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from the September 2017 issue

House of Beauty

Claire, recently returned to Bogotá after years living abroad, visits The House of Beauty in the city’s posh Zona Rosa and is instantly reminded of everything she hates about Bogotá’s racial and class divisions.
 

1

I hate artificial nails in outlandish colors, fake-blonde hair, cool silk blouses, and diamond earrings at four in the afternoon. Never before have so many women looked like transvestites, or like prostitutes dressing up as good wives.

I hate the perfume they drench themselves in, these woman as powdered as cockroaches in a bakery; what’s worse, it makes me sneeze. And don’t get me started on their accessories—those smartphones swaddled in infantile cases, in colors like fuchsia and covered with sequins, imitation gemstones, and ridiculous designs. I hate everything these waxed-eyebrowed, non-biodegradable women represent. I hate their shrill, affected voices; they’re like four-year-old dolls, little drug-dealer hussies bottled into female bodies as erect as men. It’s very confusing; these macho-girl-women disturb me, overwhelm me, force me to dwell on all that’s broken and ruined in a country like this, where a woman’s worth is determined by how ample her buttocks and breasts are, how slender her waist. I also hate the stunted men, reduced to primitive versions of themselves, always looking for a female to mount, to exhibit like a trophy, to trade in, or show off as a status symbol among fellow Neanderthals. But just as I hate this mafioso world, which for the past twenty years or so has dominated the tastes and behavior of thugs, politicians, businessmen, and almost anyone who has the slightest connection to power in this country, I also hate the ladies of Bogotá, among whom I count myself, though I try my damnedest to stand apart.

I hate their habit of using the term “Indians” to refer to people they consider to be from a low social class.  I hate the obsessive need to distinguish between the formal usted and informal when addressing someone, leaving usted for the servants. I loathe the servility of waiters in the restaurants when they rush to attend to customers, saying “what would you like, sir,” “as you wish, sir,” “on your orders, sir.” I hate so many things in so many ways—things that seem to me unjust, stupid, arbitrary, and cruel, and most of all I hate myself for playing my own part in the status quo.

Mine’s an ordinary story. It’s not worth the trouble of telling in detail. Maybe I should mention that my father was a French immigrant who came to Colombia thanks to a contract to construct a steel mill. My brother and I were born here. Like others of our social class, we grew up here, behaving as if we were foreigners. Wherever we were—our place in the north of Bogotá, or the apartment in Cartagena’s old quarter—we lived our lives surrounded by walls. There were a few summers in Paris, the Rosario Islands once or twice. My life hasn’t been all that different from that of a rich Italian, French, or Spanish woman. I learned to eat fresh lobster as a little girl, to catch sea urchins; by the age of twenty-one I could tell a Bordeaux wine from a Burgundy, play the piano and speak French with no accent, and I was as familiar with the history of the Old Continent as I was unfamiliar with my own.

Security has been an issue for as far back as I can remember. I’m blonde, blue-eyed and five feet seven inches tall, which is getting less exotic nowadays, but when I was a child it was an ace up my sleeve to win the nuns’ affection or to get preferential treatment from my peers. It also attracted attention, and so it made my father paranoid about kidnappings. As luck would have it, we were never targeted. Our money and my peaches-and-cream complexion contributed to my isolation, though lately I’ve started to wonder if I tell myself that to sidestep blame for being an exile in body and soul. No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve always been somewhere else.

At my age, melancholy is part of my inner landscape. Last month I turned fifty-nine. I turn my gaze inward and back on my life far more than I look out to the world around me. Mostly because I’m not interested, and don’t like what I find out there. Maybe they’re the same thing. I suppose my neurosis has something to do with my scathing reading of the here and now, but it’s pretty inevitable. As Octavio Paz would say, this is the “house of glances,” my house of glances, I have no other. I accept my classist nature. I accept, no, more than accept, I embrace my hatreds. Maybe that’s the definition of maturity.

When I left Colombia, mothers still made sure their daughters’ knees weren’t showing; now nothing is left to the imagination. That’s another thing that shocked me when I came back: I felt like some women’s breasts were coming after me with an almost aggressive insolence. At any rate, I never managed to adapt to Colombia, and in France I was always a foreigner.

I didn’t go to Paris just to study; I was fleeing. I was comfortable there a long time, I got married, had a daughter, pursued my career. But then the years pressed in on me like thorns and my memories grew hazy, until the day I understood it was time I came back. Divorced, with fifty-seven Aprils under my belt and a twenty-two-year-old daughter studying at the Sorbonne, I packed my life into three old suitcases and made the trip without her. Aline speaks Spanish with an accent and makes mistakes. She’s stunning. Slim and very tall, with a preference for women over men that might be fleeting or here to stay. Not that it bothers me too much. Though I know that if the poor thing lived here she would have to worry about or at least put up with moralizers, even bullying. Things have changed somewhat, it’s true. At least now you see a few foreigners in the streets and there are more people who think differently. Even so, aside from my friend Lucia Estrada, who I’ve rekindled my friendship with after almost two decades, I’m very alone. Not that I need anyone, not really.

