Read The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty Online
Authors: Amanda Filipacchi
Tags: #Fiction, #Friendship, #New York, #USA, #Suspense
THE UNFORTUNATE IMPORTANCE OF
For Richard, and for my parents, Sondra Peterson and Daniel Filipacchi
Dr. Miriam Levy (Clinical Psychologist)
’m waiting for my new patient to arrive, not suspecting that within the next hour she’ll reveal herself to be the most interesting patient I’ve ever had.
Her name is Barb Colby. When we spoke on the phone, she claimed to be twenty-eight years old, but the woman who waddles into my office looks at least forty. She’s quite overweight and tall, with glasses and frizzy gray hair. As I gaze at her face more closely, however, I notice that her skin isn’t wrinkled. Perhaps she was telling the truth about her age.
She takes a seat.
“What brings you here?” I ask.
“It’s my mother’s dying wish that I see a therapist.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Your mother is dying?” I make a note of this in my pad.
“No. She’s in great health, thankfully. But it’s an early request. When she tried asking for it as her birthday present, I ignored it.”
I cross out my note. “Why does your mother want you to see a therapist?”
“Because she doesn’t like the way I look.”
“The way you look . . . at life?” I say, not wishing to be presumptuous a second time.
Barb seems confused. “Maybe that, but what I mean is she doesn’t like my appearance.”
“Ah. And she feels this issue would best be tackled psychologically?”
“As opposed to joining a gym or getting a makeover, for example?” I ask, just to be certain.
“That is correct.”
“What does she dislike about the way you look?” The answer seems obvious, but again, it’s best not to assume anything.
“She doesn’t like my hair, my fat, my clothes, my glasses.”
I keep making notes in my pad as she talks. I nod and say, “I see. I’m glad your mother convinced you to seek help. I think I can help you. In my work, I see a lot of women who suffer from low self-esteem. They think they’re unattractive, but the way society today—”
“I don’t think I’m unattractive,” she says.
“That’s good. That’s great. It’s not something women are always aware of on a conscious level, though. So, I would like you to be open-minded to the possibility that perhaps, deep down, you might be feeling unattractive without being aware of it. And if that’s the case, you might feel there’s no point in even
to look better.”
“Yeah but, no. I don’t think I’m unattractive. And I don’t think it subconsciously either.”
I smile. “If it’s subconscious, you wouldn’t know it.”
“Your comments are entirely influenced by the fact that
think I’m unattractive,” she says. “If you thought I were beautiful, you wouldn’t be suggesting I might subconsciously think I’m ugly.”
“No need to get defensive. And anyway, what I think doesn’t matter. It’s what
think that matters. I want to try to help you to find yourself beautiful.”
“I already do.”
“That’s good. And I’d like to get you to take baby steps toward making more effort with your appearance, if that’s something you want.”
“I make great effort with my appearance.”
“I guess your mother doesn’t agree, right? That’s why you’re here.”
“Yes, she does. She wants me to make less effort with my appearance.”
“Less effort? What effort would she like you to make less of?”
She doesn’t reply.
“Can you give me an example?”
She remains silent.
“That shouldn’t be too hard, right? To come up with just one example?” I say, clasping my hands (smugly, I must admit).
“No, it’s not too hard,” she replies.
“Okay, then, I’m all ears.”
“It’s not your ears you need. It’s your eyes,” she says, taking off her glasses and setting them on the little table next to her.
She reaches down into her bag and pulls out a small plastic container. She unscrews the lid. She sticks her fingers in each of her eyes and removes brown contact lenses, which she then drops into the plastic container.
She looks at me and her gaze is dazzling. The effect is that of light shining through aqua-colored glass.
She gets up, sinks her hands into her gray frizzy hair and pulls it off, revealing an incredible head of long, silky blond hair. She tosses the wig on a chair.
I’m trying to gather my thoughts, think of something to say, when she starts unbuttoning her shirt. She takes it off. Underneath is a thick jacket which she unzips and peels off as well. She’s wearing a little white tank top. Her torso is slender, her breasts full, her arms toned.
Not taking her piercing aqua gaze off me, she unzips her jeans, takes them off. She then unzips the fake-fat pants she’s wearing underneath and slides her long slender legs out of each thick leg tube. She tosses these pants on top of her other clothes on a chair in the corner. The whole pile jiggles like a mountain of Jell-O.
Barb pulls fake teeth out of her mouth and places them next to her contacts on the little table. I hadn’t noticed her teeth being particularly unattractive, and yet, somehow, the removal of this fake set tremendously improves the shape of her mouth. Her real teeth are lovely. Framed by her beautiful hair and punctuated by her real teeth, her face is now noticeably exquisite.
I need time, a few days, maybe, to think. I feel put on the spot.
My new patient is standing in my office in her underwear—majestic. She’s probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She reminds me of one of those superheroes after removing their ordinary clothes. She is now ready for action. I almost expect her to open the window and fly out of my office.
The effect is muted somewhat when she scratches her arm self-consciously, though that’s an understandable display of discomfort, considering that her therapist is gawking at her.
“Do you understand, now?” she asks.
I look down at the note I wrote in my pad, which reads: “Mother wants her to make more effort with her appearance.”
I cross out the word “more” and replace it with “less.”
“Yes, I see,” I say. “How often do you wear this disguise?”
“All the time, pretty much.”
“I find my real appearance impractical.”
“But isn’t your disguise even more impractical? Isn’t it heavy?”
“Yes, it’s a bit heavy. But I feel much lighter in it. Being dowdy is liberating.”
“Liberating in what way?”
