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On Beauty Under Bathroom Lights
by Kimberly Keplar
Cross legged on the floor, below the medicine cabinet mirror and glass shelves that were forever clouded with baby powder dust, I wrapped myself in the white noise of the hair dryer. The hum blanketed me, sensory deprivation. Watery and irrelevant outlines of the toilet and bathroom door blurred in the background. My mother’s legs shifted from side to side in the forefront as she dried her hair. Droplets fell from the tips and spattered me with chills, like pings of light shattering darkness. She swept the dryer past my face. I looked up at her, backlit like an angel in the bathroom light, and I saw what I’d spend the rest of my life trying to find again.
When I was a child my mother was a goddess, the giver of life and the comprehensive provider. Looking at her with grownup eyes, I see her genuine sweetness—her honesty, naivety, and blind hope. More importantly, I appreciate the strength it takes to hold onto yourself in a world that breeds cynicism and encourages self-destruction. The woman breathed meaning into my soul, awakening my aesthetic sensibility. That warm breath ignited the fire in my gut that fuels my pursuit of something transcendent in life and in me.
Despite my admiration, I never believed I could be like her. I always thought I’d grow up to be my father. A big presence, big laugh, big mouth, and the heart to sustain it all, I’d barrel my way through a lifetime of china shops with unrefined etiquette, imposing myself on people’s hearts until they had no choice but to love me for what I am. Tall, square-shouldered, and owlish, I always fancied and fashioned myself as more of a man than a woman. I never believed that the divinity I once saw in another woman’s face could glow in my own. The subtle power and quiet grace would be crushed in the palms of my man-hands.
I wondered for years with fearful reservation who I was at my core and if that core possessed a gender at all. Does a natural dichotomy really divide us, or do we draw those lines ourselves, a vestigial social habit? I could never tell for all the shards in my eyes. Slivers of broken mirror offering me glimpses of myself in bad lighting and at weird angles, my blood dripping from their edges, spattering my skin with specks of red, staining my clothes. Desperate for a cohesive self-image, I stared intensely into the eyes of other people and patch-worked those watery reflections into various iterations that could walk and talk, but nothing that could truly stand on its own.
Gender norms often dictate presentation. Straddling a fence, I idled in ambiguity—being called sir in passing, shrugging off apologies from people who heard me speak. At times I conceded to skirts and tights under crushing expectations, which fueled my passion for gender-fuck backlash. My clothes, my hair, the way I walked and spoke, I changed it all like a suit. But, there was one unyielding moment of truth—those times when I bled, hunched over in pain, fatigued by what I’d lost, and ashamed of myself for losing it. Every time I wore makeup, donned a dress, or stripped it all away, the life within me seeped out and stained the people who saw me with the image of a woman, a man who had failed.
Look at what I’m not! Look at what I can never be! I’m just a girl, just a fat, boyish girl. I wish I could put on a dress and be pleased with the way that it hangs on my body, the way it sways when I walk across the room. I wish I could be graceful, moving on slender stems with silent footsteps, light making me hover across the floor. So I try! I make myself up in the drag of my culture, a caricature of femininity, and brace myself for the reflection. I always look hoping to see the woman I remember, outlined by a glow in the bathroom light. My chest aches hollow for something divine to glint from behind my eyes as I stare past my pock-marked complexion, the fulfillment of Form. But, I never see anything but me.
So I give up. I put on my jeans, the ones that hang low on my hips because I lost weight. The same ones with the snag across the left leg from a stray nail sticking out of a door facing. I put on my favorite shirt, and wash off all the face paint. I run my fingers through my hair, colliding awkwardly with the phantom fingers of lovers. Feeling them, the memory of a touch that once told me I was special. A beauty, a goddess, I reigned in their eyes. Head thrown back, my belly exposed, ravenous women tore from me the life and breath and rivers of my blood. Calling to me, my name like a prayer uttered in awe of an immaculate mother. Face-down, writhing, I kept my back turned to delicate kisses, massaging my skin with warm breath and lies. Trusting like I’ve never trusted before, I buried my face in the folds of my pillow, whispering into oblivion what I couldn’t bear for them to hear.
“A woman!” I cry. Make me a woman, forged in the fires of lust, beaten into shape by the irons of throbbing thighs. Deliver me, child, a towering Amazon brandishing battle armor, my very own skin. Raise me up, this lifeless mass, so long denied, oppressed by shame, beaten into submission by a world that tells me what it thinks I should be. Deliver me here at the tips of my own fingers into the glare of this bathroom light. Each blemish a badge, every wrinkle a testament to the battles I’ve fought and come to call my own. Color me now with the shades of life—my father’s rough skin, my mother’s warm eyes. Possess my throat with the unyielding cries of ecstasy, and I will lift my head to scream, “Oh, my Goddess! I have found her again.”
Kimberly Keplar is a poet and essayist from St. Louis. Gender is a pervasive topic in her work, which often focuses on self-discovery. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy from Millikin University and a creative track record at making a living with that degree outside of academia.