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By Robert Roth
The make-up almost dripping from her face, she stood with defiance in front of the mirror. Her straightened hair with its reddish tone fell softly over her shoulders giving her, she felt, a sexy elegance.
"You must show and not tell." The narrator hears his friends' voices echo in his brain. Most of his friends, like him, are at the bottom of the heap. Still they feel that they must keep their critical apparatus intact. They function as the street cops of the cultural machine. Much like the most beaten down father who must teach his children obedience to authority, they must preserve a structure that is deeply humiliating to themselves. The narrator cannot concentrate on the story. The voices are telling him to know his place. As a result the narrator identifies strongly with the character as she looks into the mirror. Her boyfriend is coming home after a long absence. Where has he been? How long has he been away? That will come later. The character had planned to meet the boyfriend at the airport wearing the sexy new outfit she had made for the occasion. "Could you pull your hair back when you greet me at the airport?" The boyfriend had said this on the phone just the night before. "I want to be able to see your whole face. It's so beautiful." She had just walked into the apartment after spending two hours at her hairdresser getting her hair done just right. She was stunned by the request and somewhat bewildered by it. He had used the very same words once to prod her gently to use less make-up.
Unlike the character, the narrator was less than bewildered by the boyfriend's request. He remembered his own response when his beautiful radical Korean girlfriend came home with her hair permed. "How could someone who could shake the foundation of Korean society want to look so westernized!" He told her how lovely she looked and brooded about it for two days.
Like the narrator, the boyfriend won't look too deeply into himself. He focuses instead on his lover. Her hair being straightened means that she has internalized her oppression as a black person. Wearing make-up means she feels bad about herself as a woman. Shaving under the arms means she is ashamed of her body. Why is he so drawn to her? Why does he want to change her?
Political and psychological categories can help make one understand feelings that are deep and bewildering. They can explain for example why you might wake up each morning in a state of dread or why something that should seem like a compliment can create a deep sense of humiliation. But even the most powerful and accurate categories can freeze one into a place of partial understanding. The boyfriend's love is very deep. Four months away has created an unbearable longing. Instead of writing letters they had sent drawings and sketches back and forth communicating on levels each never before thought possible. What about her appearance is so threatening to him? How does he feel about the heads that she turns whenever she walks down the street? Is he trying to help release her into some deeper state of consciousness (probably) or attempting instead to control her sexuality (probably also)?
The narrator suddenly scribbles on the side of the page: "Teenage mothers remain outside everyone's control. Social workers, right wing clergy, even feminists have all given it their best shot. It is their inability to be managed that generates such fear. Certainly more than any real concern for their situation."
The black woman, in her late twenties, stands in front of the mirror, her hair pulled back, her face well scrubbed. After an absence of four months her lover is returning. Momentarily stunned by a comment he had made on the phone the other night, any hurt that may have lingered has receded with the excitement of his anticipated arrival. She remembers the serious face she wore as a teenager, as turbulent erotic energy was just about to burst from under her skin. "Yes, I think I'll dress like a slightly risqué schoolgirl. Maybe I'll even bring a notebook with me to the airport," she thinks to herself smiling.
The narrator turns on his friends with a fury. They sit around like pundits on television. They sound like articles in magazines. "Trembling Asian lips," he once wrote while describing sex with his Korean lover. He took out the word Asian and closeted his sexuality. After any event they stiffen into critics. Even a rare accomplishment of a friend cannot be fully appreciated. They hold on for dear life to the right to have an "honest opinion." Movements for autonomy wind up as the right to an honest opinion. It is with their honest opinions and multiple critical structures that they police each other and themselves.
As you might have guessed by now, since he did not mention his own race, the narrator must be white. White narrators only identify those who are not white by their race. But he did mention that the boyfriend was white. Or did he? Maybe not. But if he did it would only be to make a point. If he were writing about the boyfriend alone he probably would not mention it. What about the narrator's own feelings about the woman character? I think I will give her self-inflicted scratch marks on the back of her hand. Why is he so drawn to her? I think I will keep her face scrubbed clean when she goes to the airport. What scores does he want her to settle for him? No, I think she'll put on thick make-up out of spite. How deep is his love?
Like the boyfriend the narrator is stuck in a partial consciousness. He himself becomes fixed to two-dimensional explanations. He can't enter into the space of the woman. Her insecurities, her strengths, are well beyond his understanding. He, like the boyfriend, wants her to represent him in some way. So there is a struggle going on between them. As for the character herself? She just stands in front of the mirror with the make-up dripping from her face, scratch marks on her hands, furious at them both.