Picture this: It’s 2004. I’m living in Berkeley, California. I swear I am a cool girl. I’m dating a rapper who has had some success. He’s got massive dreadlocks that differentiate him from everyone. I: I dress wildly. I drape extravagant jewelry all over my body—I drip fake gold. My dresses are loud prints, all decades, 4-inch heels by Paul Smith and Dirk Bikkembergs. My RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocks has money from touring. I enjoy said money. My eyes are trimmed with bright bold colors—electric blue, fuchsia, forest green, mascara covered white eyelashes. I sweep a dust of iridescent powder across my legs to make them shimmer in the sun.
I am Indian. He is black. I am brown. He is browner. When we’re together, people comment on our appearance, such a beautiful couple, look at those dreads, man! And look at your girl. Nice. I love the attention. I want to stand out. We do.
I can’t look at myself straight on in the mirror.
I learned this from my mother.
We’ve been together for five years. In 2003 I discover he is cheating on me. My stomach turns in and around as I read email after email from groupie after groupie, women he has hooked up with. I feel anger. I feel a searing shooting hurt rise up from my abdomen into my throat. I step into a cold shower and vomit. It does not make the hurt go away.
Flash forward to 2004. Zac Braff’s love story, Garden State has just come out. I go to see it all by myself. This is the first time I have ever done this. My heart beats hard beats as I inhale the film. My eyes rain tears. My face is the hidden side of a waterfall. I. Love. This. Movie. I love Natalie Portman’s pixie dream girl perfection. I want to be her. Be loved like her, despite her flaws. Flaws that are not ugly, but sweet.
A few months earlier, RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith decides he can’t be in a committed relationship. He needs an open one. A year of couple’s therapy has taught him this much. I fall down. I fall over. Dreams of mixed race babies and a bungalow home in Oakland—I purposefully shred them. I attempt to shred them in my imagination, in the part of me where hope is held. I shred them tangibly. I take photos of him and rub my fingers across the glossy surface. I cut, one line of paper and then another. Then I burn those shreds up. It smells like acid. It smells like burnt paper. It smells a tiny bit like celluloid on fire. The aroma lingers in my nose for years to come.
The body mimics. It gestures what it repeatedly sees, incorporating it into the somatic. The body learns. It expresses its memories through mimicry. You feel the involuntary movements and you realize, the body is not quite yours, it is not quite your mind’s, it has a mind of its own.
My mother’s body taught me many things: to eat like her, apply makeup like her. Our tongues jutting out to expand our front lips forward, our vanity exposed, never looking at ourselves directly, never confronting our image whole. Lips jettisoned forward to fragment our look as we swept mascara on our long eyelashes, blush brushed on cheekbones to give the illusion of height. Beauty makes you vain, a strange sort of curse—at least it was for my mother. This curse of vanity—it was my air. I breathed it in.
I try to stay in the relationship by participating in the open part of RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith’s desires. I begin to see the bartender at a local fancy restaurant. He is The Player. When I first meet him, he gets down on one knee. He’s wearing all black. I’m in bright orange. Large yellow earrings fall down my neck to graze my shoulders, they gracefully clap each time I move. He takes my hand and says, you’re beautiful, what can I get you? He seduces me. I am easy to seduce.
Our courtship is like kindling. The sex is not discrete, it is wild. It is not vanilla, it is espresso, it is chocolate therapy, maple swirl, peanut butter with dense chocolate chips. Each time—a different flavor of everything I have ever wanted. The orgasms he gives are new, they are large. They make my body express relief. I turn into my body. I turn away from the visage I have so meticulously created. I reach the elusive high and then I come down. It all stops. He doesn’t call. I spend weeks looking at my phone.
I go to the Acme, a bar he drinks at every night. I confront him. I am drunk. He is not. I beg him to come home with me. To fuck me. To make my body express relief one more time. My face contorted, my spine once straight and strong, now bent, my stance slightly broken. He looks at me, repulsed. I am no longer desirable. I am no longer important. He says no.
