Sunday, July 26, 2009
Naked, Ben stands in front of our bedroom mirror and strikes a body builder's pose. "Looking good," he tells his reflection before setting off for his morning shower. I've seen Ben do this every day since our first morning after. I thought it was cute the first time I saw him do it—twenty-five years ago. Ben is fifty-six and no Adonis. He has lost most of his hair. What little remains is almost all grey. He keeps it short and clean. He doesn't part it above one ear, to plaster a few strands across his head. He doesn't have what they call a "six pack". Nor does he have massive shoulders or pecs. He has neither love handles nor a bulging gut. His buttocks have begun to sag a tad, and under each one are three sweet little wrinkles. I never intend to tell him about them, just in case he decides to tell me about some of the changes in my body, I can't see. Normally, I don’t pay attention to Ben’s ritual, but with an HB 2 pencil, I’d just finished filling in one of those magazine questionnaires--no one will ever admit to doing. I'm a sucker for them. I never answer truthfully and always manipulate the score to get the outcome I want.
I had just thrust the magazine under the duvet for later erasure when my daughter Robyn burst into the bedroom. “Ever heard of knocking?” I asked.
“Sor-ry,” she sang and flung herself on Ben’s side of the bed and lay her head on his pillow causing her bright fuzzy orange hair to billow either side of her face. I regarded her intently, her perfect smooth skin, no wrinkles; her soft pale eyebrows, no stiff white hairs or open patches; her straight even teeth, no fillings. Did I have a hand in creating this beautiful being?
“Hey, I don’t mind, so long as I can do the same to you,” I said.
Ignoring my reproach, she selected a woman’s magazine from the assortment on the bed, given to me by my neighbour Mary Frances. I didn’t buy such magazines myself but devoured them when I got them. I especially liked the gossip mags. I wanted to see who was packing on the pounds, who was ageing well or badly and who succombed to cosmetic surgery. After flipping the pages a few moments, Robyn stopped at a questionnaire and asked, “Hey? Do you ever do these quizzes?”
Miffed, I didn’t reply but kept on reading.
“Well?.... Maw-um? Do you?”
"Never!" I lied.
"Because they're utter nonsense."
Robyn sat up, withdrew a fat material covered elastic from her jeans’ pocket, then held it between her teeth while she struggled to gather her hair. Deftly she caught up her hair in a fly-away-contained mess which looked great. She sifted through some more magazines. “Here's one in Cosmo, 'How Compatible are You and Your Lover?'"
“Your dad and I have been married a while now," I replied, coolly regarding her freckled grinning face.
"Okay. How about, 'Will This Marriage Last?'" Her grin spread wider.
"So far, so good. Look, if I did them, you don't think I'd fill in the blanks do you?”
“Why not? Mary Frances does. Look she’s already done this one.” She held an ink-smudged page before my eyes.
“’Cause I know, you'd be right there after me, checking my score!"
"Okay," she sneered, "Try this, 'Do You Have the Makings of a Good Mother?'"
"Let's do this one," I said, pulling out a magazine at random.
"Okay, what is it?" she eagerly replied still grinning and still intent on getting the best of me.
I cleared my throat and invented a title, "'How to Tell If Your Teenage Daughter Is Using Drugs, Having Premarital...'"
"Forget it." She pushed herself upright and swung her legs over the bed.
"The quiz," Robyn said, heading for the door.
"Why?" I called after her.
"Mom, you said yourself. It’s all bullshit."
“Bullshit?” Ben said, entering the room as Robyn left. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing really, just your typical mother daughter exchange.”
“Okay, I’ll stay out of it,” he said and slid open his cupboard door to an array of light woollen suits all of which fit him.
He withdrew my favourite, a light gray Glen check suit with a thin dark blue line running through the pattern. I watched him put on his form fitting undies and then move to the sock drawer. I don’t pair them since I’m oblivious to subtle differences in shades of gray, black and blue, the lighter and darker hues depending on the age of the sock or the detergent.
