At a friend's party in Manhattan, I met a lanky stranger. An impeccably dressed investor with the hint of a Southern accent, he took me on dates to dimly lit restaurants and subterranean speakeasies in the West Village. We quickly became a couple. He lived on Waverly Place with a creative roommate who owned a few leather chairs and a small Oriental rug. The only window was in the shared bathroom, and on autumn weekends we left it open to let in the sound of church bells. One morning, with his strong hand on my back, he taught me to gently place contact lenses on my eyes. This was new love, and I left his apartment seeing every new leaf in the neighborhood. I thanked God, and then I thanked Maybelline.
I was 15 when I discovered the magic of mascara. I was an average-looking, freckle-faced athlete, but with the help of a few drugstore products, I could be striking. I stood before my bedroom mirror, using an eye pencil to transform myself from a stubby-lashed seal into a mysterious lioness.
My mother’s friends had always remarked on our uncanny resemblance, but now she was quick to respond, “I never looked like that.”
The made-up woman in the mirror became part of my identity. Yes, yes, I was also the barefaced ginger who played tennis tournaments and authored a family newspaper and made weird faces at my brother, but it was addicting to feel pretty. Peering through dark lashes from behind the curtain of my hair, I felt that I had stepped into my destiny.
I stopped hanging out with the fresh-faced neighbor who went to our church and befriended some girls who wore eye shadow and foundation. Terrified, my parents sent me off to an academic boarding school, where I continued to line my eyes as well as the eyes of any other girl who was willing to visit my dorm before morning chapel.
Now a grown woman, still addicted to feeling pretty, I was madly in love with the lanky investor. I had one goal: to marry him before he had the chance to see my beady little eyes as they really were. The first time I slept over, I rose quickly and quietly in the early morning. In the bathroom, with the frantic tempo of Mrs. Maisel, I applied new mascara on top of yesterday’s slept-in crust. “See you later,” I said when I emerged, my eyelids heavy as a propped casket. We always did see each other later, for a movie or a beer or a jog on the West Side Highway. And I always had lined my eyes and applied a fresh coat of mascara.
“Does he take you to breakfast?” One of my friends asked. She was naturally gorgeous—blond and sun-kissed. When I’d spent a semester abroad with her in college, I’d see her wake in hostels and trains looking adorably sleepy, not like the dead marmot I became overnight.
“God, no!” I said with a laugh, gratefully. I imagined the horror of sipping coffee in front of him small-eyed and huge-nosed.
“If he likes you, he should take you to breakfast,” she teased.
“If he takes me to breakfast,” I teased back, “he won’t like me.”
The truth was, we were getting serious. Our jokes were too funny to stand. His intelligence was punctuated with silliness, and the combination was like accessing some other, better version of my own brain that I had been too daft to unlock before. We were impossibly cheerful; friends probably hated us at group dinners.
“Do you want to get some breakfast?” he asked one morning, his brown eyes sincere and kind. I wasn't barefaced, but I wasn't pretty—I had dark circles under my eyes, a smoky eye that looked more like a shiner, and a breakout that I didn't have time to touch up. I walked my somber death march to the Grey Dog Café. It was decently dark in there, among the low ceilings and wood-paneled walls. He tried to give me the good seat, the one facing the window, but I quickly declined. “I’ll sit here,” I said, grabbing the chair that faced the interior as if it were a life preserver on a shipwreck.
We waited for the waitress for an eternity. I wanted to talk about our favorite topics: his grasshopper legs, the way the creative roommate slept on top of his covers instead of under them; to hear again about the time he’d seen a beaver on the third-grade field trip and the teacher hadn’t believed him. But I was nervous, holding the menu to shield the acne near my chin.
“Are you OK?” he asked. “Your friend said I should take you to breakfast.”
Traitor! I longed to be alone in my tiny apartment, where I could nurse my wounds. Scrub my eyes clean with oil-free eye-makeup remover. Sleep my barefaced private slumber on my black-stained pillowcase.
I went home worrying that our chemistry was dead. Later that afternoon I had just finished punishing myself by squeezing some of the bumps on my chin when he texted to see if I wanted to come over and watch a basketball game. The made-up me and the real me were coming to a head here, and I was fighting with which one to be. I had two choices. Bring chips and dip, revealing my imperfections, or ask to reschedule, and halt the barreling snowball of our romance. The stakes were high.
“You don’t understand,” I hissed to my mother on the phone in a taxi on Columbus Avenue. I was holding a warm Pyrex of melted cheese, canned chicken, and Buffalo sauce. “I have horrible acne! I should turn around right now!”
I was only half kidding. “If you like him so much,” she said, “give him some credit. Did it ever occur to you that he likes you?”
“It just seems so risky,” I said to my mom, “to have to find out if he does.”
I rang his doorbell, presenting the cheese dip, my breakout, and my best smile. He seemed grumpy that his team was losing, and he didn’t eat much dip, but the world did not end.
A few weeks later we went to Long Island for a weekend. I had envisioned myself to be his glamorous duchess with a glass of chardonnay on a waterfront balcony, but we were having so much fun that I surrendered to jumping in the ocean after him, battling him in a sweaty tennis match, racing him on rental bikes, and slurping down matching milkshakes. After all this, my face was naked in the five-o’clock light. “You’re really red,” he said, sort of admiringly, as we walked back to our room hand in hand.
Our beach rental was lofted and sky-lit: no place to hide.
“I’ve never seen you look quite like this,” he said, embracing me. I let the truth of that sink in.
We were married a year later.
These days, when I am getting dressed up before the babysitter comes over, I look in the mirror and hear my mother’s voice again: “I never looked like that.” But I hear it with more nuance. She may have never worn eyeliner and owned hot tools, but she had never felt the need to. She had the confidence not to live in costume. I am learning that prettiness exists in the same spaces as childbirth and sickness and grief and intimacy, and that being seen at my best angle is so much less satisfying than being seen at every angle.
Last week I was at our swim club, looking exactly how you’d imagine a pregnant mother of two toddlers would look: exhausted, swollen, un-made-up, a squirrel’s nest for hair. Cooing, “I’m watching!” with a fairy’s clap and then screaming like a demon, “No running!”
Before meeting my gray-haired husband for a dinner date on the patio, I wrangled the wet kids into the day care room. In the locker room I said hello to a woman in a golf skirt, then rinsed my body, plugged in a hair straightener, shimmied into a dress, and pulled out a pouch of makeup. By the time I was finishing up, the golfer was coming out of her stall.
“Are you the same woman who just came in the back door?” She gestured to the entrance I had made.
“I am,” I said. And I let the beauty of that fact sink in.
Caroline Langerman is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Town & Country.
Originally Appeared on Glamour