Some friends who’ve been journeying through time with me, after looking at the many pictures of ourselves which I’ve posted chronologically on my website, seem startled and dismayed by how we’ve all aged. “My God,” one of them exclaimed the other day, “we were all so young and…”
He paused for a long time and, as he seemed unable to continue, in my mind I went through a list of words about what we might have been like all those years ago. Idealistic? Romantic? Innocent? Naive? Stupid? Unreasonable? Unrealistic? Untainted? Unblemished? Unbearable?
“Beautiful,” he said finally. “We were all so young and…beautiful.”
To be honest, this took me by surprise. I have never been vain about my looks. When I started to gain weight after I gave up smoking in 1994, and to lose my hair shortly after that, it was of no great consequence, and I didn’t stay up nights worrying about it. But now, thanks to the ugly rhetoric which keeps coming out of the mouths of people like Carrie Prejean, the ex-Miss California USA 2009 who won’t shut up or go away, I’ve been looking again at the pictures on my website, not of me but of everyone else, trying to determine who’s beautiful and who’s not, and by what standards. In the Philippines, for example, given the country’s white colonial masters—first the Spaniards and then the Americans, which one witty Filipino writer said was akin to living three hundred years in a convent followed by fifty years in Hollywood—fair or unfair, guess whom the mirror says is the fairest of us all?
Among the many physically “beautiful people” I’ve known in America, there’s one I’d like to tell you about. I no longer remember his name because this was sometime ago and I knew him only briefly, met with him only twice, spoke with him on the telephone only twice, but I”ll never forget him for what he was, a beautiful young man in his early twenties, a violinist who had been highly recommended by his professors in the School of Music at the University of Kansas.
Back in those days, at least once every summer for many years, I would give these elaborate garden parties in my backyard for seventy or eighty people. Lots to eat, even more to drink, and underneath the tall weeping willow tree, accomplished young musicians coaxing beautiful sounds out of their favored instruments, one year a guitar, another year a cello, and on this particular year a violin. I remember many of the guests wandering over to the beautiful young man, listening to the way he seemed to be communing privately with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. There’s a picture of him on the website, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight, as he played my one request, Massenet’s Meditation from Thais, surrounded by the weeping willows. Sadly, the tree no longer exists. It had been dying for years, attacked by termites, and finally I had to have it cut down and destroyed. In its place I planted a flowering Judas Tree.
But, back to my beautiful violinist. When the garden party was over, he came into the house and, as I was writing out a check to pay him for his work, he heard the lovebirds twittering in an upstairs bedroom. “Do you have birds in the house?” he asked, his eyes filled with wonder.
“Yes. Do you like birds?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had any. Can I see them?”
“Yes, of course.”
I led him upstairs and showed him the original pair of lovebirds which I had started out with, and their first brood of six little ones, some bluish-green, some yellowish-orange. The young man was transfixed. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Can I have a couple of them? You have so many.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“I’ll be happy to buy them from you.”
“I wasn’t planning to sell them.”
“Oh please. They are so beautiful.” Beautiful creatures are drawn to each other, I thought approvingly. Maybe they will make beautiful music together.
“If you’ve never had birds, you’ll need a cage to begin with, and the cage must be cleaned at least once weekly. Then you must also buy special lovebird seeds and liquid vitamins to add to their water daily. You’ll also need another cup containing a mixture of gravel and oyster shells to help them digest their food, sand paper for the perches to help trim their nails, cuttle bones to help trim their beaks, special treats like fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet, to say nothing of bird toys to keep them amused, and…”
“I’ll use the money you’re giving me today to buy all that.” He flashed me a beautiful smile. How could I resist?
He returned the next day for two of the baby birds, but he didn’t have a birdcage with him. He said the one he bought was much too big to fit in the car after he had put it all together. Instead, he brought a big empty rectangular aquarium. He said he could transport the birds in this old aquarium, then transfer them to the new birdcage after he got back to his apartment. He flashed me another smile. How can anyone have teeth so white? I really needed to give up smoking.
A couple of days later, I got a peculiar phone call from someone who said he was the beautiful young man’s roommate. “About those birds that you gave him…”
“Did you know that he has a pet boa constrictor which he keeps in an aquarium?”
“He came home with those birds, and when the boa couldn’t catch them, he chopped their feet off.”
“He just sat there, drinking his beer, watching those terrified birds bleeding to death as the boa started to eat them.”
“He’s going to call you tomorrow, to ask you for more birds. He says you have four more. Please don’t give him any more.”
And, indeed, the young man did call, the very next day, asking if he could have two more. He said his girlfriend had come over to his apartment, had seen the birds, had fallen in love with them, and that he had no choice but to give them to her. So could he have two more? In my mind’s eye, I could see him flashing his beautiful smile, yet again. And then I thought of him feeding my birds to his “girlfriend.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, wondering why I was apologizing instead of screaming at him. “The papa bird and mama bird seem unhappy about the disappearance of two of their young ones. I can’t give away any more of their babies.”
And that was that. I never saw or heard from the young man again. In this story, Beauty not only falls in love with the Beast, Beauty turns into the Beast. Even today, as I retell and relive the story, I find myself near tears. And I am reminded of a poem written by another friend in the Philippines, someone whom all the pretty girls in our group laughed at, when we were all so young, because they said he was so ugly. Here are the final lines of his poem: “Why am I Melancholy/before so much Beauty?”
The poet’s name was Jun Lansang and, like the weeping willow tree in my backyard, he too is now dead and gone. But the young Judas Tree which replaced it and which I can see from my bedroom window flowered this spring, and will continue to do so for many years yet to come.