I sneak out of the classroom minutes before my English class. I sprint to the girls’ bathroom, turning off the light as I stumble in. I wince at the sight of my reflection in the mirror. The bathroom window lets in the dim January sun, my face is bright white in the winter light.
I move closer to the mirror. The redness of my inflated skin is peeking through a thick layer of foundation. I move a strand of hair away from my eyes and accidentally brush over a new spot inflamed in red I found on my forehead this morning. Sharp pain pierces through my face and I flinch, trying to use my hands as a fan as if my pimple is an open wound.
I continue to examine my face, grazing it barely with my fingers. The powder is smeared in the spots where the infection is causing purulent acne clusters. Even my aunt’s new Clinique concealer, that I stole from her makeup bag this morning, does not have enough pigment to cover the raging blemishes around my mouth and below my cheekbones. The layers of makeup are suffocating my skin.
Through the slit of the washroom door, I notice my friends disappearing from the hall and into the classrooms. Suddenly, I hear somebody’s steps approaching. I rip out the last paper towel from the dispenser and pat my oily skin with my trembling fingers.
Someone pushes the door open, and my eyes meet my friend Zhaniya’s concerned expression.
“You coming?” she asks, still standing in the doorway.
“I hate myself today,” I let out a sigh.
“No-o. Please, don’t say that. I like how you look.”
“Let’s just go.”
I force a smile. Before I step out of the washroom, Zhaniya turns the light on and walks in to check herself in the mirror.
As soon as the cool light hits my face, I gasp. Now, I can see the cracks on my lips from months of taking Accutane—medication used to treat severe cystic acne and prevent skin cancer—the scars on my cheeks that never recovered from deep-seated inflammation, and the smudged concealer on the bumps from pimples around my chin and on the sides of my face.
I rush out of the washroom before my eyes start watering.
“We should go,” I tell Zhaniya, walking out before she can notice my tainted smile.
Halfway down the hall, I let my friend walk ahead and stop for a second before going into the classroom already filled with people.
So this is how my classmates see my face every day?
Is this why boys in my class do not find me attractive?
Are they disgusted because I am too?
I walk in and sit in a chair beside one of the boys in my class. I scoot my chair away from him—that way he cannot see the spots on my left side, my worst side. The teacher tells us to discuss an exercise in pairs, I tell him I am sick and cover the lower part of my face with my hand. My thoughts keep me distracted.
How long is this going to last?
How long will I be disgusted with the way I look?
My shoulders tense up and my legs jitter. I can’t remember the last time I was able to relax around other people.
For the rest of the lesson, I stay quiet. The teacher asks me to answer her question about the differences in English tenses; I tell her I don’t know the answer, even though I do. Surprise and a hint of disappointment mark her face.
“My best student doesn’t know the answer to this one, Olya?”
She knows I do, but seeing my lowered eyes and my wet cheeks, despite my hardest attempts to hold back the tears, she asks the boy next to me.
Loud beats from “Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry hit my eardrums as my friends and I walk into the music room in my school’s basement. The annual Autumn Ball after-party began 10 minutes ago, and the dimly-lit dance floor is filled with at least 50 teenagers and a couple of teachers.
I hold my friend Amina’s hand while she walks ahead. Her grip is tight, and she pulls me right into the centre of the dance floor. People push each other as they dance, and the colourful strips of light emanating from a disco ball are blinding me with every other step. I feel disoriented, trying to make out my friends’ faces in the crowd.
Amina wears a cropped top with silver sequins and a pair of skinny jeans. I, on the other hand, am hiding my wide hips in a shapeless black dress. They say black makes you look skinnier. Not that it matters; my dress is so loose, another me could fit inside.
Amina starts dancing, taking my hands at times and moving them to the beat.
“Come on!” she yells over the music.
The song gets louder and my ears start to ring. I look around and notice my classmate dancing with her boyfriend. They are both wearing matching sweaters.
Of course she has a boyfriend, the voice in my head layers atop the music. She doesn’t look like a whale; her hips don’t take up half of the dancefloor like yours.
Be normal this time. I repeat to myself. What would a normal person like Amina do?
