By Katherine Vondy
Joan had been a normal looking girl who had turned into an even more normal looking young woman. She always felt she looked better in pictures several years after the pictures had been taken. At first she had not realized anything inherently upsetting or depressing about that fact. It was only later, when she had reached a very unattractive middle age indeed, that she recognized that the reason she always looked better, retrospectively, in pictures taken further back in time, was that she had gotten uglier and uglier as the years passed.
It was not that it mattered so much to her. It was not that it mattered so much to anyone else in the ugly world. It was simply a trend to be discovered, data to be collected, a line to be graphed on a chart once she had devised the proper equation. Joan had gone to college, as a comely but not breathtaking or beautiful eighteen-year-old, and had majored in economics. She knew formulae and the various things that could appear on the x- and y- axes and that really the best way to measure the world was algebraically. She never went so far as to say that numbers were the only truth. She never said that numbers were the universal language or that the meaning of life was a number or anything as ridiculous as that, for honestly Joan was not a ridiculous woman at all. Joan was quite the opposite. She was unridiculous. That was precisely why she knew the importance of numbers. Numbers, too, were unridiculous.
And also Joan knew that numbers were meaningless unless you knew what the numbers meant. Binary code made sense to her. Way back in elementary school she had been fond of word problems, though she had naturally hidden this penchant from her peers to retain her mediocre popularity which had actually become prolific by the time she got to high school and became a cheerleader. Cheerleading was good for a normal looking girl who liked numbers and liked even more to know what they meant. Cheerleading was not ridiculous. One side of the gymnasium: Weve got spirit, yes we do. Weve got spirit, how bout you? The other side of the gymnasium: Weve got spirit, yes we do. Weve got spirit, how bout you? The first side: Weve got spirit, yes we do. Weve got spirit, how bout you? The second side: Weve got spirit, yes we do. Weve got spirit, how bout you? It pleased her to wonder if the volume of the crowd increased exponentially with each progressive couplet. Joan enjoyed practical applications of mathematical theories and their relation to real life.
Thus, she was not at all surprised when she found herself, as an owner of two golden retrievers, an analyst at a bank, a person whose hair had started out as a rather rich chocolate brown in girlhood but which later faded to the taupe of a groundhog, buying several large pieces of posterboard from the drug store and taking them to her home. On three of them she meticulously mounted pictures of herself from age ten to present, a picture a year. (She had come to the conclusion that she did not need to include pictures from her youth before age ten. She believed all children younger than ten were cute and attractive children, unless they were obscenely obese. Even then, they were still cute and attractive children, but also grotesque children. At any rate, she had not been obscenely obese, so the whole train of thought was moot after all.) There were twenty-four pictures, eight on each piece of posterboard, each piece of posterboard divided into two rows of four pictures, or, as some people might have seen it, four columns of two pictures.
These three posterboards of matrices were the hard work, the tedious work, the work she was glad to have out of the way. The remaining pieces of posterboard were the fun part. They were where the charts, graphs, and tables would go. They were where she would quantify her looks trajectory. She imagined her outward appearance as a football being thrown at a certain velocity. The force of gravity was the effect of aging. The speed of the ball was her exterior passing through time. The distance the football traveled was the passage of time. She would calculate at what point the football would be pulled to the ground by gravity, and how far the football would have traveled by then. This was the point in time, this hitting-the-ground-point, at which she would reach the absolute ugliest she could ever be. Not that it mattered, but it would be a nice thing to know. It would be nice to know when she would be able to look in the mirror and not have to worry that tomorrow she would still wish that she looked the way she looked today. When she would hit the ground.
Her husband, it was odd, had looked the same ever since they had gotten married four-five-six years ago, she counted. That was why her husband did not understand or appreciate or accept the project for the exciting and innovative scientific analysis that it was. He interrupted himself as he was playing Beethovens first sonata on the piano to look at the posterboards on which she had mounted all the pictures from the past.
