeralda stick as my very own name. Of course, when others learned my name, they thought it was entirely too glamorous and elaborate for an ugly girl like me.
Drizella, on the other hand was the name of one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. I don’t believe my father knew the derivation of the names when he chose them or maybe, they were names he liked that belonged to some of the wounded animals he treated.
After Mrs. Forsythe took Drizella away, I never saw my grandmother again. She didn’t visit or keep in touch with my father and my father never spoke of her. As it turned out, knowing what I know now, Grandma’s disappearance from my life probably saved my life — at least the life I lived in my heart.
My daily existence consisted of a series of contrasts. My school condition was like a bad dream. It took years for me to armor myself against my classmates' cruelty. Eventually, I feigned a response by reacting as if I were a simpleton and didn’t understand what they were saying, as they triumphantly pointed at me and stage whispered to each other. I did my best to prevent further attention by keeping my braininess to myself. I didn’t raise my hand in class. At least I might then minimize their chances to twist around from the teacher in the front of the room toward the back wall where they could throw spitballs at me without the teacher’s knowledge.
Tommy Tympany sat near me because our last names were at the end of the alphabet. When the teacher wasn't looking, he used to pull out a hidden pocket mirror and stick it in front of my face, so close, I could see the fog I generated as a result of my hyperventilation. The other tittering kids would face me and hook their pointer fingers onto the corners of their downturned mouths, stick out their waggling tongues and jeer as if duplicating the image sadly looming back at me from Tommy Tympany's mirror.
The teacher must have sympathized with my plight, because she never called on me. Yet, I was very smart and without exception, I could have answered just about any question the teacher posed.
At any rate, I found a way to survive my delirious days.
At night, however, I experienced the opposite milieu, the celebration of my being. At the dinner table, my father lovingly queried me as to how school had gone that day. All the emotion I had stored in a frozen cavern in my shivering mind came gushing out.
“Father, I am a monster. The kids can’t stand to look at me. They hate me. They are afraid of me. Why am I so ugly?”
My father winced. He detested the word, monster, probably because that was my mother’s word for me, although I didn’t know it at the time.
“To me, you are the most beautiful creature on earth. I don’t know why those kids can’t see it. Maybe they are jealous of you.”
Then he would get up from his chair and come all the way around to my place and hug me and stroke my sparse and stringy, straw-like hair as if it were silk. I can still feel his touch on my tingling scalp as he gently patted my head and kissed the top of it as a final action before returning to his seat.
As I got older, I challenged him. “Father, please cut out the jealousy bit. We both know what people see when they look at me!”
After I pushed and pushed on this theme, he would placate me by adopting a more down-to-earth stance tinged with some poetic phrases. “Beauty is just what people say it is at the time…”
He would lean his head onto one of his large palms, the hand that had compassionately caressed so many needy dogs and cats that day. “I wish your mother would have learned that. She would never be satisfied with the glamour girl she tried to be. Poor Lucinda. She was a skinny slip of a thing with little remaining space to house her icy heart.”
After he collected himself, Father would express his pride in me; my spirit was the direct opposite of the one possessed by my Adonis mother.
“Esmeralda, you are one of the funniest people I know. Do you appreciate what a talent that is, to help other people laugh? Many nights you cheered me up so I could forget my grief. And what about your little skits and dance recitals. You make up stories that warm my heart, that make me think, I mean really think. My darling daughter, what a gift you are to me. Promise me you will always share your wit with others and your insight, and all that good stuff that has nothing to do with how you look!”
I couldn’t make the pledge he requested because even though my father expressed these declarations almost every night, I still couldn’t fathom how he arrived at his perception of me. I figured he was just making nice, seeing how distraught I was, but after years of these affirmations, I started to view myself as I must really be.
In terms of my physical self, I used my bedroom mirror as a guide. It stood like a stern military statue on the closet door in a narrow corner of my room. The very first thing I did after putting my books on the dining room table was to run to my room and prance in front of that looking glass, although it was difficult to get a full view because the bottom half was covered by the forever empty extra bed. The mirror, which served sometimes as my sadistic companion and other times as my savior, highlighted my brooding face. I idled in front of it for many hours.
