You’re so mean when you talk
About yourself. You were wrong.
Change the voices in your head
Make them like you instead.
– Pink, “Fuckin’ Perfect”
The air is turning markedly warmer as a breeze cuts through the trees that line the playing field near the school. It’s restless, and so are we as shouts accompany the bounce of a ball and the scuff of sneakers. We’re wild at play under the canopy of this mid-afternoon sunshine…The teachers know they can’t confine us in rows of uniformed desks for long — summer is calling, our minds already full of neighborhood flashlight tag and jars of glowing, glimmering fireflies and melting ice cream cones that drip down our bare arms and fall to the pavement for the ants.
The grass in the field is growing in thick, and we tie knots of its blades and create crowns of daisies and plot our summer adventures, believing that we will always be as we are, comfortable in our own skin, assured in who we are and how we are.
But the summer will change us. Self-awareness will change us. And it begins that spring afternoon as we follow our classmates through the hallway, towards the double doors that lead to the welcomed break in the day.
I’m wearing white jean shorts and an ivory t-shirt with a picture of a bunny nibbling grass and white Ked sneakers that will no doubt soon bear the tell-tale mark of summertime play. We might be talking about school or what our plans to play are for the afternoon; maybe we’re talking about the latest Ace of Base song or wondering what the hell Pogs are all about. Whatever the subject, it quickly shifts as he comes into view.
“He thinks you’re cute, you know,” she says as we feel the air-conditioning give way to the hot air.
My eyes widen. No way. There’s no way. He’s her crush after all, and I’m a year younger than them and certainly not as pretty as half of the girls in the school.
But she’s smiling sincerely and I can’t keep my smile from matching her own; it’s like a secret between us, another thing that bonds us together in friendship…
Suddenly, everything seems to change. As he spots us and wanders over, I’m seeing him differently; I’m seeing myself differently. We all hang out in the field, a small group of us picking at those blades of growing grass, knotting them, untying them, peeling them apart, discarding them.
There’s a blush on my cheeks and a grin on my face and I don’t understand any of it. I don’t know it then, but the summer will be filled with phone calls and pool outings and giggling with my best friends beneath our sleeping bags. And it will be filled with tears and playing embarrassing radio songs to him over the phone, and promises that we will hate him forever and ever because friends stick together.
I don’t know then that I’ll wonder what I did wrong, wonder if I wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough or special enough, though I won’t have those words to describe this mess of emotions that my first reciprocated crush would spin.
All I know is that he’s come over to talk to us, and that I’m wearing a bunny shirt.
And I’m mortified.
Newspaper print has rubbed off on my hands as I wrap another piece of glassware and place it in the plastic bin among the other antiques. The autumn air is cold and the sun passes between a cloud as the morning turns to afternoon and the daylight seems ready to fade. The flea market crowds are dispersing; other antique dealers are fastening their tents closed or packing away their tables, signaling the end of the weekend, though there are a few straggling customers walking through the grove, perhaps looking for a last-minute deal.
I’m talking to Mom and Dad as we pack — telling them a story from school or describing a book I’m reading or laughing with Dad or holding up an unusual object and asking Mom about it before wrapping it, too…any bit of mindless chatter as we go about our business.
People are passing by, coming and going, and I don’t see her until she’s almost reached us. She’s older than my parents, that much I’ll remember, but I’ll no longer be able to picture her face, and I know I’ll never see it again. But her words echo and remain:
“I just had to come over and tell you…you’re beautiful.”
I think I froze, newspaper in one hand, glass tumbler in another. I raise my eyebrows and exchange glances with my mom, who is far more quick to react with a smile through her own surprise. I manage to say a disbelieving thank you and listen vaguely to snippets of polite conversation being exchanged between her and my parents.
And then she’s moving on, walking further down the row — further away — as she peruses the antiques, and I watch her in confusion before turning to my parents, wondering what on earth that was all about.
“I told you,” Mom says. “You glow from the inside out. Why don’t you ever believe me?”
“Because you’re my mom and you have to say that.”
I know the look she gives me all-too-well.
The encounter is all I can think about as I sit in the back of the van on the drive home, replaying it all in my mind as the scenery outside passes in a blur, this unexpected memory that has unconsciously implanted itself on my heart, these words that touch me for a moment before I go back to wondering, disbelieving.
