What is Beautiful?

Nonfiction by Theresa Lin

two hands reaching

Or, put differently, What makes art great? you ask me.

The creation of new intelligence, I say. The expression of deeper truths through novel articulations.

But what is new? you ask. We sit facing one another in your spare Hell’s Kitchen apartment eating dinner from the coffee table. Light plays off the parquet floors. New to you, you mean? 

New, to me, yes, but collectively new, too. Take for instance, Patti Smith’s imagination of Robert Mapplethorpe’s love as the magnification of her best, inherent qualities. Do we often perceive love as magnification? Yet, suddenly, the flash of that word magnification as the enlivenment of our natural soul is irrefutable.

What if art reveals a new truth through common language?

Is that even possible?

We go back and forth until I am exhausted and impatient to move on.

Months later, when I meet your mother, she says your need to talk as a child was incessant. If you found her attention waning, you would climb onto the counter or onto the chair and turn her face back toward you.

You are turning my face.

Weeks later, you write me, Suddenly life before feels remote. Somewhere we have never traveled, gladly beyond.

Remote. Precisely how the past feels coming into love.


By the time we meet, I have been lonely for thirty days. I spent my 27th birthday two weeks prior sweating through layers of clothes in my Harlem studio. With the taste of soap in my mouth, I taught into a screen where I watched my own face and read my students’ uninspired answers in the chat. It’s hard to be motivated, one student messages me. Everything feels unreal.

Masked, I waited in a distanced line outside Key Foods only to see stars stumbling down the bare aisles. Paw marks through dust where toilet paper and bread would normally be. I needed medicine. Something to bring down the fever. But the pharmacy was a 15-minute walk in the other direction and it was difficult to breathe. My skin felt like a metal spoon being dipped in boiling water. At home, on my back again, the sheets were yellowing and smelled of my own dried sweat. I listened for someone to walk past the mail slots next to my apartment door. Someone help me, I thought. I couldn’t think on any one issue for long. Sleep was pulling at me. Eventually, I heard someone walk past and I opened the door. A masked woman in sleep shorts and medical gloves was disinfecting her packages with a can of Lysol. I tried to be quick as I asked her for Tylenol. I worried I might be scaring her through this strange imposition. I realized I was admitting to being sick and jeopardizing her own health with my door open, my standing there. Of course, she said. She spoke very loudly, magnanimously. She retreated upstairs. An hour passed.

I had scared her, I thought. I tried to sleep again. Then a knock on my door. Standing already close to the base of the stairs, she explained that she had been sterilizing the items she packed into the box at my feet: canned soup, fever suppressant, a Ziploc of disinfecting wipes.

I’m Leecia, she said.

Months later, after I have gotten better, she and I get drinks before I move out of Harlem and in with you.

Your skin looked translucent that day I came to the door, she said.

That sounded right. I had never felt so badly before. But worse than the weakness, the difficulty to breathe, and the metallic-feeling across my skin, was the quiet. Alone in bed, the hours unraveled. I slept for half the day then woke in the night to bright white emanating from the courtyard lights of the building behind me. They made eerie shapes of what little I owned in the apartment—my tall stacks of books on the floor, my bicycle, my dresser, two stools—so that even nighttime did not feel expansive but treacherous. There was no reprieve from fear. I slept again, listened as the particles in my apartment knocked soundlessly against one another and nearly enveloped me whole.  

By the time we meet, those who could leave the city have already departed for the beaches or the suburbs. New York has quickly shuttered. We have entered a deep sleep.

Starved of interaction, people begin seeing faces in inanimate objects, reports The New York Times.

pile of boxes

Confined to our homes, our connection to place becomes abstracted. This is especially true of the city, where one could only justify the indignity of living in such an expensive shoebox by laying claim to the arts, the exceptional food, and the brightness of other people as the extension of their homes. Each square city block is a neighborhood unto itself, writes E.B. White.

