Published in College of the Redwoods’ Poets and Writers, 1998-99
I inspected my image in the mirror. My 32-year-old feminist intellect was no match for the 16-year-old emotional self that still resided within me. The battle for self-esteem was a continuous one, and she was better armed. That self regarded me scornfully and named my flaws: belly too fat, stretch marks all over my hips, droopy breasts, thick blue veins bulging through the white skin of my thighs. I twisted my mouth to the side in disgust.
“You’re beautiful. Stop scowling into the mirror,” scolded Claire as she walked into our bedroom. She diverted my face from my reflection and kissed me. I refused to respond, pouting instead, and reached around her for my robe.
“I don’t think so” Claire teased as she blocked me, tickled me. I giggled against my will and sought shelter under the quilt on our big, oak bed.
I loved our quilt. My mother had given it to us as a housewarming gift a few years ago. For two years prior to that, Claire and I had traveled the world, sending my mom postcards from all the different places we stayed. Mom took the postcards to Kinko’s and had them color-copied onto fabric squares. Then she sewed the quilt out of the squares. Two years of our memories were wrapped up with my mom’s love. They kept us warm.
Claire laughed at my foolishness and pulled the quilt off, exposing me. I tried to tug it back, but she has always been stronger. I surrendered, joining her in laughter. She fell on the bed next to me and drew the quilt over us. I quieted as she turned to study me.
“You’re beautiful,” Claire said again. I started to roll my eyes, but she commanded, “Stop that!” and so I did.
“You. Are. Beautiful.” I grimaced and blushed, loving and hating the compliment at the same time. What do you say to someone who you know believes you are beautiful, believes it absolutely and you trust her, but you, you see all your flaws and can not accept that particular truth from her?
Claire slipped completely under the quilt. It was a large quilt; we’d traveled extensively. A picture of an Italian café we frequented during our months in Caserta covered her head. Over our feet lay a square of the Great Wall.
Claire tickled me again, this time gently, aiming not for hysteria but just to tease. I reached under the quilt, placed her hand a little lower, just beneath the square of the Finsteraahorn. We’d spent a month in the Swiss Alps before we’d tired of the winter. From my view, it appeared that the tiny skiers were in motion.
“Beautiful” she whispered into my neck. She slid away from the Alps and headed southeast. One hand wrapped around the oak bedpost; the other clutched a picturesque Norwegian fjord. Claire glided past the poised cheetahs on the African plain, lingered in Kenya for a quick bite, then paused on the Chilean side of Tupengato.
My traveling companion, my lover, lifted the quilt up over her head, a mermaid coming up for air.
“Well,” she said, “I’ve inspected every inch of this body here, and I can say without a doubt, it is absolutely gorgeously as it should be. Beautiful.” Claire tilted her head, framed by the thick colors of the quilt. Her eyes looked into mine with full confidence. The love she had graced me with contained truth. My tightly held self-doubt slackened. I’d always trusted Claire’s judgment on everything; why could I not believe her when it came to judging myself?
As Claire reached a hand to stroke my face, I closed my eyes and remembered being 16. Feeling ugly, ugly, ugly. My nose stuck out; my hair frizzed; I was awkwardly proportioned. I had tried out for dance team in a misguided attempt to belong to something, and the experience of flailing around the gym between all those perfect dancer girls bruised me, leaving my ego purple and black and sensitive to touch.
Years later, gender and media classes cast a new perspective, but all the rational knowledge failed to heal. The hurt needed to be addressed directly; the remedy had to overpower the shame. You aren’t ugly, I told that girl in my mind. You are beautiful and you will grow up to be beautiful, and more than that, you will be smart and you will get to travel the world with a woman who knows your heart and loves you for what is in it. A woman who will teach you the good things about yourself. A woman your mother will love. I opened my eyes and took Claire’s hands in mine. She grinned. She had won again. I was glad for her strength. Her little victories on my behalf.
She sank back down until the quilt covered her and most of me. Tupengato rolled dangerously. My body moved without waiting for instructions from my brain as another of Chile’s frequent earthquakes struck.