The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Beauty by Christina Chiu


This selection, chosen by guest curator Heather Leigh, is from Beauty by Christina Chiu, released by SFWP in 2020. 

Content note: Beauty contains graphic depictions of consensual sexual encounters.

          I arrange for the sitter to arrive by 3 pm, telling her when she arrives that I’ll be home by 9 or 10 pm. There’s a new Star Wars Lego set in the closet. I give it to the sitter, then prepare dinner and run an early bath. When Alex is in his PJs and building the fighter plane, I shower and get ready even though I’m still not certain for what.

            The first thing I try on is a white Theory dress. It makes me look fat. The second is a Helmet Lang jersey dress, but that makes me look frumpy. Finally, I step into what I originally planned to wear to the wedding, a form-fitting, black Herve Leger dress with white piping. But this, too, looks wrong. How could I have possibly considered this dress for the wedding? I wonder now. I walk the dog, give the sitter my cell phone number, along with my permission for Alex to watch TV if things get hairy. Then, I drive straight to The Westchester mall and valet the car at Neiman Marcus.

            Everything seems quieter the moment I step inside. The marble floors. The clear glass counters displaying jewelry and makeup. I ride the escalator up a floor to the apparel section, being careful to avoid the Jeff Jones Collection. Today, there’s a sale. Even Helmet Lang has a rack. My hand is drawn to a tight-fitting black dress: compressed twill, sleeveless, and with the sexiest, yet most elegant back ever. In the fitting room, I try it on. The salesperson zips me up. It’s like skin. I feel my old self coming back. I smooth my hands down the front, turn to check the rear view from over my shoulder, then turn again to check the other side. The body is still there after all.

            “Wow,” she says.

            “How much?”

            “$268.80. Down from $448.”

            “I love it.” I hand her the credit card and my old dress.

            “You’ll wear it out?”

            “Hell, yeah,” I say.

            When she’s gone to the register, I take off my wedding ring and drop it into my change purse. Tonight, I’m not a wife or mother. I’m me. I call the Japanese salon in town to ask if my hairdresser can squeeze me in. He says yes—he’s had a cancellation!—but only if I arrive within the hour. “I’m there,” I say.

            The sales clerk returns with my receipt and a scissor to cut away the tags. I stop next at the shoe department and immediately gravitate toward a Jimmy Choo sandal. It’s made of snake-embossed leather with black contrast piping and a 4” metallic heel. The design and detail, the sheer craftmanship, makes these more—much, much more—than just a pair of shoes. As Armani once said, “To create something exceptional, your mindset must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail.” Here is proof of it. Something like awe fills my chest. This is the power of beauty. It’s my size. I slip the one shoe onto my foot, and, oh, yes. I’m in love. In the full-length mirror, I see a transformation of myself back into the person I once was.

             “How much?”

            “$925.”

            Ouch.

            “This is the last pair,” the salesman says.

            How to justify? Well, I did save more than two hundred on the dress. Besides, I don’t have a pair of sandals like these. And I’m Jeff Jones’s wife. I need to be presentable. I can’t be looking like a mismatched FOB. “I’ll take them,” I say, handing over the card.

            I go 70 mph on the Bronx River Parkway, and arrive at the hair salon with minutes to spare. My hairdresser is a man named Morita.

            His clients refer him to as “the Magnificent.” He wears a long, neat ponytail down his back and sunglasses perched on top of his head. He assesses my hair critically—the way a designer might examine the seams of a coat—and asks what I’d like. It’s been almost a year and a half since my last trim. “Long layers?” I say, which is vague, considering the many kinds of layering techniques. Then, glancing over at the dye-job next to me with plastic wrap around her head, I add, “Highlights.”

            He sets to work, lightening the hair, then cutting while we talk about our kids. I tell him honestly about Alex: not only about how tough it has been, but how clueless my husband is about the situation. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” I say, as he paints and foils the side of my head. “It’s like the real me got lost.” I try not to cry because it’s not Japanese to lose control, but, my mind snags against the prenup and the many other injustices, and the assistant needs to give me a Kleenex. I feel mortified that I may have embarrassed Morita, and yet, I confide that nothing I do, nothing I endure, will ever be enough to prove my love to Jeff. “I’m done trying,” I explain, and once I say it—once it’s out there—it becomes obvious. I’m not in love with Jeff, anymore.

            An hour and a half after he starts, Morita’s angling a hand-held mirror behind me so that I can see the back of my head as well as the front. My normally long, flat hair falls in what seems like waves. The highlights are subtle, but they brighten my entire face. I’m free.

            I smile, and the person in the mirror radiates pure love back at me. “Okaerinasai,” he says, nodding with reverence. “Welcome back.”


Christina Chiu is the author of Troublemaker and Other Saints. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, The New Guard Literary Review, Washington Square, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Troublemaker won the Asian American Literary Award and was chosen for the Alternate Section of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Chiu received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia. She is a founder of the Asian American Writers Workshop, and has worked in the fashion industry as a shoe designer.

Heather Leigh is a queer, disabled writer and editor who has been working within Chicago’s publishing world for more than twenty years, editing poetry for the likes of Curbside Splendor and reading prose and poetry for Uncanny Magazine. She has recently began to focus on her own publication goals between semesters teaching English, writing, reading, and journalism at various midwestern community colleges. She is a three-time SAFTA fellowship recipient, a multiple resident of Firefly Farms, and most recently had a speculative horror story published in Bloodlet, an anthology by CultureCult Press. She lives in Chicago with a retired cage-fighting poet, two rescue cats names after Buffy watchers, enjoying life with the family that caught her by surprise.

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