A short story I wrote in high school:
The more seconds ticked by on that flat, industrial wall clock, the more anxious I became. Not with excitement: I had no reason to look forward to the bell. If everyone else surged through that door in a hoard, surged toward it, in fact, when the clock’s sharp, penciled mustache frowned at five till, I would linger. Awkwardly, uncertain of my place; knowing where I wanted to be, but at the same time knowing my vision of being there was skewed. In reality, those sharp black eyes would banish me without a single word of reproach with every step I took forward. That look of appraisal, from the sun-damaged face crowned with spiky black hair, the hooded jacket that failed to conceal his contraband Ipod. It was as if I was being labeled where I stood, stripped naked not in the usual way a high school girl might have to fear from the opposite sex, but stripped of my pretenses, my shields, everything I valued. When he looked at me, suddenly I had no identity. And I just couldn’t understand why.
But the bell hadn’t yet rung, and my nervousness, that little ticking of the pencil as I tapped the smooth surface of pale, cruelly vandalized wood, wasn’t caused by anyone’s stare. In fact, it was the sullen lack of attention, and it was the intelligence of those eyes rigidly forward, energy so obviously unable to be captivated by this movie, that set me on edge. As plainly as I knew my name, I knew he was well aware of how often I’d glanced, as discretely as possible with the tension fluttering uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach, at him, and what it meant. But then again, how could either of us know that, even then, I was begging him silently to save me? He knew I was looking; why couldn’t he show it on his face, or say something? We were supposed to be friends. I didn’t understand.
He didn’t look at me, not once, the whole time. And I shifted my position, again and again, trying to find some measure of decency that even an overlarge, unflattering school uniform failed to give me.
Despite all this, I liked the movie. It was a documentary, an exploration into poetry and the masters who had written it, meant to add just enough of a hint of spice to the subject so that even the most vigorous, explorative, or cynical high school students might be able to summon an ounce of appreciation for great literature. Some of my favorite poems filled the room with a mesmerizing perfume that I wondered if anyone else even noticed. To be sure, there were other people really listening. I wasn’t nearly the smartest kid there; not by a long shot, but still I wondered if those words could speak to other’s souls like they did mine. I knew even without looking at him, that Jake Stone was incapable of understanding, no matter how much respect he had at his disposal with which to later dress up indifference, or even outright contempt, into something more presentable.
The movie ended. The clock fiddled with its whiskers. Finally, we were free. To talk for a moment, as we slipped bulky school bags over our shoulders, and waded through a human tide to get to the door. Maybe being released gave him a new energy, or maybe it was simply that the topic another boy had been discussing really caught his interest – no, don’t fall for that; it was the second option, plain and simple. I knew him, like the back of my hand, or at least I thought I did, and even with such a stark lack of acceptance, I felt I belonged because of that. I was good enough to be his friend outside of school, where family members would smile nostalgically at how the twins still acted as we always had; two peas in a pod: different, it was true, but still singing in harmony. Here, on the other hand, there were teachers, other boys, and of course more interesting females, to impress, and I was as likely to get a growl from him as a greeting. But I digress.
When he was caught up in something, it was like the peacock unfurling its tail feathers. That’s when the charisma was awoken, when his silvery tongue went to work redefining the world around me into something I wasn’t sure I liked or even understood, but when he said it, there was no questioning. Little brown birds like me weren’t to question; no matter what I said, I would be inevitably wrong and reduced to a little, stupid, obnoxious girl, unless someone with more weight happened to support me. Our infrequent public conversations always went in such a way, but still, what I came out with was a new awareness of my own opinion that I found valuable enough to heal wounded dignity. Or maybe I just didn’t understand.
That was how he wove Eliza: an image of perfection. She wasn’t real, of course. A mere romantic fantasy of his: a goddess, who would arouse in every girl around her a sense of hopelessness so profound that they’d immediately wish to the depths of their soul to be unmade. That wasn’t what he said, not even close, but that’s what I saw. And, as I’d itched to draw every boy I’d ever set my sights on, I found myself infatuated with the idea of drawing her.
I didn’t do it immediately. At first, I had tiny, grudging, half admitted doubts of my own skill. I’d always been a creature of raw talent, and deep down, I was afraid my technique hadn’t progressed far enough to do justice to the awe striking majesty of the idea that was Eliza. But I didn’t want to admit it, because I knew the key to the entire process lay in passion, and that doubts could immobilize me both mentally and physically, rendering me incapable of executing the task that was swiftly growing to a consuming need.
