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The model smiles with full, gorgeous lips, a string bikini clinging to her perfect body, her curves alluring and impossible. She is posed on a magazine cover, a picture of everything I’m supposed to be. She is the lie I believe.
I’m staring at the magazine on my shelf, crossing my arms over my ribs. I am ashamed to look at her, but miserably attracted to her. Attracted to the idea of me looking like that, sexy.
The school counselor talks himself hoarse about inner beauty, but nobody looks at that anymore. It's old, like covered wagons and hoop skirts. I know that he doesn’t look at inner beauty either, even as he talks about it. It’s just something you say to someone like me.
I don’t eat.
People think I’m obsessed with myself. Even when I hide behind clothes and makeup and sunglasses and friends, they still see me and they still think they know. But they don’t. They’ve never even talked to me, though if they did I wouldn’t tell them. I’ve learned that they take your words and make them mean what they already believed.
I walk from my bedroom to the kitchen, pouring myself a glass of tap water to trick my stomach into thinking it has some kind of sustenance.
It's not just about being skinny. At first, it was about seeing if anyone would care. Now it's because it’s the only way anyone does care. It’s about escaping from people and hiding, safe, in my own body. It’s about having control. I hate every one of my reasons, but every eye on my body tells me it’s too late.
Suddenly I feel light and black fizz claws at the corners of my eyes. I freeze, take deep breaths and close my eyes, waiting for it to pass. I hear my heartbeat in my ears. I sink to my knees, shaking, feeling like I'm shrinking into the floor. For a moment I see faces, my mom, my dad, the counselor, my friends, but they're all on fire. They scream for me to help. Then there is nothing.
I wake up. I’m on the couch and mom stares at me like I turned orange. I try to sit. My head spins and her hand forces me back down.
“Rest,” she says. “What happened to you?”
“I passed out,” I croak.
“I know that,” she says, her watery blue eyes riveted on me. “What happened to you? You’re so skinny.” Then I understand. She’s finally noticed.
“I don’t know.”
“I bought you food!” she says, her eyes wild. She thinks it's her fault.
“I just didn’t eat, mom.”
“Why?” Her hands start shaking. Her hands always shake when she’s feeling intense about something.
“I don’t know.” The memories.
Mom, missing my 8th grade graduation. I come home and see Dad walking out of the house, leaving Mom weeping on the couch. “Druggie,” he calls back, and she cries harder. I walk in and she looks up at me with red, weepy eyes. “Go with him,” she says, but I don’t. I stay with her. That was the last time she really looked at me. She never even shared her poetry with me after that day. Maybe she stopped writing it.
Dad, coming back a month later to get his things. “Mom told me to go with you,” I say. “Don’t,” he says. And so I don’t.
A friend, staring at me. “You’re fat,” she says. “When did that happen?”
Mom, on the phone. “She’s an extra mouth to feed! You have money!” Minutes later. “Your dad wants to talk to you.” He explains he’s busy and can’t take me. I say “Good. I don’t want to live with you.” He says I should control my temper. I ask how I’m supposed to be polite to the man who deserted my mother. He hangs up.
“Do you think hanging out with all these hot girls with boyfriends makes you worth anything? Well, you’re crazy. They talk about you, you know. You just take from them, sucking on their backs like trash fish.”
The counselor, “Inner beauty is all that's important. People see how beautiful you are inside and forget about your appearance. You need to build some inner beauty.” As soon as he said that I knew he would be like everyone else. He never tried to see if there was any other reasons for me to stop eating. Like Dads who walk away or Moms who don’t care or friends who hate you or models in magazines.
“You should have gone with your dad,” mom says, her face pained, staring at me on the couch.
“No,” I say.
She sighs. “Why haven’t you given up on me, Grace?”
“I don’t know.” But I do know. Because of when you woke me up at midnight to look at the stars, because of when you forgot to put the lid on the popcorn pan and popcorn popped all over the kitchen and you chased them with me, laughing and catching them like snowflakes on our tongues, because of those times when we tiptoed out of the house early in the morning to catch the birds singing. Because I want them back. Because it is worth it to stay near you and hope you’ll love me again.
“Why do you love me?” she asks softly. “I don’t deserve it anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say.
“You should have gone with your dad,” she says again.
“I didn’t want to.”
“Don’t you now?”
She starts crying. “I want you to be happy, Grace. That’s all I ever wanted.”
“I’m happy here,” I say. I just wanted to know that you were happy with me here, too.
“Who are you? I don’t even know my own daughter.” She looks at her trembling hands.
Suddenly she stands up and looks behind her. “It’s midnight. You have school.”
“School ended three days ago, Mom.”
“Really?” She stares at me.
She starts crying again.
“Can we – ” I stop. I don’t want to be vulnerable, but suddenly I need to ask her more than I need to breathe. “Mom!” I cry.
“What?” Her eyes are red.
“Can we go look at the stars?”
She looks at me. There’s a tear on her chin.
“Like we used to, Mom. Remember?”
“I remember,” she says softly. I reach out and take her hand. It stops shaking. “Our happiness was supposed to be like those stars,” she whispers.
“Eternal and bright, you said.”
“Yes.” She smiles queerly. “You remember that?”
She stands, and I stand with her. She waits for me to completely gain my balance. We walk outside, the sky dark and beautiful above us, the tree branches waving gently in the wind. We lie on the grass, our shoulders touching.
“We can’t control our happiness,” she says. “All along it was just grass, so fleeting.”
“Poetic,” I whisper.
She smiles. Then frowns. “I’m so sorry.” She’s awkward now, turning to look at me but afraid to meet my eyes.
“It’s fine,” I say. Just love me again. Please.
After a few minutes we stand again and walk into the house. She kisses me on my forehead, gingerly, like she’s forgotten how to kiss a daughter.
“Goodnight.” Her hand lingers on my cheek. “You’re beautiful, Grace.” Then she walks quickly to her bedroom, leaving me in the doorway, promising tomorrow to be our day.
I look back outside at the sky. Then I understand something. Inner beauty isn’t something I can build, or find, or paste over my features. Inner beauty is love. And that is why it is beautiful.
I smile, and in my smile is hope. Maybe our happiness can’t ever be eternal, but maybe our love can. Mother and daughter, forever and beautiful. Like stars.