When her father died, the house was like a crystal in the hillside. Its windows gleamed against the sun rising out of the clouds, off the sea, and there were other houses, larger, more austere, with furnishings and carpets looking into the depth of that round furnace coming up as though it had wings, out from under the clouds and the horizon.

“Where shall we build, Daddy?” she asked. She was six. She stood on tiptoe to see it, the windows and roof and the trees upright and distinct, on the floor of the architect’s model, which was also the earth. “We’re going to build just where we can see something,” her father said. He had a bald spot, red, from which his brown hair radiated, until the barber cut it around his ears, and a bulldog face, with slightly cauliflower ears, but he was her father, and, when it had been built, he said to her, to Florence, “It’s your seventh birthday now, and in a new house.” Florence cried. She didn’t want the children who came to sit around the big brown chair where she would receive her birthday gifts.

The house was so full to her, so full of windows and many doors. She walked through each of them when the truck brought her things from the other house, the old house she would not remember beyond a few details pressed like grass into a book. She opened the windows she could reach—the bathroom windows, standing on the sink—and felt the shapeless breezes coming through them as though contained, and saw the sea shining at her.

Her father had money. There was always someone calling him about his money. And there were tall men with briefcases and handsome faces, smelling sweet because of the aftershave they used, bending into the briefcases, and into papers and paper clips and envelopes large and small, and they called her by her first name, Florence, once they knew it, and her father would pat her on the head before them, and she the smallest living thing in the house, except for the cats and goldfish and the finch. She had no mother. “Your mother passed away,” her father told her, “in having you. And this is her picture. She gave her life for you. What do you think?” Florence gazed at her own ears. She could see them when she pulled her hair back. They were the same as in the photograph, along with the thin, pinched end of her nose, and the two furrows, very neat, of flesh below it. “That’s me,” Florence said to him. But her father said, “No, it isn’t,” and went on a trip.

It was in high school, possibly even before, in middle school, that Florence discovered once and for all that she was ugly. It wasn’t what she saw, so much as what other people saw, and told her. There were plenty of mirrors in the house she lived in with her father, frightfully too many, she had felt, as a child. She was not a child now. But Florence only saw herself in all of them, had always seen only herself. Her classmates gave her the news, the several boys she looked at with books pressed to her breasts or to her side, who always looked at someone else, until she was sure. “I’m ugly,” she said. “You have character,” her father said. “But we all have character,” she answered.

[Continued in Confrontation 117]

 
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