In bed one night, John is lying next to me watching something on his laptop, something with explosions and car chases and pithy dialogue, and I’m watching comedy. We do this a lot– tandem watching, an attempt at togetherness that doesn’t require too much sacrifice from either one of us because he doesn’t care for Louis C. K. and I’m not a big fan of action movies but we really like each other and thank god after this many years we don’t have to pretend anymore, so I wrap a leg over his and we stuff earbuds into our ears and he puts his hand on my thigh and we spend some quality time together.
Anyway, Louis is telling a joke about a giraffe and a lion that goes like this:
The lion walks up to the giraffe and says, “Hey man, did you see that dude?”
Giraffe: “What dude?”
Lion: “He’s that dude who lives by the river in that hut?”
Giraffe: “What does he look like?”
Lion: “He looks like this.” (Louis makes a scared face and screams: Aaaaaagh!)
Giraffe: “Well I know a dude by the river but he doesn’t look like that. He looks like this.” (Louis sticks out his lower lip sulky-like. The audience laughs and he repeats the scared face and the bored sulk and explains to the crowd, “See, the lion just thinks that people look like that. The lion doesn’t get that he makes a person look like that by scaring the shit out of them. He…. doesn’t see… his own…. part of….) Louis’s voice trails off and I’m snickering and snorting as quietly as possible with my mouth full of popcorn when John turns to me: “What’s so funny?”
I consider sharing the joke but I know I’ll botch it. When I stop to think how to explain, I realize it’s sort of dumb, or it would be if I tried to repeat the joke. The funny part is Louis’s face, the way he screams like a girl and waves his hand in the air and the little-boy-aww-shuksness of his smile, the je-ne-sais-quoiness of Louis C.K., so I just shake my head and shrug and feel a stabbing pang of guilt for lying here in bed next to my husband, falling for the charm of another man’s face.
John and I have been smooching for 22 years but we don’t always see eye to eye. When he looks at Louis he sees a sweaty perv who crosses the line between funny and unfunny but when I look, I see a man telling a truth so ugly it makes him inexplicably and undeniably attractive. It takes two to create an impression– the seer and the seen. I’m glad that when John looks at me he likes what he sees, because it could have gone either way. When we first met I was surprised he could see me at all since he’s a foot taller than me. The girl he was dating was so big I could probably fit inside her like a Russian nesting doll. I might have been the little dark one completely blotted out by her six-foot ruddy-cheeked blonde Viking hulk but no, he didn’t stop there, he kept looking.
After he found me, he kept making jokes about being a pedophile. I guess at some level he equated size with age. He’d pick up my jacket or my shoe or my hand, hold it up and exclaim with amazement. I kept telling him I was good at climbing trees and pointed out that height doesn’t count when you’re lying down. I forgave him for taking up way too much room in the bed and eventually, I suppose he just got used to me.
I’ve gotten accustomed to myself, too, and used to the idea that I have limited control over the impression I make. I’ve been short for so long that it no longer feels like a salient detail but to my kids I’m a giant, and even when they’re big enough to see the top of my head they’ll probably retain a residual impression of magnitude because that’s just how we see our parents– from below. When my mother looks at me, I suspect she sees herself, and every time my father tells me I look just like my mother (his first wife), I wonder what that means. When my daughter jokes that I look like Voldemort, Harry Potter’s arch enemy whose dark soul has warped him into a waxy-headed, slit-nosed, yellow-toothed monster, I laugh along but it breaks my heart a little knowing that she sees a side of me I didn’t know existed, that sometimes I scare her, and that both my daughters will know me in intense, contorted, exhaustive ways I can neither imagine nor control.
When I lived in Shanghai for three months in 1989 I never felt short but I did feel like a bit of a freak, especially while riding my bicycle to work at my mother’s silk garment factory. In 1989 in Shanghai, it was still unusual to see women riding bicycles or foreigners or so almost every day, drivers and bicyclists would slam on their brakes and stare. “Wàiguó rén! Wàiguó rén!” They’d yell. (Foreigner! Foreigner!) More than once a poor, slack-jawed bicyclist would find himself completely incapacitated with shock and would plough his bicycle right into me. The sight of me did not fit into the average Shanghai experience and it seemed like to them, I was hardly human.
I have a skinny friend who thinks I’m fat (although she’d never admit it– I love her anyway) and a rich friend who chooses expensive activities, then complains that I never want to “hang out” with her. I know people who talk nonstop and assume I don’t have anything to say and a woman who spends all her money on trips and products and fancy food and then looks at me with my homemade haircut, thrift store clothes, and beans soaking on the stovetop in the house I own and wonders why I’m so lucky.
I could be a child, a freak, a Scrooge, or a monster. Or I might be a lovely, unique person. So much depends upon who is looking. If all you could see was my chest, you’d have a completely different impression than if you focused on my forehead. Are my different-colored eyes interesting or imbalanced? Is this a witchy mole or a beauty mark? Am I being direct or staring you down? Is writing worthwhile or a waste of time? The variety of answers to these questions is probably why I feel and act differently around different people. The way we look is a question that might be met with any number of responses and, since we all want to be good looking, the only way to ensure that we look good is to find a good looker.
Growing up, I had a friend with a very strong personality, a rare bird who was born knowing who she was. While the rest of us were skulking in the hallways, choking on cigarettes, and crying in mirrors, she’d sashay along in her grown-up clothing, swinging a leather briefcase. She read big books and listened to classical music and ran for student government and most kids didn’t like her but I thought she was wonderful. If someone insulted her she’d turn to me and say, loud enough for everyone to hear, “It’s part of my charm. When people find fault in me, I just tell them it’s part of my charm and if they can’t see it, that’s their problem.” Her charm was charming. Seeing her charm and being charming with her made my adolescence a much nicer place to be.
Time has taught me that the universe is full of charming things waiting patiently for our eyes to focus. I’ve learned that the secret to falling in love and staying there is that it’s not about seeing what you like, but liking what you see. I found a charming man who thinks I’m wonderful and every day, a little of his charm rubs off on me, and mine on him, until our wrinkles and scars and worries are covered in charm.
What’s part of your charm?