The author on her wedding day. (Photo: Estelle Erasmus)
Strung out on Percocet, with smeared lipstick and sweat stains, I looked like a nightmare when I met my potential mother-in-law.
Back when my spiky-haired, South African blonde boyfriend (a Sting lookalike) first told his parents about his sophisticated, older American girlfriend, I believe his mother thought that I was a Semitic succubus stealing her son’s very soul. My Jessica-rabbit figure, eyelash extensions, and expertly highlighted brunette tresses poked holes in her dream of the naïve, virginal, South African girl she’d envisioned him dating and eventually marrying.
It didn’t help when she learned I was an opinionated, pop-culture loving magazine editor, enjoying an alter ego as the “Dating Diva,” penning columns geared toward single and divorced women.
After a year of dating, he wanted to take me to New Zealand, his former home, where I would meet his parents — a precursor to getting engaged. Two days before we left, I tripped off a curb, falling hard on my right foot. The X-rays confirmed that I had broken my fifth metatarsal, a bone that would take months to heal.
“I can’t go on the trip,” I cried to my boyfriend that night. “It’s your choice, but we can’t get engaged until you have met my parents,” he replied. “But what if they don’t approve of me?” I asked. “That doesn’t matter, I make my own decisions,” he said.
Deeply in love with my conservative Cupid and determined to make the voyage, I stocked up on Percocet, and withstood an injection in the stomach of an anticoagulant so I wouldn’t clot while traveling at 30,000 feet. I had to travel with a terribly un-chic boot until I got to New Zealand where I was to immediately go to a clinic to get my foot wrapped in a ten-pound plaster cast (a fiberglass cast was out of the question, because it could expand during the flight back, causing me to die).
So I met his family for the first time in a wheelchair, with my broken foot propped in the air, slurring my words and strung out on Percocet. For comfort, I wore my baggiest sweatpants and one of my beau’s old T-shirts. My chestnut curls were matted with the sweat that had accumulated during the flight, my fair skin a sickly shade of pale; my normally carefully applied lipstick smeared on my teeth. As a former beauty editor, I’ve always prided myself on my looks, but the pain held me hostage, stopping me from applying makeup, brushing my hair, or wearing clothes that suited my curves.
Back at the house, his brothers and father tried their best to make conversation, but eventually, I was left perched on the couch, drooling and intermittingly passing out while everyone convened in the kitchen speaking their native Afrikaans, a language I didn’t know.
“So, are you treating my boy right? Do you cook for him?” his mother asked in a rolling accent, startling me out of my drug-induced stupor. Her perfectly applied lipstick, carefully coiffed hair, and subtly sophisticated blouse and slacks contrasted with my slovenly, sweat-stained appearance.
Historically, when challenged I have a bad habit of becoming grandiose. Squaring my hunched shoulders I haughtily replied. “No, I don’t cook. I don’t need to. And even if I wanted to, I’m hardly able to stand on my feet these days.” She stared at me and shook her head.
“She hates me, and hates to look at me,” I whispered to him later that night in our cramped, double bed in his parent’s house. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t know you like I do,” he whispered back.
I spent my days being wheeled to aquariums, zoos, museums, and hot springs, and nights trying to carve out mental space for myself. My boyfriend helped me shower (the cast couldn’t get wet), use the bathroom, and get dressed. My hands shook from the pain, and I couldn’t use curlers, or g-d forbid a straightening iron, so my hair remained limp and unkempt. Since my boyfriend knew nothing about makeup application, I had to forgo my usual foundation, blush, highlighter, shadow, liner, and mascara.
I felt so unattractive that I started to subtly withdraw from my boyfriend, the chaos in my mind and the hurt in my body blending into one big self-protective stop sign. Sex, a usual panacea for me, was out of the question, so I didn’t even have his desire for me as solace — assuming there was any desire left at all.
Then one day my boyfriend’s brother asked if he could wheel me around just for fun, and my boyfriend wouldn’t allow it. “I’m not going to take a chance of you hurting Estelle’s foot further by bumping her cast,” he said, his face lit with purpose.
In that moment, I realized that he was taking care of me not because he had to, but because he wanted to protect me. Despite my flagging looks, my pain-induced bitchiness, and my unfortunate habit of drooling from the Percocet, my health and happiness mattered to him, regardless of what a beast I was. I didn’t need to look good to have him love me. In that moment, the last shards of brittleness around my heart melted.
The next day he took me to a beautiful waterside restaurant, where he read me “10 Reasons Why I Love You,” handwritten on an index card. His final reason: “I love you, because you are always you.” Then he got down on his knees, and pulled out a small box. He jokes that I grabbed the ring first and put it on my unmanicured nails before I gave him my answer.
At our wedding, I stood proudly beside my handsome husband-to-be in front of our families and friends, my foot healed, my heart full, my slim figure on display in a form-fitting lace gown. I was radiant: Makeup and eyelashes perfectly applied, curls expertly tousled, clear complexion glowing.
After watching us exchange our vows, his mother put her arms around me and said, “I get why my son loves you. I didn’t see it before but now I do.” I knew she wasn’t just talking about my looks, because she met me at my most vulnerable and most imperfect moment ever.