All the Beautiful People
When my sister turned 18, she took the 2500 dollars for college and remade her face to look like Elvis Presley. It wasn’t because she wasn’t beautiful, she was. It was the fad. After Elvis died, men and women mourned their hero and, as a tribute, remade their faces. Years later, she saw it on television and thought that it was beautiful. Then, she took her new face and left home.
She made her way across the country, searching for cities, people, parties, and places that were anything but home. She ended up in Haight-Ashbury, having heard of it from some left-over hippies. But it wasn’t what it was supposed to be, not anymore. It hadn’t been a place frozen in a time none of us are old enough to remember; it became a collection of lost souls, hippie wannabe’s, homeless, teenage runaways–all younger than her. She made her way south, looking for something more, or something less, or something different still.
Our home washed away in the floods that overtook our trailer park. My parents bought a newer trailer home and parked it in the exact same spot because they believed lightening never strikes twice. But it did. When another flood hit the same spot just a month or so later, it did a good job of clearing out the neighbors and insisting that we buy a new floor, door, and location.
My mother’s dog limps; it can’t trot up or down the two stairs to get outside and has lots of accidents, which infuriates my father to no end. That little grayish-white mongrel is too young to be put down, too old to go up two steps, and too loved to be left outside. It is the cause of much contention in our little home.
My high school boyfriend believes the world was an amazing place and wants to explore it. He leaves before he graduates and after we make love, seventeen- and one-half years old, and he never comes back for me. He became a missionary and moved to Guatemala or some other such place where no one, not even his parents, know what happened to him.
I have another month or so to go and a promise of 1800 dollars if I register to Antelope Beauty College, smaller than our high school, classrooms smaller than our trailer. Don’t be fooled, there is nothing beautiful here.
That small trailer gets smaller. Literally, the walls move in, the floors shrivel, the area around us grows larger. It might be the consistent rain shrinking the faux wood. Or the arguing vibrating the walls out and then in, in, and in. Maybe the smell from the little dog causes the world to warp. I try to tell them, to show them, but they won’t believe me.
When I graduate, my parents don’t want me to do anything foolish like remaking my face or getting tattoos; they say they will go with me to Antelope College and pay the tuition.
I leave home and let them keep their money and their long festering grudge against my sister and her face, their arguments about that dog, and their little trailer whose walls are slowly moving in.
I met a guy the last week of school; he was visiting or passing through or something of the sort. I dream of something beautiful, someplace bigger, someone else’s life, but not someone else’s face. He has a 68 Dodge Ram and promises to take me away to California. He says we will follow the old route 66 the whole way. On the way to California, he gets weird; he wants us to get married in Vegas, wants us to get jobs at the Pup-n-Taco or some such nonsense. I tell him if I wanted to live my parents’ life, I would have stayed at home.
I tell him I’m pregnant; he hugs me so hard he almost drives into the ocean. It takes me a few tries to explain that I am more than two weeks pregnant. It takes him a few moments to capture in his brain the pictures I’m sending, but finally he does. He slows to a pause on Pacific Coast Highway, north of Zuma beach, and pushes the door open, tells me this is my stop. He doesn’t even give me my bag.
I’m walking south on PCH. The sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and I’m telling myself this story.
There’s a woman, long added braids and skin the color of the midnight sky. She’s wearing a lime green dress and shoes to match. She’s reading a book by Betty White and holding a little rat-lap-dog. She’s beautiful.
I walk into Starbucks, across from Zuma, and call my sister collect. Somehow, I know, she knew it would be me, but she doesn’t say so. I tell her where I am and she says she must get her kids from school and daycare, that I should have a seat or better yet go look at the blue ocean water but not to step into it.
I have twenty dollars with which I buy a cup of tea and the young boy, almost man, almost manager, hands me eighteen dollars and five cents. (I wish abortions cost less than 18 dollars.) He smiles as if he knows my secrets or some other secrets and tells me to have a nice day. The pimples on his face could make constellations that brighten a darkened sky. And the silver from his braces could be the milky way. He’s beautiful and doesn’t know it.
I sit and wait, watching the people. I’m afraid of the ocean. I’m afraid of the water, I’m afraid of the people who go into the water, no matter how beautiful they might be.
There are two old men smiling at me. They are playing a game of chess and, as their arms move, their skin shakes loose, and then shimmies as if grasping, trying desperately to hold on to its own. They both have translucent hair, and I’m wondering if they are brothers. I wonder if my sister and I will ever be that old. If our skin will ever be that loose. If we will ever be friends, and if we could ever play that game. The men are so beautiful it makes me want to cry.
My sister is older now. A streak of gray starts at her forehead and works its way down the side of her face. Her Elvis face has wrinkles, lines around the eyes that even if he had lived would never have.
My sister’s husband is a nice man, the kind of nice that is hard to believe really exists. He forgave her the past he knew and never asked about the past he didn’t. He gave her a big house and two children and a big car to drive around the city. He’s tall, her age, no grays in his hair, but strays in his beard when he lets it grow. He’s quite beautiful and although my sister, after 8 years of marriage, doesn’t see it anymore, I do.