“Colombia is Passion,” according to the poster that greeted me at the airport. And the other day the press reported fifteen dead after a massacre in the south. That passion must be what makes me hate some people so fervently. Señora Urrutia, Señora Pombo, and Señora MacAllister, who invite me to take tea and pray for a sick friend or for the eleven children killed in the latest landslide in the city’s south, where they’ve never set foot. The doormen who take such pleasure in denying everyone entry, the security convoys that charge through the rest of the traffic, the desperate down-and-outs who tear off side mirrors at the traffic lights. Only at work do I reconcile with my compassionate side. Bitterness hasn’t caught up with that part of me yet.

At the start of 2013, I purchased a good apartment on Calle 93, near Chicó Park. I dusted off some corporate shares and bought not just the apartment, but also a plot of land in Guasca, where I intend to build a little house in the mountains. In the same apartment, I set up a consulting room, and, thanks to my credentials, I had patients in no time. I confess I find most of them boring. Their fears are so predictable, and so are all of their complexes, inhibitions, and thought processes. Nevertheless, I was short on other hobbies, and fell back on therapy once more. Fortunately the city has very broad cultural offerings, so every now and then I’m in the mood for a concert or exhibition. I set aside two afternoons a week for such things. Psychoanalysts earn plenty and, given my age and circumstances, I needn’t work too much.

In time, I started taking walks on these free afternoons. There’s no way of getting to the city center without spending two hours stuck in traffic, so I keep to my neighborhood and explore it on foot. On one of these outings I discovered a couple of new bookshops, a splendid pastry place, and a few boutiques. Yet I had no desire to try anything on; my body is growing less and less recognizable to me. Often, my own face surprises me in the mirror. My naked legs are an unlikely map, discolored and forgotten.

It was on one of these strolls around the neighborhood that, after browsing along Avenida 82, I ended up having a cappuccino and a chocolate soufflé in Michel’s Patisserie. I felt guilty, and decided to walk as far as Carrera 15 and then head home, again on foot. After a few blocks, on that clear May afternoon, I stopped in front of a white building with glass doors, which I’d never been inside. La Casa de la Belleza was written in silver lettering. I peeped inside out of simple curiosity. I think it was the name that attracted me. House of Beauty. I was running my eye over the expensive products for wrinkles, hydration, slimming, stretch marks, and cellulite, when I saw her by the reception desk. She was wearing white tennis shoes, a light-blue uniform, and had her hair pulled up in a ponytail. A long, black tress fell down her back. The rings under her eyes didn’t matter, nor did her tired expression: her beauty was forceful, almost indecently so. The young woman oozed life. There was something savage and raw in her that made her seem—how to say it?—real. I’m still not sure if it was the result of discipline and vanity, or simply an inherited gift. I’ll never know. Karen is a great mystery. Even more so in a city like this, where everyone’s appearance reflects who they are; where their attire, speech, and the place they live announce how they will act. The codes of behavior are as predictable as they are repetitive. I was captivated by her gazelle-like figure, but above all by a certain serenity in her expression. I’d bet she does absolutely nothing to look like that. If I could say anything simply by looking at her, it would be that tranquility has nested in her soul.

Perhaps because I stood there, stunned, looking at her as if she were an apparition, she came forward to ask:

Do you need help, señora?

She smiled effortlessly, as if expressing her gratitude at being alive. I was surprised no one seemed to perceive her intrinsic beauty. It was as if the finest orchid had fallen at random into a mud puddle. All around her were women in heels sporting fake smiles. The receptionist was a monstrosity of cherry lips and caked-on blush. Not her. She seemed to rise above it all, to be the reason for the name of the edifice.

“Yes, thank you, I’d like a wax,” I said then, as if I haven’t done my own waxing since I’ve had the ability to reason.

“We’re not too busy at the moment, would you like an appointment now?”

“Yes, now’s fine,” I responded, mesmerized.

“Excuse me, your name?”

“Claire. Claire Dalvard,” I said.

“Please follow me,” she responded. And so I followed.


