Reflection on a Solitary Evening

I worked late this evening in White Hall, the lovely building on campus that houses the English, History, and Christian Studies departments. My last colleagues, April and Debbie, had left sometime before 6 p.m. I grabbed a quick dinner from the bagel shop across the street and ate while I finished a PowerPoint for my lecture tomorrow morning.

My to-do list seemed to be miles long, and I was feeling anxious about how to cram all the information I need to teach into the time allotted. Although this is my fourth year teaching, I’m teaching Composition & Literature for the first time this semester, at 8:00 in the morning, which is a daunting hour for even the most experienced instructor.

I was sitting at my desk, finishing my Diet Pepsi, listening to Moby, and tackling my to-do list when 7:30 rolled around, and I heard the familiar sounds of the campus security officer closing up the building. I’ve worked late enough times to know the routine: he would secure the downstairs, make his way upstairs to check all the office doors, and stop at my open door for a bit of small talk.

That’s exactly how it worked. I turned in my chair to face the door, and the officer–not the usual one I have encountered in previous semesters–stepped through my open door to say hello and run through the drill. “I’ve locked this side door and the one downstairs. Everything else is closed. Turn your light off and pull the door behind you.” He checked my door, which was already locked and ready to be closed up when I left.

I assured him that I would do that, and he turned to the door, noticing the name plate. “I noticed you’re not Tim Hendrix,” he stated. “May I ask who you are?” I told him my name, explained my many jobs on campus, and said, “I don’t get a name plate since I’m only adjunct. I have to share.”

“Well, Ms. Gambrell,”–so polite!–“you’ll be safe here. Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

Indeed, I was. For nine years, there has been nothing in my life as unwavering as North Greenville, and White Hall in particular. I spent four years attending class in the now non-existent classroom 109. I’ve had many conversations–both serious and frivolous–on its rocking chairs and sofas, gracing its doorways, roaming its hall. When I began teaching English three years ago, one of the greatest joys in a semester full of joyous events was preparing for class in the early morning while drinking coffee and watching the sunrise over the mountains. In recent months, I have seen more sunsets than sunrises, on those late evenings like tonight when I have, unaccompanied, written pages of my thesis, read novels and theories, created quizzes and handouts, graded essays and journals.

In White Hall, I have shed tears of joy and of sadness. I have smiled, laughed, hugged.

I have taught. I have learned. I have loved and been loved.

“Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

On Breakfast Cereal

I just downloaded the new Word for Mac, and I opened up some old documents to test the program out. In doing so, I found this memoir that I wrote three years ago though I never posted it anywhere. It made me laugh, so I thought I would share.

* * *

With my chin propped on my right fist, I stared at the ingredients list of the carton of soy milk in front of me. Low calories, low fat, low carbs. A little fiber. Lots of protein and calcium. Plenty of riboflavin, whatever that is. Maybe it’s a B vitamin. I made a mental note to look that up later.

I untwisted the cap and poured a small amount into my glass. I stared at the white liquid for a few seconds, then drank it. Swallowing, I set the glass down. Then I returned my soy milk to the refrigerator, reached for the fat-free peach-flavored yogurt, and finished eating breakfast.


The next morning, I found myself staring at the soy milk carton again. This time, however, the milk was joined by a box of healthy, grown-up cereal, a spoon, and a bowl that once belonged to my grandmother. Using a white plastic measuring cup, I measured out three-quarters of a cup of cereal and dumped it into the bowl. Once I started pouring the milk over the cereal, I began to question myself. How much should I pour? When should I stop? Should I pour just enough to wet the cereal, or should the cereal be completely covered?

Finally, I stopped, realizing the amount of milk really didn’t matter. I slid the spoon into the bowl and pushed the cereal around, enjoying the sound of  the flakes hitting against the spoon. As I put the first spoonful of cereal and milk into my mouth, I realized that I was experiencing this for the first time in my life. At twenty-two years old, I had never eaten a bowl of cereal and milk.

