The Beast and Beauty
A long time ago, living in Uptown Manhattan,
I was a debutante with a fur coat, private school training,
a charm school teacher, and shoes to die for.
I was with my fabulous friend Buffy, shopping along Fifth Avenue,
when a passing homeless woman brushed my shoulder.
I stopped in my tracks to give her a dirty look,
but when I saw the plastic bags on her feet and the grit
that had collected in her laugh lines, I grabbed that much harder
onto the handles of my Lord & Taylor bags.
Though Buffy lifted her nose and directed it
towards the top floor of the nearest skyscraper,
I gave the homeless woman a small, if not totally genuine,
smile. I'm hungry, she said. Buffy spoke through her teeth:
Now see what you've done. I only had plastic
and big bills in my wallet. I decided that I'd better start walking.
I hope you're satisfied, Candace, Buffy snipped, quickening her pace.
This incident was a nail polish chip, a little something
that had spoiled our day. After that, Buffy was miffed.
After only a few more stores, she needed to go home to take a nap.
I was starving and wanted to do lunch at our sushi bar somewhere
in the East Eighties. When Buffy said no, I decided to let her go.
Call you tonight, she said, air-kissing my cheeks.
I let her have the first cab. All the taxis were going downtown,
but that was OK. They'd just have to turn around and go uptown for me.
When the yellow car stopped, I climbed into the back,
smoothing my skirt. I commanded the restaurant's address and looked
ahead, then under the windshield and above the glove compartment.
Where the driver's I.D. card was usually posted
was a picture of a homeless woman's face. The name
of the driver was the Witch of Justice. I felt a knot
in my stomach which was bigger and tighter than hunger.
I'll get out here, I chirped, tossing a fifty dollar bill
onto the front seat. The Witch of Justice wasn't stopping
or turning the cab around to go back uptown.
Instead she said, You have one last chance to feed me.
I was not one to be inconvenienced. And this homeless Witch
certainly wasn't properly attired for expensive sushi. The little compassion
I felt on the street had melted. The car's interior smelled like garbage.
Stop! You crazy old bat, I cried. But instead
she accelerated until we were at the projects on Avenue D.
She escorted me to the West Wing, past boom boxes, pregnant
bellies, and baseball caps. I kept my head down, my bags
clutched under my arm. There were a few whistles
from the men. The Witch of Justice shoved me into an elevator
that reeked of urine. The graffiti was a language
I didn't understand. We got out on the 18th floor
and I said as politely as I could that I had to be home shortly
because I didn't want to miss Buffy's phone call.
The Witch of Justice cried a heart-shaped tear.
I was left in a dingy apartment with the warning
that I'd have to learn the lesson of love
before the logo-rose on my Lord & Taylor bag faded,
or else I'd stay in the projects forever.
I ripped open my bags. The designer clothes inside had been torn
to rags. I looked into the mirror. I suddenly needed electrolysis.
My hormones were wild with anger. In only a few days,
my face was full of hair. Within a week, I had become
a sister of the bear skin rug in our summer home,
except my fur was synthetic-looking and matted.
One of maids was with me,
but she had been turned into a toaster oven. My charm school teacher
was now an electric heater, which was lucky
for me because the apartment
was like ice. I had to go out and buy my own food.
The children laughed at me. The same men who once whistled
called me names I cannot repeat. I wistfully looked back
at the caps and braces of my adolescence as my aging teeth
yellowed and stuck out every which way. Soon I ran out of money.
My credit cards were canceled and when I called Daddy,
he hung up on me, not recognizing his own missing daughter's
changed voice. I began using food stamps at the Associated Market,
buying marked-down produce and products like boxed macaroni
and canned tuna fish. I stretched my welfare check as best I could.
Each day the Lord & Taylor rose I had scotch-taped to my cinder block wall
looked less red. But it wasn't easy for me to learn compassion.
All I loved doing was impossible: partying, flirting, getting my hair done.
It was hard to feel superior when, out of the blue, I'd land on all fours.
The one small happiness of my life was Beauty,
the young man who played the kettle drums in the concrete playground.
All the other boys said he was different. While they were fighting
or hitting on girls, Beauty pumped out bell sounds on the big metal pans.
And that's how he got his name, by others saying, _Boy, what a Beauty
that guy is_. There were rumors that his mother was locked up in Bellvue.
A sleazy record agent tried to seduce him, but he seemed oblivious
to her repeated advances. He traveled through his music, he told me,
the first time we spoke. He seemed not to notice
my lack of charms, and I thought it useless anyway to bat my lashes.
I asked him about the folded blankets he sat on during his breaks.
These are my bed, he said. I sleep in the park. My heart
felt like it was getting one of those rough body rubs I used to get
at the health club. Why don't you stay with me? I offered.
I described in detail my suddenly-luxurious couch and toasty space heater.
At first it was hard having a roommate, my so being used to having
my own way. I wanted my soaps. Beauty wanted the talk shows.
During every commercial, he flipped the channel to MTV.
He didn't always properly rub down tiles in the shower. He left
crumbs in the sink. But one day while we were walking up Fourteenth Street,
looking for bargains, it happenend. I felt him look at me,
the way my first steady did at my coming out party. I brushed
a clump of fur from my eyes. I brushed my paw against
his hand. He didn't pull away. We were looking at a plastic rose
in a glass globe of water. Beauty shook it, hoping to make snow.
It was at that moment that we heard the gun shot
and I felt the pang in my back. I fell to the ground,
and thinking my death near, told Beauty that I loved him.
The Fourteenth Street merchant was swearing, a revolver
steaming in his hand. I'm tired of you animals stealing from me,
he hissed, mistaking me for someone else who had often shoplifted
merchandise from his store. Beauty knelt by my side
I love you, too, Candace, he said.
It was magic that he knew my real name, magic
that I suddenly felt a glow healing the bullet hole in my back and a chill
as the extra beastly fur fell from my skin. I stood
erect, the floor on which I'd fallen dusted with hair,
like a floor in one of the best salons. My fuzzy hand became smooth
and soon I was holding my old Pierre Cardin purse.
Beauty and I kissed, but were afraid to make an on the spot commitment.
We couldn't be sure how much of this was the old me
(the me that Beauty knew) and how much was the even older Uptown me
from before. We couldn't be sure how to heed our dreams
and how to differentiate nightmares. We couldn't be sure,
how much, if any, we had really changed.