Momma loved pretty.
She kept all her pretty locked up in a turquoise travel case that she hid in the back of her closet.
I remember being about five (or maybe six) years old and sitting with my sister on Momma’s bed and secretly going through the contents of that case while Momma was out for the evening.
Gently we extracted each delicate, beautiful treasure. A faux gold hand mirror, long leopard print gloves, a small bouquet of red paper poppies that the Veteran’s Administration had handed out. There were pictures of people we did not know and pictures of Momma from her younger, finer days where she was stretched out on a blanket with dancing blond curls and a dazzling smile that lit up the black and white malaise of the faded paper photo.
My sister’s favorite pretty was an old silver ring with a tiny diamond. Tarnished and faded, she slipped it on her ring finger and held it up to the light so that it would glisten. There was a peacock broach with colored glass gems at the end of each tail feather. A silver rose ring with a tiny ruby center. And tortoise shell combs.
My sister and I would pretend we were queens and beauty contest winners with all the treasure – until we would hear her coming home; drunk again, sometimes with another uncle. Jiggling the key in the lock of our motel room where we all lived.
We would quickly pack away the pretty. Doing our best to put the gloves and the rings back where they belonged – back in the turquoise blue suitcase hidden away in the black of the closet.
In the morning, we would wait (quiet now!), in front of the TV watching reruns of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father – until the man from last night – stubbed out the butt of his cigarette and collected his things. We would try not to watch as Momma grudgingly put on her maid’s uniform and set off to cleaning rooms. It was how she paid the rent.
Through all of this, the one thing I knew for certain was that my Momma loved pretty, so pretty was what I would be. I would have the brightest smile and the shiniest hair. My clothes would be clean and pressed. My skin would be scrubbed and polished. I would be perfect. Perfect and lovely. Because Momma loved pretty. She would see my pretty and love my pretty and, of course – well, of course – then she would love me.
In school, I always got the best grades. I wrote the finest, prettiest papers. My teachers loved me. They saw the pretty in me. The best part was that I just knew that Momma could also see that the teachers – well, the teachers saw all the pretty.
Momma for sure could see the pretty too – so, she must love me.
We danced this dance – Momma and me. It was a slow and choppy dance at first, but then we both seemed to find a comfortable rhythm. Me convincing myself that she saw my pretty, her believing (wanting to believe) that all this was just me – stupid me – wanting her (needing her) to see the pretty.
Because Momma loved pretty.
For years (and years) we danced this dance – until it was time for me to grow on up now – and get out on my on.
So that is what I did. I went out into the world. Showing all the world every bit of my pretty. Some saw it. Some didn’t.
Those that did see it – well, they were lovely.
Fine young men. Finer than I could ever imagine. I was astonished that such fine gentlemen could see the pretty in me. So amazed at their clarity of vision – hell, well – I did anything that they wanted me to do. I gave it away to all those young fine men with their amazing, acute sense of pretty. If truth be told, they were not ALL young. Nor were they all amazing.
Inside, truthfully – well, it was often never that pretty.
But everyone knew, it was always the outside that mattered. Because Momma loved pretty and it was obvious to anyone that had eyes that I was, if nothing else, pretty. At least that is what all those fine young men led me to believe.
I was so proud and excited that I would bring those fine young men by; let them meet Momma. Hoping that she would see what I just knew that all the very fine young men could see. They could see the pretty in me. They could see it. I knew they could see it.
Why couldn’t she see it?
In fact, the very presence of these fine young men made her look at me with cold, hard, steely eyes.
These were the eyes that she would cast on ugly. These were the eyes that were reserved for the ugliest of things. Pubic hair on a bathtub ring that had to be scrubbed away. Bounced checks. Previously unknown (and angry) wives of gentleman callers.
No silver rings, no gemstone studded peacocks, no tortoise shell combs.
Just the searing and then the black, cold, ugly truth and slow realization that her little boy, the pretty boy, had grown up to be a faggot.
And I saw it there – in her eyes. The eyes that I wanted so desperately to love me.
I saw that she saw NO pretty.
And Momma loved pretty.
And now, as I sit here – an older man now.
Nearly 50 years old I am.
And all of this was so very, very long ago.
And these days – well these days, there is absolutely, no mistaking me for pretty.
On the outside.
I see all of the things that Momma could not see.
The things that she could not see through those closed, disgusted, steely eyes.
I see a survivor.
I see a warrior.
I see a victor.
I see lovely.
I see pretty.
And Momma loved pretty.