I glance at her on the dance floor and try to mimic her movements. My other friend, Valery, is talking to a boy from another class. In a series of awkward movements, I try to step out of her way not to disturb their conversation.
Amina notices my desperate attempts to fit in with the crowd, her smile widens. She steps closer and extends her hands towards me again. I look to the side, avoiding her eye contact, and keep dancing.
I shift my weight from side-to-side, swaying in between the beats of a new song I do not recognize.
You look stupid.
I raise my arms and swing them back and forth.
I clench my teeth and put on a smile. I can feel my body trembling. I am not sure if it is because I am cold or because I am nervous.
You’re doing it wrong!
I spot a chair in the corner of the room and squeeze through the crowd in its direction. I hope no one notices that I am gone.
No one will care.
I sit down on the chair, try to blink the freshly-formed tears away, and take out my phone. I need to text someone. I am feeling miserable again. I cannot text my friends, they will think I am crazy. I cannot text my grandma, she will not understand.
“I hate it here, and I hate myself. I’m not dancing ever again,” I say in a message to my mom.
She is offline. But I do not care. I do not need her reply. I just want to tell her how I feel. No, but I also want her help.
“I can’t do it. I can’t be like Amina or my other friends. They’re all enjoying the party. Why the fuck can I not do the same?”
She is still offline, but I continue pressing the letters on my screen harder. The tips of my fingers begin to burn.
“Everyone’s dancing, and I’m sitting in the corner alone. And they don’t care. Why am I always the one who chases others? I want someone to want me for once.”
I am locating the letters on the keyboard from memory because I cannot see anymore. Tears are falling on my phone, and I keep smudging them with my fingers.
“Why do they always leave me, Mom? Dad and then Milana. She was my best friend! And then she left with no explanation!”
I wipe the phone screen with the edge of my dress, but the wet stains only get worse, leaving a white cast of salty tears speckled with crumbs of black mascara.
“Maybe nobody needs me here. Nobody wants me. Even you. I’ve been texting you for 10 minutes now, and you’re still offline. I hate being here. I hate being me.”
I press send.
My new knitted black sweater does not go with anything. I have been thinking about what to pair it with since this morning, and the outfit Gods are refusing to respond to my demands. The most plain black sweater stares at me from my closet. It laughs at me, and the $60 I spent on it.
In the back of my closet, among my pink, yellow, and light blue sweaters, I find a pleated black skirt from the ninth grade. As I pull it off the hanger, I am reminded of my last night at home before I left for Toronto. I was miserably trying to pack my whole wardrobe into one huge suitcase, while my mom was watching my every step like a hawk. “I can almost guarantee you’re never going to wear that tiny rag there,” she scoffed at me, holding up the skirt. To be honest, I have not worn it since arriving here two months ago. I guess today is that “warm” February evening when I dare to walk outside in my obscene skirt.
I pull on my black tights under it. It’s a mini skirt on my body.
I barge into my roommate’s bedroom and ask, “Is this too slutty?”
“No,” says Miggy, after a moment of hesitation. “It’s just short, but it looks fine.”
“Do you think he’ll like it?”
“I think so. He likes it when you wear black.”
I look at my phone. It is almost 8 p.m. I hurry back to my room to do my makeup and hair before my boyfriend shows up to take me on my first official date.
I met him during my first year at the University of Toronto Mississauga the week I moved into the Erindale residence. He lived in the next room down the hall. He likes anime and fashion. He listens to these weird but melodic songs by different Japanese artists. I do not understand their meanings, but he seems to always know their translation. Usually, the songs are quite depressing.
He works out almost every day because he wants to compete in Men’s Classic Physique. I am not sure if he actually likes the gym, but he stays consistent, which is good… I guess. We do not have that much in common, to be honest. He does not read much and is not interested in travelling as much as I am. But we love each other, apparently, despite all the differences. They do not matter to me anyway because when I am with him, I finally feel normal. He protects me in a country where I barely know anyone yet.
He likes it when I draw a classic black wing rather than “clown-like” designs with colourful eyeliner. My pink and purple pencils have been abandoned to the bottom of my makeup bag for a few months now. I want him to like me. Tonight, I use my black NYX eyeliner again. It matches my all-black-goth-girl outfit.
I am in the middle of curling my hair when I hear my phone buzzing. “Mama” pops up on the screen. I roll my eyes at my phone before picking up the call. I have not talked to her for over a week now.
“Are you out of your mind?!” I hear her squeaky high-pitched voice over the phone.
I stay quiet.
“I have called you like 10 times since the last time we spoke! Could you at least text me that everything’s alright? How am I supposed to know you’re alive?”
“I’m sorry,” I say when she finally stops screaming.
“Anyway,” she says after a disappointed sigh. “It’s the Day of the Holy Trinity today. Happy holiday.”
“Please, stop, mom. I don’t want to hear anything about religion now.”
“I just reminded you about the holiday, that’s it. Why are you saying that?”
“Because I finally feel like I’m normal here, okay!” I snap back at her. “I don’t want to talk about the past. I don’t want to be the way I was when I lived at home. Please, just let me relax. Let me be the way I am!”
“I never forbade you to be whoever you wanted. I just think it’s good to have faith in your life.”
“Well, I don’t.”
I hang up and throw the phone on my bed.
What is wrong with you? The question instantly bursts into my mind.
I hear a knock on the door and realize it’s time to leave. My boyfriend walks in, and I immediately run to hug him.
Now, everything will be fine.
But my smile quickly fades when I notice the lingering smell of weed coming from his jacket. Again. I squeeze my eyes, my face behind his back.
Don’t say it. Don’t say it! Please, don’t ruin the night by asking him. Stay calm. He likes you. You like him. There’s nothing wrong. Stop!
I break away from his hug and grab my bag.
“Is everything okay?” he asks.
He is smiling at me. I know that smile. It’s not real. He doesn’t smile like this when he is sober. It has been a while since he’s been sober.
“Yeah!” I smile back at him. “Let’s go. We’ll be late for the movie.”
The clock strikes 9 p.m. I am sitting on my bed munching on a stroopwaffle in my new room. The collection of stories by Hemingway that my roommate Tiana gave me for Christmas hasn’t moved from the blue stripy rug by my bed. I was hoping to get to it ever since my roommates and I moved into this apartment last weekend.
The warm light of an Ikea table lamp illuminates the corner where my desk ends and my bed begins. There, on the edge of the desk, sits a small icon of Hail Mary. I like having it my room, even though I do not pray nearly as often as my mom would want me to.
There is a small orange bottle next to the icon. “Escitalopram,” reads the tag on the bottle. “Take one tablet once daily,” is inscribed right below. I have been taking them ever since I broke up with my boyfriend four months ago. Sometimes, I forget, and I get nauseous. But I try to stay consistent.
In my new room, I have a tall mirror facing the window on the opposite wall. The mirror stands right in front of my bed. Each morning I wake up and see my reflection. When I toured the apartment a month ago, and walked into this room for the first time, I felt as if the large mirror was trying to attack me. It seemed too big, too omnipresent. I did not stop to check my reflection. I left as quickly as I could to relieve the strangling feeling.
Now, I’m looking in the mirror, and I’m smiling. An honest smile this time. I feel calm. I haven’t felt like this for a while. A strange warmth spreads inside of me as I look at my reflection dressed in an old set of pajamas and a pair of glasses. I admire my bare face with a few pimples. I barely notice them anymore.
A sudden thought about a reading response I have due in two days disturbs my peace for just a second. Before the anxiety creeps on me, I turn on “Brazil” by Declan McKenna and start dancing on my bed. I am watching the way I move my arms and my feet. It’s perfect.
I realize that I have probably been staring at myself for too long now.
It’s okay, echoes in my mind. This is for all the years you did not see yourself. This is for all those years you thought you’d only be able to be happy with someone or because of someone. Now, let yourself be happy just as you are, with all of your awkwardness and differences, but never despite them.
Associate Features Editor (Volume 49) — Olga is a second-year student studying Professional Writing and Communications and completing a double minor in French and Environmental Management. She joined The Medium this year as an Associate Features Editor and is excited to start connecting with many interesting people for her interviews. In her spare time, you can find her taking long mental-health walks around UTM's campus and listening to Harry Styles’ latest album. Olga hopes the students of UTM will be able to see themselves in her articles and relate to the stories of her interviewees.