As a baby, I had been diagnosed with a milk allergy, so I avoided most dairy products as a child. Eventually, I was able to eat cheese and ice cream, but I never liked the taste of milk. As a secondary result, I rarely ate cereal, save the occasional bowl of dry Froot Loops, which I sorted by color. First, I ate pink, then orange, then green, and finally purple and blue together because they’re my favorite colors. But I never drank milk.

Until now. A few weeks before, I’d been diagnosed with diabetes. In addition to insulin and other medication, my doctor put me on a 1,500-calorie diet. I had to have a certain amount of dairy products per day, and the dietician suggested I try soy milk, which, combined with grown-up, healthy cereal instead of my beloved Froot Loops, became just one example of the dietary changes diabetes had forced upon me.

So I sat at my kitchen table, eating cereal and milk for the first time and wondering whether I actually liked what I was eating. The cereal tasted good, but wet? And combined with milk? I started thinking absurdly. Who was the first person to pour milk on cereal? And how many other Americans were eating the same breakfast at that moment?

I finally finished the cereal, then looked into the bowl at all the milk left. Should I drink it? I imagined myself tilting the bowl into my mouth and slurping, but that didn’t appeal to me. Neither did drinking it with a spoon. So I ended up pouring the milk down the drain. After putting the cereal and milk away, I realized that, although this could be some sort of rite-of-passage in my life, I still had no idea how I felt about cereal and milk.

I vowed to try again the next week . . . after I got tired of yogurt.

* * *

For the record, I was right. Riboflavin is vitamin B2.

Also, I still don’t like cereal and milk. I tried it a few more times after that first one, but I’m not a fan. Give me cereal bars, low-sugar oatmeal, cinnamon rolls, omelets, almost any breakfast food, but not cereal and milk.

Another note: although it sounds made-up, I really did measure out the cereal. During those first few months, I counted every bite that I put in my mouth, exerting superb amounts of control over the food I ate. I was afraid of eating one flake too many. 🙂

Wrinkles in Time

Yesterday afternoon, while editing a paper in the writing center, I had an inexplicably strong desire to go out to dinner with my parents to a restaurant called Crossroads back home. The weird thing is that I haven’t been to the restaurant in probably 15 years; the restaurant has changed ownership numerous times, and my family got out of the habit of going after it kept closing and re-opening.

But in a flash, I imagined myself as a little girl: shoulder-length, pale blond hair; wearing jean shorts and a t-shirt; swinging my legs against the wooden chair rails. My family sat around a square, wooden table, plates and cups in front of us, and tables stretching out across the restaurant. I remembered the decor of the restaurant: trees and deer painted on old saws, specifically. Kind of weird out of context, but totally appropriate there.

In that moment, I wondered if time travel wasn’t just a little bit possible. Maybe time truly isn’t linear; maybe time folds back over itself, and our memories are just ghosts of ourselves existing simultaneously in another dimension. Maybe while 25-year-old me sat in the writing center on a September afternoon, marking up a PTRW book review, six-year-old me was eating dinner with her parents and brother and swinging her legs against her chair while eating fried shrimp and French fries.

Maybe if I’d closed my eyes and fallen into the memory, I would have been six years old again. As long as I could have just as easily returned to 25, I would have enjoyed that bit of time travel. I remember the excitement of being six years old, when I would jump up and down and cheer because my parents agreed we could go to Crossroads for shrimp night instead of cooking dinner at home. Sometimes, 25-year-old Haley doesn’t get as excited about life’s little adventures as six-year-old Haley did.

Even if I didn’t actually time travel, that one memory has left my homesick since yesterday afternoon. I can’t explain why that memory came to me; nothing in a paper about The Gospel of Judas should have made me think of eating fried shrimp with my family as a little girl. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that even the most mundane memories are still vivid enough to insert themselves into my life at random moments. And maybe next time I visit my parents, I’ll take them out to dinner and get really excited about it.

I Am Still Running.