Ben was particular about wearing equally faded black socks. I watched him bend over the drawer and noted how easily he did it without the impediment of a beer belly. He fished out two grey socks whose shade of gray seemed identical. He then leaned his butt on the bedroom wall to steady himself and while pulling on a sock said, “You haven’t found any stray running socks have you?”
“I guess the sock monster has been here again.”
“It’s not a joke Ben.”
“I’m not joking.”
“I swear I do my best to see that they all go in the wash. It’s just that they don’t all come out again.”
“Maybe it’s a plot,” he said reaching for a white shirt with French cuffs. “A conspiracy cooked up by sock and washing machine manufacturers. Athletic sock makers kick in a few million dollars to washing machine companies' R&D departments.”
“I don’t get it,” I said and watched his hairy chest disappear inch by inch behind the bright white oxford cloth.
“The idea is to make certain the appliance makers can guarantee a steady stream of stray socks, for decades to come.” He turned around to the open closet to survey his ties, found the one he wanted pulled it off the rack and in so doing caused a few coat hangers to jangle. Facing me he tied a Windsor knot, then pulled on his trousers, neatly closed them without first sucking in his gut, pulled up the zipper and threaded a belt through the belt loops.
Wouldn’t I love to put pants on with the ease he did? And a belt? Forget it.
“I think your theory is all stuff and nonsense,” I replied.
“To quote your lovely daughter, you mean ‘bullshit’?”
“Yeah, bullshit. Socks transmogrify,” I said and pointed to the inside of his cupboard. “They become wire coat hangers.”
He laughed, swung his jacket over his shoulder and left. Moments later his head reappeared. “Forgot my phone. Hey! Isn’t Fay coming today?”
“Today? No tomorrow.”
“I thought you said Thursday, today’s Thursday.”
“Is it? Curses!” I had things to do, a house to straighten out, a questionnaire to erase, but first I’d look at my results. It was about body image. I’d checked off the most negative replies possible, not all that far from my truth, but no one need know.
The questions were along the lines of: "I never look at myself in the mirror because I'm frustrated that I don't weigh what I did when I was twenty-five," or "when I'm complimented on my looks, I'm sure the person complimenting me is just being polite". Lying would be more like it. I tallied my score and turned to the results, expecting to be advised to consult a psychiatrist immediately, when Ben came in again.
“Forgot something else.” he said and leaned over to plant a fat kiss on my lips.
Over my reading glasses I watched him straighten, grin at his reflection in the full-length mirror, and say, “Looking good!” He closed the bedroom door quietly behind him and I heard him tread with a bounce down the wooden staircase.
I'm a couple of years younger than Ben and no Venus, certainly not the de Milo rendition. My body favours the Venus of Willendorf, or at least that's how I see myself. Where Ben is flat, I'm round; where he has hollows, I have bulges; where he's firm, I'm flabby. Here’s the kicker. Having just completed the quiz, a.k.a. an exercise in self loathing, it occurred to me that Ben's Arnie act was much more than cute—it was sensible.
According to my quiz results, I felt negative about my body. Duh!
Apparently, I'm waiting for my body to change before I can enjoy life. Wait a minute! My body has certainly changed over the years, without me waiting for it. Whose hasn't? The editor must have meant that I was waiting for me to change my body (like I ever could) before I could enjoy life. But I do enjoy life--just not my body.
Typically the message was consistent with what the media have been hammering in since forever. Where once we improved, or should that be altered, our body shape with corsets and bustles, then girdles and uplift bras, and now elasticized body suits, we can go a few layers deeper, with dieting, cosmetic surgery, liposuction and Botox injections. We can sweat on treadmills or rowing machines, lift weights, do Pilates or hook ourselves to mini-generators that send electrical impulses to our muscles. I've never indulged in any of those remedies but have always felt a little guilty about not doing anything to meet current commercial standards of beauty.
And there was Ben, my sweetie, telling himself he looked good and believing it.
That's what gets me. I'd never say that, let alone believe it.