Abigail Greenbaum ~ Beauty Is Pain

The hos­pi­tal where Petra was born, her moth­er would lat­er tell her, ran out of drugs the week of her birth­day, so her moth­er screamed for hours, and her father, at work fil­ing papers, swore he could hear the shrieks echo­ing across the entire city. Petra didn’t know whether to believe her moth­er about the short­age of drugs, or if she made up the neg­li­gence, anoth­er piece of evi­dence in her mother’s life­long case against the USSR. It was January, the sto­ry went, already a dark month in Kiev, and with­out any­thing for the pain, her moth­er did not believe that she’d live to see tomorrow’s pale sun leak its poor light onto the city. They’d left when Petra turned six, two months before the reac­tor ignit­ed six­ty miles north. We saved you from more than one cat­a­stro­phe, her moth­er would say, when­ev­er she found Petra to be less than grateful.

They rationed the sun­light, her moth­er would also say, serv­ing kasha to Petra’s sleep­over friends in their third floor Chicago apart­ment with its south­ern expo­sure, light from the win­dows dap­pling the girls’ legs and arms and hair. Petra’s father might have stopped her from serv­ing kasha, he knew more about the sweet­ness of American cere­als, but he was often sched­uled to work third shift at the UPS ware­house, so rarely home at break­fast. Petra would laugh along with her American friends, try to out-laugh them, even, isn’t she ridicu­lous? Mothers, what can you do? But as seri­ous as her moth­er had been about the pain of her birth, she was just as seri­ous about nour­ish­ing Petra with Ukrainian food. Petra’s American friends served Lucky Charms at their sleep­overs. They talked about their favorite marsh­mal­lows, for Petra, the hot air bal­loon. What that had to do with luck, she nev­er fig­ured out, but she loved to imag­ine a bal­loon the size of a build­ing, lift­ed by fire, car­ry­ing her away, up, away.

What Petra learned about American women was how cheer­ful they were. Smile, com­mand­ed the moth­ers of her American friends, point­ing the Polaroid at the group of girls as they tanned on the city beach­es or paint­ed each other’s eyes before a dance. They’d clus­ter around the lucky girl shak­ing the pic­ture, make the required com­ments about what they hat­ed about them­selves, cheek­bones, thighs, lips, until some­one would point a fin­ger at Petra’s face, say­ing What’s so fun­ny, Petra, you for­get to laugh? Petra learned to steel her­self in these moments, show­ing noth­ing. The girls did not know this, but in her ear­ly years, she craved the sun­ny beau­ty of their round faces and even smiles.  She did not think of her­self as an unhap­py girl, but in those pic­tures she saw her­self through their eyes, the harsh angles of her face cast­ing a gloomi­ness that pained her.

Petra went to beau­ty school in the city. Her girl­friends went down­state for col­lege, smiled their way through night after night of rush par­ties. Petra loved her friends, but more and more, when she saw them on vaca­tion, their soft­ness seemed like some­thing she could pop or dam­age with one fin­ger.  I don’t know how you do it, they said, when they vis­it­ed her at the salon in Wicker Park, watched her stir her pot of wax, make neat piles of the strips she’d lay across her clients’ skin, and rip up the wax and their hair. You cause so much pain.

Petra didn’t say so, but she knew her friends, and her ador­ing clients, had it wrong. She would not deny that hurt was nec­es­sary.  She would hurt them, inevitably, but she could own the tiny vio­lence that her wax cre­at­ed, and there­fore, eyes clear, unboth­ered by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dam­age, her hurts were quick, clean. Petra knew that beau­ty was pain. Who would you trust with your tor­ture? A girl born on Soviet soil or some bleed­ing heart? She ate that apple, what can we do? said an old lady who came in like clock­work, once a month, grit­ting her teeth when Petra yanked up the wax. Petra’s father had nev­er insist­ed she join him for Vespers, or when he had off work, mass, at St. Nicholas on Oakley Street, but even though she didn’t pause and cross her­self when she walked past the gild­ed icons paint­ed over the Cathedral door, she was pret­ty sure that the pain to which Eve had been con­demned was not the pain of hair removal. But still. She was fast and clean and steady. They were so grate­ful for her skills that it might as well have been holy work.

When she was twen­ty-sev­en, she had a daugh­ter, Minka, who like Petra knew how to guard one’s smile like a valu­able resource.  Minka’s father was not her hus­band. He did not want to mar­ry any­one. He did not want to stay in any one coun­try for long. Already, he had lived in Ukraine and in France and in Toronto. Still, Petra nev­er turned down his com­pa­ny. His English was imper­fect, lit­er­al, and, as a result, poet­ic. He liked to take pic­tures of her with his cell phone before she show­ered in the morn­ing or brushed her hair. No, Petra would protest, yes, he would insist, this is when you are at your most beau­ti­ful, when it is only you, and not all that extra col­or.  

When Minka’s father moved back to Ukraine, Petra did not cry or com­plain to the girls at the salon, or to her col­lege friends. She plot­ted out a new bud­get with Minka’s expens­es in mind. When the math came up short, she bought a light-up water­fall at Kmart and, one January night when she closed up alone, stole a padded table from the Salon’s store­room. Her boots crunched into the typ­i­cal Chicago lay­ers of ice and frozen snow and by the time she made it home, the table shone with melt­ed flakes. Through a series of innocu­ous ques­tions dur­ing wax­ing ses­sions, Petra pre-approved the Salon’s clients for whether she could trust them to keep her secret. She then enticed them to her pri­vate wax­ing par­lor – the table unfold­ed in her small liv­ing room — with low­ered rates and increased flex­i­bil­i­ty. Occasionally she booked them back at the Salon, to keep up appear­ances. She revised her bud­get. Put Minka in the bal­let class­es she’d been beg­ging to take. Ballet? moaned Petra’s moth­er, bald now from chemother­a­py. Even blissed out on hos­pice mor­phine, her moth­er did not hold back her dis­may.  An ille­gal busi­ness? For what I bring you here? 

Petra rolled all the pos­si­ble words over in her mouth, the lies she might tell – Minka win­ning a beau­ty pageant, an American busi­ness­man who wants to buy Petra a dia­mond – but Petra refused to tar­nish her mother’s final moments with any­thing less than un-soft­ened truth. I had a good week, she said. Minka is going to play the Wicked Witch at school. After all, they were not American women.

After the funer­al, not one speck of eye­lin­er out of place, after mak­ing sure that her father had a refrig­er­a­tor filled with microwav­able meals, Petra left her daugh­ter with a friend, walked back to her apart­ment, and switched on the wax, but she did not both­er with the light-up water­fall or the sooth­ing word­less music that calmed the clients. She unfold­ed the padded table and scoot­ed it near the pot of wax. She shed her stock­ings and her dress, slid onto the table, leaned for­ward and searched her own skin for some hair not pulled in her usu­al beau­ty rou­tine. There, the soft trail down from her navel. The skin was still stretched from Minka, and the wax sank low into the marks when she paint­ed it across her stom­ach. While it set, she touched her bel­ly but­ton as if in search of that chord that had con­nect­ed them, forty years ago, in a coun­try that no longer exist­ed, a place where her moth­er had no choice but to feel every sec­ond. When she tore the paper from her skin, she did not flinch.


Abigail Greenbaum lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of English at Georgia Highlands College. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Mississippi, and is pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. Her essays and sto­ries have appeared in The Atlantic, Orion, Ecotone, Free State Review, and oth­er places.