I jokingly tell my younger brother that, of the two of us, I am the perfect one–while he was the troublesome child, I was a model of decorum. We joke that if he’d been born first, my parents would have been so dismayed they never would have had a second child. Unlike many children, including my brother Berry, I actually liked to follow rules. When I started school, I enjoyed homework, so getting it finished before watching TV wasn’t a difficult choice. At bedtime, I might have asked for five more minutes, but if Mom and Dad said no, I wasn’t one to argue.

My brother was an entirely different matter. He infuriated teachers in elementary school when he never turned in homework and fell asleep in class, but when asked a question, he could amaze them with his intellect. And bedtime was a constant battle. Frequently, he’d sneak out his bedroom into the hallway and peer around the bookshelf where he had a perfect view of the TV. Often, my parents would find him curled up on the floor asleep when they finally went to bed.

My mother likes to tell an anecdote about the two of us. As an infant, if I were upset or tired, my parents needed only to put me into my crib. Being confined in that safe, enclosed space was enough to calm me down and put me to sleep. My brother, born three years later, was never satisfied with being enclosed. He was the child who climbed out of the crib and balanced on top of the bars. He was the one to take risks in order to escape.

Looking back at my life, I can see that this desire for safety, and the necessity of being in control, ruled my life. One day, when I was perhaps three or four years old, I was walking down the sidewalk back home from my best friend’s house next door. A strange man was walking across the street and moved to cross it. All I knew was that he was a stranger, and strangers were bad. As I walked up the driveway to my house, I could see my father through the latticed fence, but that fence separated me from him. And I knew that fence needed to separate me from the stranger.

I screamed. I ran. I struggled to get the gate open, and I felt the strange man walking closer to me. Finally, the latch released, and I was able to get inside, to safety. I still remember the immense feeling of relief as the gate slammed shut behind me. I remember running inside, running to safety. Just running.

My brother and I are both in our twenties now. Berry’s a firefighter. Not much has changed for him. Safety actually dominates his life and his profession, but he still must be that risk-taker he was as a child.

Not much has changed for me either, actually. I’m still bound by safety. I want guidelines. My life is frequently dominated by control. And often, I find that I’m still running. Searching for safety. Grasping for control.

* * *

August 2001

I imagine that a major goal of every sixteen-year-old girl is to discover something about herself. She may not state that explicity, but each day as a teenager seems to be marked by a quest to discover one’s identity. I was certainly no different.

August 2001 was a culmination of a year of soul-searching and decision-making. In September 2000, I had received an invitation to apply to the Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics, a two-year residential high school for gifted students. As an awkward, intelligent student in my very rural, small-town high school, I saw my chance to escape. I grasped an opportunity that I knew I could not let pass me by.

The day in February that I received my acceptance letter was the happiest day of my life, to that point. I took a week to decide, but I knew what my choice would be the moment I read the word “Congratulations” on that letter. I was getting out of my hick town. I was running . . . towards something better. Towards the future.

When August arrived, I was a basket case. Excitement. Nervousness. Extreme fear. All of it was there, battling it out inside my heart. Leaving home must be the right decision. The Governor’s School could offer me so much more than would ever be possible in my small town.

I lasted six days. Six days, marked by the most intense roller coaster of emotions I’ve ever experienced. Six days of working diligently to convince myself I’d made the right decision, followed by moments of terrible heartache at knowing that it had instead been the wrong decision.

So I ran again, back home, to the place that was familiar, even though, less than a week before, I had run away from that very same place. I was only six days older, chronologically. But my life had taken a dramatic turn down an entirely new path. I had been intelligent before, but now that intelligence was accompanied by something else: a fierce motivation to be better than my circumstances, a desire to prove to the world that good things can come from a dying town.

I was running again, albeit in a different direction. This time, instead of running away, as I had so often before, I was running towards the dream of finding a place where I truly belonged. It had not been in Hartsville, at the Governor’s School; it wasn’t in North, my dying little town. But I knew I would find that elusive location eventually; I just needed to work really hard to get myself to that point. And so I pushed myself, and I kept running.