Joanie, thats adorable! Should I take them to get framed?
Dont be ridiculous. These arent for home decoration. These are for me to study.
You were a very cute little girl. How old are you here, in this first one. Eight?
No, Im ten. I was a cute little girl. Almost all little girls are cute.
Youre a little chubby one, werent you?
I wasnt that chubby.
No, sure you were. Thats why you were so cute.
I was cute because all little kids are cute. I soon stopped being cute.
I know, said Joans husband, with approval. Theres nothing more disturbing or upsetting to me than a cute middle-aged woman. Women in their thirties should have stopped being cute. They should be classy or refined by then.
I know they should, said Joanie. She said know very loudly.
Joan liked her job, but often had trouble explaining exactly what it was that she did. Once she had participated in a Girls Career Workshop Day at a local elementary school, where she was supposed to have been a role model for all the little girl fifth-graders, little ten-year-old girls who were trying to decide what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were four fifth-grade classes, four career women assigned to each classroom, a total of sixteen career women who were supposed to set good examples for the sixty-three-four-five (she counted) girls who were about to graduate the fifth grade.
Sixteen women: two lawyers, a doctor, a speech therapist, three women who owned businesses (two clothing stores and an after-school tutoring service). The schools principal, a librarian, an interior designer, a reporter from the local newspaper. One woman was a policewoman, another a college professor, a pilot. A chef at a very fancy German restaurant, and Joan. They were divided into four panels, and Joan was grouped with the speech therapist, the interior designer and the pilot. Joan introduced herself to the classroom first: Hi, everybody. My name is Joan and Im an analyst at a bank.
Hi, girls, Im Lisa. Im a speech therapist, which means that I help people learn to talk better.
My name is Jordana and I work in interior design. I decide how to make a room look nice and interesting. I get to pick out furniture and material and do all sorts of things like that.
My name is Lucinda and I fly planes. Im a pilot.
Joan looked at the other three women and felt ridiculous. Of the sixteen girls in the classroom, ten had brown hair and five had blonde hair. One had red hair. None of them wanted to work in banks. They wanted to be speech therapists, interior designers or pilots. Definitely the one redheaded girl wanted to be a pilot. When Joan had been a ten-year-old brown-haired girl she had not wanted to be an analyst at a bank. She had not even known that banks had analysts, and her dream was to be a cheerleader. It was not until she was in high school and had already become a cheerleader (weve got spirit, yes we do) that she decided she wanted to go into finance.
Does anybody have any questions for us? asked Lucinda. Three girls (two blondes and a brunette) raised their hands.
How much money do you make? What is your favorite part about your job? What do your husbands think? Joan felt unable to answer. Her favorite part of her job was that she made money, a lot of money. That was her husbands favorite part about her job, too. She felt like these were the wrong answers. She tried to construct a sentence in her head about how the things she did with numbers took the persistence and care of a speech therapist, the artists eye of an interior designer, and the courage of a pilot. The sentence sounded silly, and not true. The redheaded girl raised her hand:
What kind of things did you like to do when you were in school?
Joan felt her face go rosy with excitement. She spoke without even thinking about it. I was a cheerleader, she told the classroom. In that moment she recalled how she used to write notes to Jessica during 5th period History and slip them covertly behind her back to drop them on the floor in front of Jessicas desk. On game days the whole cheerleading squad would wear sweats to school to show school spirit. No other girls ever wore sweats because they were not stylish enough, but the cheerleaders could wear whatever they wanted and still be popular. On weekend nights big groups of people saw movies sometimes. Afterwards they would sit on the hoods of their cars in the mall parking lot. They didnt pay attention to the sky but all the same it was vast over the sports cars they had received as Sweet Sixteen gifts and family station wagons handed down from parents.
