I opened the bathroom cabinet and my sister’s beauty supplies stood before me. “We’ll make you pretty,” they whispered.
“My cooling sensation works wonders,” said Noxzema cold cream.
“I will tighten your pores,” said the St. Ives cucumber face mask.
Then the bottle of Sun-In hair lightener threw down the gauntlet, “I’ll give you white people hair.”
I was eleven years old and habitually locking myself in the bathroom for the wrong reason; I just wanted to be pretty.
My parents’ friends always said Agnes was pretty and I was handsome, but as their eyes moved quickly from me to linger on Agnes, the truth became translucent. On this highway called life, Agnes could stop traffic and I’d get run over. Agnes’ beauty allowed her to attend Barbizon, a modeling school in downtown Chicago filled with rich blonde girls, a Jewish girl who had a nose job, two literal black sisters, and a Latina girl originally from Texas who I never saw without an outfit made of fringe. On Saturday afternoons, they’d practice essential life lessons, such as how to strut down a makeshift runway and take a jacket off at the same time. Agnes excelled and as the other girls stopped at the end to pose, I boiled over with envy. I had seen George Michael’s video for Freedom, which featured various supermodels strutting down a real runway. I had practiced my walk in our basement, and I knew I could out-walk half these bitches.
Even at our Thai temple, my role as second best was obvious. When our temple put on a production of Manorah, the Thai story of creation, they cast Agnes as the lead. I had to play a monkey. On our drive home, my parents gloated and told Agnes what a great job she’d done. They were so proud of her. And I, like a glum troll, sank deep into our Cadillac’s beige leather interior scowling at the moon and stars for placing me in the shadows.
“Charlie, why you look so upset?” asked my mom.
“Oh you know Charlie,” my dad answered. “He see the moon and stars and he think about science, just like his dad.”
They did not know me; they just saw me. They saw their young Asian son and expected me to be good at things like math and science, the academic road maps for ugly people. Yes I said it – ugly people. I would not be pushed down that road. I would be pretty and I had a plan.
Step one: Lather on my sister’s Noxzema until its camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol made my face feel like a cough drop.
Step two: Carefully and evenly apply her cucumber aloe mask so it peeled off in one long sheath instead of dozens of flakes.
Step three: Brighten my hair with Sun-In because in the 90’s, nothing made an Asian person look cooler than orange hair.
Step four: Imagine Keanu Reeves
In 1991, Keanu Reeves starred the mega blockbuster music video Rush, Rush by Paula Abdul. I became obsessed. I often imagined I was Paula and Keanu was my Keanu. One day as I sat on the bathroom counter engaged in my beauty routine and thinking of Keanu, a more specific vision came to mind. Keanu would pull in front of my parents’ house with the screech of two wheels because he had discovered his cause: me, Charlie Tinwan.
I’d run out of the house as my family begged me to stay, “We were wrong, Charlie! You are much more beautiful and talented than your sister!” But, it would be too late. I’d hop into the sidecar attached to Keanu’s bike. Speeding north on 1-94 toward an exotic and romantic land called Wisconsin, the wind would loudly dance by my bowl cut. I’d peer up at my rebel and scream:
“Have you ever been in love before?”
“No and you?”
“No, I haven’t.” I would gaze upon the open farmland on my right where a farmer shoved hay towards a hungry collection of horses. “I’ve never been in love. I’ve never experienced love. Isn’t that horrible?”
At those words, Keanu would pull onto the shoulder. He’d cut off the engine and get off the bike with one swing of his meaty hind quarter. He would walk over and squat on the asphalt so that our faces met. “It’s not horrible,” he’d state. “It just reminds us that we’re all alone.” As those last words would tumble out of his mouth, his face would break into an epiphany realizing that he, we, weren’t alone anymore. His face would inch closer to mine and as I puckered my lips.
The bathroom door swung open. It was Agnes.
“What the fuck are you doing? Is that my mask? Are you still using my Sun-In? What is wrong with you? These are for girls!”
I grabbed the bottle of Sun-In, “It doesn’t say for girls on it.”
“It doesn’t have to. Do you want to use my maxi-pads too?”
“I’ll use whatever I want! It’s my bathroom, too!” I tried to run past her.
In those days, however, Agnes dominated me with her size. At thirteen, she had developed early, and I, at eleven, was barely fifty pounds. She pushed me into the wall and clawed three marks onto my face. Like Nancy Kerrigan after the attack on her knee, I fell to the ground crying, “Why, why?” Not only would these claw marks stall my plans to become pretty, I’d have to explain them to the kids at school where rumor had it, I might be gay. That’s when I decided I’d had enough. While I didn’t engage in many “boy” activities, I had recently discovered Street Fighter 2 and had become adept at playing a certain character, the mistress of the tornado kicks, Chun Li.
I sprang to my feet and just as in the game, I imagined Agnes and I were in a dirty alley in China. To her utter confusion, I started bouncing around and then I pulled my leg up and kicked her in the stomach with a loud, “Yah!”
She stumbled, ran to the toilet, and threw up. I had won…or so I thought. After wiping her mouth, Agnes jumped on top on me and sat on my chest. As she berated me, I could smell the vomit lingering on her breath. Luckily, just as she was threatening to claw the other side of my face, my mother walked in and pulled her off me.
I may have lost the battle but I won the war. Not the war with Agnes, it’d be two more years before she’d stop beating me up, but a couple days later my mother took me to Walgreens and bought me my own Noxzema, face mask, and Sun In. Why? Because as my mother has always told me, she loves me more, and I’m her favorite. At that young age, I learned there was a price, sometimes bloody, for beauty; not because it ultimately ends up being worth very much in life, but if you’re going to bad at math and science, it helps to be pretty.