* * *

December 2007

After dropping my friend Nicole off at North Greenville, I drove back home to my little house in Travelers Rest. As I drove down the darkened highway, admiring the Christmas lights that were starting to appear on various houses, I thought about the conversation we had just had.

I was twenty-two years old, a college graduate, and utterly dissatisfied with the state of my life. I disliked my job and dreamed of moving home, saving money, and starting graduate school, with the hopes that being back in school would make me feel as though my life were actually going somewhere. I was also angry, bitter, and single at a time when seemingly every girl I knew was getting married. God and I were not on speaking terms, although no one knew that. I had built a wall around my heart, and I struggled everyday to maintain some semblance of control.

Somehow, in the course of our lengthy conversation, Nicole had seen through a crack in that wall. She peered into my heart and honestly and lovingly rebuked me. “I’m going to pray for you to be broken, Haley.”

I nodded through the tears in my eyes. I let pieces of that wall crumble in front of me that night, and I knew she was right. I also knew it would be painful, and I wasn’t ready to take that step on my own. So I kept running for the moment, holding that facade in place, not knowing that just a few weeks later, something would happen to shake me to my very core. Brokenness was coming.

* * *

January 1, 2008

It seemed like a cruel joke. No one should start the new year off in ICU, strapped to machines and unable to move because of all the needles emerging from her arms. At 12:04 a.m., the nurse woke me up to give me yet another pill. She wished me happy new year, and I wondered where my friends were. How they were celebrating. If any of them knew that my life had changed completely and irrevocably.

Diabetes is the fastest-spreading disease in America, and I had just joined the ranks. But reality had not set in yet, and I was so relieved to just be feeling better (thanks to the shots of insulin and the continuous fluids being pumped into my severely dehydrated body).

Nearly twenty-four hours later, I had nearly made it through the first day of the new year, and my first full day as an official diabetic. I was moved out of ICU, and I spent a relatively uninterrupted night in a lonely hospital room. The relief had begun to fade, only to be replaced by a desolation I had never known.

The tears ran down the sides of my face to my pillow, as I wondered what would happen next. Could I be diabetic? I knew enough about the disease to know that everything had changed. Syringes and vials of insulin would be my constant companions. I would never be able to touch another Mountain Dew. And who knew what else? It seemed too much to handle.

I marveled at what I imagined to be God’s sick, twisted sense of humor. I knew that my lack of trust, my tight reign on control in my life, was a sin. I imagined that God was punishing me for this sin. I had suddenly, it seemed, been stricken with a disease that required absolute control over every aspect of my life. It seemed that God had given me exactly what I desired. In the midst of my tears, I laughed bitterly at the irony of it all.

My anger, fortunately, didn’t last long. It couldn’t. In the midst of all my pain and fear, I realized that I had very little strength. I also knew that I would soon be leaving my family, to return to Greenville, and I could not rely on their strength, either. God was all I had, and I realized I finally had to stop running.

* * *

It’s been a long journey, these eleven months. But it’s been so worth it. I’ve learned more about myself than would ever have been possible had I not been tested and stretched. I’ve also learned a great deal about God’s love and strength and how He provides for me. I’ve come a long way, and while I still fight to let go of control, and I still try to run on occasion, more and more, I find that I’m running towards something now.

“Give me a home inside Your open arms, the only place I ever will belong.”

-Jon Foreman, “I Am Still Running”


I bought a Christmas ornament yesterday…a beautiful redbird made in Indonesia from pressed bamboo. I picked it up from the basket, twirled it between my fingers, and admired the beautiful, fragile piece of art that it is. Then I thought about how much my grandmother would have loved it. And so I bought it, in honor–and in memory–of her.


Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my family lived in a large house divided into two apartments–our side and Mama Kat’s side. The beauty in this arrangement is that, at Christmas, we essentially had two houses to decorate. Twice the fun!

