I liked to watch people watch her. In the classroom chewing absent-mindedly on her pen or as she walked with her head down to the bathroom between periods, everywhere she went people noticed her. Quick glances and double takes and full-on stares followed her wherever she went. She always looked so determined, like the only thing on her mind was completing whatever she was doing at that very moment, so that it seemed to me at first as though she didn’t notice the way people looked at her. In time, though, I began to notice the way she always held her arms tightly around her body as she walked, quickly, clinging as close to the walls as possible. I noticed that she let her hair fall in front of her eyes, and that she liked to merge in with the crowds as much as possible, and that I hardly ever saw her speak or draw attention to herself in any way. I watched her just as intently as the rest of them, and she knew.
But, like I said, my interest was not really in the girl herself, it was in those that watched her. They watched her like she was going to change their lives. Pasty, skinny boys who usually avoided eye contact with everyone desperately tried to get her to look at them, staring longingly at her long hair and the arms crossed over her body, and I knew exactly what they were thinking. They were looking at her and imagining a world in which they kissed the scars that lined her wrists, a world in which she looked up at them with tears in her eyes and kissed them deeply, a world in which they could fix her. It made my stomach churn to watch, knowing that no one could fix her, especially one of those boys who would never see her as anything more than a project. The only reason they’d picked her over the rest of us was that she was beautiful.
Then there were girls who shot her snide glances in the bathroom mirrors as they washed their hands before class. They looked at her quickly, like they didn’t want to get caught, but also as if they were trying to catch her out and look at a moment in which her face was relaxed and she seemed content instead of anguished. There was some kind of twisted jealousy involved, I think, for the girls who weren’t broken; the boys ignored them to look at her. They thought she was ‘not like other girls’, they thought she would give their lives meaning where the other girls could not. Watching the girls in the bathroom made me want to cry some days because I couldn’t think of a way to tell them that they were all so beautiful just as they were, and some idiotic boy who didn’t understand life shouldn’t be the one to define that.
There were others of course: the more popular boys who knew vulnerable girls like her were the quickest to get into bed, desperate to feel something again, and so they pretended like they cared. There were teachers who kept her behind after a full class of watching her, who genuinely tried to help her, but only til 5p.m. when they went home to feed the cat or whatever else it is that teachers do when they go home. And there were people like me; other people like her. Except we were not beautiful enough to make someone think we could change their life, we were just freaks who ran our nails hard across our skin during class. When I stopped looking at the people looking at her – this girl whose name I still don’t know – and just looked at her, I saw what I should have been. If you’re broken, it’s supposed to be beautiful. That’s what I was told by movies and books and songs on the radio.
But I wasn’t beautiful. I had long hair like her, but I wore it tied back out of my face so that when I fell onto the tiles in the bathroom after lunch, ripping my tights and bruising my knees, I wouldn’t get chunks of vomit in it. It was much easier to wash off my chin and nose and sweaty forehead than out of my hair when I still had four periods left before the end of the day. I used to wear my make up like hers, too, lining my eyes in black to accentuate them. I stopped because it’s stupid to accentuate blood shot eyes, and I’d look in the mirror after I got up off the floor and have to somehow clean up all the running mascara. It wasn’t worth the effort, really. You see, there’s a hierarchy in brokenness, and the cleaner you are and the prettier you are the higher up you are. Don’t get me wrong, it benefits no one; not the people at the top because no one realises how much genuine help they actually need, and not the people at the bottom because people just see us as disgusting and gross and don’t want to help us.
That’s what’s really sick about all this watching I was doing: I didn’t do anything else. I watched, and I thought about it a lot, and I thought about myself a lot in relation to what I was watching, but I did nothing to help. And as clean and pretty and popular as that girl was, as much as everyone loved to watch her, when she got rushed to hospital in the middle of the night in an ambulance with its siren blaring, no one even noticed. I guess the boys figured she couldn’t change their lives from a hospital bed.