Imagine, for a moment, to take in your hand a long, thin cylinder of wood that conceals captive, dormant power, which awakens in magic only at your touch. Imagine for a moment the sounds and the textures, of rough paper, of pastels smearing fluidly down a paper, or paint leaking or pooling in watery strokes. Imagine the feverish intensity of nervous energy, of an almost hysteric preoccupation that suspends all bodily senses, even thought, in an almost overpowering need to draw the image through the blank surface that stifles it, like a curtain over the sun. These things can all be tantalizing, in and of themselves, but to create with them a human being? That is the highest form of art, in my opinion. There is a beauty in the human body, so intrinsic, and so haunting, that no amount of damage can completely obliterate. Just the unique gradient of a person’s skin alone is enough to overcome the powers of blemishes, wrinkles, cellulite, etc. To draw a person is to possess them, in a strange and completely illogical, but undeniably real way. Maybe it’s because you’re really looking at them, because you’re looking closer at them than ever before, because you’re creating an identity that will exist only on your paper, but has as much right to existence as anyone else. Because in this, you reveal to the world what you see that they can’t, and it’s what makes you, you.
In such a frame of mind, the painting took shape. I took everything I wasn’t, that I wanted to be, and I made of it a human being, and I didn’t agonize over any detail. They flowed from something deeply buried inside myself that knew every short coming of mine, knew every patch I’d ever sown over self loathing.
Afterward, when I looked at it, my satisfaction was flavored by the bitter aftertaste of devastation. This wasn’t what I’d intended to draw. And it wasn’t just a natural inclination to despise everything I drew; this wasn’t Eliza, and I was horrified with the result as I might have been horrified to have to face a failing grade, and know it was my own work. The execution was all I could have hoped for; I hadn’t made my usual errors with proportion, and even the part of me that longed for everything I did to be as tangible as the world outside canvas was reasonably appeased. But it just wasn’t right; that still, lifeless face, flavored with desperation, just wasn’t her. Maybe the cheekbones were too sharp – it happens, when you try to make someone really obviously slim. Maybe the shadows under the eyes were too dark. Maybe there was just something horrific, not pronounced but hinted, barely whispering through the painting like a light breeze that played over the curtain, and suddenly in its dancing, all the faded, stretched, tattered, molding imperfections were inescapably evident. And like the one crack lacing itself through the flawless fragility of a piece of glass, it blocked out every much labored for detail of the brilliance I’d hope to create, until it was all I could see.
I didn’t blame Jake for the failure of Eliza; not for a moment. In fact, that he had thought her up was almost entirely forgotten. I felt that my whole life had somehow been setting me up to fall short of this one, defining masterpiece. I felt also, with this blow of inadequacy, that I’d failed at the one thing I’d been born to do well. Eliza’s face, not as I’d drawn her, but as she should have been, haunted me, every waking moment after that.
I saw her pale, flawless complexion, the large forehead, delicate nose, full lips, softly waving hair, graceful neck, and dark blue eyes, in every reflecting surface. She was sneering out at me; she was everywhere, mocking, judging, until it was all my nerves could manage not to scream in frustration every time I happened to glance in a mirror. In desperation, I changed everything about me. I started wearing makeup; I cut my hair, I got it styled, dyed – I blew my Christmas money, squandered my small salary from an afterschool job – still, there was something about the way it fell on my face, that could never stand unashamed in comparison to Eliza’s. I changed the way I dressed, the way I walked, my taste in music, and the posters on my bedroom wall. I’ll never forget the looks I got when I started wearing contacts – my vision was just short of perfect – for no other reason than to change my eye color, from green to a deep lapis lazuli. But nobody asked for an explanation, so how could I try to justify myself? And still, no matter what I did, it wasn’t enough.
And then it happened.
Eliza’s face peered out at me from behind the glass panes of the vending machine, in the school cafeteria, the day everything changed. She stared in accusation, so that the thin green paper in my hand began to tremble like a leaf as I raised it to the slot. Could she really mean – I didn’t allow myself to complete the thought. As if she’d spoken aloud, I felt the truth reverberate through my soul. Would Eliza, the goddess, really risk her figure and complexion merely to satisfy hunger? Was I so blind that I couldn’t see this opportunity to improve myself, staring me coldly in the face? It wasn’t a conscious decision – not wholly, anyway – that I made at that moment. It was an isolated incident, yet it killed something in me, some measure of common sense that had never before looked at food with these new, perverted eyes. For now, to do differently was out of my hands anyway. The kids behind me had begun to converse amongst themselves in line, those closer to me inoffensively, those farther back with undisguised indignation. The girl directly behind me – I know she didn’t mean to – accidentally slammed into me when a giggling companion pushed her playfully. She apologized profusely, of course, but she was a tall, blond, well toned volleyball player, and even looking at her, at the moment when I felt like a bloated mass of pimples, was an assault on my self esteem. I gave her the best smile I could manage, and slipped away, dollar still waving, like a flag of guilt to announce my former intentions to the world, in hand.
