The classist’s biggest fear is that one day he will fall short. That one day he too will be looked down upon. Every human quality can be ascribed a value. Intelligence can be measured on scales, however inaccurate we claim these scales are. True beauty is an objective observation, otherwise it is a lie that people sometimes believe to make things easier.
Wealth is, by far, the most important determinant of social stratification. You see, wealth guarantees entry into circles that beauty, intelligence, hard work and even luck do not. Beauty comes in a very close second. For the rare few that are beautiful enough, beauty is powerful enough control wealth. The zeitgeist is determined by the rich and the beautiful. In effect, they direct everything just by the choices they make and sometimes do not even notice. People shy away from being the first to point out the beauty of a thing, what if society sees it differently? A blouse is beautiful because we saw something similar on that runway or in that film.
Sam’s beauty is the rare kind that is unanimously agreed on – with her softly chiselled face and delicate features. The worst comment anyone ever makes is that she isn’t ‘that beautiful’. It is as if the gods decided to create a goddess and put her on earth as a cruel joke. She is in all the right circles and knows all the right people but it still feels like something is missing. She wakes up every morning longing for something she cannot quite place her fingers on. She only knows that it is not here, in this house with Chuck, her billionaire husband. Billionaire husband and his beautiful bride, it makes her chuckle sometimes, how terribly cliché they are.
What she’s looking for isn’t in the nursery in the next room either, because she has searched for it there, on nights when she can’t go to sleep and she slips quietly out of their bedroom and goes to watch him sleep. Watching her baby sleep does not calm her down like she thought it would. Sometimes she sits on the carpeted floor in the nursery for hours in the dark. The cot (a hideous thing that Chuck brought home the week they found out they were having a baby) is much too large for the room and takes up most of the space in the closet-turned-nursery. There is a comfortable (expensive) chair beside the cot but she prefers to sit on the floor when she’s there at night. All her clothes have been moved to the room that would have been the nursery (but that Chuck said is too far away.)
“What if the baby cries at night, we have to be as close to him as possible?”
She hadn’t had the energy to argue with him – she never has the energy to argue with him. It is just as well that the baby almost never cries. He is the perfect child, always smiling and happy. Sometimes, in her head, she commends her excellent mothering. The fear of failing at being a mother made her map out a timetable and follow it strictly. She feeds the baby every other hour, rocks him almost constantly and changes his diapers as soon as they are soiled. She never gives him a reason to cry.
Chuck told her from the start that he wanted a baby. He is much more excited than she is about it. She remembers when they first got married, how he talked excitedly about fatherhood. About how he couldn’t wait to be a part of creation, to have a little him running around with its own thoughts and its own view of life. How his child could go on to become the president and he’d have been a part of that child’s creation. She had thought that it was a bit narcissistic but didn’t say anything. An almost academic interest was all she had been able to muster in the child since its birth. Sometimes, she wonders how it will turn out but doesn’t close her eyes to the possibility of her son growing up to be a terrorist or, even worse, a politician.
She knew, however, that he was too young to be so reasonable and was initially bothered by how cooperative he was. She thought there was something wrong with him so she took him to the doctor and read up on Down syndrome and Autism. The doctor said that he was fine and she had nothing to worry about. So now she plays him Beethoven and Fela and talks to him like an adult and thanks her luck that he is so agreeable. At least, she sometimes jokes to herself, he probably won’t end up as a terrorist.
The baby is not what was missing in her life. When he was first born and her whole life revolved around him, for a while, she thought she had found what she was looking for. She eventually settled into the routine and it became just that, a routine. It did nothing for her, all the contact with the baby and her fear of being a terrible mother came back but this time she embraced it. This is not the purpose she has been looking for, who cares if she’s terrible at it?
The nursery is now her favourite room in the house. Her favourite room used to be her studio with its black walls and red framed paintings. There were twelve paintings on the wall, eight of which were painted by her and the remaining four by her former lover. She loved sitting on the shaggy white carpet after Chuck had gone to work and pouring her emotions out on a canvas. She loved the long hours that she spent there alone, undisturbed, lost in whimsical thought. It was her version of an affair, those long hours with Obi’s paintings hanging there. Sometimes she fell asleep in the studio and when she woke up she was twenty again, naked in his small apartment, smoking. He was walking into the room with nothing on but his dreadlocks, singing a song in Igbo and dancing around lewdly. In these dreams, she is lying there for what seems like hours watching her naked iconoclast boyfriend dance and she is truly happy.
The studio stopped being her favourite room when Chuck started spending more time there, trying to bond with her. He was wonderful, he really was. She just found him terribly boring. It was made much worse by how clueless he could be at times, how blind he was to all her body language cues.
The walls in the nursery are a neutral green because she didn’t want to check if the baby was a boy or a girl before it was born. She talked about painting trees and flowers on the walls and Chuck chuckled. The following week she walked into the nursery and saw that a forest had been painted on the walls and it was beautiful. The artist had paid an enormous amount of attention to detail and the result was stunning. She knew that she would probably have done a better job but did not complain.
The only thing left in the room of her closet is the wall that is a mirror. It’s a fourth wall of sorts, the reflection of the room, a facsimile, showing it as an audience would see it. When she is in the nursery she cannot take her eyes off the mirror, watching the scene – a clueless mother taking care of her baby in a forest. In the mirror she watches her movements, how sometimes they are a bit too mechanical, almost like it’s a dance routine and she is waiting for an applause at the end. Even in the dark, she still stares at the mirror, empty because there is no light to carry the room into it. At night her movements are not so fluid because there is no one watching, not even her.