In an effort to reconstitute our link to the city, the NYT organizes a series of virtual architectural tours through various neighborhoods, which are desperate if not informative. We decide to walk the buildings along Park Ave. We meet outside of the Seagram Building, for which you’ve written in your nail-biter’s scrawl on notebook paper that you folded to fit in your jeans pocket: refined, authoritarian, rigorous, calming, formal. We look up at the expanse of corporate black still lit up from within, a foggy yellow. Suddenly, towering over us are vestiges of a former life. Not a sound besides our laughter—we walk north toward 601 Lexington, the former Citi Corp Center: awkward, crazy, loud, brash, behemoth—and the subways hurtling beneath us like death’s chariot.

Every Wednesday, I bike to you just as I had that first time we met in person on the steps of Lincoln Center, and it feels like we are the only ones left on the island. We talk excitedly, the whole length around the Onassis Reservoir about books and music and our families, we bike along the Hudson, through the West Village and sit out in Washington Square Park until near dark.

a neon sign at night

Then, on Fridays, I come over, since I am living in the smallest studio you’d ever seen, and we cook elaborate dinners by our standards: pierogis, the dough rolled out with an empty wine bottle, rib-eye steak and potatoes, seared scallop with butternut squash puree. You take me in bed, the warmth of the apartment rising. Each time, becoming newly familiar with the shape of my back, the hair along the muscular folds in your broad chest and along your torso. We turn your couch to face the desktop monitor, slightly larger, you insist, than your laptop screen, and we watch movies and drink wine and make love again as we wait for the rose apple pie or chocolate espresso tarte to finish baking. The cooking takes us into the early hours of the morning—where do we have to be? You hadn’t cooked a single meal the year before, you’d stayed late at the office nearly every night, so we find ourselves often improvising. One night, we halve fettuccine noodles to boil in a small saucepan for lamb Bolognese. The stores have already closed for curfew. Of course, you do not own a can opener but I need the San Marzano peeled tomatoes. You emerge from the bathroom with the opened can and red juice spattered across your shirt. What you achieve with a butter knife! Eating from your coffee table, I have been lonely for longer than thirty days, I realize. I have been lonely my whole life.

For weeks we do this. It is the happiest either of us has ever been.

a plate of baked apples

The first time we meet, you are surprised that I am quick to smile. In the pictures I posted online, I came across as cool, you tell me later.

Really? I ask.

As in cold, aloof, you say.

You walk up to the steps of Lincoln Center as we agreed, and it is just the two of us. Our lives are just starting against the background of the end of the world, it feels.

Your legs are skinnier than I imagined. I like the way I can see your eyes behind the brown tint of your shades. How they linger resolutely on me. I like the texture in your voice. How easily you laugh. Neither of us withholding.

Did I find you or you find me?

Two years later, a few weeks before our wedding, we come out from dinner around 66th and look upon Lincoln Center. We run across the street heavy with wine and butter to catch the changing light.

How did you first see me? I ask. 

Sitting in the center of the stairs, you say.

And you were walking towards me, I say. You were very eager.

The sun was high that day. The fountains in the courtyard were emptied of water and barricaded then. Even outdoor spaces were shut down in those early months of the deep sleep.

You begin to walk toward me just as I remembered.

You have to walk even more excitedly, I call out to you. Try again, but this time, take even larger strides.

Really? you say, already turning around to restart.

Yes, I say.

It is funny to think of the beginning now, how fated even small details feel.

On another night, close to this one, What are those qualities I magnify in you? I ask. We are lying in bed.

This question now? you say, nearly asleep.

You’re right, another time.

But you humor me. You keep the light on.

Thoughts are running through my head all the time, you say. Now, I don’t have to keep them to myself. I can share them with you, and you complicate them, challenge them. You make me feel safe so that I can share with you.

You turn the light off.

Tell me another time, you say.


A year into quarantine and society resigns into a cold-sweat malaise. There are now over 500,000 dead in the U.S. alone and Texas goes dark for four days. In Japan, suicides among women increase by 15% in the last year and everywhere, no answer about what will become of the unemployed, their salons, their stages, and their restaurants boarded up indefinitely. There is no distraction from suffering, no distinction between distant loss in the external world and the private loneliness that has long since settled deep in the bones.

Of this present moment, in the aftermath of the height of the pandemic, it is still uncertain how or if at all this disaster will teach us something or if it will have just been suffering.


