By Rebecca Wayman

She scribbled the numbers of hopscotch in pink chalk on the playground’s grey tarmac every lunch break and grazed her pale, bare knees in the light of the midafternoon sun. Continuously failed at handstands. Continuously doodled and dreamed of being an illustrator.

Her glasses broke once, maybe twice, during a school term. She ate the plain Jane ham-and-cheese-on-white-bread sandwiches her mother delicately cut into triangles, cheap margarine smearing her mouth and sticky fingers.

She was booksmart but never felt smart; Jacqueline Wilson’s protagonists clouded her vision as she struggled through a maths lesson. Simple numeracy was never her strong point, but it came easy to the girl she called her best friend, whose ginger locks glistened in the sea air like glowing embers in her mind’s eye. If she could be a fraction of this girl, with her dimples, hazel eyes and finely dotted freckles, she would know what it was like to fit in and be seen for all the right reasons. She wanted to peel back the brown hair, the ‘four-eyes’ facade, the underbite. Be born a new person.

She was seven, and thought intelligence was tangled up in beauty.

She fingered the corners of a celebrity gossip magazine while her grandmother’s pixie cut was neatly trimmed and styled. Journalists, columnists, the occasional agony aunt: they all hounded her to lose weight, wanted her soft belly fat incinerated and spat out by the next fad diet. She was on the cusp of puberty and knew the only way to attract men was to look like the tanned women who cosied up on the glossy pages, with belly button piercings in the shape of butterflies and blonde streaks woven through choppy side fringes.

She pored over these magazines whenever she waited for something, for someone. In the doctor’s surgery before her name appeared on the screen in green pixels; in the dentist before a friendly face called her name and asked her to open wide. She brushed twice a day, yet the dentist spotted the decay making its bed from the sweets and Irn Bru she inhaled, while magazines told her sugar addictions were a gateway to her waistline’s electric chair.

She was ten. She realised wisdom was found at the bottom of a Special K-filled bowl, consumed for breakfast and lunch.

She scrambled and tore up her words to him in their afternoon English class, tripping over tongue twisters and spoonerisms. When he told her he’d be on MSN that evening, she counted down the hours in class and painted a picture of what it would be like to be his girlfriend.

And even when his ‘be right back x’ turned into crushing radio silence after what felt like an eternity of talking, she knew how it felt to love someone with their entire heart and head, heat rising from her thighs and Packard Bell family computer. She had never felt anything like this in her entire life.

She was fifteen. Her key to maturity came in the shape of delirious first love.

She lay there nervously as his blue ocean eyes drank in her pale skin, and her small breasts she couldn’t help but cover in shame. She was observed like a piece of meat on a carvery, trimmed to his liking. She was verging on eighteen when she lost her virginity, red droplets smeared his bed on a dull January night and a weird, sinking feeling blossomed in her stomach. This wasn’t how it was meant to feel, she felt ripped off. She was sore, he didn’t care. She didn’t know what hurt more.

She covered herself in his faded sheets and her frayed spotty knickers. Embarrassment bloomed on her cheeks because sexiness didn’t exist in her world, no high-gloss frills or lace graced her curves. She didn’t know how it felt to be alluring; he had penetrated a clueless girl in a young woman’s body.

But, her transformation to adulthood was complete.

She was seventeen. Wisdom came in the allure and tempting claws of older men.

She spent rough nights at university in the arms of new friends, miles from the safety net of home with its grounding, frostbitten beaches. She took out bursaries and relied on bar jobs when her student loan money didn’t stretch far enough for internships in London, living on gnocchi, tap water and stolen tabs.

She sofa-surfed across the city and cosied up with mind-numbing headaches brought on by insomnia. She tasted and lusted after adventure like she craved depressing men on her tongue in sweaty nightclubs dancing to classics, never coming up for air, bodies pressed together like putrid sardines.

She spent three years searching for herself, trying on new identities. Acne sprouted on her face from the stress of exams, unpaid writing paid its way in exposure. She drove herself into the ground for good marks, always strived for the giddy high that was 70%. It was burned into her retinas. She chased the sweet taste of never having to be rooted to the spot.

She painted a new face every day. She could be anyone in those big, lonely cities. She could run away from herself, forever.

She was twenty. She downed a tall glass of wisdom every night. On weekends, she was drunk on the stuff.

The nurse smeared ultrasound gel across her stomach like the tingling lubricant he had used to ease his way into her. She knew not to keep the child. She was disgusted at sex and at herself for giving in to it.

She was twenty-two, mature and made the right decisions. She was miserable.

She sat on the edge of her grandmother’s deathbed in the early morning light of summer. The air felt surprisingly warm in the hospital; her grandmother’s familiar hands were cold. She flashed through hazy memories in her mind of this woman she called home. Her home had just sunk and she was swimming in the middle of a vast, dark ocean with no life jacket.

She was twenty-three. She learned to accept the death of her beloved, because that’s what adults did.

The past tried to claw its way back to her most nights as she wrapped herself in fear. Her sleep paralysis demons laughed at her stiff, suffocating body on the edge of sleep. She never knew if the phantoms she heard were worse than the deafening silence she woke to.

She dabbed carelessly at her eyes, wondering why she had bothered to wear makeup at all. Her foundation was patchy and caked on her sore nose, her mascara left black tyre tracks on her cheeks. Her therapist asked her questions she thought she knew the answer to, but the words she formed in her mouth were jagged and splintered. She thought she knew the reason why therapy had come knocking, but it turned out something more sinister lay waiting beneath the surface.

She was twenty-five. She thought it was wise to carve out her mind and scoop out the bad stuff.

She turned twenty-six, twenty-seven… With every year that passed, she shed a former version of herself like a second skin with what life taught her, however profound or mundane. Would she see it in the gloom of her peripheral first, or would it charge towards her like a deer caught in headlights?

Life had a way of changing the path she traipsed. She didn’t know if she, the student, would be taught quiet or seismic lessons on that weird, shifting road. She didn’t know if such lessons would be delivered in waves of panic, if they would be wrapped up in a box of pure ecstasy or found in the slow humdrum of a weekend morning over coffee.

But she was safe in the knowledge that they would come. They always did.

Rebecca Wayman

Rebecca was born and raised in Sunderland, and currently resides in Leeds. She works in communications with a background in journalism and copywriting. She bagged herself a Creative and Critical Writing MA from the University of Leeds in 2021, and has been trying to put it to good use ever since.

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