By Linda Marshall
She’d flown back to St. Louis for her mother’s funeral, her sadness accentuated by their often difficult relationship; no fixing it now. It was in the past, yet Kate was obsessed with reaching ground truth, even after all these years. Phrases her mother had said to her jockeyed for space in her overactive mind: Stop analyzing things so much. Don’t dwell on it. You think about things too much. A never-ending supply of not-so-helpful mantras from which to choose, nonstop reminders rolling through her mind like news captions, those omnipresent chyrons. Kate supposed her mother had been right; she did have a tendency to stew about real or imagined issues, giving them free rein longer than was healthy.
The day after the funeral Kate had stopped by a local grocery store to get a few things to tide her over: bread, milk, cereal, and something from the salad bar for dinner that night. Except for her siblings and a smattering of friends, she’d kept up with very few people after moving to the East Coast fifteen years before, so she was startled to hear a woman’s voice behind her, calling out to her on the parking lot as Kate made her way to the car with her small bag of groceries.
“Wait! Wait!” the woman cried out, breathless to catch up with Kate. Could they have gone to high school together, Kate wondered, or maybe she was the friend of a sibling? Or was she confusing her with someone else? She didn’t look familiar, but the woman was frantic to reach Kate, so she stopped and waited for her.
Catching her breath when they were only a few feet apart, the stranger blurted out, “Has anyone ever told you you look exactly like Rosie O’Donnell?!” Later, Kate would wonder why this stranger had felt compelled to share this information with her when, no offense to Rosie, she hadn’t been comparing Kate to a glamorous movie star or supermodel or well-known writer, had she? How was Kate supposed to react? And she’d just buried her mother, so her mood was already dark, although this woman had no way of knowing that, she supposed.
“No. No one has ever told me that,” Kate replied, trying to remain polite, forcing a small smile, shifting her groceries to the opposite hip since it looked like they might be discussing her resemblance to the comedienne for a while. Then, doing precisely what her mother would have warned against, she ran through possible reasons the woman might have had for making the comparison. Was it Kate’s weight? Her mother had spent a lifetime pointing out Kate’s extra pounds, so this was an easy, ready-made conclusion since, like Kate, Rosie was a bit overweight. Perhaps more benignly it was because they were both brunettes? That was so commonplace, though. After all, most women were brunettes, even most the blondes she knew. It had to be something physical, though. It couldn’t be that the woman thought Kate was funny like Rosie (although that would have been nice), or that their accents were similar (which they weren’t, since Rosie was from Long Island and Kate was from the Midwest).
Kate weighed the various possibilities as the woman rambled on and on. If a friend had made the same comparison, Kate might have behaved differently, drilled the unsuspecting interlocutor until some sort of detente was reached. “Why did you say that? What about me could possibly remind you of Rosie O’Donnell? What were you thinking, saying that? Do you consider that to be a compliment? How would you like it if I told you you looked exactly like some random person?” Unfortunately, however, you couldn’t say those things to a stranger; there were certain protocols to follow.
Kate’s final words to the woman (who continued to stare at her, presumably waiting for Kate’s epiphany on the matter) were, “Thank you,” but she said it like a question, her intonation rising on “you,” as though to say, Should I be thanking you? She later wondered why she’d thanked the woman. Because, in fairness, it was really a neutral comment the woman had made. “You look like Rosie O’Donnell,” could just as easily have been “You look like Susie Sunshine, or Betty Boop or Jane Doe.” No, I don’t. I look like myself. I look like Kate. Why would you run across the grocery store parking lot at breakneck speed to share this thought with me, Kate really wanted to ask her after the encounter was over. But that was always the way with Kate, thinking of clever things to say afterwards.
Years after this incident, Kate still brought it up with friends occasionally, clearly hoping they would respond defensively with, “Oh, no! What an outrageous thing to say! You don’t look anything like Rosie O’Donnell! You’re much more slim/pretty/fashionable, etc.” And normally they did defend Kate, out of politeness or loyalty, she guessed. Finally, though, her grown daughter (who’d heard her mother share this same story one too many times), had begged her to stop telling it. “Everyone knows you don’t look like Rosie O’Donnell, Mom, so stop telling the story!” So Kate had stopped, begrudgingly, although she was reminded that it was this same daughter who was sometimes compared to Reese Witherspoon, an obviously attractive person. Regardless, Kate didn’t stop thinking about it, didn’t stop “dwelling” on it, “analyzing” it, as her mother would rightfully have accused her. And then one day it happened again, years after the first incident.
Kate was having her hair cut and colored at a swank DC salon. The stylist always made her poker-straight hair look poofy at the end of the appointment, hairspray an integral part of this process, and this day was no different. Afterwards, he handed her a mirror and had her look at the back, her hair a mass of twirls and curls that would wilt before she arrived home.
