This salmon-pink coral gemstone is smooth and vacant, a hemisphere no seeker of beauty would care to conquer. I had never seen a ring so plain-looking, so unremarkable that now I struggle to recall where I found it. I was thirteen: the age at which many of my female classmates began to collect glittery tiaras and feathery ear-piercings from Claire’s Accessories in order to feel more like Cher from Clueless. I must have liked the ring for its nonconforming attitude, how it seemed destined to be discarded in a free box at an antique flea market. When I first tried it on, the band was tarnished like someone had left it out in the rain. I decided the ring was precious simply because no one else would want it.
I might have associated the ring’s unprepossessing nature with that of Jane, a teenage goth character from my favorite movie at the time, American Beauty. Jane’s mother asks her in their first scene together, “Honey, are you trying to look unattractive?” I admired Jane’s choice to wear baggy pants and a muted flannel— how countercultural, how unfeminine and indifferent. I never would have guessed that, in my thirtieth year, I’d be rubbing this ring’s surface warm in an attempt to draw out some of its talismanic power to make me feel deliberately ugly again.
It’s not that I lack self-esteem— I typically enjoy when strangers try to hide how they are staring at my scars— but often I act in imitation of my former self, the unscarred self who intentionally donned mismatched socks of different lengths and didn’t care to wipe the black nail polish from her cuticles. Impersonation, like keeping objects that belonged to the deceased, is one style of mourning and I let this ring function as a mirror, reflecting those parts of me that are deeply buried but still kicking. Here’s a kick: sometimes I feel bad for the beautiful, how they must feel so invisible. It sounds more bitter than ironic, but I have always suspected that physical attractiveness is more of a curse than a gift, as radiant surfaces tend to deflect from the interior world of composition, limiting the beholder with a superficial understanding of the beheld and amplifying the latter’s capacity for loneliness. In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf writes of the eye: “it rests only on beauty, like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth.” But the eye is animated by imperfections, pattern deviations, and the stretch of incomprehensible shadows.
The ring’s centerpiece looks bruised by the sun with ripples of white; they remind me of those thin, plasma-like creatures of light I’ve seen dancing at the bottoms of swimming pools. The cut of the metal band makes the ring appear braided, anything but solid. This band was not designed to close around the finger, or so I remind myself in order to make peace with the fact that the ring no longer fits me. It’s one of those flexible bands that cinches into position. After seventeen years in my possession, the two halves of the band are pointing in different directions. I’m afraid to bend either side back into place lest the ring loses its historical significance, its talismanic power, its preciousness.
I wore it on my right middle finger: one of ten short but slender, pale, nervous, guitar-blistered fingers which melted in a room on fire during my sixteenth year. The skin and muscle on every one of my right hand’s fingers slid off the bone, settling over time into a shape I’d describe as not very finger-like. Gangrene crept in, ate the charred leftovers. A doctor whose name I do not know decided that my fingers could no longer be called fingers and the only remaining choice was to amputate and then amputate again. I must have owned other rings, although I don’t remember them. Like my fingers, almost every other personal item I owned in those years got incinerated.
I don’t know how this artifact survived: if it got plucked from a pile of ashes in my backyard or if I might have accidentally left it with a friend, away from harm. Funny how the innocence radiating from my ring appears perfectly preserved, and yet, if I listen closely, it teaches me with a grandmotherly wisdom that I was fully equipped for handling the task of shedding my skin, of transforming into something less physically appealing. The younger version of me would have liked to believe that I did so in the name of something deeper than flesh, the kind of beauty that remains unseen, otherworldly, as in the case of my amputated index and pinky. The older version of me knows that I was on no such quest, nothing quite so profound, that I merely awoke in a burning room and flailed with a dumb urgency unlike any other. Isn’t it funny how you never think of grabbing yourself in the event of a house fire?
Maybe the ring was always this crooked and I just can’t remember because my hands, as functional as they were beautiful, could only be seen as a constant blur of activity, whether they were scribbling cursive poetry about how I felt incomplete; strumming a Fender Stratocaster to songs about unbelonging; or painting acrylic self-portraits that could pierce holes in my nonexistent viewer’s soul, demanding their fullest attention. It doesn’t matter. Crooked or straight, the metal band still shimmers. I turn it over and over in the glow of my desk lamp, expecting to see some hidden feature.
My fingers take turns probing the void. I try to slide it over my thick scar tissue, to force it over my deformed joints, but the thing gets stuck at every twist. Recently, someone grimaced as they admitted to disliking the use of the word “deformed” in the context of my hands, as if a failure of description could further condemn me to the permanent indecency of my condition! I decide that the word— like my unglamorous ring that no longer fits me— has more value than any of its preferable counterparts, for anything with which we might decorate ourselves only distracts us from the exactness of what’s undeniably there. Or in my case, no longer there.
Yet here I am using a handful of words as a compass in my search for something that feels irretrievable. As I twirl the ring around the tip of my left middle finger, hoping to reconnect with the parts of myself that have detached, the ring’s unpolished haze intimates the contours of my silhouette, and the shimmering negative space beyond inspires me to wonder if the ring can truly be said to symbolize loss if I had originally used it for contradicting beauty. As in a dream, I hear the ring whisper: your flesh is both the compass and the territory.
What does it mean? I ask my mother. She has no clue what the ring is trying to tell me, but she reminds me that the ring was hers, she gave it to me, it was always this crooked, and she thinks that both the ring and her daughter are beautiful.
I would thank her, but as it turns out, voids fit perfectly inside voids.
About the Author
Dina Peone is a writer and artist from Saugerties, New York. She teaches nonfiction at the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago. She is currently at work on a memoir about a house fire that disfigured and disabled her when she was a morbid teenager.