- A Fair FaceAn excerpt from the novel-in-progress "People We Trust"
Their eyes rested on Paulette as she chased the other children across her parents' lawn, framing her within the limitations of a single word: beautiful. It was a term of endearment that could mean anything, but for her mother, beautiful meant clothes for her daughter that accentuated her creamy, freckled skin tone, dresses with little yellow flowers that brought out her natural glow as she marched past the tables of adoring relatives and family friends. Beautiful meant shoes with tiny heels that turned her walk into an assertive little strut, meant bobby pins that kept her curls shapely and full till evening. It meant fingernails that weren't chewed on, but were filed and painted once she was old enough to wear scoop-necked dresses and go on dates with boys who belonged to good families. It meant a willingness to smile, even when she wasn't asked to do so.
People were superficial; they drew conclusions based on what their eyes could see. Her beauty was her honor, rendering her untouchable. She came from a good family, and none of her parents' friends would dare harm her, for she was one of their own.
She was just like other girls in her circle of friends who were unafraid to use their beauty to their advantage. She would join them as they walked, arm in arm, down Session Road, flirting with boys from the public City High whom they had no intention of dating. They changed into their miniskirts and bell bottoms and flashed their fake IDs at nightclub bouncers, knowing that a smile, or a pout, was enough to persuade these men with pockmarked faces and blank stares that they weren't troublemakers.
Their perfect smiles suggested an innate capacity to please when the situation called for it, and for their parents, this was more than enough to reassure them that their daughters would never stray from the path of [End Page 157] good. Beauty's function was to provide physical proof of goodness. What the eye could see, the heart could easily accept.
It was impossible for her to know just how good or cruel she was, for people ceased to probe her as soon as their eyes fell on her face. She has such fine bones, people would tell her as she sat beside her mother. She's so maputi, they'd all say, like an American girl with Spanish eyes. They had no doubt that she had good genes: her mother was part-Spanish, her father a descendant of a German-American man from Wisconsin who came to Baguio and struck it rich in the mines. Beauty always came from distant lands, from the exotic and unreachable. Don't stay out too long in the sun. You'll get too dark! Her mother wouldn't allow her to lose her fairness, to become just another brown girl. Why would she want to become just as dark as everyone else, when her face was a source of light and joy? It was why eyes fell on her when she walked into a room with a darker-skinned friend, and it was why her teachers often asked her to lead the morning prayer in front of her classmates, believing that her voice, like her face, could guarantee salvation.
Paulette would look back upon her charmed youth with equal parts fondness and grief when she returned to Baguio, years later, to give birth. In her childhood room, she felt like a ghost revisiting the life of a dead girl whose shell of a body she had once inhabited. How she had hated that perfect little body, that reflexively ready smile. The dainty lace dresses that filled her closet no longer fit her, and her swollen feet could no longer slip into the pumps that had made her hips sway when she was a teenager. And yet she chose to return, believing that she could ease herself back into the innocence of her past life once she slipped into its physical space.
As she took her first bath in her parents' house, she...