good looker

frida feet

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?  

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

37 comments

  1. Very true. The charms that work in the long run: similar tastes (in movies, fine arts, literature, etc), shared values (honesty, truthfulness, etc) and tendency to protect each other from coming to any harm!

  2. Oh gosh, I saw Louis C.K. live telling a joke about a shark that I thought was the funniest thing EVER and I’ve tried and tried to retell it to friends and I just SUCK at it.
    Maybe not so charming, failing at telling jokes… 😦
    Love the image of the nested Russian dolls – funny and poignant and beautiful.

  3. I’m also pretty horrible at telling those Louis CK jokes; he’s definitely got skills.

    I love the image you’ve shared of wrinkles and scars and worries all covered in charm. What a gorgeous post!

  4. This is a lovely and charming account of the human experience.

  5. I always wanted to be tall. All through my adolescence I was hoping to hit 5’9″ at least. Then, I told myself, I would be happy. I’m 5’4″. Average. It’s funny, because I have been picturing you as being tall or at least considerably taller than me. Maybe you are taller than me and your husband is a giant?

    As for charm, I’m kind. There’s that. It’s my fervent belief (wish) that kindness spread far and wide will save the world. That I look utterly dorky in a hat is not part of my charm. Neither is being obsessed with the fact that I look dorky in a hat.

    Your posts always make me think. That’s part of your charm.

    • Ha. Should I admit to being 5’1″ or should I hold onto the possibility of being tall in your mind? I am conflicted.

      My best friends might be dorky and obsessive. But to me, who loves them, they are unique and tenacious and charming. xoox

  6. This is so lovely, Anna. You know, when I first met you, you did not appear as I expected you to. I find that’s often true with writers. I hear your writing voice being bold, even forceful, and that led me not to expect a small woman with a soft voice. It makes me wonder what people think when they meet me for the first time, after reading my writing; or conversely, how my writing/art come across to people who met me first and only afterward got to know my work.

    People often look at me without seeing me, probably not only because I’m Asian, but that’s a big part of it. I think that’s partly why I started wearing such bright colors and odd hats, because I wanted to compel people to see more than a young Asian woman with glasses (and everything they think that means, or doesn’t). Of course it doesn’t matter; as you say, good lookers are still good lookers. I still love hats and capes — it was never just for other people — but lately I’ve been trying to walk through the world as if I knew my own worth and its inviolability, much like your friend with the visible charm.

    • Aaaaah! Lisa. Your writing voice and your art and your person are so clear and strong and identifiable and unified. You look like your watercolor like your adjectives. How do you do that? It’s quite uncanny, now that I think about it. Love to you. xoox

      • Oh love to you, Anna. 🙂 Yes… I’d momentarily forgotten about myself as a visual artist as well as a writer. ;b Writers don’t always look like their writing but visual artists almost always look like what they draw. Isn’t that cool? I love it. ❤ Happy November!

  7. I adore Louis C.K. for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. He’s my all-time favorite comedian.

    I don’t know that I have any charm of my own except in being charmed by others. I have rarely encountered a face I didn’t like (well, maybe Nicholas Cage…Karl Rove…okay, I guess there are a few), and I think I’ve convinced myself that other people are seeing me the way I see them. I feel invisible in that way, because my self-regard is exactly equal to what I’m feeling from the inside, looking out: I like people, I forgive their flaws. I assume (perhaps mistakenly) that they forgive mine.

    It occurs to me that this mindset is probably best unexamined.

  8. Oh wow. I love your take on the seer and the seen, and you retold that Louis C.K. story perfectly! I agree with marydpierce – part of your charm is always making me think, and feel. It’s hard to say if my charm is really a charm – I see what people try to hide. Some people love that, some hate it. But I think it is why I like little people – because there’s always much more to them then their size 😉

  9. True and beautiful.
    Like you. And Louis.

  10. Your writing is charming. Very.

  11. Todd

    Sorry Hat Chick, I gotta side with your man on the LCK thing. He is funny sometimes and has some good social insights, but I got tired of wading through the spunk jokes and generally deadpan outlook for a few treats. Oh well, maybe I’ll try another episode, could get lucky. Since it’s Halloween could you please disinter George Carlin, he’s my all-time favorite… despite the scat and spunk.

    You/he are right about about the perspective thing and how people exist in relation to others. There are people that turn me into a real a-hole and others that make me a happy, funny guy… it’s amazing what chemistry can do.

    Oh yeah, short. I spent most of my life trying to convince girls that 5-7 has a nice ring to it… that I’m as tall as Tom Cruise but dance better in underpants. I think I once got smacked for saying she could find the missing ten inches in my shorts. Short is good, it makes women bigger. I had a couple girlfriends that were giant bra-busting blonde Amazons. They towered over me, toted me to parties like a pet poodle and tossed me about their beds like a rubber duck in a wolf pit. It was great until they started thinking about the future and got that steely look in their eyes. A curt high-heel to the curb soon followed. Finally, I met my wonderful 4-11 wife. She looks up to me, because she has to. She doesn’t know I’m short and seems to have mistaken me for some kind of a catch. Her smile could light the world and her heart could warm it too. I fell in love with her the moment I looked into her eyes. As I got to know her, everything I learned just confirmed what I knew in an instant. It’s amazing what chemistry can do. We laughed all the way to the alter.

  12. Ha. My wife and I do pretty much the same thing in bed. I read heavy stuff like NYRB and she watches downloads of Breaking Bad. Every once in a while she gasps at something in the show.

    BTW, it’s not: Is writing worthwhile or a waste of time; it’s: writing is worthwhile waste of time.

  13. I love what your writing does to my brain.

  14. I think acceptance is a large part of charm. If you accept the person, place or thing for what it offers than you live in a softer, better place. Thanks for pointing it out 🙂 I’m working on acceptance. Love for you to stop by and read my blog http://thezacharyeffect.wordpress.com/

  15. This is great. I am so happy I discovered your blog. I love reading everything. And gush gush gush… I think you are really neat.

  16. I like your reasoning. Part of my “charm” is that I insist on opening the door for women, especially obvious feminists. They may claim that they don’t want that treatment. But I have yet to find one who didn’t smile sweetly and say a petite “Thank you. “

  17. Ah, perfect post. The co-television watching, the nesting dolls, and wrinkles covered in charm.
    At 5’2 I always thought I was tall. Until I got to college and a friend stood me on a dining hall chair and said, “This is what the world looks like to the rest of us.” And I realized it looked very different. They were living on mountains, and I was a valley-dweller.

  18. It’s cool to see people write about being the foreigner in a country where people stop and stare and call out. Nice to know I’m not the only one! Cool! 🙂

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