Somehow, it became an elephant in the room as far as I was concerned, that I’d decided not to eat, but no one looked up to mention it in my circle of friends, or at home that night. Until dinner time, anyway. It’d never occurred to me, before, what an inconvenience big family meals are to dieters. I must have been asked a dozen times – maybe it was only twice – if I didn’t like spaghetti all of a sudden. What was this? Diana Stone, who famously cleared three plates piled high that time we went to the buffet, wasn’t interested in her favorite meal? Tonight, it was a great joke, that I was such a big eater; it grated on me. Here was undeniable proof of my vast imperfection. Obviously I’d grown slack over the years at my dieting. It was true, I was no longer the awkwardly chubby little kid I’d been, but things certainly weren’t looking up half as much as I’d thought they were.
The next day, at a crucial moment – right after school, or what my brother called “snack time” – I caved. Every particle of my body rebelled in disgust against myself, and my weakness, as I betrayed Eliza, swallowing a Powerbar – a thick, chocolatey slab of calories – in five bites, which at the same time lasted an eternity and not long enough. What was worse, Jake was looking at me. Shrewdly, guardedly, trying to read my mind without asking any questions that might give the hint he cared less what I did. I felt ashamed of myself; unclean, as if I’d been caught wolfishly inhaling a platter of donuts without even closing my mouth to chew. All of a sudden, it was too much to stand. I fled, tearing out of the room, and away from Jake’s accusing stare. He was a teenage boy; he knew what I ought to have been, to deserve looking at; he knew I didn’t measure up. And that, I understood better than anything I’d ever considered before. The idea was like the missing piece of myself, like the key that unlocked the secrets to my puny, imperfect existence, and cleared away all the confusion that had ever clouded my understanding of what was wrong with me. Plain and simple, I was a glutton, and I’d done the world a glaring injustice in forcing it to behold my disgusting spark of life all these years.
A fever overtook me, not slowly, but like a lightning bolt striking through my mind at the moment I found Jake’s eyes unbearable. Just like that, the problems of my new resolution were nothing. They crumbled at my touch like cobwebs – a curtain of cobwebs, now, was all I had to overcome to set the sun free. I stopped eating with my family, listened to their cheery conversations from a safe distance where I wouldn’t have to endure the temptation of good smells.
First there was the curtain, and then the pressing, agonizing expanse of days, and even weeks, that had to be endured with growing pain in my weakening body. My head began to screech at me – a siren screaming out for a return to sanity. My belly twisted inward, a sharpness jabbing without let up. My joints began to ache; in the shower, I found bruises I couldn’t explain. Blue veins thrust through the deteriorating protection of subcutaneous fat. I began to walk hunched over, self conscious of my appearance, attempting to hide in the loose hanging folds of my clothes. When I stood up, black spots danced before my eyes. But the worst part was that to remain immobile for too long, whether sitting or standing, was to expose myself to an agony that only increased, crushing down on myself so that I couldn’t breathe. It was as if I’d drawn my breath for a scream, and then found the atmosphere sapped of refreshing oxygen around me. “Don’t let go,” the voice urged inside me. Was it Eliza’s? Gleeful, at the pain she was causing? I began to hate her with all the intensity I could manage through the new fog stopping my five senses.
I lived not in the moment, but by increments as thin as a hair’s breadth, always pushing myself just a little bit further, always trying to convince myself that it had to stop hurting, eventually.
We made an unlikely pair, now, walking to school. Me and Jake. And the Boston terrier raising a racket fit to wake the dead; he didn’t like the new way I smelled, or how jumpy I’d become. At some distant point of our innocence, I can remember Jake and I had been nearly identical, with only our eyes and a few inches more of hair pointing out, to even the closest family members, which of us was the little girl. Now, with his backpack dwarfed by brawny shoulders, which the straps had to strain to encircle, and mine crushing me like a ludicrously overlarge shell on the back of a scrawny turtle, we were almost unrecognizable as blood relatives.
