The Evolution of Beauty (book excerpt)

I didn’t think of it as I stood at the supermarket checkout to buy the glittery red plastic food container. I still didn’t think of it when I spooned the cornbread and sausage mixture into the glitzy Tupperware designed especially for the holidays. But today, as I was making the mushroom sauce, the thought began to creep in. As I removed the cabbage from the boiling water, as I peeled each leaf from its core, the thought began to grow. As I removed yesterday’s mixture from the refrigerator, I could not push the thought away. As I spooned the filling into the first leaf, then rolled it into a small parcel, tucked in its edges, the thought was there. As I placed each cabbage parcel into the dish, packing each one as close to the next as possible, I thought: I hope they do not come apart.

~

When the stripper arrived at the lesbian “bachelor” party, I felt like I was in one of those dreams where someone opens the bathroom door and catches you peeing. The only straight party guest had ordered her for “entertainment,” but mimicking straight men was not the way forward for this night of prenuptial fun. We were not prudes, but the heavy makeup and the long painted nails on the stripper made it clear she was not for us. We tried to be extra polite, pretending we were amused, but her entrance made our own bodies clench in response.

As the stripper took off her coat and hat, she apologized for her lateness, explaining that her babysitter had not shown up. She set up her music, standing with her back to us in a red glittery bikini and high-heeled shoes. I tried not to look at her, but I couldn’t help myself; she was the spitting image of a younger version of my mother, which made me want to cover her back up.

The explanation for her late arrival made us unclench a little, and we invited her to join The Circle of the Fully Clothed. One of the party guests poured her a Scotch. I fought the urge to call her by my mother’s name. The rest of the women tried to make her feel welcome by beginning a conversation about childcare.

I was grateful that she was being invited to sit instead of perform, but even with this new feeling of gratitude, the half-clothed woman juxtaposed with the fully-clothed women made it difficult for me to adjust. Plus, glitter has always made me suspicious—what is it supposed to hide? Add? Was the sparkle supposed to improve her appeal? This woman did not need glitter to enhance her appearance. She was beautiful. Even more beautiful, I suspected, had she shown up to work without the mask of heavy makeup.

As the other women leaned into the conversation, and as the ones who were mothers exchanged tips on where to look for childcare providers, I studied her attractiveness, questioning the theory that our choice of mate is based on the survival of our species. Was this stripper beautiful to help her escape a predator or to sneak up on her prey? Neither choice seemed to fit.

Other than her beauty, I also noticed that her face could have originated from a mix of ethnicities, and that she spoke in an accent that was not North American. This added an extra feeling of kinship with her that none of the other party guests shared—she and I were the only two women in the room not raised in the U.S.

Her accent had a distinctly South American lilt. One of the brides-to-be asked, “Are you from Brazil?”

“No,” she said, “I am from another South American country. Beginning with B. Next to Brazil. A country no one in this America remembers. Why you don’t guess?”

Instead of watching her remove her clothes, the entertainment became Guess The Stripper’s Country of Origin. After a couple of guesses, there was a short silence. Then the other bride-to-be said: “We give up!”

“Bolivia!” said the entertainer.

“Oh,” said the doctor.

“Bolivia!“ said the lawyer. “Who’d’ve thunk it?”

The betrothed couple could relate to the stripper’s babysitter woes; they already had three children. Their upcoming nuptials, though much desired, came in at a distant second to their love for children. To attend the party, they had left their two girls and a boy in the care of a woman who was also from South America. The couple offered the Bolivian woman the names of two highly recommended, trustworthy sitters who had cared for their children in the past.

The other women in the room who were not yet mothers, but who were in the midst of planning their own pregnancies—as well as the one who was already six months along—were also interested to hear of the stripper’s problems with childcare and the difficulty of finding sitters in the evening when one’s work is irregular and often last-minute.

In addition to the doctor and the lawyer, there was a professor, a visual artist, and a business executive at the party. It was unlikely that any of them, after the birth of their child, would have to run out at the last minute to remove their clothes to pay off a bill. Still, they felt bound to one another by motherhood—current or prospective.

“Take the night off,” the doctor prescribed.

“Yes, take the night off,” the others chorused.

They sent the entertainer home early with the phone numbers of possible sitters tucked into the pocket of her un-glittery jeans.

When she left, the women continued with talk of pregnancy—who was already trying, who’d had miscarriages, things to look for in a sperm donor, or from a sperm bank, and what to ask a prospective babysitter who is interviewing for the job of caring for a two-mothered child.

~

I was raised among mothers who did not have to look for sitters; instead, these women worked from sewing-machines in the corners of their livingrooms, close to their kitchens, so that they could jump up easily to check whatever was on the stove. My mother was one of these women. And like the Bolivian stripper, her beauty did not help her to escape a predator or to sneak up on her prey. Instead, she managed her life by becoming the dominatrix of her own time: Saturdays she cleaned the home; Sundays she cooked for the week; Thursday afternoons she shopped and paid bills. The rest of her time she spent at the machine in the livingroom. She even kept an empty milk bottle by the foot-pedal to use instead of wasting time by going upstairs to the cold bathroom on the unheated top floor. And every three evenings a week, the factory owner came by to drop off a bundle of dress parts, to pick up the dresses she had already made whole, and to eat a plate of whatever was on her stove.

“It’s black-eyed peas tonight. You still want a plate?”