A vacant look has taken up residence in her pallid Elvis eyes. Her children are three and five, and even when she hugs them her eyes do not.
I never asked my sister if she was sorry she remade her face. It seems I’ve always known her as this, the streak of gray, the woman’s wrinkles on an Elvis face, and her saccharine little children holding her so tight they are squeezing the life out of her.
It’s my birthday. It’s my perpetual birthday and I’m walking south on PCH. I’m blue and I’m telling myself this story.
There are two young girls with short shorts and string bikini tops, and they are bounding like puppies to the boy with pimples. They have long, thick brown hair; they smile wide and almost unbelievably happy grins. The two old men are watching them now and their eyes have a look that makes my stomach turn and the tea taste bitter. The girls are beautiful, and I wonder what happens to them when they walk out, the door slamming behind them, the men’s eyes following them. I wonder if they will always be happy.
When I go to stay with her, my sister says very little. She doesn’t talk about her life now, or even her life here. She doesn’t ask me any questions. I want to ask her for the money. I want her to ask me why. But it doesn’t happen.
My sister lives in the Valley; it’s a strange and hot place that smolders at mid-day and sinks down into the darkness of night. It’s surrounded by mountains and with each earthquake a little more of it disappears. She does things: gets up in the mornings, and goes to bed at night, makes dinner and lunches and talks on the phone. And she does other things she doesn’t care about: playdates and meetings and appointments for this one or that one. She doesn’t go out much and she cries herself to sleep sometimes. I can hear her from the couch, from her daughter’s bedroom when I sleep in there, from the dimly lit hall when I stand in the muted light of the wall sconces outside of their bedroom. I wonder why no one else notices.
She says she wants to paint the walls; she thinks they are dingy, and it’s making the house appear small. She doesn’t want to hear my thoughts about shrinking wood or expanding middles.
I’m walking south on PCH on my birthday. The world is a blue place; it’s a beautiful place and I wonder if it’s the same in Guatemala and if he ever thinks of me. I think of the boy with the 68 Dodge Ram on Route 66 and I wonder if he drove into the ocean. I wonder if he ever knew he wasn’t on the 66, but on the 1, or the 101, or both. I hope he drove into the ocean.
I can see the ocean from where I stand, far away from the sand. I watch the people. A fat woman in a bikini almost hidden by her own overlapping flesh tans; I know she knows she is beautiful.
There are boys, lots of boys with long boards and they wait near the shore until the ocean waves at them just right. They are smart boys; boys who don’t go to school, but know how to read the water, the world, the women, the beauty surrounding them. It hurts.
To be a part and to be apart.
My sister’s husband has a nice way with me. He offers me money and rides to anywhere I want to go for the day or for a time. I usually choose here. I want to tell him too; I want him to ask. I want to hold him and hug him and make him make everything else go away. He’s so beautiful it hurts to hold him.
My sister has taken up the habit of gazing at me in strange ways with her ghostly Elvis eyes. I think she has guessed my secret, the secret that will not stay hidden much longer. I want to tell her about all the boys, but all I tell her about is the beach and all the beautiful people and she laughs.
She has the walls painted but is certain the painters did not do a good job. The walls still look dismal, and I am beginning to see what she sees there. I try to tell her it happens in all houses, in all places, that it happened to the trailer, the school, the town, the truck, but she won’t hear of it.
Guatemala must be a wide and lingering place. I think about going there sometime. Maybe they don’t have things that close in. Maybe it is surrounded by a beach, like this one, and the beach doesn’t close in.
The people on the beach are beautiful and the sand isn’t as smooth as it looks to be. A man with a beach ball belly goes from cooler to cooler, making the beggar, looking for beer, but he’s a cop and I figured him out. The round, smooth, and tan belly is what the sand should be, and it’s quite beautiful to look at when he stands very still.
My sister asks me what happened to my college money and I tell her; I don’t tell her the cause was her lovely Elvis face, but I do reach out to touch it. At first, she lets me, then she pulls away realizing it is not her I’m touching but that face. She’s so beautiful it hurts to see her cry, hear her cry, to cry for her, for me.
She doesn’t like the beach and I don’t know why she lives here in California. She won’t take her children to the beach, so I don’t know why she drives them down here to pick me up or drop me off and listen to them say please, mom, please. She tells them there are things out there. It seems she’s talking about secrets, but the only secret is a precious and beautiful life that is just out of our reach. Maybe it’s out there, somewhere, in the ocean, that precious and beautiful life just out of our reach.
I’m walking south on PCH, just North of Zuma. Starbucks is across the street and I can see the girl in lime and the men in escaping skin and the sand is warm and lovely and the people are all so beautiful.
It’s my birthday. Always my birthday. The ocean is blue. The sky is blue. I am blue. I’m telling myself this story.
I’m waiting for my sister, waving to my sister, wading to my sister. Her ghostly Elvis eyes can’t see me down here away from all the beautiful people.