I was waiting to cross the street when I heard humans barking. I turned, and a convertible Mustang full of young men howled with laughter. One screamed, “Only a dog would look if they heard barking, you fucking ugly dog!”
I didn’t say anything.
The barking got bigger, faster, the terriers transformed into Great Danes. Two men half-stood in their seats, spit spewing with every bark. The light changed and the Mustang sped off, shrieks of “ugly dog” and “fucking dog” drifting back on the wind.
That wasn’t the first time a stranger called me ugly. It wasn’t even the hundredth time. The first time I was five. A blonde girl examined me, her impeccable nose almost touching my cheek. She said, “What’s wrong with your face? You’re so ugly.”
I was born in 1972 with a cleft palate. Put your finger right under your nose. Trace down to your lip, following the line of your philtrum. I was born without a philtrum. I was born without that connection, and the split, the cleft, ran right through the roof of my mouth.
I was born looking like a little kid drew a cat’s mouth on a human face. And the surgeons did their best, but it was still 1972. I have a scarred upper lip and a smushed-in nose. In North America, surgery’s improved so much that I never see a young person who looks like me. But every once in awhile I’ll see a stranger my age, with the same scar, the same nose. And I always feel this hot flush of joy, have to stop myself from running to them, to hugging them tight, to shouting, “Hello! We look the same! We’re from the same place!”
After the Mustang sped away I wondered why that moment, a drop in an ocean of nasty moments, was such a gut punch. Perhaps it was the calculated script. A car full of young men who had figured out the perfect way to get women to “admit” to being ugly, and when their plan worked their rapture was grotesque.
I wonder what would have happened if I’d shouted too. “Driver guy, you have brown hair!” or “Baseball hat guy, your dad was never kind!” or “Hey you in the backseat, you put sedatives in Solo cups at frat parties!”
I wonder what would have happened if I’d turned into a harpy and flown at them. Majestic wings breaking arms, razor talons drawing blood, beak pecking out eyes. Their gleeful barks turning to screams.
But instead I leaned on the telephone pole, dizzy with rage. I waited another light cycle before crossing the street.
As I got older, I discovered that being beautiful was no better. One friend told me about being the only person on the subway car when a drunk man got on. He sat next to her, he asked her out. She said no. She said no, but she was very nice, because it was a long way between stops, and it was 1 AM, and she was afraid. The man kept telling her how beautiful she was, while she weighed which would put her in more danger: staying on the empty subway car, or exiting and being followed. What saved her in the end was how drunk the guy was. She got off, was able to run up the stairs much faster than he could, and lost herself in a big crowd of people heading home from the bars. They’re angry when I’m ugly and dogcall. They’re angry when she’s beautiful and catcall. The game is rigged and all I’m trying to do is, you know, walk to the fucking library.
In 1991, I met my husband Todd on the internet. The baby internet, the internet that was just words on a screen. No images. No video. He told me he loved me before he knew what I looked like. He fell in love with my words, and I fell in love with his.
Many years later, I was walking with Todd and our son down the street in Montreal. We were laughing, all three of us, and a young man slowly passing us in a car shouted something. His Quebecois accent was thick, and I called, “Sorry, what? I couldn’t hear you,” and then kicked myself for being so foolish as to ask.
The man called again, “What a beautiful family! You are a beautiful family!” and we all laughed with delight. But that’s not the best thing a stranger ever said to me.
I’d just finished telling a story on stage in which I said everything I wish someone had said to me when I was a teenager. When I was waking up every day and chanting, “You ugly fuck, you should die,” in the mirror.
There are a lot of words in that story, but they all mean the same thing: you are worthwhile.
My husband was waiting as I packed up my props, and a seventeen-year-old girl came walking up to me. She whispered, “Hi. Um, I just wanted to say thank you. For the things that you said in your story.”
I told her how much her words meant to me. I asked if I could give her a hug, and we hugged for a long time, and I didn’t know how to say it but I hoped she understood that what I wanted to tell her was this: I was you, once. And someday, you’re going to be me.
After she left, I burst into tears. I cried on the sidewalk and on the subway and on the bus. I cried and cried. I cried so hard that two women sitting on the bus glared at my poor innocent husband, which made me giggle and then sob even harder.
I turned to the window, taking deep breaths. For a moment I saw the ghost of a Mustang convertible before it fell away into the darkness.
Sage Tyrtle’s work is available or upcoming in X-R-A-Y, The Offing, and Apex among others. She’s told stories on stages all over the world and her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle