Duality – Danielle Gillespie
My family is lurking around the table; two pans of dressing sit next to a ham bayoneted with little toothpicks holding pineapple slices. At seventeen, my Thanksgiving conversations cover all the usual topics: boys, college, sports—small talk while everyone glances impatiently at the bird roasting in the oven. I lean against the counter and watch Grandma stir the gravy on the stove. The other women make themselves useful, despite Grandma’s assurances that she has everything well in hand, and the men acknowledge their place in this matriarchal society and make themselves scarce. My Uncle Richard and my Grandpa stand between the T.V. and the kitchen, their heads swiveling back and forth between them.
Richard spots me and waves. “Your grandpa showed me your painting the last time I was in Shipman. I took some pictures.” He smiles behind his large glasses; standing face to face with him, I can nearly see over his wisps of greying hair. I grin back as he shakes his head. “That’s really impressive.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I’m not quite done yet, but it’s getting there. Bri’s been working on one, too.”
I glance around, searching for my younger sister, but she’s flitting between rooms with my mom and grandma. Richard looks at me.
“Boy, she’s pretty isn’t she? She’s such a pretty girl,” he says.
I nod, glancing down at my sweater, and slide my fingers under the sleeve. I want to touch my mouth and make sure my smile is where it’s meant to be.
“Yes,” I agree. “Yes, she is.”
My hands shake as I try to gather my things at the door. I fumble with my purse, knock my keys and phone off the arm of the couch. Tyler slides his fingers through mine and I pause.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” he says.
I lean forward, pressing my mouth into his shoulder. My eyes shift from the oval rings in the wood paneling, to the multicolored specks in the grey carpet, the guitars hanging on either side of the fireplace. He leans back until he can look me in the eye. I blink, blink, blink and fixate on the image of my small black socks pressed into the carpet beside his large ones.
“Repeat after me,” he says, gripping my elbows gently, “there is nothing wrong with me.”
Wet. I wipe at my eyes and open my mouth, but the words are bashed, shoved back down my throat.
School starts in twenty minutes. I see myself in the mirror. Short glances—I never look too long. My eyes are two islands of green surrounded by a sea of throbbing red.
I hate it. Hate. Hate. Hate it.
My sister leans into the mirror dabbing little swirls of foundation onto her cheeks just like I am. The light catches the planes of her soft face, illuminating a pair of pale blue eyes, lingering on a bow of soft pink lips—I’d rather look at her. I stand behind her, waiting and watching and shriveling. She reaches to flip on the second light switch.
She gives me a look. “Why not?”
“Just don’t,” I say, and I smear on more makeup.
“It’s too dark. Why can’t I turn it on?”
“It’s not too dark,” I mumble. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“You’re the one making it a big deal,” she says. “Why can’t I turn it—?” “Because,” I say, clenching the jar of foundation, “the light makes everything worse and it makes me feel like shit, okay?”
Her body turns rigid, and she’s silenced immediately, staring into the sink. “I’m sorry,” she says, and I’m humiliated. Enraged. Not at her. Never at her. I want to shatter the glass with my fist, rip the scars from my flesh, and start again. Start fresh. I want to peel away layer after layer of myself until I can’t remember, can’t believe the things I’ve thought. I want to rewrite my own reality.
He’s burning. Tyler’s eyes are shut, and his fingers are gliding across and striking bronze strings. The features of his face smooth and he is lost in a place where he is King. Blue eyes flicker to my face every so often—it’s as if he has to remind himself I’m still there. I hug a pillow to my chest, resting my chin against the armrest of Mom’s couch.
“You made that song?” I ask. He nods and lets his fingers trail down the guitar. “You’re really talented.”
He smiles and looks away. “You’re sweet,” he says, but I mean it.
I shift until my cheek rests against the couch cushion, tilting my face towards him. He starts playing again and he becomes someone else. He knows exactly who he is and what he’s doing—there’s no space for doubt.
But I think of the boy who would say “hello” at work—then look at the ground, the one who hardly spoke that first date, the one who promised me his shyness would disappear with time.
I lean towards him. “Do you ever feel like you have complete confidence in your abilities—you believe in what you can do—just not in yourself?” I cringe, hating how it sounds aloud. “Do you know what I mean? It’s like somehow what you can do and who you are are separate things.”
I think of twenty-five girls and one coach crying and throwing their arms around me at a county track meet. I think of students stuffing votes in a crinkled paper bag for a drawing at the school art show. A room full of sophomores crying over an essay. A medal draped around my neck with the letters V-A-L-E-D-I-C-T-O-R-I-A-N etched into the surface.
He keeps playing. “I know what you mean.”
Red metal, chipped and weathered, groans as we start spinning. Clouds of dust sling from my shoes and we’re turning, turning, turning. My aunt sits beside me on the wooden bench of the merry-go-round. She’s been telling me stories, recounting little family histories. Sometimes my sister stops arguing with my cousin long enough to sit with us as well. My cousin flails his arms, checking to see if we’re paying attention while trying to balance on the middle of a yellow teeter-totter. The tips of my shoes dig into the ground, causing the merry-go-round to slow and eventually halt.
