Pretty Puzzle

Emily W. Blacker

Pretty is for girls. For tutus and pigtails and princess parties. What’s your favorite color? grownups ask and answer, Pink and purple, I bet. I learn the art of the eye roll. Give me blues and greens and blacks. Give me scrapes and mud, dirt bikes and basketball sneaks, bloody lips and thumb blisters, tumbles and tosses and torn jeans. Pretty is for ballerina girls sing-songing lalalas with sparkles on their cheeks. Here’s a doll for your arms, a twirly skirt for your hips, bows for your hair. Spit. But you’re so pretty, they say. They want outside to match inside. Match is another thing girls do. Give me one red sock and one orange, a plaid shirt and striped pants. My pink lips and rosy cheeks aren’t sweet candy—they’re the slap of winter wind Yes from skateboarding Yes down the steepest hill I can find.

Trypet. Yrtetp. Retypt. With no anagram, one can only partially puzzle pretty.



I want to be Otter or Badger so I can speak gruffly and wear dark, rough fur, but when roles are posted outside my fourth-grade classroom, I’m a snowflake. A silent part. Atmosphere. I’m to dance like bits of myself are falling, falling to the forest floor, draping it in a blanket of lovely. But I’m not lovely. I ask the theater teacher to reconsider. You’re a perfect snowflake, she argues, because you’re graceful. Graceful? It’s a compliment, my mother assures me over dinner. For girls, maybe. Grace is smooth, soft lines and biceps that won’t harden. It’s what I deny with pushups and cover with sweatshirts. I fight tears as I describe the costume—white leotard, tights, and a crown made of doilies. Doilies!? At dress rehearsal I feel…what’s the word? Like when a boy peeped at me over the bathroom stall. Like when a girl called out the color of my underwear as we sat cross-legged in gym class. My mother sleeps on it and makes a call in the morning. During the play, I fall to the forest floor wearing sweatpants alongside leotard-clad girls who’d turned left and right in the backstage mirror, oohing and ahhing at their pretty ensembles.



It’s not that you’re not pretty, she says, tracing the blush brush in the air around my face like a painter rehearsing strokes, it’s just that you’d be prettier with this.My other bunkmates nod their heads in agreement, Yes, yes, so much prettier. They pull lipstick, eye shadow and mascara from bedazzled boxes, eager to perform their magic on me. Okay, maybe just a little, I say because tonight is the dance and there’s a boy, perhaps two, whose been asking if I’d like to be kissed and I think, maybe, yes, maybe I would. Ring Pops, Pop Rocks and tongues are the flavors of the day, but to get a taste, my bunkmates instruct, I must get painted. Pucker, the girl with the blush says, like this, pulling her cheeks in fish-like. I try to mimic and she laughs, No, no, not like that. Oh, you’re adorable! She clasps my jaw between her fingers and kisses me on the cheek. You don’t even know you’re pretty, she says, I can’t stand it. Twenty minutes later, in the mirror I see the face of magazines and movies and the girl I know I should be, a girl who looks so much like a stranger I have to steady myself on the edge of the sink. You’re so getting kissed tonight, my painter says and I want to point out that I’ve already been kissed tonight, but I know better and keep my pretty lips closed.



In the locker room, my teammates pinch their belly rolls and throw me ugly, sideways glances as I mash my two little nubs into a sports bra. You’re so lucky you’re skinny, they say, but I don’t find luck in this body. I find bruised knees, jammed fingers and shoulders that can’t defend. I used to be fast and nimble, unafraid to hustle or dive, first in schoolyard picks. Then the other girls grew and grew and now, out on the court, they stuff my shot and pat me on my head like I’m a puppy who jumps and jumps but can’t reach the bed. They effortlessly wrestle the ball from my arms, but back in the locker room they say, I wish I had your body and, I hate you for your body, which is confusing, like when the boy I kissed said he liked me skinny but not flat-chested. So it seems the same body can be pretty from the back but not the front, lucky in the locker room but not on the court, desirous and disappointing all at once.