It is in the nursery that she learnt what her greatest flaw was. She had lived all her life for an audience, for applause. She was the person who, by good fortune, had won the classism lottery. She was good looking, intelligent, rich, and artistic; she had everything. She also liked to think that she was kind-hearted and did not look down on people but that in itself spoke volumes. She would never admit to it, but she was aware that she was in a different class from most people.
To hand bread to a beggar is to say that you are better than him, it is not your fault and you should not feel guilty. If, however I were to ask you if you thought you were better than the beggar you would become humble and begin to argue about semantics. You are in a different social class from that beggar, richer than him, if it makes you feel any better it can be said specifically that you are financially better than him. But dare I say that his financial inadequacy will have an impact on his self-esteem and you are probably in a better mental state than he. I could also make assumptions about his family and friends and I would probably be right. Why then is it so hard to accept that we are better than someone? It is not nobility that drives this particular brand of humility, it is fear.
I’ll tell you why. It is because in admitting that we are better than anyone, we are in effect saying that someone somewhere is better than we are and that is much more difficult to deal with. We look at our lives and perhaps we aren’t very rich or very good-looking or even all that intelligent, but we find it difficult to agree that anyone is better than we are. Perhaps if we just put in a little more effort. We believe we can be the best but we just aren’t trying hard enough. Sometimes, we even pick out one thing that we’re particularly gifted at and quickly brandish it whenever we’re faced with someone who is potentially better than we are.
Sam never had to be the best to be happy, but she had to be in a high percentile. It wasn’t something she had ever had to acknowledge. She was almost always the most beautiful woman in the room and it gave her plenty of confidence. When she was nineteen and she had men chasing after her she went after the one man who didn’t. She wooed him, flaunting her intellect and creativity. Obi leaving her was the first blow that her confidence suffered. It was the first time that she wasn’t the one walking away. He had walked out of the apartment they had both been living in and had never come back. She had waited for weeks and moved out when it was obvious that he wasn’t coming back. She took the only things he’d left for her – the four paintings he’d made for her that now hung in her studio.
She had gone back to her old scene and had quickly eased back into the convenience of being chased after. She still enjoyed the attention she got but something was different. Obi had taught her that there was more to social stratification than looks. He had left her and his new girlfriend was nowhere near as good looking as she was. In fact she was rather ugly. She had thought about asking him why he had made such a steep downgrade countless times but always stopped herself. It was because she was afraid of the answer. She was afraid that she would learn that the ugly new girl was better than she was, that her touch was softer or her kisses were warmer.
She’d met Chuck when she was getting tired of being chased. He chased too but she let him catch her. It is this stopping that mars their marriage. She could just as easily have stopped for any of her chasers. It is because of this fact that she will have to leave him. Obi is the only man that she ever chose, Chuck is nothing like Obi.
The paintings Obi gave her were a message that she had been too blind to see at the time. Two of them were of strikingly beautiful women, perfect in totally different ways. On the first he drew a scar that spanned the length of her face. It was conceptually like Malevich’s black square, a beautiful work of art drawn over and obscured except that in this instance he needed just a line to do what Malevich had needed a solid black square to. It was a testament to how fleeting beauty is, a direct taunt to Sam. On the second face he had pencilled thinly the outline of a scar. The outline was a gun held to the viewer’s head, threatening to mar the beauty of this painting like he had the first, showing again how fleeting beauty really was.
The other two paintings were of a flower and a butterfly. On these he painted broad slashes, much like the scars but this time in striking colours. In this case the effect was very different, here the slashes looked natural like the colours were meant to be there. The flower and the butterfly were still very beautiful, because their beauty was the kind that depended less on how they looked and more on what they were. The petals of the flower did not care that they were slashed and still carried their scars proudly. The butterfly was painted in motion – the scars on its wings did not stop it from spreading them out and flying. A butterfly with a wing cut off and a flower that has lost a petal still are beautiful because they still are a butterfly and a flower and are beautiful by definition. This was the beauty that Obi didn’t see in her, the kind that radiated from within, firmly rooted in who she was and not what she looked like.
It was these two paintings and nothing else that Sam took with her when she left. They were the symbols of the life she was hoping to live, looking for herself. For the identity that would deemphasize her face and bring back the part of her that Obi had taken.
We can deal with people being better in parts, but never in absolute terms. Sam was accustomed to believing that she was better than most people in absolute terms (although, for previously explained reasons, she would never have admitted to it). It was why she couldn’t stand being a mother. Even at her best, she didn’t have the passion for motherhood that she needed to be a good mother to her son. It mattered because she had reached the point in her life where she was judged based on her parenting skills. The stratification factors had shifted and they hadn’t shifted in her favour. It broke her because this was the first time in her life that she was average and she could not deal with it. She could not handle not being better than the other parents and it tore her apart, that her sense of value was dependent almost entirely on extrinsic validation.
It is a cloudy Wednesday morning. Chuck stands in Sam’s studio with his son in his arms and a confused smile on his face. He is staring at the wall where the butterfly painting hung for three years, it was always his favourite painting of hers. He once called her his butterfly and she shot him a look that ensured that he never called her that again. He does not notice that on the second woman’s face, Sam has symbolically filled in the outline of the scar. He stands there, not noticing that the flower beside the butterfly is gone too. All he sees is that his beautiful butterfly has flown away and is never coming back.