Beauty: Signs and Symptoms by Celeste Wicks

The best cities were the ones built for the night. It was like they were carved from the same big stone, specifically for those orange lights to cast their little shadows. They were my recreation – those shadows. I became so enthralled with them, in fact, that daylight became obsolete. I’d once caught my wife crying over the the ashen color my skin had turned. She said a healthy man’s deadbolt wouldn’t stick. I said if she were smarter she’d know the city wasn’t meant to be seen in daylight. Then she would be loud for a while and I’d look out the window, watching the light dim and faces seep into view from the cracks in the concrete.

My sweet Lord, those faces. They drove me up the wall. It was like their bones were set by a blue collar brick layer whose stained wife beaters referred more to his fists than to his shirt. The orange shadows would fall, stripping the skin and flesh from their skeletons, leaving only a hollow skull. It was remarkable to watch them. The best were summer nights, when heat fell off them and ricocheted off buildings and sidewalks, stripping them down to under shirts.

It was always so dark that nothing much changed from year to year. My grandmother and I could look out the same window, fifty years apart and see the same people. At night no one concerned themselves with an ever dropping waistline. And as the day cinched and poofed at the hip, the night remained for slips and makeup hidden in the eye sockets of orange skeletons.

Meanwhile the pretty people slept on hair curlers and negligees, resting up to infect the morning. The plague of the pretty people. I could find a Nordic Goddess on every street corner. In the papers, the television – it never let up. But nothing beautiful comes in bulk. Beauty is supposed to catch the eye and stick in the back of your head all day like bad song. It wasn’t until the City Beautification Committee decided to plant a sapling every five feet that I realized how far the infection had really spread. People stopped admiring the trees and the pretty girls. No one gawked or stared, because why would they? Because they could see trees at every turn. It was around then that my wife started dressing up for me every night. I think she thought a new wardrobe was all she needed – all I needed. I wouldn’t say a word all day, so she’d trot out a new brazier designed and marketed to get batty boys hard for their wives.

I wish I had been around back when a wife like mine would have been the most eye-catching accessory. My grandmother used to tell me about those times at no end. She called it the ugly years – when eye shadow and bustiers were for Hollywood. I always thought it must have been so interesting. I would sit at her heels in the bathroom as she applied coats and coats of the same tube of lipstick she slathered on several times a day, yet never seemed to run out of. As she put on the stilettos that I was always afraid she would fall from, she would tell me all about the first billboard they put up – the one with the woman with all the curlers in her hair. She always told me how hideous it all was before that billboard had gone up. Then she’d drench the room in a perfume that she said she’d gotten in Verona like Juliette. I knew she was full of shit because you could see where she’d used one of her fake nails to scratch off the Made in America label. Also a few years after her scarf got caught in the elevator I saw a whole line of those neat little bottles on the very bottom shelf of Mickey Goldman’s old man’s drugstore when I bent down to tie my shoe. But Verona or not, I still loved the smell. It was even better when she’d wear it atop that layer of cigarette smoke that no amount of soap and water could shake. She’d smoke and tell me about how beautiful that lady with the curlers was and how one billboard turned into two and two turned into ten. And all the girls in all the cities went out and bought curlers and they slowly stopped going out at night. Why would they, without sunlight to bounce off their perfect locks? There must have been so many more girls at night when she was young – when perfection was the exception. At least the ones who kept going out at night didn’t have to look at that awful sign. Night hid it well.

As for me, I never saw the girls with straight hair, so I don’t think those billboards are beautiful in the slightest. Maybe they used to be. Maybe people stood and gawked at the Curler Girl, when she first went up. Maybe men jerked off to her electric blonde mane. Maybe girls stood and whispered to each other, running their hands through their own hair that seemed lacking in comparison. The Curler Girl would be quite average next to the women I grew up with. She would get no double takes or lustful glances. But she was gorgeous in her time.

Perhaps my grandmother was, too. She would spin around, her dress would billow and drape once more as she came full circle. She’d ask me if she looked alright. If I were to have been honest, which I never was, I would have told her that she could no longer hide the crevices that had burrowed from the original fine lines she had sported in her youth. Had I been honest I would have told her that her cleavage didn’t cling like she remembered and her dresses had become inappropriate as the years wore on. But, instead, I would just smile and nod and she’d hurry out the door, of course I never knew where to, and I’d watch her leave. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but nod. I wouldn’t dare change a single thing about her. You couldn’t say all eyes wouldn’t be on her.

Honestly, I hadn’t seen anything as lovely since. I only married my wife because when I mistook her barely audible lisp for an accent she told me she was French. And I didn’t pay it much mind until a friend told me she was from Detroit. And I asked her about it and she told me that it was actually her great-great grandfather that was from France, who was ugly and wore a pocket watch and she knew because she had pictures. So I asked her how on Earth she could call herself French, and she said that just because a kitten was born in the oven doesn’t mean you start calling it muffin, so I got down on one knee. She never really said anything as wonderful since, but to be fair, neither did I.

She was very pretty, in that her nostrils lined up with her pupils and her forehead took up almost precisely ⅓ of her decadent face. It was nothing against her, but I honestly couldn’t tell her apart from any one of the million other girls with such symmetry. The only rarity anymore are eyesores – such a sparse resource. That was why I loved the cities built for the night. They were never made beautiful to begin with.