Mid thirties PhD student … liberal arts, maybe poetry, maybe American lit. One cat, an orange tabby who uses the litter box inconsistently and destroys anyone audacious enough to place a finger on his belly. Small one bedroom apartment in a quiet complex, she has a fern on the patio and a recycling bin filled with empty Pinot Noir bottles. She pretends lonely doesn’t hurt.
Elastic waisted, her slacks pull across her thighs in unflattering directions and she knows it and she hates it but refuses to fix, because she shouldn’t have to.
She will not be measured by pretty (even as she perpetually measures herself, even as she hates the elastic band and the soft material she selected so carefully because it should drape well. It did until Christmas break and then bread and beer and chicken with her family fricasseed the drape into a tight pull).
She will not be measured by pretty (even as she hates the heft of her own breasts that feel foreign and pendulous and pull her further into a desk chair where she is master of the language on the pages … the pages in which she is conceptualized beauty rather than a physical thing that can be ruined by her teeth yellowed with tea and smoking or her hair which has never been long and never been silky and never been anything but the ginger tangle she keeps cropped just below her ears and which she tucks nervously behind them when she meets with her advisor).
She will not be measured by pretty (even as her advisor watches the underclassmen with hunger in his watery eyes and a quiver in his jowls and she is aware he’s never quivered at the sight of her and she’s not attracted to him but still sorry that he’s never hungered for her, as though the possibility of a devouring would somehow lend her some temporary validity).
Her office is small and shared with seven other candidates. The heavy wooden desks sport the grime of five decades of coffee and cigarettes and debauchery. Arranged in a Greek key, the desks create a maze which she has to navigate perpetually in order to use the restroom or refill her coffee… this is not an efficient arrangement. Her ass is too big to make it through without sloshing up onto a surface on occasion, grabbing pens or papers and pulling them to the floor. A gauntlet of humiliation run as a routine and assembled by her forebears, not as a cruelty – but simply because it worked for them and no one had the courage to step forward and request a change, and she sure as hell wasn’t about to. This is how academia works sometimes. Slow to raise its watery eyes from the ass of the underclassmen and see the systemic pain in the ranks as the invisible people struggle to be seen, but not too clearly – not too honestly.
As often happens, she will find a way – maybe not her way, maybe not the way we would like for her, but a way. So many of us want her to rise up, to see herself and her elastic pants and her cat and her work and her breasts as the wonder that they are, to love them and to love herself and to feel powerful and fulfilled and … beautiful. Note, as you picture this outcome, is there also a music montage makeover where she loses weight and finds a stylist to address her hair and makes her advisor swoon just once before his ticker gives out? Even in our hopes for our hero to find self-love, it is so hard to not also want her to suddenly be beautiful.
The way she finds is acceptance, a kind of resignation that pretty will never be her way and that aging women have an advantage in that everyone expects them to be ‘not pretty’ … it grows easier for her to rally against pretty as she becomes more and more invisible. In the end she is reduced to the words on the page – the stories she wrote – the magic she constructed.
She is reduced to her own concept of herself, and she will live there forever, frozen into a kind of mediocrity that is the very honest tragedy and legend of human existence. In the end she is not measured by beautiful or extraordinary. In the end, like most of us, she is not measured at all.