I treated my framed reflector like a laboratory. I would stick out my whitened, dry tongue and mimic myself just the way the kids did. I tightly stretched my mouth in order to camouflage my misshapen lips which simultaneously diverted attention from my large teeth that were just crooked enough to punctuate my, should I say, unique face. Or maybe I would grimace as if making a wicked smile or tilt my head as if in thought. If I had the ability to make myself uglier, then maybe I could reverse the process and reduce my freakishness. What goes up — getting uglier, eventually has to come down, right?
You might think I would have avoided the mirror altogether so as not to scare myself the way others were frightened of me, but by performing these tricks and having no doubt of my unalterable homely appearance, I actually got used to myself!
I was fascinated by how I handled the world’s reaction to me. It intrigued me that I had been chosen to look this grotesque. Maybe there was a grand scheme for me to change the world. Maybe all this rumination is why I became world renowned in my field of psychology and then later in neurosurgery.
By the time I faced a renewed social challenge in college, I had already learned to play down some of my more prominent features and made myself not so striking — in the ugly sense. I wore hats with floppy brims and sunglasses to cover my froggy eyes.
Also, I had a rather nice body, at least by current standards. Thank goodness I wasn’t overweight. Can you imagine how the circus show would have been had I presented as the fat lady? You know what they say about fat ladies. “What a shame. She has such a pretty face. If only she weren’t so fat, she would be beautiful!”
Obviously not so in my case.
I was entitled to have my svelte figure, wasn’t I? Why should all of life’s defects be assigned to just one innocent little girl in the world whose mother abandoned her just because of her random genetic appearance?
Now you know where I originated, what I looked like, that I became a brilliant and renowned scholar, and how I learned to accept myself.
But you ask: Whatever became of Drizella?
When I turned twenty-one, my father told me the whole story about my sister. Of course, I was upset that he hadn’t revealed all this before but after many heated discussions with him and sleepless nights, I forgave him while my sympathy for my sister escalated as I pondered what it must have been like for her to be abandoned by both parents. At least I had my dad.
His account answered so much for me because as I told you, throughout my life, I had always sensed there was some kind of imaginary companion who walked with me. So, at least, the confusion was now cleared up a bit.
But, in keeping with my curious nature, I simply had to find Drizella. I wondered if Drizella knew of my existence. Had Drizella struggled as I did with her physical inferiority? Had she found a way to accept herself in this world?
I set out to find her. I felt as if I were a zookeeper on an expedition in Africa to acquire more specimens for caging. I could have used a guide but I knew this was a journey I had to take myself.
It's one thing to observe your imperfections in your own bedroom mirror. It’s another phenomenon to see yourself in the form of another human being. My heart thundered in earth-shattering, uneven beats as I anticipated our first glance at each other. In her face, a human mirror, would I see myself for the first time? Would she look as ugly to me as I saw myself? Would I study her features in the same manner others exhibited when they gawked at me — the ones who flinched in fright — “Poor girl. She’s so disfigured!” — or would I be able to accept her homeliness as belonging to her and not just a duplication of myself? Yet, I had been so treasured by my father despite my shortcomings — he didn’t see me as a collection of flaws. Would I be able to adopt his precious view and transfer that to her as a gift? Not that she was my reflection but that she was her own gemlike person.
It took a long time to track her down. I couldn’t find Drizella under the Forsythe or the Van-Huesen names and my grandmother had died three years prior to my search. We didn’t have internet in those days so I actually hired a detective of sorts. Until then, I didn’t know Drizella had changed her name to Charlene Charbeau.
The minute I got her number, I phoned her. I hadn’t rehearsed my greeting so my words just spilled out, “Hello, Drizella, I’m your long-lost sister!”
It was as if she had been sitting by the phone for eighteen years awaiting my call like what-took-you-so-long? As soon as she heard my quirky statement, without even a pause, my twenty-one-year-old sister blurted, “Esmeralda, I knew this day would come. I go by Charlene now, not Drizella. It’s been so long since anyone called me that.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. I’ll try to remember. I think I might have gotten started on the wrong foot.”