I began to be plagued by dreams of her, of Eliza: a petite, delicate dancer with the bones of a humming bird, flitting along contentedly from flower to flower, drinking life’s nectar just as she pleased. French fries, candy, pizza, without a thought. Why couldn’t I be like that? What malignant twist of fate had doomed me to be such a rude, offensive ogre? Was Eliza really up there, Beauty herself on mount Olympus, drinking ambrosia and laughing downing at me? No! I had to keep my focus, to remember that she and I had both come from the same blood line; she was only another off shoot of my family tree, the perfect triplet I’d been compared to my whole life without ever reaping the benefits of watching her mistakes or laughing secretly at her bad hair days. Would I really do a thing like that?
I shook my head – I thought it was rapidly, to clear the confused tangle of thoughts cutting me off from my surroundings. In reality, what set my teeth on edge with its painful affect on a pounding headache was the weakest, barely noticeable motion. My circle of friends didn’t even look up. When had they ever done so? Somehow, it was a suddenly unbearable oppression to me that these people probably knew next to nothing about me. Who I really was. The question shifted without my consent. Who was I? No – that wasn’t right.
“K-Kelly?” That hoarse, unaccustomed voice, like the whisper of a ghost, choking on unshed tears…that couldn’t be…mine? I didn’t even let myself consider it.
I was afraid, in a tiny, helpless, and degrading way, that she wouldn’t acknowledge my address. But she turned her head and looked directly at me. Something happened, then, that I didn’t anticipate. I found that all words crumbled away, that there was simply nothing to say to a stare asking me as clearly as if she’d graced my worthless presence by speaking aloud, “What do you want?”
All friendly words died on my dry, pallid lips. “Nothing, I said,” in a rush. “N-nothing.” It was a stutter, a last, dying attempt to put any feeling into oral communication. “Nothing,” I whispered, like a death sentence, around the hard lump of my heart in my throat. And it was true; all human desire had drained out of me. I wanted nothing, ever again. I deserved nothing. I never could.
A coldness was spreading rapidly through my body, biting angrily at all those little, pressing knives I’d tried to probe into my flesh, to perfect it. Through the slits of eyes shaded by black lashes, suddenly unnaturally heavy, I saw vaguely the hazy shapes of living people part, like blades of grass in the wind, before me. I was powerless to follow them; why didn’t they seem to notice? And a better question, which occurred to me simply and oddly comfortingly: why would they? The stones under my bare legs were like ice, burning my skin. I was so cold – so cold – and now I couldn’t move.
I don’t know what I would have done – maybe given into fate, and faded without a murmur of protest into the lifeless white stucco of that wall – if Jake hadn’t come along. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was him. I just felt the strong arm that encircled my waist – there was just enough left in me to make a soft sound of annoyance, at that – and dragged me not too gently to my feet.
Jake’s voice, however, was unmistakable. It cut through my drowsy stupor, as if awakening me from a dream. “What are you doing?” He asked, and no hint of a growl could disguise the raw tone of true concern. I felt a heat build behind my eyes; a single tear, nearly scalding to my frozen flesh, tricked, hot and fast, down my cheek. It didn’t matter; nothing mattered, but that, for the first time since life had separated us, Jake had spoken directly to me, in public.
I don’t think I would have believe him, if he’d started with something eloquent, if his words had flown with the honey he was known for, so rich my stomach would have no choice but to reject them. Instead, his accusation was like a slap, further shaking me awake. “You haven’t eaten, not anything substantial, anyway, in over a month,” he said flatly. It had the ring of truth: iron striking an anvil, a cold, hard fact. I accepted it as thus. “Do you want to die?” he asked me.
Did I? I considered it vaguely. Until that moment, I don’t think death had ever occurred to me as a reality, something that could actually happen to an ordinary person like me. Somehow, being ordinary had always given me an armor of invincibility, just as it permanently disqualified me from winning the lottery or becoming president. I don’t think I really even knew what it meant, to die, only that I’d leaned against the wall because everything hurt inside. Because I’d failed; everything was too hard, and I didn’t want to live anymore in a world like this. What could I possibly say to him, to redeem myself, when that was how I felt?