I shut my eyes after work and by the time I open them again, lights are coming on in the apartments along Broadway. At the foot of our bed, you are still reviewing documents and you haven’t noticed that I’ve awoken. Your small desk faces a window and silently, I watch as you appraise yourself in the dark reflection, your handsome visage overlaying the watery outline of the buildings. You narrow your eyes and adjust your glasses, perhaps even admiring yourself. It is a flash, but I see you in the very moment you see yourself, emerging from your steady typing. No sooner do I catch this moment do you turn back to your work and the moment passes.

We have come to live in a vacuum of a world and to catch new glimpses of each other still, I think is incredible.

It is almost a year now that we have spent nearly every moment together. We’ve moved into our new apartment on the Upper West Side. We feel a little like children playing house. You sit on the window ledge and look over Broadway for a while. You turn back, smiling over your shoulder. You and I in our cult of togetherness.

You lean over me as I work and kiss me hard. I follow you into our bedroom and watch you through my legs. A flash of the green of your eyes. You’re peeking you say.

I lead you up, first to your knees with my hand on your face, then against the headboard. I like to watch your eyes and face grow soft, your body under mine.

I want to taste you, you say. You breathe me in.

Framed between my legs, only those green eyes and the corners of my breasts. Again I see you anew.


One day, I know I won’t be able to help it anymore, and I will have to marry you, right then and there, you come to say.


I’m not sure if it’s because I am looking at my face in Zoom for hours every day or whether my body is rapidly aging despite the stillness of time, but I begin to notice my hair falling out. It seems that it does not fall out gradually but in despairing waves. Some become wiry and others shock white, then not at all, so that at every step of the way, I lament the present and long for the past.

I start using Rogain. Minoxidil stains the sheets and pillows a sickly yellow. When you first put it on, it flows everywhere, partly because there is no hair to catch it, I think.

I begin measuring the minutes passing in hairs fallen.


I pass what I think must be everything. Then, soon after I go to bed, I wake to wetness that soaks through the sheets. I call for you. I am weighted down, cramping, blood drips all over our floors.

Your leg, you say. I clean myself the best I can and lie down again. You wipe the floor and I can hear the sink running in the bathroom as I fall asleep again. Sleep, coming over me so heavy. You are scrubbing the mess from my silky pajamas.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I keep saying. The sheets have turned cold. Still, I pull them up to my neck, what choice do I have, I can’t get warm.


People in literature are described as wholly beautiful or not. But this is rarely true that someone is or is not beautiful. There are the angles where they glimmer between both and they look quite desperate and you wonder what their true nature really is, beauty or its absence.


We are like Icarus, you once said, flying too close to the sun, our lives too good that the universe will soon demand restitution.


Suffering is often much less visible than violence, I think.

Last night we talked again about the pregnancy, about the fullness of my breasts and how my entire body seemed to be pressing up against its outer limits, vibrating against the frame that could scarcely contain its longing.

It affected me more than I thought it would. If you said that you wanted to keep it, we would have. It would have been something we did together, you say.

I know. We never wanted a baby though, I say.


That something so wonderful could result in something equally wonderful but unwanted.


You can think about something changing or ending for a long time and still be surprised by the suddenness of its coming on. The irreversibility of that decision.

You do not doubt that it is the right thing to have happened, but are nonetheless shocked that it is, in fact, happening, after all, as sudden as chalk depicting words and detailed images is washed away.


Alone, I press a hand against my hairline. The hairs are miniaturizing, I deduce from what I read online. I look at hundreds of pictures of other women’s hairlines on the web. I zoom into the foreheads of even my friends, especially my friends. When I pull my own hair back, the hairs are varying lengths like strands of unwieldy straw in a fraying rope.


What are the larger questions that my personal experience asks?

Is this a useless disaster, where I haven’t learned anything at all?

Sometimes I feel that we’ve moved too quickly because that period when we were just ourselves, alone, is gone.

The whole thing was a surprise—the pregnancy, the nausea, later the blood.

All of it was so real and yet simultaneously happening external to me. I guess the reason for this is that we knew that if we were to ever have a child, it would be with each other, that the child would be born of the most ecstatic and deep-felt love. Still, when it came time to decide, there was no debate about our not keeping it. We were foremost in love with each other and our present lives. Privately, I think each of us wishes the other felt more strongly about the idea of starting a family, if only because to forge ahead, just the two of us, seemed at the time largely uncharted. A baby would have been a beautiful direction.