2

“From a young age, black women straighten their hair with creams, with straighteners, with hairdryers; we chew pills, wrap it up, pin it down, apply hair masks, sleep with stocking caps in place, use a silicone sealer. Having straight hair is as important as wearing a bra; it’s an essential part of femininity. A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do: she has to pluck up her courage, use as many metal clips as it takes. She has to be prepared to endure painful tugging, sometimes for hours on end. It’s wasteful and uncomfortable, but there’s no getting away from it if you want to achieve the silky straight look,” says Karen in her rhythmic cadence.

“And little girls, do they have to do it too?”

“If they’re really little, no, but young ladies—eight, nine—then sure, they all straighten their hair, of course,” she said as she removed the wraps.

Karen told me that when she arrived here, she liked the city. And yes. Many find it beautiful. Many are drawn to the mild sadness that distinguishes it, a sadness that is occasionally interrupted by a bright Sunday morning as radiant as it is unexpected.

She left her four-year-old with her mother in Cartagena and came to Bogotá. A colleague had started up a beauty treatment center in the Quirigua district and offered her a job. She promised her mother she would send money for Emiliano each month, which she has done. Her mother lives in a house in the San Isidro neighborhood with Uncle Juan, a confirmed bachelor who is in poor health. They live mainly on her uncle’s pension, his due for the thirty years he worked in the post office, and on the money Karen sends.

Karen grew up listening to vallenato, bachata and, when she was old enough, champeta. Her mother, barely sixteen years older than Karen, was crowned Miss San Isidro once, which she thought was a sign she would escape poverty, but she ended up pregnant by a blond guy—a sailor, she assumed—who spoke little Spanish. After love paid her mother that furtive visit, the honey-colored girl was born, and she shared not only her mother’s surname, but also her beauty and her poverty.

Doña Yolanda Valdés sold lottery tickets, sold fried fare, was a domestic worker, and bartended in the city. Finally she devoted herself to her grandson, resigned to her arthritis and to the fact that she gave birth to a girl instead of a boy. At forty years of age, she was practically an old lady.

Doña Yolanda’s love affairs resulted in two more pregnancies, boys both times, but such was her luck that one was born dead and the other died after just a few days. Yolanda Valdés said the women in her family were cursed. A sort of evil spell fell over them when they least expected it, and condemned them to inescapable solitude.

Karen remembers seven o’clock Mass on Sundays and waking to the sound of canaries singing. She remembers fish stew at Los Morros beach and taut skin and the dizzying white lights that speckled her field of vision when she floated for a long stretch.

In time, our ritual of shutting ourselves away in that secluded cubicle, sheltered by her youth, the cadence of the sea, and the force of her soft, firm hands, became for me a need as ferocious as hunger.

From the moment I first set eyes on her, I wanted to know who she was. Gently, almost tenderly, I asked questions while she moved her fingertips over my back. That’s how I found out that she arrived in Bogotá in January 2013, the sunny time of year. First she stayed in Suba, in the Corinto neighborhood, where a family rented her a small apartment with a bathroom and kitchenette for three hundred thousand pesos, including utilities. She earned the minimum wage. At the end of the month she didn’t have two pesos to rub together, so she couldn’t send anything home. On top of that, the neighborhood was unsafe and she lived in constant fear. The same morning that a drunk man shot two people for blocking a public road during a family get-together, Karen made up her mind to find another place to live.

She moved to Santa Lucía, to the south, near Avenida Caracas, but now had to cross the entire city to reach the salon where she worked.

When a co-worker mentioned that an exclusive beauty salon in the north was looking for someone, Karen landed an interview. It was the beginning of April. The city was waterlogged from downpours. Karen had been in the new house barely a couple of weeks and took the deluge as a sign of abundance.

The Beauty House is in la Zona Rosa, Bogota’s premier shopping, dining, and entertainment district. From the outside, the white edifice suggests an air of cleanliness and sobriety: part dental clinic, part fashionable boutique. Once through the glass doors, you are transported to a land of women. The receptionist behind the counter greets you with her best smile. Several uniformed employees, polished and smiling, are in the display room offering creams, perfumes, eyeshadow, and masks in the best brands. Magazines are piled on the coffee table in the waiting room.

Karen remembers arriving on the fifth of April at around eleven thirty in the morning. As soon as she crossed the threshold, she breathed deep an aroma of vanilla, almond, rosewater, polish, shampoo, and lavender.

The receptionist, whom she would soon have the chance to get to know better, looked like a porcelain doll. An upturned nose, large eyes, and those full, cherry-colored lips. As she headed past her for the waiting room, Karen wondered what lipstick she used.

At the back, there was a large mirror and two salon chairs, where a couple of women did eyebrow waxing, makeup, and product testing. They were all wearing light-blue pants and short-sleeved blouses in the same color. They looked like nurses, but well-groomed and made up, with impeccably manicured hands and wasp waists. Karen caught sight of the name badge of one who was perfectly bronzed: Susana.

