She’s eleven, my bright little cousin from so far away – staying with me for the weekend. Both of us without sisters, here now with our big chance to bond. For her, it’s an opportunity to hang out with her favourite cousin, so she says. For me, it’s to get to know her now that she’s grown.
We sit on the Luas, we get our nails painted, we eat ice cream. She talks and I listen. School comes up first – the subjects, the teachers, the activities afterwards, then friends, and what they do and who she likes. She seems like the girl I’d wished I’d been, all sunny and sweet.
And then the little throwaway remarks begin to snake their way in, little flashes from underneath her skin.
“Yeah, but I’m not smart enough to get into that school.”
“Mmm no, I am actually KIND of fat” and “I just sometimes wish I were prettier…”
I recognise those thoughts, understand how they burrow in and shape who you become.
“What? Of course you’re smart – what was that you were saying about camels earlier – that they can close their nostrils? That’s amazing that you know that!”
“You’re not fat at all, you goose, where did you get that idea from? I think you look great, you’re healthy!”
“Well, I think you’re gorgeous, and you’re smart and funny and deadly and whopper.. “ And swoop in and hug her in close. Make sure she knows I believe all these things to be true.
“I wish I could be like you,” she says. Teeth clench a little.
“No, sweetness, you don’t,” I grin at her. “You’re much better off being you.”
The day is done and we’re buds now. We go home, headed to a party that night. A family-friendly event, nothing special. No-one there but grannies to impress. But it’s exciting for her – the idea of it all.
I’m happy to sell her the fantasy of those onscreen girly nights. Katy Perry blaring loud, we do her hair, pick out an outfit. I make as big a fuss of her as I can.
“Oh you look fab, you look gorgeous, look at those shoes, that dress. G’wan and give us a twirl”
Look, look, look.
And she does, and she looks pleased. That’s all I want for her.
Now it’s my turn in the bathroom, and my own regular routine begins. Shower, exfoliate, moisturise, face wash, face cream, eye cream, concealer, foundation, contour, powder, eyeshadows one, two, three, brush, blend, pencil lids, pencil brows, pencil lips, lipstick, blot, lipstick blot, pout, preen routine.
Then hair – wash, dry, style, up, down, up, down, half up, move left, brush right, flip it over again, and again and again up into that long swingy ponytail and spray and stare, and stare and check it from all angles, until from that angle I can see her seeing me.
“What are you doing, peach?”
“Just watching. Will you put some on me? ”
No, God no. I don’t want to do that at all… But, “Of course, absolutely – what would you like?” Standing next to me, looking at the tubes and tubs. Then up again at her own reflection.
“I’d like everything, please.” There’s a firmness in her voice.
A pause. Everything. “Of course!” I fake another smile. I touch brushes off her face, light strokes that leave no marks. I let her choose an eye shadow, applying it so it’s barely visible. I fake making her face up because I don’t know what else to do.
And my brainy, kind-hearted, wonderful little cousin turns to the mirror, looks at her reflection, frowns, then looks at mine and says -” I wish I could be as pretty as you someday.”
There it is again, that wish to be like me.
I can’t have that, the panic bubbles in my stomach. “What? Ah here now, what are you talking about? Sure, you already look just like me, c’mere.”
Begin to bring her to the mirror. No, wait, don’t.
Bend down in front of her instead. Point out the same eyes, same nose, same chubby cheeks. Skip the scar on your forehead from the time you tried to scrape your own face off with your fingernails. Show her all the similarities and pray that only our faces match, not the festering thoughts on the inside.
Because I know where that leads. And God knows that’s the last thing I wish for her. I want no screaming full force in mirrors at her own reflection, no sharp blades leaving any marks anywhere. That was for me only, but that me is the me who she’s been seeing. That me is who she now wishes to be.
So, I try to show her something different. Give her a different me to wish for.
I piggyback her down to the venue in my bare feet, her carrying my heels. I keep her on my back in the lift, despite the sour-faced prunes around us.
I make hideous faces so she snorts through dinner. I let her document each face with my phone and let her post them on my Instagram. I’ll delete them secretly later.
I laugh loudly when gravy spills all down my favourite pink dress.
I kick off the shoes I can barely walk in to dance with her on the dance floor. I dance as badly and out of rhythm as I can for the fun of it. I make a point of being silly, and it’s fun.
I keep her laughing,talking about books and music and magic, and I listen to every word she says, nodding along at every statement.
We walk to the bathroom together holding hands and chatting. If she could wish to be like this version of me, I’d be doing something right.
I go into the cubicle, whip out my phone, use the reverse camera to touch up my lipstick and hair, wishing my cheeks wouldn’t go so ruddy.
I come out of the cubicle. And there she is at the mirror.
My oh so young cousin, just like me, nose to nose with her reflection.