Everything changed for me that year. It seemed like I a light went on and I suddenly saw things clearly. How cute my sister was, with her huge blue eyes and the missing front teeth. How charming my brother was, with his black hair and his broad, white smile.
That was the year I looked in the mirror and saw my crazy, curly hair and slanty, brown eyes and poky little chin and realized I was ugly.
I was twelve then, and in the seventh grade. I was part of a big, popular group of girls and I was the funny, smart one, which was fine. But what I really wanted was to be the pretty, rich one. And that slot was permanently taken by Pessy Soller.
Pessy Soller had brown hair but she said that it was “chestnut” and her brown eyes, she claimed, were “flecked with gold.” I believed her. The fluorescent classroom bulb shone down on the top of her sleek, shoulder length bob and made a kind of U shaped glow of light, one that I knew would never be replicated on my kinky curls. Her green cardigan was Bennetton and her socks had the little Izod alligator. We all wore plaid uniforms but hers looked chic, cosmopolitan. She had a brown leather headband. I couldn’t stop staring.
When I stood next to Pessy at choir practice, I could smell her Apple Pectin shampoo. As she sang her nostrils flared delicately. I thought it looked poetic, but my sister said it looked horsey. Of course, my sister was only in fourth grade, so who cared what she thought anyway?
On Sunday, I took my mother to Jamie’s Beauty Supply Store on Coney Island and showed her the bottle of Apple Pectin shampoo. It cost six dollars. Six Dollars! That was enough to buy a whole pie of pizza on a Thursday night. I knew it was too much for shampoo. My mother looked at the bottle and then she looked at my face. She put the shampoo on the counter and opened her purse to pay.
“Doesn’t Pessy have the most exotic coloring?” I asked my mother over breakfast, the next day. The sweet apple scent of my head was overpowering. My mother looked up from her coffee. “She has brown hair and brown eyes, just like you,” she answered. “No!” I said, offended on Pessy’s behalf, “Her hair is chestnut and her eyes are flecked with gold.” My mother looked at me steadily. “You can change the name of a color, Shira, but that doesn’t change the color. You know that.” I sat in the back seat of the bus, all the way to school, and wondered what she meant.
One day after school, a whole group of us went over to Pessy’s house. We hung out in her basement for a while and right before I left she showed me her new flute. “Pessy Soller is learning to play the flute!” I announced proudly, over dinner, that night. My brother rolled his eyes. “She’s really very rich.” I reached, firmly, for the soda.
My father’s voice was so quiet. “She’s very rich?” he asked.
“Well, how did she make her money?”
I looked up. “She didn’t make the money, Abba, she’s a kid. Her father made the money.”
“Oh.” said my father. “So her father’s very rich.”
“Right,” I answered.
“So, tell me,” he said slowly, deliberately, “How did he make his money?”
“Well, he works with her grandfather, in her grandfather’s company.” I said.
“I see. So it’s not really his money either. It’s his father’s.”
“Right,” I said hesitantly, “I mean, I guess.” My mother was looking down at her plate, the smallest smile on her fine lips. After that, my father took to calling Pessy, “The Harpist.” “How’s your friend?” he would ask, “And her harp?”
I understood what he meant, sort of. Some of the stuff she did was a little pretentious. But still. I thought I might feel better if my hair was straight too. I broached the topic one night while my mother washed the dishes. “I want to have my hair straightened,” I said, in my most grown-up voice, perched on the corner of the counter. My mother looked up from the dishes, her caramel eyes calm in her oval face. “No.” she said. I was indignant. “What do you mean ‘No’? It’s my hair!”
“I know. And you’re my daughter. Besides, you have beautiful hair.” She reached one warm, wet hand to touch my curls and then my cheek and turned back to the dishes. “I’ll let you straighten it when you turn sixteen,” she said. “And by then, you won’t want to.”
“Will too.” I muttered under my breath and jumped off the counter before the dishwater had even dried on my face.
Honestly, I knew I didn’t stand a chance. I wasn’t even allowed to wear lip gloss. But if I couldn’t have what I wanted at least I could talk about it. “Pessy Soller said, that the decorator said, that she’s painting a mural on the ceiling!” I announced one night, besotted. My father muttered that that seemed just right for people with their noses always up in the air. The look my mother gave him could have peeled paint. Undaunted, I continued, “And, Pessy said that the lady at the beauty salon offered her twenty dollars for her hair. Twenty dollars!” My father said he would pay me twenty dollars if I would just stop talking about Pessy Soller. Then he circled his fingers around the delicate bones of my wrist and squeezed lightly to let me know that he loved me.
That week, Pessy came into class with big news. Her doctor said that she might have a slipped disc. She might even need to wear a neck brace. For six weeks! It was all anyone could talk about. I thought of how romantic, and tragic and brave she was soldiering on in the face of adversity. I wished I could have a slipped disc. But the only braces I had were on my teeth, ugly and shiny. Every time I smiled, my brother pretended to check his reflection.
It was all too much, the braces and the hair and the slanty brown eyes. And finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, when I couldn’t stand my ugly face for even another moment, I sat down at the kitchen table, and cried.
My mother found me there. “Why are you crying?” she asked, alarmed. “Because I’m ugly, ugly, ugly,” I answered, tears clotting my voice, my face red and puffy as a bee-sting. My mother sidled next to me on the chair and my head went down on her shoulder. “I’m not nearly as pretty as Pessy Soller!” I sobbed into her sweater, and hoped that she could hear me. She heard me.
“Well, Pessy Soller is a very pretty girl,” and her voice was calm and assured. “In fact, she may even be prettier than you are right now. But, Shira,” her hands lifted my head, straightened my face to look into hers, “Pessy Soller will always be a pretty girl. You’re going to be a beautiful woman.” I looked up at my mother, her even, honest face, her understanding eyes. She smiled at me and I smiled shakily, back at her. Then she sent me to the bathroom to wash my face. That night, I went to bed, with my mother’s words ringing in my ears like a promise.
The next day, I went into school and stood in the doorway. Pessy was in the center of the room, surrounded by the usual swarm of admirers. She was showing off her new, suede boots. The classroom light shone down on her shiny, chestnut hair, as I looked at her. And I let her have it, the moment and the spotlight and the heavy, sweet shampoo. She was a very pretty girl and that was okay.
She could have today. I was waiting for tomorrow.
From the upcoming anthology Everyone’s Got a Story — 42 short stories from a new generation of Jewish writers, edited by Ruchama K. Feuerman (Judaica Press, May 2008). Order Today!
Yael Zoldan is a Brooklyn girl, who lives in Passaic, New Jersey, with her husband and children. Somewhere between carpool and laundry she finds the time to write.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.