The cleaner also wore a blue uniform, but in a darker hue. She came over to offer Karen an herbal tea. Karen accepted. She saw the tropipop singer known as Rika come in. She was dark and voluptuous with an enviable tan, possibly older than she looked. She was wearing sunglasses like a tiara, had a gold ring on each finger, and lots of bracelets. Like Karen, she announced herself at the reception desk and then took a seat beside her with a magazine.

“Doña Fina is expecting you, you can go in,” said the receptionist.

“Thank you,” said Karen, making sure to pronounce all her consonants to hide her Caribbean accent.

She went up a spiral staircase. She passed by the second floor to reach the third. To her right, three manicure stations, four for eyelashes. In the middle, four cubicles and, at the back, to the left, Doña Josefina de Brigard’s office. Karen approached the half-open door and heard a voice beyond it telling her to come in. In the middle of an inviting room, with skylights that revealed a bright morning, stood a woman of uncertain age. She was dressed in low-heeled shoes, khaki pants, a beige blouse, and pearl necklace, with an impeccable blow-dry and subtle makeup.

“Take a seat,” she said in a low voice.

Doña Josefina watched her walk to the chair on the other side of the only desk in the room. She looked her up and down with her deep green eyes, raising her eyebrows slightly.

Then she looked straight into Karen’s eyes. Karen bowed her head.

“Let me see your hands,” she said.

Karen holds them, a child at primary school all over again. But Doña Josefina didn’t get out a ruler to punish her. She let the young woman’s hand rest on her own a moment, then put on her glasses, examined the hand with curiosity, repeated the operation with the left one, and asked her once more to take a seat.

She, in contrast, paced around the room. If I had that figure at that age, I wouldn’t sit down either, Karen thought.

“Do you know how many years House of Beauty has been running?”

“Twenty?”

“Forty-five. Back then I had three children. I’m a great-grandmother now.”

Karen looked at her waist, delicately cinched by a snakeskin belt. Her pale pink nails. Her almond-shaped eyes. Her prominent cheekbones have something of opal about them, pale and gleaming. The woman standing before her could have been a movie star.

“House of Beauty and my family are all I have. I’m exacting and I don’t make concessions.”

“I understand,” said Karen.

“Yes, honey, you have an I-understand face. You went from an exclusive salon in Cartagena to a run-of-the-mill one in Bogotá. Why?”

“Because I earn more here than there, or at least that’s what I thought when I left the coast.”

“It’s always about the money . . .”

“I have a four-year-old.”

“So does every other young woman.”

“A four-year-old?” Karen said, not thinking.

“I see you’ve got a sense of humor,” said Doña Josefina, abruptly going back to the formal usted. “This is a place for serious, discreet women who are willing to work twelve-hour days, who take pride in their work, and who understand that beauty requires the highest level of professionalism. With your gracefulness, I’m positive you could go far here. You’ll see: our clients may have money, some of them a lot of money, but much of the time they are tremendously insecure about their femininity. We all have our fears, and as we start aging, those fears grow. So, here at The Beauty House we must be excellent at our jobs, but we must also be warm, understanding, and know how to listen.”

“I understand,” said Karen automatically.

“Of course you don’t, child. You’re not old enough to understand.”

Karen kept quiet.

“So, as I was saying, don’t be too quick to answer; if they want to chat, then you chat; if they want to keep quiet, you should never initiate a conversation. Requesting a tip or favors of any nature warrants dismissal. Answering your phone during work hours warrants dismissal. Leaving the salon without seeking prior permission warrants dismissal. Taking home any of the implements without permission warrants dismissal. Holidays are granted after the first year, pension contributions and healthcare are at your own expense. Same with holidays, which are in fact unpaid leave, and can never exceed two weeks, bank holidays included. The files, creams, oils, spatulas, and other implements are at your own expense, too.”

“Can I ask what the salary is?”

“That depends. For each service, you receive forty per cent. If you’re successful and our clients book a lot of appointments with you, after a few months you could earn one million pesos, including tips.”

“I accept.”

Doña Josefina smiled.

“Not so fast, honey. This afternoon I’ve got two more interviews.”

Karen was intrigued that an elegant woman with a well-bred air could switch so smoothly between usted and , showing no respect for convention.

“Then I would just like to say that I’m very interested," she said, opting to stick with the formal usted.

“We’ll have an answer for you in a couple of days.”

When Karen was leaving, Doña Josefina stopped her:

“And one more thing. Who doesn’t like a Caribbean accent? Don’t try to hide it. No one, not one single soul in this country or in any other, likes the way we Bogotans speak.”


© Melba Escobar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Elizabeth Bryer. All rights reserved.

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