This is when I go to see Garden State. This is when I pine for the story to be mine. Zac Braff loves Natalie Portman despite the fact that she’s a pathological liar. "You're freaking out, aren't you? You're totally freaking out. You're like running for the door." Zac Braff does not run. He stays. He does everything RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith and The Player do not. I think of my mother. Her striking, alluring, face. I think of her vanity. I think of the men who left her. I think of how she left me. This is when I drive to Ameoba Music on Telegraph Ave and head towards the Soundtrack section to buy the CD. I gently push it into my car stereo. I’m parked near People’s Park. I feel a forced sadness. I have forced sadness on myself by inserting this CD and now I must cry. I do.
As I’ve grown older I see the gradual loss of normative forms of beauty in fragments. My brown breasts beginning to sag. A small belly forming and remaining, a layer of fat that upon my death will be wrapped in clay and thrown in the Ganges—I did this for my Bengali mother, I released her in an effort to mourn her. The men at the crematorium dug into a pile of her bones and pulled out that distinctive blob of fat, longish and curved and covered in ash.
Night after night I play this soundtrack. Sometimes I linger on Colin Hay’s, “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,” thinking about RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith. Frou Frou’s “Let Go” for The Player. “There is beauty in the breakdown.” The Player’s rejection is repulsively beautiful. Colin Hay hurts me most. The Australian-Scottish accent that edges his voice. The acoustic guitar. Each chord. They slay me. He helps me get up each day. When he drinks “good coffee every morning,” I drink good coffee too.
Mostly it’s at night that the pain comes. I drive around in my curry colored Honda and play the soundtrack. I drive to the Berkeley hills. I park in front of the house that RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith and I once lived in. I gaze at it, memories of his skin next to mine, the figment of perfection we created. I think of The Player’s hands and how they moved across the contours of my corporeality, how they traveled through my curves with smooth strokes, how he marked my surface with a slight burn. I howl at the moon. I am not being overly dramatic. I howl at the moon. My sobs sound like a crying wolf. My tonsils vibrate. My throat gets dry as I scream pain. My mother, her beauty, I think of her. For one moment, she eclipses these men, she eclipses me. I howl louder.
I choose to be ugly in this pain. The moment when I drive to the Acme and ask The Player to come home with me, I don’t ask, I beg. I cry big fat monsoon tears that smear my eyes trimmed with bright bold colors, my mascara covered white eyelashes. When I cry, when I plead, I choose not to be beautiful. I choose earnestness. As I sit in my car and howl at the moon, I have forgone the illusion of prettiness, the coolness of extravagance, I have chosen to be abject. I submit to my psychic life, my pain that travels through the innards of my mind. With that submission, I face the consequences. I am no longer desirable or wanted, fake gold no longer drips off of me. I no longer define my cheekbones with the hot pink stroke of a brush. My brown skin, once so alluring next to RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith complements no one. I am alone. I have chosen this. Have I chosen this? I start to grow up.
I am forty. My skin shows the evolution of my body: sun spots, fine wrinkles that move outward from my eyes like a daddy longlegs. My nose has grown bigger. A younger nose was sharp and pointed, dainty. And my hands. The veins that have popped up like blisters, bubbling and blueish grey. The color of bruised. The fine lines intricate and all over, compressed skin, tributaries. But sometimes I think my hands have always looked this way, wiser than all the other parts of my body.
Picture now: I’m at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I work at this bar. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” comes on. I recoil. I shudder. I remember begging The Player to be with me. I remember him saying no. I remember howling at the moon. I think about how I don’t listen to The Garden State Soundtrack anymore because I hate it. I hate Zac Braff. I hate Natalie Portman’s pixie dream girl perfection. I hate it all because I am embarrassed by the girl that I once was. Embarrassed by her pain. Pain can make you so very ugly. I sometimes feel reprieve from this hatred. I feel the guilelessness of that young girl. I see that her ugliness wasn’t ugliness at all. It was a longing, an openness, a desire to be loved. A longing to have someone stay. A longing for a mother. But sometimes, still, I feel repulsed, forgetting that openness let’s go of vanity. I am still growing.
It's been over a year since my mother has passed away.
I pull the soundtrack up on Spotify. I listen to “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” Tears well up and fall down the rivulets that have formed around my 40-year old eyes. I remember RapperWithDistinctiveDreadLocksWhoILookGoodWith. I remember The Player. I remember my mother. Again, she eclipses these two men. This time forever. An acoustic version of “Overkill” by Colin Hay pops on. “Ghosts appear and fade away. Ghosts appear and fade away.” Yes. I think. Yes, they do.