By Sara Dobbie
Along the riverbank frogs croak as herons stand watch over the flowing currents, while sunshine dissipates the early morning fog. Swallows chirp in the thickets and squirrels dart across the grass. Inside her cottage, Pearl wakes up and rubs her eyelids. She peers from her window and watches the rays of bright light chase away the rolling mist, wishes she could join the tiny animals in their ignorant bliss and leave humanity behind. She chastises herself for such negativity but acknowledges that lately she’s been feeling like an outsider. She questions if there is a reason to participate in a world that doesn’t see her anymore, in a world that treats her as though she is invisible.
She walks into the bathroom and leans close to the mirror over the enamel sink. Her reflection stares back like a washed-out shadow of her former self. She analyzes the fine lines in her forehead, agonizes over the deep ones at the corners of her eyes. Next, she begins her daily routine. Cleanse. Exfoliate. Moisturize. Magazines and social media videos and television commercials have instilled the importance of skincare, of hydration and retinoids. She needs to stay youthful, yet age gracefully. To embrace her beauty while halting the natural effects of time.
When Pearl was small, she learned the steps required to tackle each day through careful observation of the women in her life. Her mother, her grandmother, her aunts, her teachers. She watched them emerge from their powder rooms with pink smiles and rosy cheeks and thick, black lashes. Foundation. Blush. Mascara. She concluded over time that women must always put on their face before anyone will want, or be able, to see them.
In spite of following this feminine code of conduct, recently it seems that Pearl is like a ghost. She winces at the recollection of last weekend when she sat at a table for two waiting endlessly for a man who did not arrive. The waiter walked past countless times, never once inquiring if she would like a drink, or an appetizer, or if she was waiting for a dinner guest. She had never intended to be single and middle aged, but she found herself fumbling through the galaxy of online dating, where everyone sought youth and beauty and the ideal partner. She’s too old, too tired, too hopeless. Without having spoken to a single soul, Pearl left the restaurant and went home to bed.
Today Pearl is going to run errands. She steps outside the cottage, glances over the wildflowers she lets run rampant across her lawn and follows the path to the road and into town. She walks past a group of construction workers in orange vests and hard hats. They don’t whistle or holler, they don’t even glance in her direction, but continue digging a giant hole in the sidewalk. While this is a relief for Pearl, who never grew accustomed to attention from strange men, it is also a sharp reminder of her condition. Her status of faded bloom, of wilting flower, of menopausal woman. The certainty that no one will want her ever again, whether she wants them to or not.
She raises a finger to dab her lips, feels the oily slick of gloss, and is assured that her face is still on. She thinks about slinking in between the men, touching their shoulders as she slips past. She also thinks about what it would feel like to drop down into the manhole.
Pearl passes three teenage girls at the bus stop. She says hello but they huddle together to look at something on a small screen and ignore her. She is humiliated by their freshness, the shine of their hair, their careless attitude. They don’t know she used to be just like them, that she can remember living inside that elastic skin and casting judgements through her eyes as if it were yesterday, not decades ago. They shake their hips to a beat that Pearl can’t hear. They hold the whole world inside their hands, inside their bodies. They are unaware of her existence. She is nothing to them, she is alien.
Once, Pearl was luminous. She was a wife, a mother, an employee, a citizen of the world. Time was an endless river flowing forward, the people she loved were immortal, her life indestructible. But in a blink the present became the past, and now the future is a lonely prospect in which she pictures herself wandering, a wraith, a spirit, clamoring to be heard, or at least, noticed. She wonders sometimes if she is imagining things, but in the produce aisle at the grocery store the stock boy keeps walking when she says, excuse me. She only wants to know where to find the artichoke hearts, but he will not help her, so she searches until she finds them on her own, pays the cashier and leaves.
In the drugstore, Pearl surveys rows of bright lipsticks. A new shade might be the thing to tip the scales. She imagines applying a blood red sheen to her lips, pictures herself walking up to the construction workers and grabbing one of them by the hand. Or maybe she could go back to the stock boy, who she’d have to let down gently when he declared his admiration. Then again, maybe she’s thinking of things all wrong. She pictures the animals near her cottage, of the river, of what really matters. Maybe it’s time to give it all up, to stop trying so hard to force a square peg into a round hole.
Although there are many customers in the store, not one of them sees Pearl put the crimson tube of lipstick into the depths of her bag. She is filled with an exhilaration long absent and walks out smiling without any interference from the staff. If no one sees me anymore, she thinks, then I will do exactly what I want. Back at home she doesn’t waste time feeling guilty about the pilfered makeup, it was more of a personal statement than a crime after all.
In the evening, Pearl imagines building a raft from twigs and branches. She could use it to float up and down the river gathering plants and enjoying the sun. Like a holiday, every day. People can’t see her anyway so no one would mind an old woman bobbing past, no one would ask her where she was going. She could float on forever and never return, no one would notice or be any the wiser.
Pearl no longer attends her scheduled hair appointments. She lets the grays creep in, winding in long streaks from her temples. She lets it lengthen and curl until she realizes she feels powerful. She wears whatever clothing strikes her fancy, sometimes overalls with a t-shirt and sometimes a formal dress. She doesn’t care what anybody thinks and does things only if she feels like it. The lipstick, for example, is something she can wear if she wants to, but if she decides to go without it, the planet continues to spin.
The mailman finds Pearl one morning sitting cross legged amongst the wildflowers in a strapless evening gown, gray hair cascading and lips the color of cranberries, tossing peanuts to the squirrels. He waves to her.
“You can see me?” she asks. He approaches slowly, a perplexed look on his face.
“Of course,” he answers.
He makes idle small talk for a few minutes, asking questions about the gardens, then wishes her a good day. It seems to Pearl that a spell has been broken, a curse lifted. She leans back against her willow tree and extends her legs under the satiny fabric of the dress. Sparrows land in a fleet to fight the squirrels for the nuts and Pearl thinks how wonderful it is to finally be seen. She gets up and surveys her property and begins collecting bits of long grass and sticks. It’s time to get serious about that raft.
* * *
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her stories have appeared in New World Writing, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute, Ruminate Online, Trampset, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Her debut collection “Flight Instinct” is forthcoming from ELJ Editions (2022). Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie, and on Instagram at @sbdobwrites.