This story is one of the September Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
The clock dictates my life; clinging to the wall in front of me with hands twitching constantly trying to catch up with one another — racing towards a dictated finish. The two black hands appear to pause, seemingly suspended upon the hour, until broken by the clashing screech of the bell wailing out through the room. The noise throbs over and over in my head.
My life can be measured by the tolling of a bell, signalling me forward from one class to the next. Washing me up in the ebb and flow of students mindlessly following the instructions of a noise.
I take a left as I exit the classroom, feeling the walls close in on me as I struggle to fight my way to the girls’ toilet. I’m sinking into the crowd, feeling the familiar press of bodies as we all blend into the current taking us to our next destination. It’s then that I become aware of the deep red flush that has begun to scorch its way up my face. No one is talking to me, and I haven’t done anything wrong, yet still the embarrassment floods through me, taking up residence in my life. I’m awkward in my own skin.
Feeling the rush of relief as I reach the safety of the girls’ toilet, I barrel my way inside, tucking the loose strands of hair behind my ears. Immediately, I am assaulted by laughter and chatter from inside the cubicles and realise that I’m not quite safe yet. Not alone.
Can’t drift to that other place.
One girl, Maddy, floats over to me, leaning her face in to give me a kiss on the cheek, nonstop talking about ‘how great I looked last weekend at Jake’s party.’
I giggle right along with her, raising my eyebrow and giving her my classic ‘don’t I know it’ look since that’s what she would expect of me. I surprise myself at how easily I am able to slip back into the routine of chatter with the girls, each one doting a figurative crown on their flawless heads. My crown remains atop my head too, but only for as long as people think of me as one of them. They don’t realise my crown lost its shine long ago.
Eventually the toilet filters out, girls shouting that they’ll see me at lunch — ‘usual place?’ and I nod along, blowing kisses back at them till, finally, I’m left on my own.
Allowing myself to release the breath I’ve been clinging onto, I feel my body melt into a desperate submission. As I relax, I become all too aware of the familiar point in my palms where my nails have been digging in, breaking skin for the last five minutes.
I make the mistake of looking up. Directly ahead of me into the mirror that I know is there and that I try to avoid whenever I’m alone.
The face looking back at me I do not recognise. She’s the girl who wears the golden crown. The girl who is perfect, isn’t able to get anything wrong. God forbid it be in her blood to make a mistake.
And I hate her.
Hate the pretentious smile, the fake laughter and smiling eyes — eyes that can see beyond the facade into the insecurities beneath every one of those girls that are her friends.
Worst of all, though: she’s not perfect. No matter how hard she tries, she will never be perfect.
The anger bubbles up as it always does, clawing a numbness up through my body until the need for release gets too much. With shaky fingers I turn the tap on, the rusty creaking becoming almost too much for my ears as it taunts me.
The first splash of water engulfs my face, and I keep going, scrubbing furiously at the perfection that I meticulously try to adopt every day I wake up.
I recognise this girl. The one with the murky eyes; streaming tears of black where makeup has run, falling onto puffy sacs beneath eyes where a lack of sleep has parked itself. I stare back at her, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief that I’m still there, even though the world doesn’t see me, I’m still here.
Brushing away the stamp of makeup from my face, I let myself fall back into my imperfection.
I hear the shriek of the bell ring out again and glance at the clock ordering me to move onto the next portion of my day.
Sometimes it seems all I do is measure my life in the rings of the bell.