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“Who would you say is the most eternally beautiful woman in the world?” Shayla asked Dom over Angie’s reheated crepes.
“You obviously,” Dom said with a sly look at Adam, who just frowned and focussed on pouring chocolate sauce on his crepe.
Shayla giggled. “Not me. Come on, this is for a piece I’m writing for Style Sister.”
Dom wiped his brow in mock relief. “Oh, okay, I’d say Shailene Woodley,”
“Too young, her looks will probably fade.”
“Kim Kardashian then.”
“Please, let’s be more original.” Kim was perfect, but that was too easy.
“Halle Berry?” He checked his watch. “I don’t really have time for this!”
“Salma Hayek?” Shayla suggested. Dom considered it and nod-shrugged. He stood up from the table, put his phone and wallet in his pant pockets. “Good choice. She always has been and will be stunning. Even if she was a hundred, I still would.”
Shayla reached out to slap him. Dom sprinted out of the way and laughed. Then he returned and grabbed Shayla in a bear hug as she jokingly tried to hit him.
“Come on, you know no one’s more beautiful to me than you. My perfect wife. Mother to my perfect son. Queen of our perfect house.” Finally, Shayla succumbed to his kisses. They were as hot and urgent as they had always been, able to transport her to another place, making her weak and grateful, so grateful for this life. Dom gagged afterward, though, and wiped his mouth with his hand.
“Yeuch! Lipgloss before breakfast?”
Shayla smiled sheepishly. She wore it all the time now, to keep her lips moist and plump.
“I’m sure you’ll knock it out of the park. You always do. Adam, have a great day.” He patted his son’s shoulder. “Do good at school.”
“Bye, Daddy,” said Adam, not looking up.
Dom crossed the open plan kitchen and parlor to the entryway, pulling on his blazer and stepping into his loafers. The vestibule door clanged shut after him. Shayla heard him call out to one of the neighbors. She fancied she heard his strident footsteps along the pavement heading to the subway.
She gathered the breakfast things and stacked them around the sink. It was Angie’s day off. Today they had to fend for themselves.
“Are we ready to go?”
“Yeah.” Adam slid off the chair. Shayla brushed the crumbs off his sweater and wiped his mouth with a napkin. No child of hers would go to school covered in crumbs.
He put his blazer on and slipped into his shoes as his father had done. As Shayla clipped on her fanny pack, popped her lipgloss in it, and found her phone, Adam presented her with a sheet of paper.
“I need you to sign my homework?” he said.
Shayla took the paper. It looked like math. Fractions. Fifth-grade stuff, but it might as well be astrophysics to her now. Adam’s handwriting was neat for his age, almost elegant. The calligraphy practice had been good for him. Nothing outside of the lines, with the working out in tidy rows.
The grade wasn’t good. It was a 2. A 2, she dimly remembered, meant “could be better.” Adam’s grades were usually all 4s. He worked hard and had always been clever like his daddy.
She glanced at Adam. He looked crestfallen. About to cry.
“Don’t feel bad. A 2 is fine,” she said, not really sure.
“No, it’s not,” Adam retorted.
Shayla only now registered how morose he’d been all morning. “You’ll get a better grade in the next assignment,” she said.
“Can you just sign it?” he pleaded, presenting the pen.
She signed the math sheet to show his teacher she had seen it and followed him to the front door. Why was it such a big deal. It was just one assignment. 1, 2, 3—who cared? But she knew Dom might not see it that way.
They walked the four blocks to the school in silence, Adam in his head, Shayla in hers. Turning things over, she now recalled that Adam had been fussy over his grades for a while, stressed about his homework, upset over any fair criticism from keeping his room tidy, to turning down the television.
In the last Parent Teacher Conference, his grade teacher, Paul, said that Adam was a perfectionist and needed to relax more over his grades. She and Dom had laughed about it. “We are a kind of perfect family, though,” Dom had joked with Paul. “They’re always telling the black kids to slow down when they know damn well black kids need to be twice as good,” Dom had complained afterward. “It’s a type of racism I’ve had to deal with all my life.” She’d had to talk him down from shooting off a terse email to the principal educating her about the history of low academic expectations of black boys in schools and colleges.
