You know how sometimes you just adore someone you hardly know for no perceptible reason? Maybe it’s a chemical thing or an intuitive one, but that’s the way I felt about Ellen.
In another life, I worked in a health club as a massage therapist. Ellen used to come in and use the treadmills and step machines after work. Between clients, I would sometimes work out and that’s how Ellen and I met. Our talk was casual and brief, but there was just something very likeable about her. Our lives were very dissimilar — her father was a well-known attorney, she owned her own successful business, she had no kids, and her family was close — but in spite of our differences, I felt a connection with her. Maybe it was a crush, I don’t know, but if it was, it was an innocent one. I was nowhere near Ellen’s league. She told me once she hadn’t dated for years. I assumed it was because she was busy growing her business, or maybe because she was selective, in her late 40s, and couldn’t find her equal, or someone as solid as she was.
I thought Ellen was beautiful. She was a larger woman, about 5’6” and somewhere between a size 18-20, but she wore it well. She looked healthy and had a smile that lit up her whole face. There was something of the Renaissance about her — something almost angelic about her dark hair, bright blue eyes and the cleft above her upper lip.
One day, she came into the club walking slowly and looking strained. I asked her what the matter was and she said her lower back hurt. I offered to give her a free massage. She looked at me with a pained expression on her lovely face. “Oh my god,” she said, “I’d never want to put another person through that.”
“Through the horror that is my back fat.”
“No, seriously, it’s hideous.” I checked Ellen’s face for signs that she was joking. She wasn’t.
I wanted to argue with her, but found myself feeling unexpectedly emotional. I excused myself to go hide in my therapy room, where I ended up crying in the semi-dark for about an hour to the oceanic sounds of Enya.
At first, I thought I was crying solely for Ellen but as the minutes dragged by and my thoughts progressed, I realized I was crying for both of us. Sadly, angrily, pitifully.
Ellen was beautiful. How could someone who looked like she did find any part of themselves hideous?
My own body . . . not beautiful, full of scars. My smile, broken; my face asymmetrical; my ankle deformed. Who was I to feel worthy of love if someone like Ellen couldn’t? More so, if she (or someone like her) found themselves to be untouchable, what could she (or someone like her) possibly think about me?
I had always wanted to look the way Ellen looked. Healthy, unbroken, bright-eyed, clear-skinned . . . Did she know I often smiled at her just because the sight of her made me happy?
If she didn’t feel accepted in the world, how could someone like me ever hope to?
On it went, through reels of memories, accountings of damages, feelings of less-than, tinged with a sense of hopelessness. My own years-long celibacy, Ellen’s, and the shame we shared. Knowing that it’s never more easy to pretend than when alone — love, wholeness, acceptance, openness. Touching and being touched.
Who are you to think you could ever be loved? Who are you to imagine that someone would ever want to touch . . . this?
Self-hatred comes from the suspicion that others will despise us for all those ways in which we don’t measure up.
History – can’t undo it.
Perfection – can’t achieve it.
Trust – hard to find, hard to believe.
Love – a thing to be felt & given, but never taken, expected or accepted in return.
Control – I will hide the broken parts of myself & no one will ever know.
I quit the health club shortly afterward, but before I left I talked to Ellen once more. Doing my best to hold back my own, self-centered emotions, I tried to convince her that she was truly beautiful, not just on that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” way, but as a whole person. I could tell that she didn’t believe me. Her doubt made me wonder if I was trying to convince myself.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all the single, middle-aged, imperfect, scarred, scared women out there who may be lighting candles, pretending lovers, and buying their own heart-shaped cakes tomorrow. My message to you is this: Someone out there finds you beautiful, even if you don’t know it. Find your way into knowing it. Life is too short to keep yourself hidden.