Mama Kat loved Christmas, as well, and held fast to traditions. Every year, the artificial green tree sat in the same place in her living room. Every year, she wound white Christmas lights around it, as I waited anxiously to place the ornaments on the tree. Every year, she lovingly unwrapped each ornament, slid an ornament hanger on, and handed it to me.

I was very particular even then. All the similar ornaments needed to be spaced far enough apart so as not to appear cluttered. The seemingly hundreds of crocheted white snowflakes needed to cover the tree. Her collection of ornaments featuring “The Night Before Christmas” must also be spaced accordingly. And the special, individual ornaments needed to be placed so everyone could admire them.

One in particular stands out. The flat, round ornament had a beautiful redbird displayed on its front. I knew how much Mama Kat loved birds of every size and shape, but redbirds seemed to be her particular favorite. I always hung that ornament in front.

When we finished decorating the tree, I sat and stared at the white lights. My parents always decorated our Christmas tree with colored lights and eclectic, homemade ornaments, as well as ornaments commemorating each Christmas my brother and I had experienced. I always thought the colored tree was the more beautiful tree, until I opened the door separating our side from Mama Kat’s. The green tree with the bright, white lights and all the white ornaments seemed to glow in a supernatural sort of way. It seemed so classy, so old-fashioned; it seemed to embody all that was Mama Kat.

Last year was my first Christmas on my own, and when Christmas approached, I searched for the perfect ornaments to hang from my very first Christmas tree. But as I stood in the store and stared at the boxes of lights, the choice between colored and white seemed like so much more than that. And when I chose the boxes of bright, white lights, I imagined Mama Kat’s tree, and I imagined myself as a little girl, sitting beneath it in a darkened living room, enraptured. I imagined that she would be pleased with even my simple choice of white Christmas lights. But even more so, I imagined that she would be pleased with the woman I’m becoming.


Mama Kat will turn 88 years old in a little over a week, but she won’t realize it. She won’t celebrate it. She’s been in a nursing home for the past four years, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I saw her about six weeks ago for the first time in ten months. She did not recognize me. I could find nothing to say to bring a familiar spark back to her dull, lifeless blue eyes. I could find no trace of the woman she once was. She is a shell, a fragment of her old self.

Tonight, at Radius, the discussion was about suffering. And my first instinct, as usual, is “Oh, no, I’m just fine.” As Stuart continued to talk, however, the image of my grandmother came to mind. And, suddenly, I was grateful for the darkened room. Thinking of her brings tears to my eyes and a stabbing pain to my heart. I can barely think of her without crying, and tonight, I wept silently as I prayed for my grandmother.

It seems that everytime I think of her, all I can ask is “Why?” Why her? And where is she? Where is that essence, that embodiment of my beloved grandmother?

After I saw her the last time, I cried on the phone with my mom. Then later, I called my dad, my grandmother’s son, and cried again. He listened to all my questions, let me cry, then confessed that he had not visited her for the same reasons. Then the conversation got significantly harder to handle, as my father told me that he’d been praying for God to be merciful and let her die.

At that moment, I told him that I was too selfish for that. I could not bear the thought of praying for that. But tonight, as I thought about suffering and Alzheimer’s and little redbirds, I finally prayed. I prayed for my grandmother’s suffering to end. I thought about how it would finally be for her, to be free from her ravaged mind, to meet Jesus and be whole again.

In the meantime, I have my cherished memories, and white Christmas lights, and my own little redbird to remind me of her.

Morning. Evening. Autumn.

 Awake and Alive

7:40 a.m. Morning always comes too soon. I’m never quite ready to face the world, but the 25 minute drive to work helps. I drive the same route, see the same sights, and sometimes pass the same motorists. I’m in the world, but still secluded. I can see other people, but I don’t have to interact with anyone just yet.