I sounded so formal. What a weird situation. After all, we were once so close. Geez, we had shared a womb together. Being mutual playmates, maybe we didn’t even realize we were ugly (unless we attributed those frantic outbursts from my mother as referring to us). What about the intimacy and laughter we must have mutually enjoyed in whatever games and rituals we invented in our short three years together? I surmised that with no mother to speak of, and a father who was probably preoccupied with his work and the caretaking of his ailing wife, all we really had was each other. Perhaps, the reason I always imagined the ghostly sensation of her presence, a necessary partner, is because even though I denied Drizella’s absence, I knew deep down she had vanished and I needed a way to cope with her loss.
Having just heard her adult voice for the first time, I felt as if I had awakened. I suddenly visualized a hazy image of the two of us sitting together on the floor in a darkened closet, one of us having discovered the other and that sister plopping down next to the one already sitting there. We were giggling. Someone was calling our names. We smiled to each other and snickered mischievously.
Oh my. This shock of reconnection meant that I would inevitably recover other intimate memories which, despite my attempts at conscious restraint, threatened to flood my mind like a series of tidal waves! I was on the verge of hysteria. How could I proceed with this conversation without completely breaking down? I collected my emotions under a shield of welcomed solemnity.
We continued interacting as if there had never been a traumatic breakup of our pairing. We reviewed our historic versions of our separate lives. Drizella raced through her memories of us at the time we were entwined in my father’s house. Every once in a while, during the animated conversation, I heard a familiar sound coming through my earpiece. It was kind of a muffled yelp, as if she were squelching a sob while simultaneously sighing, sort of like a stifled yawn. I didn’t address this form of expression with her. Anyway, I was on the verge of breaking down myself.
She faintly recalled her being swept away by our grandmother. She had never forgotten our existence from the time we were three years old and she entreated Mrs. Forsythe, whom she called, “Ma,” to bring her home to our father so she could play hide-and-seek with me, our favorite game. After a while, as Mrs. Forsythe hid Drizella in the house far from outsiders, Drizella gave up the pleading and tried desperately to put her old memories behind her.
Since our phone call, I now experienced an intense longing. I later upgraded the feeling to a gut-wrenching yearning that felt new to me and yet, curiously familiar, perhaps what I had experienced that first night after I studied her empty bed on the other side of the night light and wondered where my lifelong partner had gone. When had I repressed my knowledge of her existence? I now saw that her having been so suddenly yanked away from me was too heart-wrenching for a little girl to endure. But no one addressed my upheaval or the possibility that this event could emotionally scar me forever. It was to be life as usual, no questions asked. And, according to my father, I never asked.
We agreed to meet at my condo and then walk together to a local outdoor cafe near my building. The next day was to be our reunion.
On the day of, like a soldier guarding the palace, I paced my living room floor, nearly wearing out the newly installed, solid brown carpet. Each time I came near the window, I stopped and peered onto the street to see if I could spot her walking toward my building. I wanted to have a few extra seconds to straighten myself before we were face-to-face. I lingered in my place awaiting the doorman’s call to inform me Drizella had arrived.
Finally, the house phone rang announcing, “Miss Charlene Charbeau is here to see you. Should I send her up or do you plan to meet her in the lobby?”
“Oh, tell her I’ll be down in a minute.”
When I tentatively walked into the lobby and my eyes scanned the room, I couldn’t see her. There were a few people lingering there, but I didn’t see my sister. I walked over to the doorman and said, “Where did she go?”
“Why the lovely lady is right there standing by the flowerpot.”
“No, she’s not my sister.”
“For sure, that is Miss Charbeau. I recognize her from her photographs.”
“What? What photograph?” I looked straight at the elaborately dressed boney-thin woman just as she spotted me and did her own double take. The detective must have gotten it wrong. This was not my long-lost twin.