It must have been a miracle, that I found myself alive to lie, physically exhausted, in the warm security of my bed that night. Under the sharp black eyes of my twin, I’d been forced to dine with the family at our little, square table, with its transparent plastic cover dotted by glitter stains – ancient remnants of arts and crafts of faded years – completing the homey feel. Chewing, and even lifting my fork, was a tremendous effort, and swallowing was painful. Have you ever been so starving that it actually hurt to eat? The way the food slid, slowly into my stomach, which shivered in disbelief…And now I was warm and awake to hear the rain drum on the roof tiles, and slither down the windowpane in serpentine trails. I watched the dim glow of grey light the window let in play about one of my boney, white hands, and I didn’t let myself think about the future. How could I face it? I, the girl who had failed, the one everyone could see had no promise, as plainly as if it’d been tattooed across my forehead. What could tomorrow be, but an extension of today, of endless moving forward, and goals I’d wrap my entire existence around, and never reach? Where could I possibly run, to escape from reality? But, for now, it was quiet, and that was enough. I let myself be absorbed by the stillness, saturated with soft, comforting raindrops, let the world fade away around me into the beauty of one moment when everything stood still. I got the feeling, somewhere, that God was whispering to me, that maybe I couldn’t see it now, but everything was going to be ok.
Right on cue, a sliver of bright, yellow light cut across the back wall of my bed room, blazed on framed glass, and even ignited the white of my cadaverous hand into a semblance of living color.
It had to be my stepdad, getting home late from an extended business trip; he’d been away two months, and missed the whole of my ordeal. Without a thought but that I had to do it, I got up, pulled on a light jacket, and slipped out of the house, trudged through the heavy downpour, to meet his car at the end of the driveway. If I could have seen his face, through the cover of the steamy windshield, I’m sure it would have been painted with shock; he was clearly caught off guard when, soaked to the bone and hair streaming in oily ropes across my face, I climbed into the seat next to him.
If my stepdad looked like anyone, it was Santa Claus: round, jolly, snowy white beard, and a twinkling light, like his own miniature, captive star, in those beautiful blue eyes. We called him “Uncle Freddy,” to distinguish him from my biological father.
Speechless, I drew the picture of Eliza out of the innermost folds of my T-shirt, where I’d hidden it, so that it alone of everything touching me was dry and undamaged. I thought this would explain everything. He looked at it solemnly, for long moments, and I held my breath, wondering what he’d make of the failure, wondering if he’d be able to decipher the unidentifiable wrongness about it: this slim, fragile object that’d forever altered the course of my life. I waited for him to speak, hoping for something, anything, which could repair the hole that had been ripped through my vulnerable heart. I knew if he spoke I’d have to try to understand, and face reality, and that somewhere contained in what he said, he’d have to have compassion for me and hand me the missing piece that would make me a real person, instead of tearing me down. He had to do it; there was no other comprehensible option, and as time passed and he said nothing, as the stillness I’d found comforting before stretched to an eternity, I started to be hysterical.
“I don’t understand!” I blurted out, my anger roused. “It was supposed to be who I wanted to be; it’s a misconception, a perversion of quintessence; it’s a cheap, impertinent insult to everything I wanted. It’s the best I can do, and it’s nothing at all! It’s – You build up this idea of–of perfect, of what things should be, and what you want. And then, no matter what you do, you just can’t have it. Nothing’s ever perfect! Why do we have this idea of perfect, why do we have to be so sure it exists and imagine it and reach for it, if it’s unattainable? Why do we have goals, if beauty‘s nothing but a façade and nothing can penetrate to where it matters? Why do we have eyes to see if the light’s always turned off? Even if you give everything you have and everything you are, and you push yourself – you’ll still never be enough. It’s like the only doors that stay open are the ones you don’t approach, because every time you try to walk through, you find out about the glass screen. And it’s always been there, locking you out, but before you just didn’t know because you thought you could do anything, and you thought being a good person, or just being human, made you invincible. But no one really is! You get as close as possible, and then there’s nowhere left to go, and you’re just – empty. Missing the one thing everyone else seems to have, that spark of–of hope or joy or faith, or something that makes them alive. Otherwise, you’re just stuck; you’ve got no potential, nothing inside you; you’re like a shell or a ghost, or a painting – lifeless.”
I just talked, and without even realizing it, I gave the longest speech I’d ever delivered in a life of reserve and self consciousness; and like the details of Eliza’s face, the words sprang in an insurgent tide from a deep part of me that had become so twisted and hurt and couldn’t bear to live this way anymore. And I just kept talking, trying to find the answer, wherever I’d lost it, from within myself.
“It’s –” I started again, but he cut me off.
“You,” he interrupted, with finality.
When he got out of the car, I followed, a moment later. Halfway to our front door, I slipped on the wet pavement, and dropped the picture. The lifeless face blurred in the rain; tears seemed to leak from those cold eyes, and then the stain of one identity that I’d never have to be again, of Eliza Stone, simply washed away.
4 February 2010