It’s not the first time I’ve ever wondered how a stranger can see something in me that I can’t yet see in myself.
It’s certainly not the last.
It’s past midnight. Our heads rest against the pillows as we face each other, our bodies outstretched on the pull-out couch in the living room, our arms barely touching. The dim kitchen light casts shadows around the room, but I can see him, can trace the contours of his face with my eyes before I realize that I’m memorizing him, making a memory of this.
We’re whispering stories of our lives well into the night, sharing our secrets, opening our hearts…And though we don’t know it just yet, though we’ll find out soon enough, we recognize it’s the beginning.
The beginning of everything: the beginning us; the beginning of this chapter, the beginning of a first love story.
The beginning of believing.
“You’re so pretty when you smile.”
His voice has such unexpected earnest that I’m speechless for a moment, though my smile widens and that familiar blush creeps across my cheeks. I deny it, joke that he’s crazy, but he repeats himself.
Later, I’ll wonder again how someone like him could love me as he does, wonder what he could possibly see in me when there are thousands of other girls, wonder what he can see in me that I can’t see in myself.
Later, I’ll think I’m proven right when the tears fall freely, when this moment becomes just a memory in this closed chapter in this story of my life.
But now, I believe him.
He loved me. He saw something in me.
I think, it’s because he was special.
I think, I could like this guy…this guy I barely know yet.
He’s a friend of my roommate’s boyfriend, and they’re both spending the night in our apartment before they head out to their hometown for a football game. We watch a movie on the futon and suddenly we’re cuddling and suddenly we’re kissing and I think, I could like him.
But then I remember — I remember that I’m someone that someone else didn’t want anymore. And I realize that my heart is still broken, that I’m still feeling broken. And I think, there’s no point. I’m not this girl. And I’m not that girl — that girl that catches their eye from across the room, that girl whose face imprints itself on their mind, that image they can’t shake, that girl they just have to know, that girl that they fall for within an evening.
He sleeps in my room and I sleep on the futon and in the morning, a part of me wishes I could be different, a part of me remembers that seemingly instant connection from long ago and wonders if I’ll ever be that girl again.
Twenty-One and 1/2.
I may not be that girl, but I am this girl.
This girl with a genuine smile and renewed spark…
It’s late Friday night and I’m getting ready for bed, standing at the vanity as I brush my hair out of my ponytail; Riley is watching me as he guards the bathroom door, and every so often I glance at him before turning back to the mirror.
The mirror. My reflection.
I pause and rest my arm on the counter-top; without warning, there’s a change, without warning, my heart drops, without warning, the poison sets in.
I don’t recognize myself. That girl, that reflection staring back in the mirror — who is that? That can’t be me, I think as every insecurity pulls me back under the weight of self-loathing. This…this isn’t who I thought I was — isn’t how I feel I am — this isn’t who I imagine myself to be.
But suddenly the reality of the image staring back at me crushes any sense of self-esteem.
I can’t compete, I think as tears burn my eyes and I feel myself give in. I can’t compete with those who are smarter or more accomplished or prettier.
AndI hate myself. I hate myself that I’m suddenly so superficial, knowing that I have so much to be grateful for, feeling so weak and petty and self-loathing that now I don’t recognize myself at all — not the outside, not the inside.
Who will love me now? I wonder. Who can love me like this? When right now I can barely love myself?
I look at Riley, who is resting his head in his paws, waiting patiently for me, waiting as he always does. He looks up as he senses me shift, and his tail wags as if in a silent answer to the question I’ve yet to ask.
“You love me, don’t you, Ry?”
And I kneel down and pull him close and bury my face in his fur; he only lets me hold him for a moment before he hears the horse and buggy passing in the street outside and runs away to bark madly at it.
But it’s ok, I realize as I stand. I’m smiling again, pushing those thoughts back beneath the surface…
Back where they belong.
Maybe this girl is beautiful. Maybe she’s special, maybe she’s stronger.
Maybe she can be deserving of something beautiful and special and just as strong.
Maybe all that matters is believing in it for yourself…
Maybe all it takes is believing in yourself.