“T’es belle,” he whispered.
And he kept on repeating it. Over and over.
It was one of the most salient compliments of my childhood. My parents, my teachers, my friends, my grandma, my family. Everyone lacked originality.
And I lapped it up.
“You have such beautiful hair.”
“You’re so slim.”
“You have amazing lips.”
“Look at your long limbs!” (said my tiny grandmother.)
“I wish I had your body.”
And so that was where I built my worth.
The reality of his decision had finally hit me and the tears had begun to trickle down my face.
This was ending and I was completely unprepared.
The January sunshine upon our shoulders and empty plates felt so incongruent with this moment.
I was surprised by the sense of relief I felt as I walked down the street mere minutes later. I hadn’t realised how much I had craved my freedom. I hadn’t wanted to admit that it wasn’t working all that well; that feeling of being special to someone had been so delicious.
Later, as I drove across the harbour, windows down and stereo soaring, I thought back to those last few seconds in that courtyard in which he, for both the first and last time, used those words.
“Alex,” he said from across the table. I raised my chin to meet his eyes.
We are wrangling spelling lists, negotiating our way through the tricky irregularities of the English language. We create mnemonics to help us through.
Juice. “J-U-I. J-U-I. J-U-I-C-E!” we sing in unison from the backseat.
I before E, except after C.
Together. TO. GET. HER.
Beautiful. BE-A-Utiful girl.
Be a beautiful girl.
All of the compliments I had received as a child and teenager dried up.
Is it because they no longer think I’m beautiful?
Or is it because their idea of beauty has changed (and I no longer fit it)?
Or is it because they know that it triggers a swell of negativity within me?
Or is it because they’re a bit tired of using the same word and they want to experiment with some other adjectives?
Or is it because they don’t think that I want to hear them say what they’ve always said?
All I knew with certainty was that there was a sudden absence of what had been – and that its absence hurt. It hurt more than I liked to admit, even to those in whom I confided my most secret thoughts.
Days became years. Years without the reassurance I had come to rely upon.
I became an acutely accurate counter with nothing to count. And I couldn’t ask for those precious words to be said, for that would make them forced which would defeat the point and render them meaningless.
But that was all I wanted. Just to hear those words come from your lips. But I didn’t hear them.
But as the minutes ticked past the pain lessened its grip and I had the opportunity to unravel the toxicity of what was, on the surface, such a lovely thing.
We slow as we join the queue of cars and turn to look at each other. Again.
I can’t help it. I just want to say it.
“You’re gorgeous,” I smile, reaching my fingers to cup your jawbone.
“And I think you are very, very attractive,” you sweetly reply.
I smile, but I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed; I don’t think you understood what I meant.
I wasn’t talking about your biceps or thick hair or smooth cheeks – lovely as they are.
I glance away. Don’t make eye contact. My skin is one big self-inflicted field of foul and my concealer’s best efforts are fairly futile.
I just want to hole up in my room watching The Bachelor (because I am a bad feminist) and not let anyone see this. It’s really atrocious.
But we have a date tonight. And I want to see you.
But I don’t look nice. I look gross. I feel unattractive and I don’t want you to think that I look unattractive.
I momentarily consider cancelling on you, but I don’t bring myself to do it. For if my having a bad skin
day week is a deal-breaker for you and if you only value me because of my looks, then I don’t think I want you anyway.
So I shall not hide my cheeks, as ugly as they may feel, because I know that I can offer so much more than my exterior.
It was such a simple moment. I doubt you can even remember it or noticed its significance.
They were the same words that you used to use. But this time they were different.
For the first time in years you were using those potent words and for the first time in my life I was sure that you weren’t talking about how I looked.
You were talking about my character. You were talking about the that person I am, rather than the skin that binds me together.
“You’re beautiful,” you said.
And although it was only once, once was enough.