The Woman Who Thought She Was Beautiful

by Kenneth Bernard
First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1973

THE AUTUMN I FIRST KNEW HER she had turned twenty-one. Almost the first thing she said to me was, “I am beautiful. Are you not struck by it?” I smiled at her audacity and replied indeed, I was, although it had happened only the moment she said it. The first thing she had said to me was a quotation: “ ‘Pain and love,’ ” she recited, “ ‘—the whole of life, in short—cannot be looked upon as a disease because they make us suffer.’ Svevo, Confessions of Zeno. Don’t you agree?” She had the gift of immediate intimacy, and added that just the previous night she had taken her first lover, and didn’t it make a difference? “In what?” I answered her seriously. “My allure,” she said, and I laughed. “You’re very rude,” she pouted, and left me. It was true. I had laughed too loudly. I realize now that it was out of jealousy of that first lover and anger at her for telling me. I also realize that in some wholly unaccountable way I had been chosen to try for the position of second lover. But I, too, was young.
       When I saw her again she was five years older, and knew more. She came to me as if we had spoken only yesterday. “And have you read Svevo yet?” she asked. And followed it quickly with “You were a fool, you know.” I blushed, and muttered that I was married. She laughed, just a shade too loudly. “And if you were not?” Like an idiot, I laughed too. “You know,” she said, “I married him, that first one. Oh, not right away. There were others. And it was a mistake. He was weak. He thought he was a master because I gave myself to him. Purely out of joy. But he was not. He gave no joy back. You came a day too late. Do you play tennis?” Her lips were the loveliest I have ever seen, and I stared at them. “Am I still beautiful?” she asked. I nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I thought you would think so. My son is three.” “Mine is two,” I said, and cursed myself. There was a pause. “I’m sure,” she said, “you’re a lovely father. And do read Svevo soon. He is quite mad.” It was about as pleasant a dismissal as I could expect. I did not play tennis.
       Sixteen years later, while Christmas shopping, we met again. “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” she said. I answered no, and knew that either answer was wrong. “I am married again,” she confessed. “Have you prospered?” “Yes,” I answered, “I have done well.” She wore a fur-trimmed coat. Beneath it I felt her warm body. “Would you like to ask me something?” she said. I hesitated, feeling guilty for staring at her lips rather than her eyes. “How is your son?” I asked. “You are remarkable,” she replied. “You must come to my funeral some day.” “Will it be soon, do you know?” “Hypocrite,” she said, giving it the French intonation, and turned to leave. “Wait,” I called. She turned and waited, but gave me nothing. She would not compromise me. “I really must go,” she said finally. “I’m sorry I was rude,” I said. She turned and left. In my head I said, “Wait. You are still beautiful. Where are you staying? May I come?” And then I finished my shopping.
       It turned out that I did go to her funeral. Once, in the interval, I had seen her in a canoe, and she had waved, and looked at me until she was out of sight. Several other times I had the feeling that I had just missed her, that only a moment or two before she had stood where I was. It was a small funeral, and people, though discreet, were surprised to see me. Their eyes said, “Was he one of them?” But I was nearly old, although I did not know it, and the curiosity was historical. I was also a widower, with grown children, to whom a certain deference was due. A skiing accident, they said. Can you imagine, at her age, still the most difficult runs. Still—yes, I understood. I looked at her. She was still beautiful. She looked younger than she must have been, no older, actually, than she had looked in the canoe. It had rained that afternoon, and I had waited for the canoe to return. But it had not; they had found shelter by the river. I had drunk a lot of tea, and my wife had said, “Are you well? Are you getting a chill?” I wanted to bend over and kiss her lips, for a brief moment to kiss them savagely. But I did not. I should have cried and made a fool of myself. “She is very lovely, is she not?” said a very old man, who I later found out was her third husband. “Yes,” I answered, “very beautiful.” But not, I thought, as beautiful as she might have been! And I could not stop myself. I wept by her coffin. The old man put his hand on my arm. “We all loved her,” he said, “but perhaps not enough.”