Dom was an over-achiever who had made his way to the Ivy League from the worst school in East New York. His father had kept him up late at night doing extra homework from a young age, often beating him with a leather belt if he came home with poor grades or reports. His father had grown up in a time during the crack epidemic, watching drugs and violent crime devastate his black neighborhood, black men flushed into the prison system and their ambitions thwarted at every level of society. He’d worked as porter most of his life, opening the door for rich white folks, and he’d wanted his son to avoid a similar fate. Between his father and the world, there was nothing the Pauls of this world could tell Dom. He’d gone into banking from Wharton, and the rest was bougie black history. They had met on a yacht at an afterparty for some rapper. Even though they were very different people, they had seen the same things in each other, a taste for nice things, bon-vivants with high standards for themselves who followed the rules of life—dressed up and showed out. She became a sought-after influencer—with his financial backing, of course. Not quite Kim Kardashian, but her followers were in the hundreds of thousands. Dom was a trading superstar at a hedge fund. They had made it with surprising ease in a country where statistically at least, their prospects were limited.
Adam went to an excellent private school. He seemed popular judging by the number of playdates he was invited to. He was happy. The teachers loved him—didn’t they? Except for Paul—saying he needed to relax. Honestly, some people couldn’t let you be great. They were always—always looking for the flaw.
Shayla’s nose wrinkled as she re-entered the house. She usually loved coming home, but more so on the days Angie visited when everything was polished and dusted and back in its rightful place when it was perfect. She was so used to having a housekeeper. It made life so much easier. Now, her stomach lurched at the faint trash scent, and she sighed at Dom’s discarded slippers by the shoe cabinet and the gadgets on the sofa. In the kitchen, the detritus from breakfast awaited her. And even when she had tidied up, it still wouldn’t look professional—she was too busy to throw herself into housework between her articles and social media account.
She picked up the slippers and put them back in the cabinet. Threw the gadgets into the expensive looking cedar wood coffee table they had found at Crate and Barrel that concealed a charging gadget can. Then, she flopped down on the sofa.
Why was Adam so bothered by a bad grade? It wasn’t even a bad grade.
An hour on the Peloton couldn’t shake it—the feeling she was missing something. Adam had everything anyone could want. They lived in a cavernous Brooklyn brownstone—he had practically a whole floor to himself—with beautifully scooped interiors, they’d removed a lot of walls, so the light flooded in. A Kehinde Wiley, acquired before the Obama fame, took up half the wall space in the living room. And the furniture was hand-picked from design magazines. He’d all the attention, all the toys, traveled the world, everything organic, she’d made sure, down to his cotton socks.
He’d always seemed robust, never pining for anything, but now, this chink in his armor, where did it come from? When did he decide he wasn’t enough? Dom was a stickler for academics, but there had been nothing to stickle. Adam had hit the ground running from pre-school. His grades were perfect. All the teachers said so. He was perfect.
Shayla took her laptop to the kitchen. She sat down on the banquette seats of the kitchen table—she’d always wanted banquette seating. She liked the way it made a room look more together. She flipped open the computer and googled world’s most beautiful woman.
The usual suspects flashed up, including the ones Dom had mentioned. Salma Hayek was gorgeous. Still gorgeous. A little fat now, though—especially around the jaw. Getting jowly. No way to hide it. What about Naomi Campbell? She was over fifty and fabulous. But it was all filters, though, wasn’t it? If you looked closely, you could see the hairline was gone, the poor woman was bald, and her skin was thickening. She decided ultimately to go with Naomi though. She was the most perfect. Her body as toned and smooth as in her twenties. She wrote all this in a quick five-hundred-word article, ending with a cautionary quote on beauty from Anatole France. If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it will lead.
Now that was done, Shayla checked her Instagram account. Her followers had loved her most recent post, standing in front of the Kehinde Wiley. She often took photos in front of the Kehinde Wiley. People loved what he represented. A new idea of Black beauty, Black excellence, Black luxury.
