“Do you want to get some breakfast?” he asked one morning, his brown eyes sincere and kind. I wasn’t barefaced, but I wasn’t pretty—I had dark circles under my eyes, a smoky eye that looked more like a shiner, and a breakout that I didn’t have time to touch up. I walked my somber death march to the Grey Dog Café. It was decently dark in there, among the low ceilings and wood-paneled walls. He tried to give me the good seat, the one facing the window, but I quickly declined. “I’ll sit here,” I said, grabbing the chair that faced the interior as if it were a life preserver on a shipwreck.
We waited for the waitress for an eternity. I wanted to talk about our favorite topics: his grasshopper legs, the way the creative roommate slept on top of his covers instead of under them; to hear again about the time he’d seen a beaver on the third-grade field trip and the teacher hadn’t believed him. But I was nervous, holding the menu to shield the acne near my chin.
“Are you OK?” he asked. “Your friend said I should take you to breakfast.”
Traitor! I longed to be alone in my tiny apartment, where I could nurse my wounds. Scrub my eyes clean with oil-free eye-makeup remover. Sleep my barefaced private slumber on my black-stained pillowcase.
I went home worrying that our chemistry was dead. Later that afternoon I had just finished punishing myself by squeezing some of the bumps on my chin when he texted to see if I wanted to come over and watch a basketball game. The made-up me and the real me were coming to a head here, and I was fighting with which one to be. I had two choices. Bring chips and dip, revealing my imperfections, or ask to reschedule, and halt the barreling snowball of our romance. The stakes were high.
“You don’t understand,” I hissed to my mother on the phone in a taxi on Columbus Avenue. I was holding a warm Pyrex of melted cheese, canned chicken, and Buffalo sauce. “I have horrible acne! I should turn around right now!”
I was only half kidding. “If you like him so much,” she said, “give him some credit. Did it ever occur to you that he likes you?”
“It just seems so risky,” I said to my mom, “to have to find out if he does.”
I rang his doorbell, presenting the cheese dip, my breakout, and my best smile. He seemed grumpy that his team was losing, and he didn’t eat much dip, but the world did not end.
A few weeks later we went to Long Island for a weekend. I had envisioned myself to be his glamorous duchess with a glass of chardonnay on a waterfront balcony, but we were having so much fun that I surrendered to jumping in the ocean after him, battling him in a sweaty tennis match, racing him on rental bikes, and slurping down matching milkshakes. After all this, my face was naked in the five-o’clock light. “You’re really red,” he said, sort of admiringly, as we walked back to our room hand in hand.
Our beach rental was lofted and sky-lit: no place to hide.
“I’ve never seen you look quite like this,” he said, embracing me. I let the truth of that sink in.
We were married a year later.
These days, when I am getting dressed up before the babysitter comes over, I look in the mirror and hear my mother’s voice again: “I never looked like that.” But I hear it with more nuance. She may have never worn eyeliner and owned hot tools, but she had never felt the need to. She had the confidence not to live in costume. I am learning that prettiness exists in the same spaces as childbirth and sickness and grief and intimacy, and that being seen at my best angle is so much less satisfying than being seen at every angle.