Drizella appeared before me as if she were Cinderella herself and not the ugly stepsister. Her eyes were riveted on me while her pinched face revealed her dread. It had to be a cruel trick. What kind of mirror was this where I look inside knowing I am the wicked witch but the reflection shows a gorgeous princess who looks back at me in horror? As my gaze rolled over Drizella, in pinprick fashion, the picture before me gradually morphed as my vision cleared from what I had expected to see and what actually confronted me. As if she were a puzzle, I observed her in pieces: the curly permed hair, the gigantic eyes that did not bulge as mine did, probably because of her sculpted eyebrows and her fake blue-lashed, dreamy lids that languished over the whites of her eyes. It looked as if someone had sculpted the bridge of her nose with clay to remodel the wide, flat piggy structure so plain in the center of my own scrawny face. Her lips were positively scrumptious and symmetrical. How did she manage it? How could mine look like a horse’s lips wavering in the wind as it galloped and hers be at a standstill and so voluptuous? Lipstick outlined her coloring-book mouth and her straightened teeth shown pearly white.
Drizella stood frozen. There was no way she was going to come toward me. So, I hesitantly and protectively ambled toward her.
I moved in closer. She spoke in barely a whisper: “Forgive me, my sister, I am trying to control myself. The truth is, I can’t stand to look at you. You remind me of what I used to be, my deformed self. I had no idea how grotesque I really was before Ma took care of me.” Drizella emitted that same muffled yawn-like yelp I had heard on the phone.
And now I knew where I had once heard that animal-like cry. It was the day when, at age three, I heard a sound coming from my parents’ bedroom — the day Lucinda bellowed that I was an ugly monster. Well, she had really expressed it in plural form but in my screen memory, I remembered her reference to a singular monster — me.
My tears welled up uninvited. Drizella acted like a victim who is forced to face her former self without regard for how cruel her words were, like arrows shot into an already wounded animal who should be put out of her misery. I didn’t want her to see the droplets rolling down my cheeks. I had been practiced in hiding the watery evidence of my emotion, mostly because when I cried, my face contorted and displayed a puckered, godawful cartoon-like appearance.
After a very long and awkward silence, while tears travelled down my reddened face, Drizella, having collected herself, standing taller than I in her three-inch heels, and probably regretting her declaration of appalling truth, reached out to me and brought me into her bosom, which was twice the size of mine.
Since that first painful encounter, Drizella and I talked for hours and unleashed more information, primarily more about her than I, for what did I have to reveal that would have been of much cheer?
First of all, I was not to call her Drizella. She knew the meaning of that name because her Ma had repeated it to her from the first day she slept in Grandma’s house. Grandma told her how ugly she was but not to worry because Grandma was to be her fairy godmother who had magical powers, and she was going to save Drizella’s life since being ugly was the worst thing that could happen to anyone. So for starters, Mrs. Forsythe changed Drizella’s name to a prettier one, Charlene.
Nightly, and with purpose, Mrs. Forsythe read aloud to her defective granddaughter: “Cinderella,” or “Snow White,” or “Sleeping Beauty,” as well as other blissful princess tales. Then Grandma tucked her in. Planting sloppy wet kisses on Drizella’s formerly rosy cheeks, and taking Drizella’s face in her veiny, knuckled, bejeweled hands, the large gold rings scraping Drizella’s sensitive skin, Grandma would cackle derisively, “You are my little mouse. No worries, My Dear. We will fix you. The Beast will soon become the Beauty.”
As she got older, Charlene was subjected to all the beauty treatments available starting with braces and gum surgery. Mrs. Forsythe exhaustively searched for and found the right plastic surgeon to perform a miraculous nose job. Other surgeons had refused to take on the impossible challenge. Most of them felt the surgery was iffy at best and would be a very painful recovery for the young girl.
Having found their guy, when Drizella was sixteen, they trudged to New York City. They stayed in a hotel for recuperation and monitoring. It took two repeat hospitalizations to complete the reformation because the doctor had to construct a bridge between her eyes so her nose wouldn’t appear so flat. Through injections, her eyelids were enhanced to cover more of the prominent whites causing her bulging eyes to transition into an exotic appearance.
