Spotlight: Beautiful Like Us

[fiction]

We’re fourteen years old, with pudgy cheeks, flowered Converse and crooked teeth. It’s the summer before freshman year, and we’re lounging on couches in my living room with our eyes narrowed at the TV screen. My best friend, Lindsey, sighs quietly and says, “I’ll never look like the girls on TV.” Cringing inwardly at the palpable envy coating her voice, I silently wish I knew how to erase it permanently. But instead, I sneer and scoff, “Who wants to look like that anyway? It’s all so fake—mascara swipes and calorie labels.” I hear Lindsey mutter something under her breath, sounding suspiciously like, “I do,” but she lets out a shaky laugh and drops the subject. So do I. The words taste like gravel in my mouth, and I wish I could swallow them back, but the damage is done. So we sit, drowning under the weight of our own insecurities, all at once hating those girls and wondering how to become like them.

*    *     *

We’re fifteen years old, wearing light-washed jeans with chipped nails and reckless dreams. Lindsey stopped wishing she looked like the girls on TV, at least out loud. But sometimes when she thinks I’m not paying attention, she pinches the rolls around her waist and tries to squeeze her double Ds into brightly colored training bras in shame. This year, I’m getting into a lot of fights: with the girl who flung the word ugly across the crowded lunchroom and with the boy who whispered fatty in Lindsey’s ear as he passed by. The words stay with her, embedding themselves deep within her bones until they fade away into scars leftover from a thousand flagrant abuses. Each morning, Lindsey puts on her war paint, lining her eyes with smudged charcoal to blow scarlet kisses across enemy lines. She’s careful to never break down at school, conscious to never give away that part of herself. But my window is always open at night, so she crawls in with the evening breeze adorned in a baggy sweatshirt and ruined eyes. We fall asleep together, heads sharing the same pillow so the long blonde silk of her hair runs into the curly midnight mess of mine. And when we wake up with swollen eyes and cracked lips, we become amnesiacs ready to do it all again. Like we haven’t already been destroyed and rebuilt a thousand times before. But we never truly forget.

*    *     *

We are sixteen years old, all touching thighs, wearing shorts that don’t fit and drinking sweet iced coffee. Lindsey has her feet propped up on my dashboard in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, phone in hand, scrolling through Instagram. Her eyebrows rise in disbelief as she cackles, “They’re so skinny!” She says it in an accusatory tone, and only I can pick out the jealousy in her voice. We shake our rounded bellies and dimpled thighs like we can’t think of anything worse to be. And, when our laughter extinguishes, we choke down the bitter taste of Diet Coke because anything makes this low-carb, no-fat salad taste better. We’ve become quite the actresses, pretending it makes us full. We’re never full these days, but that’s okay because only fat girls ever feel full and anything is better than being overweight.

Some days, Lindsey actually smiles in the mirror like she’s accomplished something great. The boy she’s been crushing on, Patrick Rogers, started coming around now. I can see the blood dripping from his perfect teeth, remnants of all the other girls he’s left wounded and dying on the pavement. “But you’re different,” he tells Lindsey with a smile that spells out beautiful lies even I want to believe. And, my god, Lindsey is so young, and she wants to be in love so much. She never believes she’s good enough. It was raining the day the two of them broke up, so Lindsey knocked on my front door instead of coming through the window with her face covered in tears. She was much too heartbroken to pretend her heart hadn’t vacated the space in her chest. I held her for a long time, all trembling bones and rattling teeth. I remember she wanted to peel off her skin that night, erase every part of herself he had the audacity to touch. So I shoved open my windowpane and let the harsh breeze carry the rain onto her skin, hoping it would wash away all the places that burned with the memory of him. And eventually, it didn’t hurt so much. But I don’t think the fingerprints he left on her heart ever really left. Things like that never do.

*    *     *

We’re seventeen now, and we’ll still never look like the girls plastered on magazines, but we wear our bulky Doc Martens and dark-washed skinny jeans. As the year goes by, Lindsey and I become different people. That’s the price of growing up, I suppose. Your anger turns to acceptance and your sadness is channeled into kindness. Lindsey still avoids mirrors these days, but now, she finds someone to call good-looking every single day. And on the hardest days, I pull her into my arms as if hugs could fix everything wrong in the world.

Lindsey’s parents fight a lot this year. Their whole house has turned into a boxing arena with hurled words thrown like punches precisely at each other’s weak spots. So much for timeouts. And it terrifies me: is this how love changes? Two people who use secrets like knives and bullets into the other’s heart? Lindsey’s lost a lot of weight this year, vomiting from the constant stress and the deafening screams of her parents during their battles. She still looks pretty, but her eyes are dark and tired, like she’s been waiting for the war to end for so long. We don’t hide in my room anymore, but there’s a little grassy nook with a lake not too far from my house and it’s as good a place as any to pretend we don’t exist. We like to pretend we’re revolutionaries, but if we’re honest, we’ve just never quite figured out where we fit. “Let’s lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we see,” I tell Lindsey. So we lay on our backs with dandelions dancing along our spines and plan our rebellion, one cloud at a time. Lindsey always manages to count more lovely clouds than me, and I never cease to wonder how she can recognize beauty in so many places but never in herself.

*    *     *

We are eighteen years old, graduating from the high school pits of hell. We’re not the same kids who walked through those gates four years ago. Today, Lindsey and I stop in a bookstore and run our fingers over the rows of paperback-bound nostalgia lining the walls. For a brief moment, we remember how it felt to believe we could be more than just people—we could be warriors, demigods, lovers, astronauts, detectives, hunters, fighters, and most of all, friends. No matter what version of ourselves we tried on for the day, we’re always best at being friends. And Lindsey looks particularly dazzling today, with her sun-kissed hair and charming topaz eyes that shimmer like raindrops in July. She catches a lot of attention these days. Everyone knows she’s exquisite now, but I don’t mind. I’ve been enjoying the view long before everyone else caught up.

We graduate today. I look at Lindsey in her gown, cords draped in red and white and shake my head thinking, if I’m the sky before the storm, she’s every mesmerizing rainbow, following the downpour. Her makeup is light today. Actually, she stopped wearing it this year; she decided she’d rather be soft with shades of blush than hard with shades of blood. It’s a little terrifying thinking where we’ll go from here. I can remember so clearly those days spent agonizing over the latest celebrity crush and outfit changes after gym class. It all seems very far away now, and I can’t help but think that for every question answered, I’ve gained a million questions in turn. When Lindsey walks across the stage, nervous legs trembling in heels that are much too high and too much fun not to wear, I remember growth isn’t linear. I remember the hours of holding back her hair as she cried tears over undeserving boys and all the numbers that we thought defined us. There would be good days, with too much laughter for one person to hold, followed by bad days when even I couldn’t convince her to get out of bed. I remember how much we’ve both changed and how none of it was easy. I realize how much farther we have to go, and I decide it’s okay that we’ll never look like the girls plastered on the TV screen. Because they’re beautiful like them. And we’re beautiful like us.

Dana Serea is a sophomore at Rutherford High School in Rutherford, NJ. She loves competitive swimming and writing. Her work was published in Canvas Teen Literary Journal, Imagination Street, and Red Wheelbarrow. In 2019, she won the Scholastic National Gold Medal in the personal essay/memoir category.