beauty-youthIt begins with a man, an older man, and he is nothing like your father. He is tall and kind and has soft hands and a lot of money. He waits for you to grow up. You are his housekeeper, his running partner, his intern. He is the bank president, a private pilot, your high school prom date’s dad. You are his muse, he tells you, though he is not an artist.

He takes you with him to an art opening in Chicago, where you meet other middle-aged bankers and their wives and nibble on thick slices of Brie and learn about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. He flies you to New York City on your birthday to see RENT on Broadway. He flies you to the Bahamas, over aquamarine and turquoise and slate, where you stay in a resort and drink cocktails with tiny umbrellas on the beach even though you are underage. He takes you to the Cinque Terra in Italy, where you hike from village to village as he snaps photos of you gazing out at the Mediterranean Sea from stone windows in abandoned cathedrals.

Years pass. You are 17, 19, 23. He invites you to go cross country skiing in northern Minnesota one Valentine’s Day weekend, and on the first night he gives you a necklace made of leather and polished seashells made by a local craftswoman, because he knows you like that sort of thing, and you drink too much whiskey and fall asleep on the couch. He goes to bed alone and the next morning he pouts, and so you go snowshoeing by yourself, angry at him for his expectations, silent for the entire car trip home.

Some of these roles and titles and trips overlap but you keep the details to yourself. Even your diaries from those years are full of denial. He’s like an uncle, you tell your friends, your sisters, your college boyfriend, even. But it’s not true and you know it’s not true. You are learning something about the economy of beauty and youth, and you know that he wants you for himself and this knowledge feels like power and this power feels like confidence and the view is nice from up here, perched upon the pedestal he has built for you.

After you graduate from college, you move to a city where you don’t know anyone, where you no longer have to worry about your reputation, and you drink more than you have before, and you sleep with more men in six months than you thought you would in your entire life. He visits you there, as he has visited you in each of the places you have lived, helping you replace fluorescent light bulbs and filling your car up with gas and watching you open a housewarming gift—a cherry red Le Creuset tea kettle here—and you take him out dancing with your friends. You get drunk and you talk too much, you can’t remember what you said, and the next day he says, How can you give your body to men who barely know you? I know you. I want to know all of you. For a while, you don’t talk to him.

But then you call, or he does, and a year or so later, when you move back home, back to the Midwest, for a job, he invites you to dinner. He takes you out in his new airplane, convinces you to meet him at the farmer’s market along the riverfront one Thursday, and it is then, after all these years, that you say fuck it, and so you do, you fuck him. He had believed it would be different for you somehow, that the two of you would be making love, that he would be teaching you that there is a difference between making love and fucking, a term he has a hard time saying out loud, a Midwestern farm boy at his core. But it turns out he was wrong.


Elizabeth K. Brown is a nonfiction student in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis. This is her first publication.

Artwork by Allison Dalton