Aarti Kalamangalam

What It Means to Be Beautiful (parts i. and ii.)

i. pretty

"Here, I'll take you to the parking lot," I volunteer, making my way over to a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair.

"Thanks, dear." She smiles absently while fanning herself with the hospital brochure.

As I wheel her into the elevator, I catch a strained, metallic glimpse of myself. The bright green of the volunteering shirt glares back at me, making no effort to obscure its ugliness. My khakis are loose and cropped, making the whole outfit very golf-mom chic. I cringe, press the button for the first floor, and smooth my hair.

"We're gonna have to meet up with my daddy in the lobby, if that's alright," the woman remarks, and this time when she speaks I notice her Southern drawl.

"Of course, ma'am." My words are soft, practiced. I've been trained on how to talk to patients, how to get them to feel comfortable. We roll into the lobby of the hospital, and immediately the woman spots her father. He's clad in rough blue jeans, a flannel, and a cap. His white hair wisps around his face like half-spun cotton candy.

"Sandra!" He exclaims, mouth widening into a smile. He and his daughter quickly fall into conversation, and I can't help but notice how her accent thickens in his presence.

It's when we join the line for coffee that their attention, or rather, his attention, turns to me. "You should get something. After all, you took care of Sandra for me," the father says, a half-smile on his face.

I can't tell whether or not he's joking. Either way, the volunteer handbook leaves no ambiguity in these types of situations-- I'm not allowed to receive anything from patients or their families, so that's exactly what I tell him.

"Well," he sighs, "at least tell me what you'd like to be when you grow up."

I'm sure the startle in my eyes is noticeable, but I maintain my politeness. "I think a doctor," I stumble.

He makes direct eye contact with me, his eyes a translucent blue color.

"You'd be such a pretty doctor."

I tighten my grip on the wheelchair handles. The line of people in front of us seems painfully stationary.

"Thanks," I manage.

He smirks, his upper lip taut. Emboldened, he chuckles a little bit, as if he's about to say something really funny.

"So, when you're a doctor-"

I force a polite smile.

"- are you going to operate on young men or old men?"

Resuming his chuckle, he pulls out crumpled dollar bills from his pocket, jingling coins in the process.

"I-I wouldn't," I stutter again. "I'm just trying to help as many people as possible," I answer.

Sandra, sensing the unease in my voice, jumps in. "Oh, don't listen to Daddy. He's just trying to give you a hard time."

Their joint laughter after she says that seems to harmonize.

Stiffly, I carry out the motions I know I'm supposed to perform. Put coffee in a thermos for the lady in the wheelchair. Throw away plastic cups in the trash. Escort to the parking lot.

The man rummages through his pockets again, fishing out more bills and change, just as I'm about to leave. "Take a tip, why don't you? You've earned it." For what seems like the thousandth time, I decline politely.

As I walk away, I watch them get into the car. The father's eyes are focused as he drives. He pulls out of the lot, stops, and makes a left out of the hospital. I turn around, walk into the building and into the bathroom, washing my hands with sterile, alcoholic hospital soap.

ii. sundar

We jostle through the mall, my family and I, like the semi-pleasant sounds of loose change in a pocket. India always makes me feel a bit sad, its cluttered, lively nature reminding me of what my bleak one will never be. I am small at this age, and tender like a tiny piece of chicken. I am regularly picked last in elementary school games of kickball, not that this particularly annoys me.

I skip along to keep up with my older cousins, their laughter littering the air. Siddharth sweeps his hair to the side, pointing at a man a story up from us and laughing. The man, standing against the railing, peers down at us, specifically at me. I look back, but only for a moment.

I am afraid of heights, and just glancing at him makes me keenly aware of his body weight against the steel bars. If the bars were to suddenly disappear, he would tumble, flail. His leather jacket would sweep behind him like a parachute and lose to the loud rush of the wind below him. His fall would end silently, with him on the floor, unmoving and ignorant of the chaos he created.

"Tumhare upar dekh raha hai," Siddharth remarks, his words smirking. He's looking at you, he tells me.

I look back, and he isn't alone anymore. Surrounding him are his friends, so dark and far away they look like piles of clothes. I can still make out his eyes, though, piercing and strange, like he's questioning me.

Mun mun, my older cousin, grabs my hand, unsmiling. "These guys here," she pauses for a moment, "they have no job but to look. So creepy."

She pulls me to the next store, our entourage following behind. Before we get sucked into the world of bright lehengas and sparkling blouses, I steal another look. His eyes bore into me, undressing me and embarrassing me. I stare back, but I can feel it not working. He is the sun, unabashed and yellow, and I am the moon, a poor facsimile of light. I feel weak like if I wanted to wiggle my fingers, I wouldn’t be able to. I am yanked into the store, my eyes now overloaded by colors and gauds.

I slip a watermelon-colored skirt between my fingers, examining the material. The pink of it is soft, like a pillowcase. It is innocent.

I show it to Mun Mun, and mutter under my breath: "sundar". Pretty.

Aarti Kalamangalam is a high school senior from Gainesville, Florida.

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