The first time they painted her face, she’d wanted to cry. She didn’t understand how the art of making a person beautiful transformed her instead into a caricature. Her coral mouth looked clownish, her silver-painted eyelids accentuated the purplish tint of her dark circles, the mascara transformed her lashes to look like the many tiny sprawling legs of a spider. She couldn’t afford to cry at the time, not as aunts with pinched smiles watched and told her she looked beautiful. Later at night she would wipe everything off and wonder if the problem was in the makeup artist or in her, the subject.
The first time she appeared wearing a kebaya in her first year as a woman, her mother’s eyes crinkled with pride. Beyond her slender waist and wider hips, she carried the same rare beauty her mother had glimpsed in other women. It was in the easy way her daughter’s laughter would complement her eyes, in the way she bowed slightly for a salam encasing hands older than hers with all the warmth and grace she had to offer, this time no longer as a child but as a burgeoning woman of her own, in the attentive manner she would listen, so attuned, before she spoke to others.
The first time she went to a concert, she saw the magic in which music could augment the beauty of another. Before her eyes was a boy she’d seen many times but was never drawn to in previous days. A seemingly plain boy, a seemingly simple boy. As the music began and enveloped them in its warmth, she noticed the way those boyish limbs moved, the milky white flash of neck under dim lights, the way he closed his eyes to embrace the kinship that filled the room, how he savoured every beat as if it filled him up. All this watching made her shy. As she took in the smell of sweat and alcohol in the room of moving bodies, she realized that what she felt was the ecstasy of attraction.
The first time she knew it wouldn’t work, she wondered if it was anybody’s fault or if it was just people in the 21st century that gave up on people too easily. She needed for things to end, she thought. She needed to ache to understand; not to stop seeing the beauty in past lovers but to stop yearning for that beauty too much. She’d heard stories of arranged marriages with longer lifespans than marriages of people who were crazy in love and wondered how much of love was about perseverance and how much of it was truly organic in nature.