Even to this humblest of meals, her boss did not say no. He never said no. He always looked as if he were ready for more food, and to do what he could to stay in our home a few minutes longer—to stare at my mother, as her eyes darted from one livingroom ornament to another, careful never to meet his gaze.

Once he’d emptied his plate, he gave my mother the next set of instructions: “I want you to sew these dresses the same way as the previous bundle—stitch the seams as close to the edge as you can. We’ve cut these ones tight. Smaller. To make cabbage.”

The dresses beyond the number required of the docket—the extras that you can squeeze out if you make the seams tighter—are called “cabbage.” Cabbage sells at ninety percent profit—all of which goes to the boss, none to the seamstresses.

Though none of these women had to pull apart furniture to throw chair legs into the fire to heat their homes, and though none of the mothers I knew were working as adult entertainers to pay their bills, it was still difficult for them to feed their families. To help with this problem, they made an unspoken pact, never to allow the number of children they had to exceed three. There was no talk about rights. No angst about when life begins. Just one question: Can we afford another child?

While my mother was not a predator, she was practical; her marriage was for her protection; her children’s christenings were their protection. She hung a blue talisman around her neck to ward off the Evil Eye, and she pinned smaller versions of this protective pendant under the collars of my baby clothes. Her rituals were not about the reward of an afterlife, but the guarantee of a place in a community that would not let her drown if she kept swimming in the same direction as all of the other women. If she did not go off to explore her own life, then she would always have meat to add to the cabbage boiling on her stove.

I came home from school one day to find my mother covered in strands of red thread, with bias-binding hanging out of her mouth. Sleeves and collars and fronts and backs that she had already sewn together and trimmed in sequins were strewn about—hanging on a chair, at her feet, all around the base of the sewing machine. Party clothes. Glittery dresses. Identical. In multiples. Lying limp. She looked like she’d been caught in the unglamorous moment when everyone has left the party, when the glasses are empty except for the dregs, when the ashtrays are full, and the dirty napkins have yet to find their way to the trash.

~

There was nothing trashy about the stripper. Because of how much skin her red glittery bikini revealed, I could see her body relax as she was invited to join the group. The more natural the conversation became, the less she struggled to find the right words. Still, I could sense how tiring it was for her to speak in a language in which she was not yet fluent. First, she had to think of the sentence. Then, she had to check to see if she had all the vocabulary. Then, she had to check to see if the words were in the right order. On her face, I saw the hope that figuring this out had not taken her too long. Finally, she said, “My son is three year old. His dad left us one year ago. I start dancing three months after he go. I know he not come back.”

The doctor poured her another Scotch.

Though speaking in a language that was not her own was tiring, it did not exhaust her as much the three hours she had spent cleaning houses, followed by the one hour traveling by subway to the bachelor party, then the hour she had budgeted to dance while taking off her clothes, and the final hour of work that night to travel back to her child.

~

Counting the hours women work is something I have done since I left home. I add these hours as obsessively as other women tally their caloric intake: I have tallied the hours the seamstresses I grew up with spent sewing for factories; and I have tallied the hours that the women I know stand on their feet cutting hair or stacking supermarket shelves. I have tried to count the work hours of the women I know who clean the bathrooms in offices, in schools, and in post offices. My list of women’s work hours goes on and on. In my tallies, I note that most do not get maternity leave, and most do not have retirement plans, and few have paid vacation days. Numbers and charts and tables scroll through my dreams. There are mornings when I wake up counting.

My counting obsession kicked in again as soon as the stripper took off her high-heeled shoes and curled her feet under her on the bachelor-party-bed. At the time, I felt that the party guests should have left the room so that she could seize the opportunity to let her body relax and to catch up on sleep. But since I am not a mother myself, it had not occurred to me that she could not sleep through the night—even if the room was given to her as a gift—knowing that her sitter had to leave as soon as the hours of childcare she’d paid for had run out. Instead she went home early, fully paid for the entertainment she’d been liberated from having to provide. Plus, the energy that she had saved by not having to strip was likely sizable. But it was not something I could measure or count. It is not as easy to tally up the lives of mothers who strip as it is for mothers who sew. Unlike X-ray machines that can document the deterioration of a spine after thirty years of bending over to push the material under a sewing-machine’s foot, there is no medical equipment that can record how much of the heart’s fabric deteriorates after years of being paid to strip.

~

While the stuffed cabbage cooked, I turned my attention to what needed to be cleared up. I threw away the torn outer layers of the cabbage as well as its tough core. Then I stacked what needed to be washed, which included the empty Tupperware container. Because the red plastic was dirty, its glitter had dulled, though this did not affect how well it sealed. When the dishes were done, I opened the oven to check on the leafy parcels, knowing that their beauty depended on how well they held what was inside.

 

by Elena Georgiou


This story appears in Elena Georgiou’s forthcoming story collection, The Immigrant’s Refrigerator, from GenPop Books. You can order her book online. 


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Elena Georgiou is the author of the soon-to-be released short story collection, The Immigrant’s Refrigerator. She is also the author two poetry collections, Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants (available from AmazonSPD) and mercy mercy me (available from AmazonBarnes & NobleIndie BoundU. of Wisconsin Press). She coedited (with Michael Lassell) the poetry anthology The World In Us (available from Amazon and Macmillan). She is the recipient of a Lambda Literary Award, an Astraea Emerging Writers Award, a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, and is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Currently, she directs the MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College in Vermont and Washington.

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