Oh, so was I! said Jordana, the interior designer. She smiled at Joan across the room, as if a cheering camaraderie had been established between them. Joan looked at Jordanas long paisley skirt and thought of her husband at home playing the piano. Their house was quaint and comfortable and surrounded by a grove of maples. The patches of sky she saw when she sat on her front porch through the overhanging leaves were soft and tiny, manageable. She had been silly.
I always liked music and played the trumpet in the marching band, said Lisa, the speech therapist, and the sixteen girls in the classroom looked with ten-year-old eyes at the four women and seemed satisfied with everything.
Joans method was nothing if not scientific. She hypothesized that her appearance had been declining at a steady rate, as she always felt approximately the same feeling of disappointment when she looked at a recently taken picture. Certainly if the rate of uglification had accelerated or decelerated, she would have had stronger or weaker feelings of regret, accordingly. So she knew she looked like a line, and not a parabola. It was just a question of the slope of the line and its points of intersection with the axes.
To begin her process of scientific evaluation, she chose one hundred to be a base number, representing the most objectively attractive any individual could be. Zero, then, was the ugliest that was humanly possible. She then rated each picture on a scale of zero to one hundred. To compensate for human error, she had multiple test trials. She rated the pictures of herself every day for six months, so that her ratings could not be swayed by the mood she was in at the time of the rating. She rated the brightness of her eyes, the shininess of her hair, the increasing and then decreasing statuesque ness of her body. She rated her lips. She rated the grace with which she held herself within the frame of the photograph. She had sheets and sheets of familiar numbers between zero and one hundred, pages of data that chronicled time.
Naturally her husband disapproved. Not with the individual ratings, specifically, but with their existence in general. He looked at her data and did not see a timeline, a chronicle, a history. He saw numbers, and he did not know what those numbers meant. Joanie felt bad for him, for her slightly ridiculous never-changing husband. Joan was graphing time, but her husband only saw the past in old pictures. He stared at them so frequently, so long and with such an unreadable expression that she began to wonder if he was upset by the fact that she was getting uglier and uglier and uglier. When she asked him if something was bothering him, he told her she was forgetting something.
I dont know what youre graphing, but I know youre forgetting the most important part, he said, Just because its so evident that youve started looking past it.
Im not looking past anything, honey. Im just looking at. Not past.
No. No, he said. Youre looking at these pictures but you dont know what they represent. Youve forgotten that time has passed. You know it, but youve forgotten it. Youve forgotten that you used to be ten. Youve forgotten that you used to be sixteen. Twenty-seven. I dont know how, but youve forgotten you used to be thirty-one. Just last year, you were thirty-one. Joanie. You are lucky in that you have always lived in the present. But you are unlucky in that, for you, your ten-year old self is something to be graphed, not remembered.
For a brief moment she tried to decide if he was being perceptive or passive-aggressive. Either way, she felt like she should kiss him. But when she looked at him she could tell he did not want her to kiss him. So she told him:
Dont worry, its just my little art project. Youve got your sonatas. Ive got my little art project.
He walked away, and she was pleased to note that it was not his angry walk or his hurt walk; it was just his going-to-get-something walk. She stood next to the table upon which all her materials were laid and surveyed her progress. She had just thought of an equation that might be important and had started to lean over to write it down when a light flashed somewhere to her right and behind her. She turned around. Her husband was holding a camera.
Come on, stop making fun of me, she said. She was pissed off and no longer felt like she should kiss him. He didnt say anything; just walked out of the room. She looked back at her project as he made his exit so she wouldnt have to see what kind of a walk he was doing as he left.
Joan found that it was easiest not to work on her project around her husband. He complicated things; he ignored the important posterboards, the ones with the data and the graphs and charts that were slowly and elegantly evolving, and looked only at the three with her crude chronology of pictures. He ignored the college-ruled paper she filled with numerical data about her eyes as they had sunken backwards, her nose and chin as they had jutted forwards, the soft lines of her lips and forehead which had gotten hard, the hard lines of her jaw and cheek which had gotten soft. It became better to work on the project when her husband was late coming home from a concert or already asleep or otherwise distracted. And eventually it became better to leave home, to take all her materials into her office and work there, with the convenience of multi-function calculators, computerized graphs, and the very serene silence of empty cubicles at night.
