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The hurricane of bath water filling the tub only makes me turn my music up louder: the punk-rock I’m so fond of at this time, the heartbreak the artist squeals. It fits my mood. I’m a romantic even at fourteen.
I am in eighth grade, thinner than I know, with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair – straight in the winter, wavy in the humid summer. Nothing about me categorizes me as either beautiful or repulsive, save for the metal brackets glued to my teeth. (My orthodontist let me get colored rubber bands only once, and I chose gold – the same color as the food particles stuck between the grooves.)
Still, plenty of other girls have braces and I don’t feel any different than them. So I smile in the mirror in front of me – and sing.
I sing a love song for my future husband and a love song for the God I already know. I change audiences as I sing, knowing that both God and this boy would appreciate my song. No one can hear me outside the locked bathroom; my singing is muffled. My middle school prayers are disguised by the water and song.
This is my ritual. Bath time is set aside to be alone with myself and with God, when my mind muddles through memories of this day and expectations for the next. I dream now; I sing my love songs and pray now. It’s my special time-oasis. It’s my Walden Pond.
I stand across from the sink wearing cotton shorts and a lace camisole that fits too loosely at the top. I keep my socks on for irony, contrasting my long, bare legs bending in at the knees. I twirl in pirouettes twice before adjusting my look in the mirror – I twist tiny braids into the crown of my hair. There. Perfect.
Skipping back to the tub, I release a few inches of water to add more time to my pre-bath ritual. I’m back by the sink, looking at myself curiously in the mirror. My journal, the flimsy red thing I hid beneath my towel, is pulled out and I begin writing:
Dear Jesus, I know who I’m going to marry.
And I do. His name is David and he’s a musician. He wears a modern-day beatnik beanie with curly brown hair peeking out; his muscles bulge at the biceps. I write down his characteristics: blue-eyed, shy, respectful, funny, smells good. I push aside the notebook and stare at myself in the mirror.
I make faces as I always do. My favorite is the tiger growl (I wiggle my fingers accordingly). I scrunch up my nose or bite my lip, attempting an endearing look like the girl-next-door in the movies. I practice flirting with my eyes – something I have yet to accomplish.
My bathwater’s nearly full, but I must play with my hair once more before immersion; I push the fibers into a dramatic pouf. I make a fierce model face then promptly splash into the tub.
My ritual’s complete, but it’s to be repeated tomorrow and the next day. For four more years I dance in front of that bathroom mirror, praying and singing to both God and man, with no distrust for the reflection before me. I love myself in the way a healthy girl should.
But slowly, like the dripping of a broken faucet, my confidence began to wane. My ability to stare blankly into my face and at my half-clothed body became increasingly difficult. By college I was afraid to look.
I am in tenth grade and I have found true love.
In May of last year I decided to create a Myspace page to track down a high school senior, one I had heard about for years from my sister who had a crush on him. His name is Adam Parker and he is the greatest guy ever.
We talked on Myspace for over a month before meeting. And the night we did meet – a group of twenty high school students arranged a capture-the-flag game in my neighborhood – the first words I heard out of Adam Parker’s mouth were, “Where’s Lauren?”
We stood out in the humid air, agreeing on rules and team names. My hair had turned from silky to coarse in a matter of moments, and my shirt refused to disguise the sweat stains under my arms. My metal smile greeted him. “Hi.”
He reminds me of David, my husband from two years ago, the one so delicately described by my bathroom sink. He doesn’t like me the way I think he ought to, but I know I matter to him. He tells me all the time:
“You inspire me, Lauren.”
“You are so wise for your age.”
I’m a junior now and a master at ping-pong. My boyfriend Luke and I play whenever he comes over. We don’t keep score, but if we did, I’m sure I’d win. Sometimes he hits the ball across the room just so he can watch me chase it, and then he runs up and hugs me.
After a few weeks as “exclusive friends” – which, despite not knowing what that meant, gave me something to think fondly of in class – Luke cut short one of our ping-pong games. Once he whispered to me his plan, he walked up stairs and asked my mom permission to date me.
Luke buys me things to show his affection: a necklace, a DVD, dinner, a slushy. Or sometimes he slips notes or gas money into my pocket, as if I don’t notice. But most of the time, Luke and I walk through our neighborhoods talking and arguing and holding hands.
I’m still a junior, but Luke and I broke up. We started fighting, mostly about my best friend. She doesn’t like Luke very much. Everything is so confusing. I want to make everyone happy – my friend, Luke – but I’m the one suffering.
