All the Wrong Places

by Beverly Donofrio

The summer I was thirteen, the ugliest person I have ever seen walked into the cabin at our local swimming hole. Her long, thin nose seemed to stretch over her lips at the bottom edge of her face because her chin was missing. Her enormous eyes bugged out like a fly’s. Her face was so horrible I had to memorize it. It’s possible my mouth gaped open. The woman grabbed an armful of miniature Table Talk Pies, paid for them, then walked over to me on the sofa. “What are you looking at?” she snarled. “You think you’re so pretty? You’d better watch out, or you’ll end up just like me.” Then she turned and stomped out, letting the door slam behind her.

I was deeply shamed because I’d hurt the woman’s feelings, but I was also frightened. Had she just cursed me? And what was I supposed to “watch out” for, anyway? Did she mean that if I wasn’t a good person—if I lied, cursed, stole things, continued to hurt people’s feelings; or if I were just not lucky, got a disease or into a near fatal accident—I would end up like her?

That sighting so long ago began a vigil practiced often in my youth—and as I got older, perhaps every few years or so—of looking at my face in the mirror, wondering if it was morphing into that woman’s. I do resemble her. I have the same olive coloring, a long nose, thin face and, partly due to an over–active thyroid when I was in my teens, huge eyes. Plus, I was raised in an era of shame shame Catholicism when we believed that God was just chomping at the bit to catch you in a sin so he could torture you. I’d been rude, uncompassionate and arrogant to stare at that woman, and not once in the immediate aftermath did I think to thank the Lord for the good fortune of my reasonably attractive face. Therefore, it was entirely possible that not only would God punish me, but that he’d already punished the woman for something cruel that she’d done.

When my first book came out, an arty photographer was hired by I think it was Glamour magazine to take my picture. The book was called Riding in Cars with Boys, and she snapped easily a hundred photos of me in various positions in a 1966 Chevy Impala. The photographer and I had chatted amiably and I thought she liked me well enough—until I saw the photo. I’m leaning on my forearm staring out the car window, the bottom of my face cut off, my nose hanging down, my eyes like a fly’s. I looked so much like that woman that I might have believed the curse had been accomplished, whimsically, and that it was finally over. But this never occurred to me at the time. And it has only occurred to me now, nearly twenty years later, to wonder: What did it mean that I’d come to look my ugliest, and publicly, the moment I believed all my dreams were finally coming true?

Excerpted from “Face in the Mirror”