Love it, gushed the comments.
You are flawless!
Now she needed to get ready for pick up. She left the laptop, went to the entryway mirror, reapplied lip gloss, and smoothed her hair.
She examined herself for wrinkles and cringed, noticing another grey hair in her eyebrow. She made a mental note to go and get some botox in the next few days, just in case. Makeup and nice clothes were one thing, but there was no substitute for botox and fillers. Not too much, just a dam to hold back the aging flood.
What was it that Mom liked to say? Always look your best. Grandma said much the same. Dress how you want to be addressed was her phrase. Before feminism. Before MeToo. Growing up, they always made sure her clothes and hair were perfect. They instilled good grooming habits into her. “Before you come downstairs, make sure you’ve washed your face and brushed your teeth,” they would remind her. “Always wear your matching dressing gown and slippers.” The pink velour, she remembers it well.
They took her to the nail salon with them and the hair stylist to get her hair straightened for special occasions. As soon as she hit sixteen, it was permed. Now she also had long hair extensions to offset the damage from the back-to-back chemical treatments.
And Shayla remembered that even when she looked the part, she had to behave very prim and proper, sit still on the sofa with her legs together, and not climb all over the furniture because Uncle Stanley wouldn’t like it. And Uncle Stanley paid all their bills, so they had to keep him happy. Everyone was always on their best behavior for Uncle Stanley. Even when he wasn’t around, they had to keep practicing. Not a hair out of place because Uncle Stanley wouldn’t like it.
Shayla could feel herself getting upset, irrationally, of course. It was all so long ago. Uncle Stanley had passed away years ago. He was no longer a cloud over her, a reminder that none of them were enough without his approval. And without him, they were nothing and nowhere, a single mom and her illegitimate daughter thrown to the wind.
She just needed a little eyebrow gel. Shayla opened her mirrored makeup cabinet.
“Mommy, why do you wear makeup all the time?” Adam used to ask her. “Why do you wear such high heels? Why are you crying?” That day it was because her hair wasn’t right. They were late for a function, and the style she wanted wasn’t working. It just didn’t look right, and she had burst into tears. Another time he’d caught her throwing up. She’d just had a heavy meal. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips, mom would say. She was so used to purging she hadn’t really thought about it. She thought she’d closed the door. She hadn’t seen him standing behind her while she stuck her finger down her throat and purged. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there, open-mouthed. He wouldn’t remember something like that, would he?
Thinking about it made Shayla feel panicky. She added some blusher, strip lashes, brushed out her hair, and used the tongues to curl the ends. She found a dress to wear, simple white with guipure lace panels, something Dom would like.
Uncle Stanley hadn’t been nice. She’d tried to tell Mom and Gran, but they didn’t want to listen. Everything he’d done got shoved back down inside her and covered over with pretty bows and silk dresses. But perhaps it was for the best. “God don’t like ugly,” Gran always said. And what Uncle Stanley did was ugly. Made her feel ugly.
Only the makeup, the foundation, the concealer, the lip gloss, the eyebrow pencils, and the fake lashes made the memory of it go away. And Dom would never need to see it, her ugly, to know about Uncle Stanley. They had an ugly past, but now they were beautiful. Like artworks, they had intentionally painted themselves as they wished to be seen.
Shayla stood in line at the school gates, watching the other children stream past to their waiting parents, remembering what it had been like when Adam was just in kindergarten, emerging from the playground proudly cradling his little arts and craft that she had oohed and ahhed over before quickly hiding them in the spare room, his “art gallery” because his garish papier-mâchés and legos didn’t match anything in the living room, because she needed everything in their lives to be perfect.
Adam looked tired. That wasn’t unusual. They worked the kiddos hard at this school, one of the proclaimed “little ivies” of New York City. But he was pleased to see her. He smiled, and she kissed him and stroked his hair.
“Hey, my love,” she said. “How was your day?”
Vanessa Walters is the debut author of The Nigerwife: A Novel, published by Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), May 2023. She is originally from the UK and lives in New York.