Look Like

My mom and dad don’t look like each other although they are first cousins. Mom has a soap opera beautiful face, and my aunt Vicky described it best when we stood in Grandma’s kitchen one Christmas, drying dishes after dinner, and she ran a rag along the lip of a copper pot that’d held soupy mashed potatoes and declared, “Chica,” that’s Mom’s nickname because she’s tiny and wears a size four shoe, “Chica, you look like Erica Kane.” Aunt Vicky paused. She added, “You know, the bitch from the Young and the Restless.” I giggled because people were always telling Mom she’s pretty, but only Vicky’s ever told her she’s pretty like a bitch. The best comparison someone has made of Dad to a person on TV came from a high school friend’s mom, Mrs. Genovesi. Her daughter Lourdes and I bonded over having Mexicans for moms when everyone else had white ones, and I spent so much time sleeping over at her house sophomore year. We got close enough for my whole family to get invited to watch Lourdes’ big sister marry a handsome white guy who stuttered badly. At the reception, Mrs. Genovesi drank so much alcohol it weighed down the skin on her face. She was sitting next to the bride, at a long table propped in front of mariachis playing violins and trumpets. The fattest mariachi was balancing his guitar on his stomach, and Mrs. Genovesi looked across her tri-tip-, coleslaw-, and salad-loaded paper plate. Small hand lifted a piece of sweating, barbecued beef, and she pointed with it. I followed her meat. It was aiming to the other side of the vet’s hall, at Dad. He was sitting near the john at a long folding table with Mom and my brother and sister. “Joor fodder eez a berry ehandsome man,” Mrs. Genovesi slurred at me. Her eyes barely hung open. She looked so much like her cocker spaniel, Arthur. “Joor efodder elooks like edoctor Fray-share Krane.” By saying that, Mrs. Genovesi proved the Mexican aphorism: “Los niños y los borrachos dicen la verdad.” And I can put those comparisons together to say that Susan Lucci and Kelsey Grammer lookalikes mated and created my brother, sister, and I.

***

My brother Anthony and my sister Nesreen are twins, but they look as different as Mom and Dad. Nesreen I’d call a Semitic Reese Witherspoon. Anthony is Salma Hayek re-imagined as a balding, I.T. guy cursed with thick, thick glasses. Nesreen is short, Anthony is tall, and both run swarthy. I’m unqualified to say who I think I look like, that’s vain, but I can recite who I’ve been told I resemble.

***

Dad told me once when I was a baby, and he was pushing my stroller down the grocery store milk aisle, he got told by a woman, “Hey, she looks like Pebbles from the Flintstones!” This probably had more to do with Dad giving me a ponytail that was a well-fastened cowlick than any cartoon cuteness in my face. After babyhood ended, I entered an awkward phase that lasted approximately twenty years. It slapped me hardest around ten. A decade into life, I had the physique of a tamale, and I have witnesses because this was the era of the stretch pant. The evil people of my hometown, Santa Maria, also insisted I looked like my father. “Oh, there’s no doubt about it,” Midge, a wrinkly cashier with puffy blonde hair, said to me while ringing up my family’s weekly groceries. I stood in the checkout lane of the market where nine years before I’d been compared to a pretty Flintstone. “We know who your father is!” Dad grinned and put a hand on my head. My heart pill bugged. I didn’t want to be told I looked like my father. He wasn’t the knockout. My mother, the lady using the pen chained to the counter to sign the check, was.

***

At age eleven, I mistakenly begged for a perm. I had a mushroom haircut, and Mom took me to a beauty salon at the mall. A cosmetologist took my short hair and curled it like I asked. I will not tell you what animals I got compared to. But I will tell you they are used to make beef.

***

When you suffer in high school, grown ups tell you how college will make up for it. They lie. I taped a picture of Mom taken while she was in college to my dorm room’s closet door. I did this because it seemed neat, Mom at my age watching me through a long-ago photograph. Visiting guys, and I stress this happened more than once, would pause in front of her photo to stare and covet. “Ooh, I wanna meet her,” they’d say, and I’d say, “Oh really? I came out of her.” They’d stop staring. Some would pale.