One productive night she was at the office especially late, past midnight. She had never before stayed past ten oclock. When she came home all the lights were off and she assumed her husband had gone to bed. Even the golden retrievers were retrieving nothing but golden retriever dreams in their monogrammed dog beds in the corner of the kitchen. She removed her shoes, which were boots with two-inch heels to make her taller, and crept up the stairs in trouser-socked feet, the same manner in which she would have snuck in from sneaking out to go to a party in high school, had she ever snuck out of her house to go to a party. The bedroom was quite dark, black coffee in a black mug, and it wasnt until after she had gently inserted herself between the bedcovers without disturbing the person on the other side of the bed that she realized that there was no person on the other side of the bed. She could not move. She was not paralyzed with fear, but she could not make herself get out of bed nor even sit up and turn on the bedside lamp for several minutes.
When she did, she moved very deliberately, heavily and awkwardly. She looked out the window to their driveway, but both cars were there. She wondered if he had taken a walk someplace. She was rational. She decided to check the other bedroom and the 2nd-floor bathroom. He was not there. A thread of apprehension pulled at her. She went towards the stairs, less purposefully and faster. As she went more and more rapidly down each step, watching her knotted feet still in their trouser socks, she began to feel panic pulsing through her uncontrolled body. He was not in the kitchen. He was not in the 1st-floor bathroom. He was not in his study. He was not in the hallway.
He was in the living room, sitting on the piano bench, his head cradled in his arms, which rested on top of the closed piano lid. He was asleep. Joan wondered if it was wrong to wake him. She did not feel it was wrong. She wanted very much to wake him up and show him she was home. She wondered why she had bothered to sneak into her house so quietly. It was so imperative that he be aware of her presence, and she felt ridiculous. She hated that she was still wearing her trouser socks. She was mad that she had been worried. All the time he had been passed out on top of the piano. Like the hard wood of the piano lid was much more comfortable than their soft bed while he waited for her to come home.
Joan lay down on the couch on the opposite side of the living room. She felt very much awake, and she woke up the next morning without remembering that she had fallen asleep. Her face was lattice-shadowed with the outline of the tree branches through the window. Sky was cryptically visible in between leaves. She briefly wondered what it would be like to be a pilot. But the piano bench was empty.
Upstairs, her husband was asleep in their bed. Joan felt betrayed. She had wanted to share his discomfort with him all night. She had wanted them to wake up together in the morning, look at each other, and laugh at their silliness. It would have been so quaint. The right side of his face would have been pink from rubbing against the wood of the piano. Her knees would have been stiff from her nightlong too-tight fetal position.
Instead, he had woken up some time before her. He had seen her on the couch, sacrificing the comfort of the bed because she had wanted just to be in the same room with him. He had disregarded her gesture, and had returned to their bedroom, to sleep in the empty bed.
But perhaps he had not seen her? Perhaps he had not even looked in the other direction when he woke up with his face against the top of the piano. Perhaps he had gone straight upstairs, expecting her to be in bed, and had not found her. He must have been so shaken, must have felt like somebody punched him in his lung.
Hi honey, she whispered into his ear. Im home.
He didnt open his eyes but answered nonetheless. I know, Joanie. I saw you asleep on the couch this morning. Why didnt you sleep in the bed?
I dont know, she said, but then a few moments later she realized that it was no less ridiculous a question than asking why he didnt sleep in the bed. She thought she should have responded with the same question, but it had already been several moments since she answered, and he looked to be asleep, though she couldnt tell for sure since he had also looked to be asleep as he had spoken to her, and anyways the velocity of the moment had slowed, so she left it at I dont know, and got ready for work again, and left, leaving her husband with his face pressed against a pillow instead of a keyboard, and their house as she drove away towards the office her house was dappled with the twisted shadows of surrounding forest, and looked almost as if it were not there.