The drive is ritualistic. I know that, depending on the music, I can generally get through six tracks on a CD. I watch the dashboard clock and know that if I don’t turn onto a certain road by 7:54, I’ll be late for work. I scan the drivers of other vehicles, hoping to spot a familiar face. My co-worker Mary, perhaps, taking her daughters to school. The lady who wear an awesome cowboy hat and drives a red Jeep. Others that I recognize but will never know. We’re each isolated. We occupy the same space, but never interact.

I watch others’ rituals, too. Sometimes, I count the people drinking coffee, the people on cell phones, the women putting on mascara in their rearview mirrors.  

I also observe progression. Gas prices, displayed on roadside signs, rise and fall. A church is almost finished with its new building. New houses, built mere feet apart, appear in a growing subdivision. Leaves transform from green to gold, burgundy, and brown.

During the last five minutes of my drive, however, the observation ends. I turn off the busier highway onto a curving back road, and the interaction begins. I drive with the window down. Leaves flutter down to the pavement, then swirl up again as I drive past. Some mornings, fog lies low on the landscape, cloaking the ponds, farms, and cows in a supernatural mist. The sun hovers above mountains painted in autumn colors.

I’m awake and alive. I’m part of this creation. And I’m ready for the day to begin.  


Headlights on Dark Roads

9:30 p.m. On my way home, I drive the same roads in reverse. Rarely do I make this drive in the dark, but I stayed on campus after work to watch a movie with friends. I’m tired, so I roll the window down, but a chill pervades the air. I compromise by turning the heat on and pulling down my sweatshirt sleeves. Autumn is here, and it’s too good not to be breathed in as often as possible.

The road is unfamiliar in the dark. Reflectors and yellow lines shine in the glow from my headlights. The autumn leaves, so bright and colorful in the mornings, seem dull and muted, but still beautiful. Stars hover in the clear sky.

I’m alone, but not lonely. Solitary, but not isolated. The road feels like home. I feel grounded. My identity is solid. I have no one to impress, no one who needs me. In this moment in time, nothing bothers me. Only this moment exists: the cool November air filling my lungs, the black asphalt running beneath me, the music that I love vanquishing the silence.

I’m finally where I belong.

Beauty and Truth

Several years ago, I blogged avidly, even obsessively. My readers were mostly my best friends, and just in case we didn’t spend enough time together in reality, we interacted virtually through our blogs, as well. Around the same time, we were all also taking a life and memoir writing class, and valiantly defending the act of blogging as a form of memoir writing.

Then I started to burn out. I had writer’s block, or I didn’t feel like what I was saying was worthwhile. For about a year, I blogged only infrequently, until I started my totally diabetic-related blog, “The [Artificially] Sweet Life,” in April. Even now, I update only when I feel it’s necessary, unlike before, when I often wrote several posts in a day.

Now, however, I’ve decided to attempt another blog, hopefully with better results. I do miss the community and the sharing of blogging. I miss having an account of my life that I can look back upon. Additionally, I’ve decided to take an advanced tutorial fiction writing class in January. Converse College, where I’m a graduate student, has a January semester, and all the classes are intense and accelerated and crammed into four weeks. The writing class is the best one to fit into my schedule, and I’m excited about it, as well as a little nervous. I feel as though I’m a better memoir writer than I am a fiction writer, but I’m excited by the challenge. To prepare for the class, though, I need to be writing more. Ergo, this blog. While I may attempt to post fiction, I might also post memoirs I’ve written or just write about life. What does it matter, as long as I’m writing, correct?

So to start off with, I’m going to post a memoir that I wrote in the spring. I actually submitted this piece to a Writer’s Digest contest just to see what happened. The results haven’t been announced yet. It was a national contest though, and I’m sure thousands of other aspiring writers submitted memoirs, as well. Still, this one is mine, and I’m proud of it. It’s really personal, as a memoir should be, and I wrote it in an effort to figure life out.

What is Beauty?