Charlene was sent to modeling school and learned the art of applying makeup. A renowned dermatologist cured her alligator skin. She took Rogaine to thicken her undernourished bleached blonde hair. And, of course, she acquired breast implants which appeared even more robust than they actually were because she was exceedingly skinny.
By age seventeen, not yet out of high school, at her grandmother’s insistence, she had photos taken for her portfolio. She acquired an agent and was on her way to a fashion modeling career, which meant, of course, that she had to reduce her calorie intake. Drizella recalled her early tantrums when Ma locked the refrigerator and cabinets admonishing Charlene: “You are so fat, no one will ever look at you!”
She modeled for magazines and was featured in fashion shows. Her name was advertised to increase attendance. She developed a following, particularly among budding teens, some of whom started a fan club for this most extraordinary young starlet.
By the way, this was why the doorman knew that Charlene Charbeau was the real thing. He said he had seen her pictures, some of which appeared on billboards and TV ads.
Charlene’s transformation should have been complete, given her fame, but my sister was presently revving up for yet another plastic surgery. Darned if I can remember what it was or how it was to improve her.
Although Drizella — I mean, Charlene — was initially horrified with me because of how she, herself, could have turned out, as we talked further, she revealed how gruesome her real life had been. By being our grandmother’s reclamation project and serving as the supposed replacement for Mrs. Forsythe’s daughter, our mother, Lucinda, Charlene really had no life. There was no time for friends or youthful activities. Just — Get Pretty. There’s no other reason to exist. Although now she was happy for her looks and her fame, the pain and suffering of all the surgeries and loss of social development was a great tragedy. And she had never gotten over the trauma of having lost her best friend — me.
After I learned all this about Drizella, I began dreaming at night and wondering during the day: Was I actually Drizella or Esmeralda, the pretty, superficial one or the smart, ugly one? After all, Grandma just grabbed one of us and my father reluctantly released that daughter into those clutching hands. How did they determine which girl was which?
I now know, at seventy-five, that both of us exist within each other. Does it even make a difference anyway? The two of us are flip sides of the same dilemma juxtaposed in any one place, depending on which one chooses to come out of hiding at any one time.
And what is actual beauty? As Esmeralda, I have come to appreciate my unique human spirit and what I have to offer the world. Other than social acceptance, what am I missing in my life? Perhaps, because I never thought I’d have a chance to meet the love of my life in the form of a partner or husband, throughout my years, I never pined away for the husband and children that other more eligible young maidens inevitably crave.
We were two princesses in the same pod made over into a rightful mold — Charlene Charbeau on the outside and I on the inside. After people get over feeling sorry for me or stop being repulsed by me, many of them express interest in my intellectual ruminations. Some of my friends, over coffee, might playfully ask, “So, what’s cooking in that curious mind of yours, Esmeralda? Any new theories about the human race?” Their admiration reminds me of how my father used to ask me about my day and then rest his head on one of his palms and listen to me in rapt attention.
Charlene has her admirers as well: “Charlene, you are so beautiful… I love your new hairdo… What photo shoots are coming up?.. Did you get that part you auditioned for last week?”
Having very little to say of any substance, Charlene Charbeau smiles robotically and offers her curt responses.
Ah, the joy of aging. Oldness is our accumulation of wisdom, with a withering away of the sting of early life struggles that promote our doubts and fears. Through the years of hearing about Charlene, I gleaned that many people, depending on their depth of mind, given the choice, would have chosen to be with me, a creative, intelligent, humorous, and peaceful soul even though, underneath, I was “ugly as sin.” Other esthetic folks would have been more likely to hang out with Charlene as a mere treat to relish with their eyes.
Beauty is what we create out of chaos, challenges, and commitment. We produce emeralds that shine in the light. Through this process, we move from being unshapely to being made straight. Enlightenment comes from conquering oneself before the externals take over. The goal of our journey is to know ourselves from the inside out.
So, in the end, was I Esmeralda or Drizella? Which one of us had the makeover, Drizella or I? Was the makeover of the heart or of the body? I know now that it matters not where we start out but more importantly, where we end up.