***

I became a history major, like Dad, but I made good friends with this creative writing major, Eleni, who was a Cypriot nationalist, a hater of Turks, a poet, and kidneyless. She showed me the catheter wedged in her arm and taught me how dialysis cleaned her insides, blood in, blood out, blood in, blood out, bloodbloodblood. There was a bar in Oakland she really wanted to go to, so we went, and since there were cute guys inside playing pool, Eleni dragged me to the next door liquor store to buy breath mints. The uniformed black security guard standing at the entrance looked at me, and his eyebrows rose, squishing back his hairless scalp. “Hey!” he said. “You know who you look like?” He didn’t pause for me to guess. “Wednesday Addams! She grew up!” He grabbed my wrist, yanked me inside, and led me to the magazine rack. He pointed at an overflow column stacked on the floor. The girl he’d typecast as Wednesday decorated its top cover. She sunbathed. She was actress Cristina Ricci. She was blonde. So was I. Chemically burnt flesh seamed my platinum bob to my face along the bow of my widow’s peak, temples, and to my ears.

***

I left Oakland about ten years ago and replaced it with Long Beach, a city that has also inspired seminal rap. This’ll be the fifth year I’ve taught at the high school Snoop Dogg, Cameron Diaz, and the lady who wrote Farewell to Manzanar attended, note I did not use the words graduated from, and a few weeks ago, on the first morning of spring, I rode my rusty bike to work. In mid-afternoon sunshine, I peddled across abused sidewalks, home. On concrete squares running past a Spanish style apartment complex, a crumbling, yellow wraith from the thirties, black iron grilles covering tall windows and roses struggling to live in its front yard strip, a handsome black guy in sweats was roasting weenies on a grill. Two guests attended his barbecue, they sat on folding chairs by the roses and for some reason were wearing parkas, and I turned my handlebars to swoop around the grill. As I circumvented, rolling along dead grass lining curb, the griller flirtatiously grinned at me and raised both hands, one holding the metal poker, the other nothing, and he screamed, “Angelina! Adopt me! Adopt me!” Guys quickly compare any girl with dark hair and green eyes whose face doesn’t drip boils or run horribly asymmetrical to Angelina Jolie, but I truly don’t look like her. In fact, my school’s twenty ten yearbook just came out, and today, this kid lurking around my desk told me, “Ms. Gurba, when my friend saw your picture in the teacher section, he said, ‘She looks like a crackhead.’”

***

Dad’s white dad, Grandpa Charlie, lies in Long Beach’s Catholic cemetery. Grandpa Charlie has been dead longer than I’ve lived, so I never saw his body. If there’s anything left of it, I’ll bet it looks like something they’ll sell at the Halloween superstore come October. Dad’s Mom, Grandma Charity, lives. She is a dead ringer for the evil grandma in the movie Flowers in the Attic. She is a sadist. She enjoys commenting on unfortunate aspects of your appearance. She measures these flaws against those without them. She even does this to animals. Grandma Charity lives with my aunt Marilyn, but Aunt Marilyn dropped Grandma off at Mom and Dad’s so she could take a cruise with her husband, Uncle Steve. Dad says Grandma was reading PEOPLE magazine on the long couch in the family room and looking out the sliding glass door. Scrub jays were darting from the boughs of the Japanese maple to the leaf-curtain draping the white birches. Their drinking-straw trunks tower between a squat retaining wall and the lawn. Dad says about the birds Grandma said, “Oh, they are so beautiful. Look at how blue. Those purty ones must be da girls.” It’s wonderful to hear Dad imitate Grandma. Her voice is deep, as if she’s on testosterone, and she breathes a mangled hint of Mexican accent. Dad says he told Grandma, “Mom, the boys are the blue ones. The girls are the ugly ones.” “No!” she insisted, “Dug girls are da purty ones!” “No!” Dad protested, “The girls are the ugly ones because they have to care for the family, and if they’re ugly, they’ll survive longer. The pretty ones will die sooner. Predators will eat them.” “Who says?” Grandma asked. “Scientists,” Dad answered. “Well,” she said, “scientists are stew-pit.”

***

Mom’s dad, Abuelito is extra alive, and Mom’s mom, Abuelita, is alive but dead. Abuelito is ninety-six, and he bragged to my uncle Gaspar that he can still hook younger girlfriends. Gaspar gossiped this to Mom over the phone and also told her Abuelito claims his current girlfriend, who is eighty-eight, could pass for eighty. Though I’ve never met Abuelito’s sancha and don’t want to, I imagine admiring her would be like admiring a dehydrated potato. To get a picture of Abuelito’s face, imagine sancha’s mummified face making out with a bigger nosed Walt Disney decaying in a long sarape.