Time passed. This was satisfaction. Joan was so smart, so original, so meticulous. She trembled with the beauty of becoming shatteringly ugly. She had found means, medians, ranges, standard deviations of all things numerical. She had found percent error and then she did the whole project again to make it lower. She had graphed her outward demise, and found that the equation for the line her looks drew over her middle-aged lifetime was surprisingly simple.
y = -3/2x + 68
She had not realized the downward slope of the line was so steep. Looking back at the pictures, however, she was not at all shocked. When she looked at the most recent pictures, she felt nauseous in the way that eating too much Chinese take-out during late nights at the office always made her feel. On the other hand, when she looked at the graphs, the charts, the equations, she felt a giddiness that was not at all dissimilar to the way she had felt when she thought she was falling in love. It was a feeling of accomplishment most of all. She couldnt help but feel that no one before her had ever succeeded so successfully in plotting lifes twists and turns on a graph. It was so plain, so easy to predict the future. She had spent one year filling the past twenty-four with numbers, sensible numbers, numbers that were not ridiculous in the least.
She rejoiced at the fullness of her life. It was not missing a thing, not a question, nary an answer. It was complete, now that she had her graph. In the midst of her pleasure her office phone rang.
Hi, Joanie, said her husband, Ive ordered us pizza.
Oh no! Im sorry, honey. I already ate. She looked at the remains of the lo mein on her desk.
When are you coming home? he said with a sadness she did not hear.
Soon, she answered, as she always answered when he called, but this time she answered honestly. She only had one more quick math problem to do; she was almost done.
Only an hour later she walked through the front door of her house and into the hallway. It was dark, quiet not like the silence of an empty office, but like the silence of a time that had been abandoned. Her husband was not home, which was not inherently disturbing or upsetting at first. It was only after she had turned on the lights and turned up the thermostat, after she had walked into the kitchen and found a brand-new photograph resting on the bare kitchen table, after she realized that this photograph was his purposeful goodbye to her just as her data tables and charts and graphs had been her accidental goodbye to him, that she suddenly felt the weight of her heavy skin and the sharpness of her scratchy bones.
As could only be expected, this last picture was the ugliest yet. In it, she leaned hunchbacked over a table upon which were spread all her charts, tables, graphs, modes of measurement and deconstruction. Her profile was crooked, halfway covered by hair that was as lifeless as her eyes as they surveyed her lifes most complicated project. Her lips barely visible as she sucked them inwards, chewing on them with her tarnished teeth. She dropped the picture purposefully; she didnt want it near her. With a soft flapping sound, it hit the floor.
All the equations had worked out and her mathematical conundrum had been solved. She had devised the precise moment at which she would reach her ultimate least attractive state. It was the last thing she had done before she left the office. It was not now; it would not come for several years. Still she felt her ribs imploding with the pain of looking at that ugly picture of the present. She could not bear to think of the ugliness, ugliness so great she could not imagine, that was yet to come with the passage of time.
Time had passed very differently when she first met him. They had been seniors in high school. She had not been beautiful even then but it had been a prettier time altogether. He had not played nor even cared about football but he had liked to see her cheer. He had come to the stadium on Friday nights. She had worn his hooded sweatshirt over her cheerleading uniform when they went out after games. At graduation they had broken up. She had studied economics. He had studied music. Years later when they ran into each other by fickle chance he had seen her just as he did when she was leading cheers: Weve got spirit, yes we do, weve got spirit, how bout you? He had seen a brilliant smile; she had thought he had seen the past.
Joan found herself subtracting the year of her high school graduation from the current year and subtracting that number from thirty-two to find out how old she had been back then. She did not recognize the result. It was a number she had forgotten.