Maybe this body is confused, I think, because when the house empties, it puts on the big basketball jersey and baggy jeans it never wears out because girls just don’t, tucks its hair inside a baseball cap, pulls a chair in front of the mirror, slouches with legs spread wide and observes and observes trying to figure out if it feels right this way or it just likes the possibility of moving through the world unencumbered in loose cloth. But are you still a pretty thing? I ask this posing body. It shrugs, unsure.



He inches me against the wall and yells over the music, You’re a pretty girl, but you should show more ass. His beer-and-cigarette-breath is hot on my face. I push his shoulders back, but the harder I push, the more he leans. Over and over he says, You’d be hotter if you showed more ass. Why don’t you show more ass? I look down at my boxy sweater and ripped jeans. I like the way they look but maybe, I think, maybe they’re also a shield. How many times have we been warned? One-in-four. One-in-four girls your age will be assaulted. Especially the pretty ones. Especially the ones who show it. Don’t show it. Be pretty. But don’t show it. It’s more than just that, though. Why don’t you show more ass? I look around the party at the girls and boys eagerly leaning in to each other. They appear as paintings in a museum, separated from me by glass. You’re a pretty girl, he says again, but I don’t believe him. How could I when he wants to drag me to the other side of the glass? I won’t believe anyone who says it. Not wholly. Not until later. Not until it comes from lips that say, You, as is.



Scratchy, tight, frilly, requires crossed legs and shoes that don’t shoe, but fine, I’ll wear the dress. Sometimes you just have to. My mom hunts for the least hate-able: all black, all white, one patterned with beach balls. It’s an exercise in least-worst, but I look right for my cousin’s wedding, ten thousand Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, dinner with my father’s colleagues. Now it’s prom. Photos and poses and taking measure. I wiggle my body into the tight, long, lilac thing. The costume feels awkward, like a sock seam twisted on the toe. So pretty, the saleswoman assures me and I wonder if pretty will ever feel tag-less, if I’ll ever cut the plastic and own it. Later, my sister tells me to hold still as she brushes sparkles on my eyelids and glosses my lips red. You look so pretty, she tells me, but I don’t feel it. The doorbell rings and it’s my date looking sharp in a tuxedo and fresh haircut. He tells me I look pretty, just as the doorbell rings again. This time it’s the girl I’ve kissed three times in the dark. She’s posing in a white flowing dress next to her date who’s grinning like he ate a whole cake in the cab. The girl I’ve kissed three times has straightened her hair and used paints and powders to hide the lines and freckles I’ve memorized up close. She looks like a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, a distortion, and I wonder if that’s how I look to her, but she tells me I look pretty and I say the same back because it’s prom and sometimes you just have to.



I’m chatting with a boy at a dorm room gathering when my friend pulls me aside to say, Stop it. He doesn’t know you’re not into boys. I know she thinks he’s cute, so I point out my hoodie, Doc Martens, cadet hat, and thumb ring to say I think the signals are clear. She squints and says, All he sees is a pretty girl. You have to stop fooling him. Fooling him? We’d been talking about bikes. He likes bikes and I like bikes. I thought it might be fun to ride together. She says I have to tell him my pretty isn’t on offer and I point out that I’ve just met him and that seems like a lot to presume. She glares at me until I see it’s wrong to be pretty and friendly all at once, unless you mean something more than let’s be friends. I say fine, grab a drink and spend the rest of the night on the other side of the room so as not to trick. What I don’t say is, So what if he thought I was pretty? So what if I liked the way he smiled at me? What does it matter how we’re drawn together? I could’ve made new a friend. We could’ve gone riding.