Oh sweetie, you say, your one hand resting on the handle of our door. You are lit by the dim glow of the bedside lamp. I turn it off and you close the door so that I stare into the darkness.

I can’t be sure about the nature or source of the fever, whether it is part of the aftershock of the abortion or if it is a new infection. If it is an infection, I will feel deeply ashamed that I had convinced you to sleep with me so close to the procedure. But you don’t understand the ravenous feelings that come over you in that state.

You leave because I ask you to, but my feeling of aloneness is astounding. We are never like this—distant. For a flickering moment, I wish you could also feel the fever and worry about the bleeding. The worry that keeps me up at night. I don’t want to stain the sheets again. I want admission in your complicity in getting us here.

Instead, the sound of a movie drifts beneath the crack of the door and the darkness is punctuated with your laughter.

Even if you lied right next to me, I think, you would not know the burning up of my body, how badly my body seeks absolution of what we created together.


The fever passes in the night. Again the sheets are soaked, this time from sweat. I do not panic anymore about the outcome. I still have my mind and, in some strange way, this experience of suffering feels like a penance of sorts for not having restrained myself from the passion so soon after the bleeding or not having put first my own long-term health.


Of the whole experience, it feels like running in circles, with nothing to show for it, in the way of a baby, compassion, or regret.

I open the refrigerator. It is empty, but I am not hungry anyway. A dull ache in the stomach replaces the desire for food.

I don’t know how some pregnant women function. For those weeks that I was, the nausea was unbearable. Fortunately, school was still closed, otherwise I’m not sure how I would have gone on without being able to rest or lie down when the whole world took on a jaundiced feeling like aching bones. The days had acquired a sickly pallor. From the time I woke until sundown, I was couch-ridden as a shallow nausea and chill overtook any chance of thinking. I shut my eyes, resentful of how desultory I’d allowed my days to become.


When it is already over, you brush my cheek, we are lying very close to each other, our faces nearly touching.

You must have felt all alone, you say. We only had each other to begin.

Your eyes, downcast, in these moments, I feel a terrible shame. I am faced with my score-keeping. Of course, you had always been there if I needed anything, but I never asked you. You were in the other room as I rested.

Still, I could have lied beside you, that would have been better, you say.

That’s all I wanted, I think to myself. Why didn’t I ask you? While it was all going on, I didn’t think that it would do any good to share in my suffering, I say. Thinking on it now, yes, it would have been better. Maybe I didn’t ask anything of you to have reason to hate you and your unchanged life, newly separate from mine.


I wake every morning almost immediately. Some mornings when I am not in a rush or compelled by the gnawing feeling to sit down to write, I watch you for a few moments as you sleep. Sensing me as you come to, you draw me into your chest with your eyes still closed. I lean my weight against the inside of your arm and imprint myself into your musty scent. The softness of your face. With what little light falls around the blinds, I trace the silhouettes of the objects in our bedroom with my eyes and am lulled by the rise and fall of your chest. What is beautiful, I say.

You run your hand through my hair, sweeping it from my face, and in half-sleep still smile faintly. Sweet girl, you say, kissing the top of my head. I catch the sour-sweet of your exhale. But I like the smell of your mouth in the morning. What is beautiful, you say.

We hold each other largely.

At first, we think we will go to the courthouse, that it will just be me and you. Vows, you say, should be private. What business do other people have hearing them? I buy a short white dress soon after, ready for whatever afternoon we decide on. I don’t remember whose idea it is to have a wedding. I think it comes to us imagining all the places our love could go in being received by our friends and family. I still wear the short dress at the wedding—the trim along the bottom hem dotted with small daisies, the sleeves of appliquéd chiffon meant for just the two of us.

The day in early May is cold and raining. One of the only amidst two weeks of balmy evenings. I wait in a darkened room looking onto the garden where our guests file in. Your grandmother’s bright orange hair bobs above the stripe of frosted glass. The rush I feel watching the familiar faces in the bright light of impending rain. Their faces expectant, of the two of us. From where I stand, I see you in the backroom across the garden waiting in the wings. You are fixing the cuffs on your sleeve, preparing to meet me. The din of excited conversation settling into drink, the anticipation of two souls rejoining.