***

Abuelita is an animal who lies under a portrait of herself. She dies on a hospital bed in her bedroom, mumbling, sometimes echoing what’s spoken near hear: “It’s time to change your diapers.” “It’s time to change your diapers.” “Get the syringe.” “Get the syringe.” “You look beautiful today, mommy.” “You look beautiful today, mommy.” “I love you.” “I love you.” Sometimes Abuelita sings off-key songs from her childhood, they’re Mexican songs I’ve never heard, I hope they soothe her in her madness, her dementia, and her face is rotten now, a Gorgon’s, but once, she looked like Louise Brooks. She still looks like Louise Brooks in the quiet portrait hanging from a nail pounded into the wall behind her head.

***

I’ve heard my childhood best friend, Aïda, who I met the first day of kindergarten and am still friends with, compare herself to Meg Ryan. Dad has compared her to the king of grunge. A Nirvana video had come on MTV, and he pointed at Kurt Cobain and said, “Look! Aïda!” To be fair, Aïda is a mash-up of Meg Ryan and Kurt Cobain. Aïda is white, spells her name with its umlaut, and teaches special ed in Atlanta, Georgia. We talk on the phone about teaching, and she told me a troubled girl started a rumor about her: that she’s a lesbian. Aïda suspects the girl started it because she looks like a lesbian. She always has. Aïda looks more like a lesbian than I do, and I’m a lesbian. Aïda’s mom, Josephine, even thought Aïda was a lesbian. She was always trying to convince Aïda it was safe to come out, and Josephine sat her on her bed to have a backwards coming out talk where she tried yanking Aïda out of the closet. “It’s okay to be gay,” Josephine insisted, but Aïda’s problem was asexuality, she had no sexual identity, which must’ve been very disquieting for Josephine. Asexuality speaks no language. It has no narrative. Americans’ primary reference point for asexuality is the alien. Aliens lack genitals. Smooth crotches replace their junk.

***

I have two pet rabbits, Scratch and Sid, who I’m very close to. Sid resembles two things. Some days he’s Kermit the Frog. Others he’s a hound. A regal one. Lying on the tiled hearth of my non-working fireplace. I call Scratch the Scotsman because he has something very Scottish about him, and I picture him in tam o’ shanter and tartan kilt, toting bagpipes. His bushy muttonchops and fluffy chest hair probably bear the responsibility for my projection of Scottish identity onto him. Both rabbits pantomime extreme human emotions with their faces. Since their mouths slope downwards, they always carry disgusted looks. All things disgust them. I disgust them. Their room (they have their own room) disgusts them. Having nothing to do disgusts them. The other emotion they master is pure sadness. They radiate this when they wash their faces. To groom their mugs, they stand on hind legs and raise forepaws to their eyes. They rub these tiny hands along their eyelids and cheeks, plunging into mourning. They have lost something, a child, a baby, hope, it rends the heart to see, and so this is what a rabbit can look like: sadness.

***

I don’t think my girlfriend, Pen, looks like anyone but herself. Pen has told me that when she was young, and a tomboy, people compared her to Kristy McNichol. I can see the Kristy McNichol in Pen’s face when I look at her high school photos, and she’s wearing her bangs in “the claw,” the crusty, monstrous paw girls hairsprayed looming above their foreheads circa nineteen eighty-two to nineteen ninety-two. However, when I look at Pen now, sitting on our couch, minus breasts, she recently had hers chopped off, sporting dirty boxer shorts and hairy legs, I don’t see anyone but her, and I like that.

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About the author

Myriam Gurba

Myriam Gurba- Mexican, Polish, and gay - is used to being the butt of jokes. Her idols include John Candy, Sylvia Plath, and Charles Darwin. She is the author of the book Dahlia Season, which won the Edmund White Award, and she doesn't care what you think or say about her, as long as you worship her beauty.

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  • Adriana Tosti

    HILARIOUS! This piece kicked ass! You are so absolutely brilliant Miss Myriam Gurba! And gorgeous! When we were young and quinceanera eligible, I thought you looked like the poster child for Gerber! Thus, the nickname Gurba-baby came to be. Late 90′s I saw the flick ‘Playing God’ and every time Angelina Jolie popped on the screen I didn’t see no pre-goodwill ambassador A.J., I saw you! And now, Miss Myriam Rare, when I see photos of you, all I see is an absolutely stunningly gorgeous broad with colorful arms and delicious style! P.S. Mrs. Genovesi said to tell you “Arriba! Abajo! Al centro! Pa’ dentro!”