1. Here is a picture and a picture and a picture, each magazine-torn, as if for collage but she is not making a collage. Look. She fans them in front of you, pointing at each in turn. You can’t, this many years removed, summon her words, her voice, her image. You remember only these women in front of you, the beautiful, famous women you could not name, with one exception: Wonder Woman.
2. She’s on your swim towel — not Carter but cartoon. She strides in star-spangled bloomers, red boots, eagled breast. Her cuffs deflect bullets; her tiara cuts; the rope at her waist is a lasso of truth.
You’re a strong swimmer, and your fading pool towel proves it, bordered with patch after patch: polliwog, minnow, stingray, sea horse. You’re seven, and they’re running out of classes to put you in. You have a brown bikini and a blue one, but you prefer the one-piece. You know, even then, that the bikinis are cuter, and you’ll wear anything your mother gives you if it means you can go to the pool, but the muscle-backed tank suit, sun- and chlorine-bleached, makes you fast and fearless. Even then, these were your priorities.
On the towel, Wonder Woman, too, wears a one-piece.
3. The picture woman is a speech therapist. Her room is small as a closet. You sit together in small chairs at a round table. You don’t have a lisp or a stutter. You’re here because you suck your thumb, and your second grade teacher has sent you to stop.
4. In every photo of you at this age, your hair hangs to your nose in a thick mop and springs from pigtails in wild bumps and wayward strands. Your grandfather calls you his Blonde Bombshell. Your grandmother complains that you’ll think the world has blonde stripes. She chides your mother, but the hairdresser’s scissors can’t keep up.
In fact, you see the world clearly, even through the mass of hair. By the time you reach college, you’ll call vision your super power, only half joking. You can read text on computer screens from twenty yards away. Your party trick: reading at distances. In your forties, the need for reading glasses will come as a blow. Glasses, you know from childhood, are for the alter ego. Glasses are the first thing to toss when you spin into greatness.
5. In your memory, which may not be trusted, the speech therapist’s nails are manicured. Their sharp, polished points rest on each image in turn. She looks at you over the frames of her own spectacles. “These women are beautiful — don’t you think so?”
“See their teeth, how nice and straight they are?” A pointed fingernail stretches to Lynda Carter. “Don’t you want nice straight teeth so that you can be beautiful like this?”
“If you suck your thumb, your teeth will grow crooked. Do you want that?”
6. Your desire for beauty was nothing compared to your desire for strength. In five years’ time to come, your teeth will be put in braces. The orthodontist will be surprised to know you were a thumb sucker. Your teeth hadn’t bucked in spite of predictions. As he works, you stare at the photo of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleading squad, signed with thank yous on his wall. Their teeth shine like stars.
7. As a child, you learned you would not be beautiful. You learned other things as well. You learned you could swim and hit a tennis ball. You learned the special place to scratch the ears of dogs and horses to make them lean into your hand. You learned black snakes could be found nesting in sun-warmed cinder blocks. You learned the wonders hidden in the woods behind your house, including the single-plank swing dangling so high from the limb overhead that you could not touch it, no matter how you jumped. You learned that, when you played pretend, your friends preferred you take names like Becky or Brenda and not Mrs. Super Muscle Brainy Brilliant Woman, but you also learned that you could hold that name inside yourself. You learned to lean into the words on pages rather than the images. You learned that you could imagine yourself into other bodies, other worlds. You learned to absorb light with darkness. You learned that bodies are malleable, breakable, miraculous. Though even now you question yourself as you write it, you learned many wondrous ways a woman may be beauty-filled.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she teaches creative writing at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, and American Short Fiction (online) among other publications. Her debut novel Borrowed Horses was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her second novel Scrapple and her fiction chapbook The Heart Keeps Faulty Time are forthcoming in 2020. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial teams at Barrelhouse and American Short Fiction. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com
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Art (cropped) ABC Television/Alexis Jazz Based on work in the Public Domain