Looking through the mirror, beyond her reflection she noticed the resident makeup artist staring back at her. He’d reportedly been a makeup artist to Hollywood starlets back in his heyday. Kate had met him her first visit and he’d immediately sized her up, made suggestions for jazzing up her look, for “modernizing” it, as he’d put it, not realizing just how long and hard she’d already worked that day to look as good as she did, aware of the clientele the salon attracted. Thereafter she had avoided him at appointments, hoping he’d forgotten her, knowing he’d think she wasn’t measuring up since she’d failed to follow up on his numerous (and expensive) suggestions. So why was he staring at her now?
“You know something? he finally said, breaking the silence. “You look just like Elizabeth Taylor in this old movie I saw recently… What was the name of it?” He clicked his fingers together, still staring at her, as though the answer lay hidden in Kate’s new hairdo. Here we go, she thought to herself. Not again. And, in the case of Elizabeth Taylor, it was complicated. The man’s comments could have any number of interpretations since the actress had been in many movies during her long life, her appearance changing radically through the years and depending on the role she was playing. Rosie O’Donnell had been a much easier nut to crack than Elizabeth Taylor would be.
It was unlikely he was referring to National Velvet or Lassie Come Home since Elizabeth Taylor had been an adolescent, really, a child, in both movies. What about Cleopatra, though? Or Father of the Bride? Butterfield 8? Cat On A Hot Tin Roof? Those would all be welcome comparisons, she thought, and was briefly hopeful. Elizabeth Taylor had been beautiful, radiant in those films, even as tempestuous Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Kate would be thrilled to be compared to the actress in any of those movies. But then she remembered others: Taming of the Shrew or, — Oh my God — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In the latter movie, her character constantly shouts at her husband, belittling him, picking fights with him, angry, out of control, her face wild and contorted in many of the scenes, evidence of her great acting ability, but making her look unattractive. Kate had watched the movie years before and thought the role she played was horrible: she looked dumpy, was loud, drunk, mean, aggressive. Please don’t let that be the Elizabeth Taylor movie I remind him of, she silently prayed, waiting for the verdict, watching the makeup guru still trying to conjure up the name of the elusive movie.
“Sandpiper! That’s it! That’s the name of the movie! You remind me of Elizabeth Taylor in Sandpiper!” he finally announced. Everyone in the salon was now listening, curious about this strange guessing game the two were playing. Kate wasn’t familiar with that movie, but was relieved he hadn’t said Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Taming of the Shrew. After all, she was still recovering from the Rosie O’Donnell comment all these years later; she didn’t need any more baggage.
Not sure whether or not to thank the makeup artist (she had to check the movie out first, didn’t she?) she thanked him anyway, to be gracious, but felt ambivalent, thinking she needed to wait before deciding whether it warranted a thank you.And then she quickly left the salon, afraid he’d change his mind about the movie he was remembering, maybe even correct himself.
Back in her car, quickly tossing her purse on the floor, she googled Sandpiper-movie —Elizabeth-Taylor on her phone, sighing with relief at the image that appeared of an older, but still attractive, Elizabeth Taylor. But, still reeling from the anxiety generated by the makeup artist’s throwaway comment, she realized how — again — she’d put so much stock in the hands of a relative stranger, allowed his casual remark to deeply affect her.
Kate wondered why so many people — herself included — felt the need to compare friends, acquaintances, even strangers to someone else: a sibling, a parent, even a celebrity. “You look exactly like your mother/your sister/your aunt/Rosie O’Donnell,” as though everyone needed a second someone to supplement their flagging identity, to prop them up.
Driving back to her Maryland home, though, Kate suspected that if it happened again she would react the same. Someone new would join the ranks of Rosie and Elizabeth, take her place among Kate’s growing team of phantom companions.
Breaking her reverie to stop at a popular chain restaurant for a late lunch, she walked up to the counter and ordered a cheeseburger after studying the overhead menu board. Digging money out of her purse, she handed it to the woman behind the counter and then did a double take; the woman looked exactly like the actress in a popular new sitcom. “Oh, my gosh. Did anyone ever tell you you’re the spitting image of —” she started to say, but then caught herself, her voice trailing off as the employee looked at her expectantly. What am I doing?! she gasped, thinking to herself, I’m just as bad as everyone else.
“Never mind,” she said to the waiting woman. “I was confusing you with someone else, I guess. Here’s my money.” And then, after thanking her, Kate scurried outside with the paper bag containing her lunch, as though fleeing a crime scene.
About the Author:
Linda Murphy Marshall is a multi-linguist and writer with a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature, a Master’s in Spanish, and an MFA in Creative Writing. She has traveled extensively throughout Africa in her work for the U.S. government as a specialist in African languages: during a war, a coup, following the terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya, and in support of a U.S. Presidential visit to Tanzania. She co-authored a book on the South African “click” language, Xhosa, and is an English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese docent at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Her nonfiction and fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Maryland Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bacopa Literary Review, Wanderlust Online, and Storgy, as well as American Literary Review, where she was an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Fiction Contest. In addition, she was a reader for Hunger Mountain, and currently reads for Fourth Genre. She is also a translation editor at the Los Angeles Review.