I see how they look at the girl with the shaved head, tongue ring and wide-wide hips like, you’ve got nothing for us and you don’t belong here, so I keep my hair long and pluck my eyebrows because pretty is access and pretty is ease. I learn the word for it: passing. Which is the opposite of failing. My girlfriend sends me to talk to the grumpy man behind the airport counter because, she says, Your face is Ivory Soap. I roll my eyes at her and she reminds me to smile and blink a lot. I approach the man and decorate my voice with an upward curl: Excuse me, sir, I’m wondering if you can help me? As he looks up, I tilt my head like my neck is loose on a hinge. His face brightens. I know if I just keep bobbling and curling for a few more minutes, he’ll get us on the overbooked flight, just like I know the girl with the shaved head would’ve remained on standby. It’s not what her body does, but what it doesn’t—the offer it seems to lack. A boy at a party once explained it without explaining it: I don’t have a problem with lesbians, but why do they insist on being ugly? He meant that a pretty girl appears as an unlocked door, an open question, a possibility, an invitation. Like me, he craves access, even when it’s illusory.



What of pretty when I wed? No better time to claim grace, I suppose, but blush and sparkle? A dress? I love my pretty through this woman’s eyes, but what’s the nuptial manifestation of that? What to declare on my body as I declare my heart? I’m no longer a girl dressed as a boy or a girl made-up as a girl. Never was, really. They were always costumes. Show me everything you have, I say to the saleswoman. You mean everything in white? she asks. No, I mean everything. Never dreamt the wedding dream, the princess dream, the bride dream. Never dreamt a tuxedo dream either. What’s your vision? the saleswoman asks. I only know I want my pretty to shine when I wed. No vision. Open. Let’s hunt, I say. I try on oranges, blues, reds, whites, blacks, pants, skirts, dresses, scarves. Mix and match. Puzzle it my way. My pretty may defy the vocabulary of fashionistas, but I’ll know it when I see it. When I feel it. The body in its right cloth. Ball in socket, interlaced fingers, a perfectly spiced sauce. But pretty isn’t what you’re looking for, my love says, sitting in the dressing room watching me unbutton. What am I looking for, then? I ask. You’re looking for beauty. When I find it—unconventional threads that hold my body like they love me, releasing light, releasing truth–I cut the tags.



Pleasing by delicacy or grace. Attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome. An attractive thing, typically a pleasing but unnecessary accessory. To a moderately high degree, fairly. Appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose, or intensity. Strangled by modifiers, pretty hesitates and has a shadow: demure, weak, insubstantial. (One definition of ‘handsome’: substantial, as in a sum of money.) Beauty has no modifiers. It’s definition: delighting the senses or mind. Stendhal described beauty as, “The promise of happiness.” What does pretty promise? Pretty is a woman with her head fixed at a tilt, questions (May I? Pretty please?) lingering eternally on her lips. The world craves and suspects her all at once. Prettig: from the Mercian, meaning cunning, skillful, artful, wily. Prett: a trick. Pretty is also used ironically in expressions of annoyance or disgust, as in, Well, isn’t this a pretty state of things!Pretty is partly hostile. No wonder I’ve been wary.



But from lips that say, You, as is,pretty sounds like guitar strings, skipping stones, wind chimes. Smooth. Natural. Sexy. I take these lips with my lips and taste and taste. These lips don’t say, Pretty but…Pretty if…Pretty when…Pretty except…. They say, Pretty because. They say, Even when you’re goofy or stupid or mean or wrong. They say, Outside matches inside. They say, Delight in all five senses, and a sixth:thought. They say, Tell me what you think. Tell me every day. They say, Maybe not that sweater, because they see me truer than the mirror does and they care deeply for truth. With these lips, I learn to love my pretty for the beauty it can bring and to live not to the left or right, but in the center of my body. Only then do I see how my pretty became a ragged puzzle. Too many people with too many jigsaws had cut it up. That’s why I could never click the pieces together. That’s why I was misfit. To make pretty whole, I had to throw the pieces off the table and start anew. I had to see pretty purely.


Emily W. Blacker’s writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Maine Review, Under the Gum Tree and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She was a contest finalist in Fourth Genre and Creative Nonfiction Magazine, nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Project, and given honorable mention in Glimmer Train. She lives in New York City where she works as an English tutor and learning specialist and runs the Figure Eight Writer’s Workshop. Beginning in the fall of 2019, she will serve as the Nonfiction Editor for The Maine Review. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently working on collection of linked essays. Find her at