She shrugs. “I’m left in peace.”
“Peace from what?”
She doesn’t answer.
“From men? Model scouts? Love at first sight?”
She says nothing.
“When did you start wearing it?”
“Almost two years ago,” she says.
“Did something happen?”
She doesn’t answer.
I repeat, “Did something happen, almost two years ago, that made you start wearing this costume?”
She looks suddenly weak, visibly upset. She sits down, drapes her shirt over herself, no longer resembling a superhero so much as a lost girl from a fairy tale. She doesn’t say anything.
“Tell me what happened,” I urge softly, suspecting abuse, sexual harassment, possibly rape.
I can tell she’s having trouble. She doesn’t want to cry, but if she attempts to speak, she will.
I try a different approach. “People must find it surprising that you go around looking like this. Do you get a sense of what they think?”
“Sure, they think I’m fat and ugly.”
“No, I mean the people who’ve known you longer than two years?”
“They think I
fat and ugly.”
“Really? Is there anyone, other than your mother, who knows that this is just a disguise and not the way you really look now?”
“Only my four closest friends.”
“If I were to ask your mother or your closest friends why you disguise yourself this way, what would they tell me?”
She shrinks a little further into her chair, and again can’t answer.
“What would they tell me?” I repeat.
As soon as my therapy session is over, I rush home, slip some evening wear over my bloat wear, and find my friend Georgia already waiting for me in a cab in front of my building. I scoot in beside her. She shifts along the seat to give me the room I need.
A bouquet of sunflowers rests on her lap.
“For Lily?” I ask.
The driver carries us away. We tell him to go as fast as he can because we’re late for Lily’s concert. Or rather, we’re late for a mission she’s sent us on before the concert. At twenty-five, Lily is the youngest of our group of five friends, and the most talented. She asked us to get to the concert hall early so that we tell her whether Strad, the jerk she’s in love with, shows up.
As the cab driver zigzags through traffic, I look at Georgia and say, “Don’t you wish we could go to Strad’s store and just shake him and say, ‘Are you blind? Don’t you see how extraordinary Lily is?’”
“That’s the problem. He’s not blind.”
The driver makes a sharp left and Georgia gets knocked against her door. “Ow!” she yelps, rubbing her right shoulder.
I myself have toppled onto the space between us.
“Hey, watch it!” Georgia yells at me when she sees I’m lying on her laptop.
“Why’d you bring that?” I ask. “Are you planning to write
Before she can answer, the driver makes a sharp right, and it’s Georgia’s turn to land on her laptop and mine to bang against my door, though I suffer no injury due to my fake fat, which bounces me right back into place.
“Maybe,” Georgia answers. “I like writing to Lily’s music.”
Georgia Latch is a successful novelist. The five novels she published were critically acclaimed, translated into two dozen languages and taught in universities. The second one,
The Liquid Angel,
was made into a film. She thinks her career would be even more successful if she were more prolific, but her writing process is slow. So she’s always struggling to find ways to write more. Her recent method has been to take her laptop wherever she goes, in hopes of getting work done.
The traffic slows and the driver can’t weave anymore. We are at a standstill.
We finally arrive, late, at Zankel Hall, a concert venue at Carnegie Hall. Anxious about our tardiness and not wishing to waste a moment, we pay and open the cab doors before the driver comes to a full stop. A pedestrian on a cell phone dives in as soon as we’ve burst out.
Midway to the concert hall’s entrance, Georgia stops in her tracks. “My laptop!”
We spin around. The taxi’s gone.
“No, no, no, no, no,” she says and drops the sunflowers.
Neither of us took a receipt, so we don’t have the taxi’s medallion number.
Georgia is bent over, hands on knees, repeating, “Oh my God.”
She has often told me she thinks the novel she’s been working on for the past few years will be her breakthrough, the one that will win the most awards, the one that will garner the best reviews, the one that will sell the most copies—the very same one that is now taking a ride in a vanished taxicab somewhere in New York City. Georgia hasn’t backed up her work in three and a half years, ever since her external hard drive broke while she was completing her last novel. She never got around to buying a new one.
“Have you e-mailed a copy to anyone? Or even to yourself?” I ask her. “Is it printed out?”
“No, no, and no. I never showed it to anyone.”
I pick up the bouquet of sunflowers and put my arm around Georgia, holding her up. “I’ll call the taxi company,” I tell her. “I’ll keep calling, until someone turns it in.”
I lead her inside the building. We sit on a bench in the entrance hall. Georgia cries, her face in her hands. After ten minutes of unsuccessful phone calls which begin with directory assistance, move on to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and end up with the Central Park Precinct, I’m told by the precinct that no laptop has yet been reported found, and that I should call later to check if that status has changed.
Georgia is staring at me with watery eyes. Her face is red and puffy. Strands of her short dark hair are stuck to the tears on her cheeks.
Our friend Jack Felsenfeld comes out from inside the theater. Though he’s only twenty-nine, he walks with a limp and a cane.
“What are you guys doing?” he asks. “Penelope and I have been here for half an hour already.”
I tell him what happened.
He leans his cane against the bench and squats in front of Georgia. He holds her hands, looks up at me, and asks, “Did you call the Central Park Precinct?” Being an ex-cop, Jack knows these things. He could have saved me time.
“Yeah,” I say.
“You have to keep calling. It might get turned in.”
Not forgetting about why we’re here, I tell him, “Let me go backstage and say hi to Lily. Is Strad here?”
“No sighting yet.”
I ENTER LILY’S
small dressing room right as the
magazine journalist who’s been interviewing her is making his exit.