A space decorated with flowers

There are many images that night that I want to hold onto—Bala’s dirty martini, Drink, he said, before the walk down the aisle, Lauren’s platinum blonde hair in waves against her red silk dress, the dark wet ivy that had exploded along the garden walls where we dined, magenta orchids, vibrant green anthurium, peach colored blooms the size of small hands. Not even the rain, has such small hands. How Kevin noted the swaying of the branches during our vows, the rain beginning to fall gently as you spoke. A crow squawked too. Could it be your father? Bala speculated. He could feel him there. I know he was. Wax beading along candle spines, marking time’s improbable passing, stilted as they are in glass. Carol and Aly laughing at the end of the night in the bar lit by votive candles, Bella, her child’s face, slipping out for a smoke after a long shift as my grandmother’s expressionist, you and I sitting with the typewriter poet backgrounded by the lamplit city street: Dialogue as long as avenues, she writes. If I were to place you in a tapestry, everybody would want to love you, and lucky that I so completely, already, exuberantly do. Later, you swaying in your brown mohair suit, the thrum of your electric guitar reverberating across my liquid dress. A chorus of voices showering us, you’re a dream to me.

The night goes so quickly, everyone always says this. But it goes even quicker than they warn. A wedding is a very tender and emotional day, but I think it is far too fast to ever be romantic. I look at you, and I imagine other people considering how I look at you. In photos, afterwards, I see you and I together in the moment that we are only ever partially present in, we look romantic. There is an element of performance for the bride and groom, and this openness to let others into our love. We were hesitant of this at first, but I think our guests floated home that night convinced not only of our love, but of love at all. I had forgotten how much people need the reassurance of love’s existence.


I meant to tell you, much earlier, how it is you magnify me. I feel like I am running alongside you, ecstatically. I am breathless but I don’t tire.

You wrote to me once, This morning I walked around Riverside, it was calm and humid. I didn’t have headphones in. I looked around at the trees, buildings, monuments, our neighbors, and tried to see the world as you do. I tried to find beauty and detail in unexpected things—how the light fell on stone, how soil took up water—to imagine how you feel these things, to carry your heart in mine, this gift you’ve given me.

As it goes, beauty fades. But here, you speak of the indelible capacity to live out what is beautiful.

My most powerful act of love has been made possible because of the love you continue to show me.

I am eager to seek those things of beauty with you.

In loving you, to become a thing a beauty.

a couple taking a picture of their refleciton


p. 1      “Somewhere we have never traveled, gladly beyond” E.E. Cummings, somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond, Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage, Liveright Classics, 2013

p. 3      Photo series for “Faces, Faces Everywhere” George Etheredge, The New York Times, 2020

p. 4      “Each square block is a neighborhood unto itself” E.B. White, “Here Is New York,”  Essays of E.B. White, White Literary LLC, 2006

p. 4      “refined, authoritarian, rigorous, calming, formalawkward, crazy, loud, brash, behemoth,” “Classic Skyscrapers Define New York. Take A Virtual Tour,” The New York Times, 2020

p. 6      “Did I find you or you find me?” Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place,” 1982

p. 9      “cult of togetherness” David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake,” The Atlantic, 2020

p. 14    “What is beautiful?” Alice Rose George, “What Is Beautiful,” Bomb Magazine, 2004

p. 15    Photo by Ellie Patterson, Eloise Photography, 2022

p. 15    “…small hands. Not even the rain, has such small hands…”E.E. Cummings, somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings,  edited by George J. Firmage, Liveright Classics, 2013

Theresa Lin received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia, where she was awarded the De Alba Fellowship and taught undergraduate writing. She has lectured at Fordham and Rutgers. She is currently working on a novel about a woman who liberates herself from the constraints that have come to define her life in 1950s Taiwan, as well an experimental collection of personal essays that considers how we negotiate memory and identity. She recently moved from New York to Los Angeles where she lives with her husband. 

Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani 

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