It's strange--funny--fitting--how undifferent I am from her. As though I am a bystander, I can see her, albeit in low definition: the overlarge feet propped on the table, the hips hidden in the box-like chair, Seventeen magazine splayed over angled (but, more than that, rounded) knees. Head down. Defenses up.
Hearing this song now--"She would change everything for happy ever after"--two near-simultaneous sighs hit me: the first is that of a woman who will never be 14 again, who would not turn the pages back to 1998 for a thousand good things; the second is that of the 14-year-old who is still here, the girl who is less changed than she thought she'd be nearly two decades later years later.
In a weird flash of imagination (powered by a few too many Doctor Who episodes) the 14-year-old, ensconced in her comfort zone, evaluates the newly arrived thirtysomething uncomfortably scanning books on the shelf the way adults do when in the lair of adolescents--distracted but not. She has not thinned out the way everyone said she would--everyone said she would, and that is just not fair--but her hair is better and while traces of acne remain, the face is more smooth than scarred. She has learned to dress better, though hints of her never-caught high school trends remain: jeans that brush the ground, shirts that fall to her hips, statement earrings. She wears glasses now. Strange. When did that happen? The teenager squints, swipes at her nose. But there is no denying this is the same woman; her height helps to distinguish, but see too how she pulls her bottom lip up when she smiles to hide the unpretty teeth--dead giveaway. She'd recognize that anywhere.
The thirtysomething, her attention caught, angles her eye over the book to refresh her memory. Is it any wonder this girl would earn an English degree, when her high school hangouts were the theater and here, the second floor of the library, perched between the six and seven hundreds of Dewey. The pictures in the magazine--impossibly long-legged girls with gloss-shined lips and platform-inverted feet--taunt her in secret years before she would learn they taunted everyone, even the glossy, the leggy. She is here because there are other people here--not friends, but a passing glance would make it seem so. She shows a studied relaxation, but it is too stilted to be real. It will buckle at the shift of any number of variables. It's nearly painful to watch.
Love yourself, the thirtysomething wills across the room, the book settling back on the shelf. Stop being certain that you are an object of amusement. Stop playing a role and free yourself. Walk across campus without a crowd. Be funny for the sake of making yourself laugh. Take ownership of those words that scrape and sting--fat, awkward, poor--or take their sting from them. Find those small powers you have (of words, of compassion) and exercise them.
Because this woman you so ache to become is already sitting there with that magazine. She's wrapped up in those adolescent layers as much as anyone, but she is already peeling back and discarding the pieces that don't work anymore. She will become the girl with the notebook full of quotes, the girl who forgives her father, the girl who falls in love and loses but doesn't die, the artsy girl with confidence built from grace. She will blush less and laugh more and stand instead of leaning. She will not be perfect--and she will in some ways bear no resemblance to this dream-adult you're aiming for, but she'll find those dreams were ones you grow out of the way you used to love Prince Philip but now it's Rider Strong or nothing.
If I could only crouch down, rest my chin on the arm of the chair to whisper to her. But that's part of the deal, isn't it? We wait for our own selves. There's no rushing, no shortcuts. She will find these things to be true, but no sooner, no easier than I did the first time. How do I still remember that first walk alone (insignificant and huge, remembered so perfectly), when the only sound in the world was my hurrying feet in the grass and I was sure every window was filled with eyes. Arriving into class, I regulated my breathing to find that no one had noticed. I remember knowing that he was leaving and in love with someone else--and months later seeing him and feeling only a tinny reverb of old emotion. A teacher looking me in the eyes and saying, "You do this well. Do it more. Never stop." Standing in front of a graduation crowd speaking, laughing, hearing their laughter echo back. Nearly indiscernible steps toward a new (but not as new as I'd imagined) version of me.
The teenager looks up again from the magazine to find that the thirtysomething is gone--sort of. She thought she was talking to her, but it must have been voices from downstairs. A song flits out on the edge of her head, almost heard: "She's just the way she is, but no one's told her that's okay." Weird. She shrugs, and turns the page.
- the song is Jon McLaughlin's "Beautiful Disaster." It's fantastic, and it's written, I'm quite sure, about every teenage girl ever. Listen to it here.
- seriously, Rider Strong. It's not too late to make this work. Call me.