Mary had the perfect imperfection, a small space in between her two front teeth, like Madonna or Lauren Hutton. It was just what I needed, a flaw, to help me focus every fear I had of feeling happy. Happy felt like another solar system – a curious and desired destination, I suppose, and yet unwelcome. Nothing good could come of wanting something that could be taken away because it always was. My nervous system still clawed its way through every day since two men had broken into my apartment four years prior and attacked me. Most days, I thought I was really a ghost observing the life I was meant to have if only they had climbed through a different window that night.
With Mary, I smiled easily, told funny stories, and serenaded her with Billie Holiday songs lying naked in bed. My voice copied sultry well enough. I was not at ease, but hid it well. Her optimism was deep enough to hold us both.
So there sat that small space. I suppose I could see the beautiful smile that held it. Or, I could see a young girl, one of eleven children whose father died when she was a teenager and left her mother impoverished and unprepared. Dentistry was out of the question. I could see the beauty of that space and all that held it in a long life of challenge or I could just see the space. If I focused hard enough on it, I might be safe keeping company with the flaw and believed it could help me flee if I needed to.
Early on, Mary was fifteen minutes late for a date with me and I gave her a stern lecture on punctuality. Another time, she had two beers at dinner, not one but two. Since I didn’t drink and my step father drank too much, I decided she must be an alcoholic and I almost broke up with her on the spot.
She teased! She forgot people’s names! She didn’t always get me!
I loved and needed that imperfection. I needed every single thing about Mary that I could put in my pocket to help me escape from the joy/loss possibility that is a real relationship. We moved in together, bought a house, made financial decisions about each of our graduate programs and then had kids. As the years went on, and I allowed each happiness in, I took every carefully collected imperfection and held them in my hand like a snow globe, shaking it about wildly, the flaws overtaking the scene for but a moment and then settling down harmless.
When Mary was in her forties, she decided to close up the space by wearing invisible braces for a year. She said she was tired of wearing her childhood poverty on her face. By then, I didn’t worry what I would do without it. It had served us both rather well in a life we built together in spite of the odds.
Michelle Bowdler has been published in the New York Times and has two upcoming essays in a book entitled: We Rise to Resist: Voices from a New Era in Women’s Political Action (McFarland 2018). Her essay entitled Eventually, You Tell Your Kids (Left Hooks Literary Journal) was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The Rumpus recently published her poem A Word With You as part of their series Enough! on sexual assault and rape culture. Michelle is a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for Non-Fiction, will be a Fellow at Ragdale this winter and is a Boston GrubStreet Incubator alum. (https://michelle-bowdler.com/)