Tonight we sit tightly on that green leather sofa, my best friend on my right, Luke not five feet away.
“I hate him,” she tells me. I think she smiled. “Well, I hated him.” She reemphasizes the past tense to make me feel better. I don’t feel better.
Luke and I dated for four months – only two we called “official” in fear of my best friend throwing a fit. She didn’t like the way he came over every Monday night or joined us at youth group and answered all the questions in Sunday school.
“But I liked him,” I reply, not emphasizing the past tense. “Actually, I still kind of like him.” I get up from the couch and talk to another friend – not looking at her, not looking at Luke.
I haven’t had a date in front of the mirror in a while.
It’s summer and I am seventeen years old. I haven’t had a boyfriend since Luke, but I don’t care very much. I am a single woman; I can woo any boy I like.
Today’s the third day of a nine-day mission trip in Slidell, Louisiana where I’m teaching Vacation Bible School to young Katrina victims. Outside it’s a limitless sauna, so I do my best to stay indoors to tame my frizzy hair. I haven’t taken a shower all week, I have proudly announced to my friends. Not because I am a bra-burning feminist, but because of the cockroaches. They love the shower stall more than me.
But even without a shower and with my hair, which is cut short in a bob and responding like a 70’s afro, I manage to attract the attention of a boy.
His name is John Derek and he is Matthew McConaughey – in both looks and attitude.
He’s lying on the floor, elbows propping him up, playing a handheld video game. Charming, I know, but I still want him to notice me. I myself lay down, at least three feet away, and pretend I’m caught up in something else. I pull out my cell phone and begin texting no one at all.
I squirm closer – he doesn’t notice.
I army crawl an inch, two inches, three until John Derek notices me. “Hi.”
He turns back to his game. “Hi.”
I lean over his shoulder and ask what he’s playing. Pokémon, I think. I somehow see past the geekyness to ask him how to play.
He tells me, seemingly uninterested, but he puts the game aside. Then we engage in what
I can only describe as a “flirting war” – one of those awkward-for-everyone-else-but-the-people-involved bustles of quips, poking, tickling, giggling and blushing. It carries on the rest of the night and most of the week.
Until my best friend told me it wasn’t worth it. He did live a thousand miles away, and he did flirt with all the other girls. And besides all that, he wasn’t really my type – jerky, manipulative … good-looking.
In an attempt at self-respect, I spent the final two days of the trip far away from John Derek. I had friends act as body guards, standing in the way whenever he got too close to me.
I left Louisiana without saying goodbye to John Derek. I think with him, though I had maintained dignity by not flirting with an unattainable boy, I left a part of my vulnerability. After that week I forgot that I was pretty enough to flirt.
High school is behind me; I have graduated. I gave up on finding a high school sweetheart and have pursued only friendships with guys.
Meet Matt. He’s in an on-again, off-again relationship with my best friend, but for most of our friendship they haven’t been together. Matt and I are close – really close – except nothing physical takes place. We’re just always together: getting coffee every weekend, seeing movies on boring evenings and texting till midnight.
My finger dances on the plastic lid of my latte cup. He is speaking, but I’m trying not to listen. I swirl the cup around, imagining the brownish funnel the coffee is making inside. I guess how many sips were left: three? four? I take one for myself, the lukewarm cream dissolving in
my mouth before making it to my throat. Just one.
Now it’s empty.
Now I’m forced to look at him and listen to his story.
He’s leaving me again, for her. It’s not that we were dating … I have no desire to actually date him … at least not admittedly. But when Matt went back to my best friend for the third time, leaving me dateless for the eighteenth month – well, now I’m lonely.
Welcome to college.
I expected nothing less than a dozen dates lined up by the first day of classes. I am in college and all college girls are pretty and worth dating – except me. I ho-hum through the first semester, finding plenty of crushes and very few dates.
My best friend isn’t here to weed out the losers. There are no Adam Parkers or Lukes to declare my importance. Matt is back at home, miles away, with his girlfriend.
And I am without a bathroom of my own; I’m stuck sharing it with my two roommates who wouldn’t understand my singing or my silly face-making.
I figure I need to do some soul-searching: to learn how to see myself in a new way, to learn how to find a mirror that casts my own reflection, not the reflection of others’ view of me. For too long I’ve relied on other people to define who I am.
I am not just the girl who crushes after a certain boy, or just the girlfriend of another. I am my own person, if only I knew who that was. I need to find myself and know myself as an individual.
I need a new bath time ritual.
I need a new song to sing.