“Your mother had everything,” my Aunt explains. “She was the smart one. The pretty one.”
When she says this, I glance at her in surprise. Mom has never told it that way.
“Your Aunt Sherrie was the pretty one and I was the Brain,” Mom would tell me. These were the characters in Mom’s story.
I thought about my mother fighting to be the first in the family to go to college, working her way up in a company dominated by men. I thought about my aunt raising my cousins, and making sure she was bronzed—makeup and hair perfected— before she ever left the house. My aunt had her own story: the one where Mom was the star. But that wasn’t the only story my aunt believed in. She could look in the mirror and see that she was beautiful. She could write another story—my mother’s story— where she was everything my mother thought she was. This was the story my aunt chose to build her life upon. But my mom never looked in the mirror, never understood she was smart and beautiful, never realized there was another story besides her own.
I understood why she hadn’t. All of those little moments building up and up until her truth was the only truth. She couldn’t escape it. At her father’s visitation, my mom’s aunts were whispering their condolences when they noticed my aunt across the parlor.
“Is that Sherrie?” one of the women asked. Mom nodded and the woman stared after my aunt. “Look how pretty she is. Sherrie’s so pretty.”
“Oh my, what a lovely woman,” said another. “Yes,” Mom agreed. “Yes, she is.”
“What don’t you like about yourself?” Tyler asks. I’m exposed. I tilt my head back and stare at the pale ceiling, trying to pull away. Tyler won’t have it. “Why don’t you like yourself?” Heat travels from my face down my neck—even to the creases at the insides of my elbows. My palms feel damp.
“It’s not that I don’t like myself.” I glance around grasping for an answer that makes sense. “I like myself, just not everything about me.”
“What don’t you like?” he repeats. Softer this time, and I know I should answer. I don’t want him to know. I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being ashamed.
“My skin,” I say, and trace the plaid pattern of his bedspread. “What’s wrong with your skin?” he asks. I blink in surprise.
Seven years. Two dermatologists and one nutritionist. I have cut out bread and pasta and sugar. I have tried Proactive and Clearasil and Neutrogena. Tretinoin crème, Erythromycin-benzoyl gel, Sulfacetmide lotion, and Differin gel. Tazorac cream and Pronexin and witch hazel and aloe. I have taken Minocycline, Erythromycin, Septra, and Clyndamycin. Four antibiotics that I thought were going to miraculously cure my skin, but instead managed to make me sick for two months and accomplish nothing.
I had listened to a friend describe someone as having skin like mine: “a crater face.” Worn makeup all night at sleepovers to avoid being judged. Spent a year and a half wearing high-necked t-shirts to cover my chest, back, arms when the problem escalated. Retreated so far into myself that I didn’t know where I started and my insecurity began. Beat and bruised and bludgeoned myself for a problem I could never control and I am still trying to decide if the word “acceptance” is a victory or a defeat.
Tyler’s fingers tighten around mine. “The scars and the—“ I break off and press my face into his neck so I don’t have to look at him. He shrugs and leans back, searching my face.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he says. His eyes are kind, almost teasing, and I ache. My eyes ache. He stretches his hands above his head exaggeratedly. “Well, and you know,” he says as though it’s an afterthought, “I think you’re beautiful.”
I smile, and shake my head.
Ninety-eight degrees’ worth of sweat dampens my tank top as Bri and I trail Mom through the crowds at the Shipman Picnic. Smoke from the barbecued pork chop and fried fish stands billow over the park. The pink monstrosity known as the Scat whirls and flashes, wrenching screams from excited preteens. There’s a splash as a young boy hits the target on a dunking booth and his victim drops into the water below. I can never decide where to look and every few feet my mom is stopped by an old classmate.
Mom’s friend Julie chats with us while we wait and sweat in the food line. For a moment Julie stops speaking and her stare lingers on me. She glances to my mom and then looks back at me. She grins. “You look just like your mother. I’m sure you get that a lot.”
Mom’s slim fingers push into the small of my back. I see myself in the green of her eyes and the lines of her smile.
“Yes,” I agree. “Yes, we do.”
Tyler’s still waiting for me to say it. But we’re standing at an impasse—me and myself, that is.
Something inside me starts to fissure; everything is wet. I knot my fingers in the back of his t-shirt and hold on tightly for a moment before breaking away.
He looks at me expectantly and I know what I need to say.
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
The words are stiff in my mouth. There’s a part of me that can barely force the phrase past my lips, but I think about my mother and her story, I think about the way Tyler looks at me and how “beautiful” sounds in his mouth, I think about every mean and terrible thing I’ve ever said to myself, and I think that maybe even if I don’t believe it yet, it’s good practice just the same.
Danielle Gillespie lives and writes in the Midwest. However, she is currently lucky enough to be studying and writing in an English manor resembling Hogwarts. While this is making her question living in the Midwest, it is not making her question writing. You can follow Danielle on twitter @DaniRaeGills or her blog at daniraegills.wordpress.com.