July 2004

            I sat in a darkened classroom, chin propped on my hand and pen poised above my notebook, gazing up at a projected image on the screen. The painter had rendered an image of a wrinkled, old woman, sheathed in a bright dress with a tight, low-cut bodice. Her fingers were threaded through several paste necklaces, and her sad eyes gazed out at the viewer. I thought she was hideous and pathetic . . . until Mr. Craft, my art appreciation professor, voiced a question that made me really see instead of just look:

            “Is this beauty?”

            Of course it isn’t, I thought. Why would he ask that?

            “I’m not asking if you like it. That’s a matter of taste. I’m asking if it’s beautiful,” he continued.

            I sat up straight in my seat. Could it be that this sad, old woman who sent shudders down my spine was beautiful?

            “We look at her with pity. We think she’s trying to look young again. But what do you think her husband would see? The man who’s been married to her for fifty years?”

            Mr. Craft paused again, and my classmates and I sat silent. Beauty. I rolled the word over and over in my mind, testing it, searching for meaning, thinking about it in a new way for the first time.

            I gazed at the old woman before me. Mr. Craft continued to expand upon the difference between taste and beauty. Between the subjective sense of beauty and the objective Beauty that is intertwined with Truth.

            Could it be that there was more to Beauty that merely attraction? And if that sense of Beauty applied to art, did it also apply to people? Is the cliché true? Does beauty go beyond the surface?



* * *

January 2005

            I stared down at the number on the scale, then compared it to the little book my friend Jessi held. To reach my target weight for my height, I would have to lose 100 pounds exactly.

            I stared horrified at Jessi before stepping off the scale. “There’s no way! One hundred pounds?” I felt the anxiety wash over me.

            “Don’t panic,” she said calmly. “You’re not going to lose it all at once. It’s a step-by-step process. That’s why we’re meeting together every week.”

            “Okay,” I said, reassuring her, but not feeling the panic dissipate. I took a deep breath and walked out of the bathroom and into my dorm room. I couldn’t stop the tears from welling up. Why had I never realized? And how was I ever going to overcome this?


* * *

January 2006

            I flicked the light off, climbed into bed, and heaved a sigh. Tears dropped onto my pillow, even while I silently berated myself for feeling so panicked.

            My friends had planned a surprise makeover day for me the next morning, which they had revealed to me only a few hours before. They weren’t giving me any time to make excuses. It was going to happen—willingly or unwillingly, on my part.

            They planned everything. A haircut at a spa downtown, makeup at the Laura Mercier counter at Belk, even new clothes, all to be followed by a reveal at a coffee shop downtown, where several of my friends were meeting us.

            It all sounded great. Any other girl would be excited. So why was I panicking?

            Inside, I believed it would do no good. Other girls were beautiful. I was not. I would never dare voice this to my friends. Instead, I had merely looked at them wide-eyed and asked, “Why?”

            They laughed. Explained that I only needed confidence, and a cute haircut and makeup could do that for me.

            I agreed, seeing as how I had no other option. I grinned nervously at their excited chatter. Eventually, I began to hope that maybe they were right.

            But alone, in the darkness in the middle of the night, hope withered away.  I let the tears fall, believing what I dared not admit aloud: “beauty” would never be a word used to describe me.


* * *

May 2008

            “He’s in a band!” I exclaimed.

            “So?” she asked.

            I paused. Shouldn’t that explain everything? I outlined all the reasons why he would never be interested in me: I’m a librarian, I’m awkward, I’m not one of those club-hopping scene kids. But most of all, he’s gorgeous and a musician and could probably have any girl he wanted. As I gushed about how amazing he is, my battered heart heaved a sigh of frustration and confusion.

“And I’m not beautiful.”

            When I said those words, I felt her anger. I looked away. I’d uttered the words aloud, finally. Dared her to contradict me.

            “What do you think beauty is?”

            I paused. “I’m not it. I’m not skinny and . . . ”

            “You look great! You’ve lost so much weight.”

            I shrugged, still unwilling to relent.

            Then she asked the question that just won’t go away:

            “How do you know you’re not beautiful if you don’t even know what beauty is?”