I met her in the showers, at the University Recreation Center on the Friday night of welcome week. She was me. But at first, I thought she was someone else, just a random stranger.
Soaking wet, she popped out from one of the two dozen curtained shower stalls. Her skin was pale, her cheeks pink, blooming with life. Wrapped up in a crimson towel, long dark hair dripping, she looked as if I’d startled her, rather than the other way around.
“Excuse me,” she said, over-loud, nearly a shout. I stopped. A flicker of embarrassment crossed her face. She went on, more quietly, “Um, do you know what kind of soap is in those dispensers?” She waved a hand back toward the shower she’d just exited. She was trying to sound nonchalant, but she looked lost.
“Crappy hand soap,” I said. “Need to borrow some shampoo?” I held out my shampoo, and my conditioner for good measure, and she took me up on it.
The locker room at the Rec center is huge, built to accommodate seventy-five women. It was just her—and me. After showering, it turned out we’d chosen lockers in the same row.
Silence hung between us as we clicked open our combination locks.
“You’re a freshman?” I asked.
She didn’t seem to hear. But of course she was a freshman. Alone on the first Friday night on a big campus, anxious—maybe her roommates ditched her? Maybe it was too lonely to sit in the dorm, maybe a swim would help? I felt sure she had only asked me about the soap to ground herself, to feel a little less weird, less alone.
I toweled dry, hooked my bra, slipped on underwear. Her back to me, she squirmed into a pair of compression shorts, the sort runners wear.
“So—what’s your major?”
She looked around, as if to be sure I was talking to her. She pulled her t-shirt on and turned. “It’s called Graphic Communication Design,” she answered, saying the words very carefully, as if they were foreign and she wasn’t quite sure of her pronunciation. “It’s like, you know, advertising, and book design, and stuff.”
I laughed out loud. Her dark brows knotted. I felt her anxiety rise, palpable.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I know exactly what that is, I majored in the same thing here, a thousand years ago.”
She relaxed and met my gaze straight on. “You know,” she said, “I really wanted to study fine arts.” She said it as if confiding a terrible secret, as if it were a little shameful. For a split second, I saw her longing, her passion, for something she didn’t think she deserved.
And that’s when it hit me.
She was me. The me of thirty-some years ago.
I think it’s called projection. Of course, she wasn’t me. But I was reeling back in time, just the same.
She was there to show me how tender and unsure I’d been at her age. How full of promise, buried under suffocating layers of self-doubt.
I recognized her, because I’d seen her expression in my own mirror. And I remembered how cruel I’d been to that girl in the mirror—meaner than I’d ever be to any other human—and the impossible standards I held her to.
Fully dressed, the girl next to me combed her wet hair into a sleek knot.
Just the way I’d combed my hair, at sixteen, the day I’d gone out with a much-older man, feeling cool and empowered behind my own thin mask. How he didn’t take me to a restaurant, as promised, but instead took me to his home. How I didn’t fight him, and how I’d never forgiven myself for my submission, even though his icy eyes had promised worse things if I didn’t pretend to want what he was going to take from me, one way or another.
“There’s nobody home next door,” he’d said with a dead-eyed smile.
The girl slammed her locker shut, bringing me back to the present.
“Goodbye,” she said, picking up her backpack.
I wanted suddenly to run after her, to tell her everything she needed to know about the coming years, how there would be so much joy and so much pain and how nothing, absolutely nothing, would really quite work inside her soul until she could look back and see just how young she was in this moment, and how whatever she would mess up—or think she messed up—she was doing a good job, considering. She needed to know that.
But I didn’t run after her. That would be crazy. Some things you have to figure out for yourself, even if it takes thirty-odd years to do it.