I’ve never been starved of images of myself in pop culture. (In fact, I even get to see myself where I shouldn’t. I heart JLaw, but she ain’t no olive-skinned Katniss Everdeen).
That said, in the last few weeks I’ve encountered several weirdly specific mirrors. I feel deeply understood and a little bit put-out; I thought I was such a special snowflake.
Eleven (Stranger Things)
My nose has been bleeding of its own accord for as long as I can remember. I have memories of standing over a rectangular sink in the corner of my Year 4 classroom, scrunching a rough blue paper towel over my face and dripping blood clots over the white porcelain and dirty paintbrushes. For my 13th birthday, my brother took me on a surprise trip to London. I started bleeding over the keyrings in the Oxford Street Disney Store. The nominated first-aider looked at me warily, asked me to sit on a chair outside the staffroom, and told me he was going to get a plaster. We made a run for it.
At fourteen, I had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop.
After hours in A&E and an improbable number of tissues, it finally calmed itself down. To prevent the same thing happening again, I was referred to the Ear, Nose and Throat clinic to have my nose cauterised. It is brutal. A blob of chemicals is put on the end of a pointy stick, which is then poked up your nose and scratched around viciously until all the capillaries are burned away. There is no anaesthetic and you are told off very sternly when you inevitably sneeze, as if sneezing had suddenly become a voluntary action which you were choosing to do for fun. If you are super duper lucky, some of the chemicals will leave a nice black stain under your nose for the next week or so, so that your kinder classmates can demand to know what’s wrong with your face.
And, as far as I can tell, it will make no difference whatsoever to the number of nosebleeds you will have.
I’ve had it done twice, with the same level of success each time (i.e. none whatsoever).
From time to time, when I am bleeding on the tube/in the shower/at my desk/in the back of a safari vehicle, someone will ask: don’t you think you should go and see someone about your nose again? Usually, I say: yes, probably, maybe, you’re right.
Now I can say: Don’t you know it means I’m a total badass?
Ways in which Eleven is not a perfectly perfect representation of me:
- I haven’t been brought up in a terrifying lab environment and forced to do horrifying things by a sinister man.
- I don’t actually have psychokinetic superpowers.
- I’m not bald.
My very own Great Tragedy is so common, so banal, so unremarkable.
I have a dead mother.
Yeah, you and literally millions upon billions of other people, since the very dawn of humanity.
I am sometimes embarrassed by how completely formative an event her death was in the making-of-current-me. The sting of immediate grief has ebbed away to leave the low-level ache of loss in its place – often imperceptible, but always there. The gentle ground bass underpinning everything. The decisions I make, the job I do, the blog I write, the food I cook, the books I read, the friendships I nurture (and those that I don’t): they’re different because she’s dead. I can’t quite explain how I know this to be true, but I do and it is and there we are. And I think it’s OK. I’m happy, you know? Really, honestly, bone-deep happy.
Occasionally, I remember that there were added stresses in the midst of the bereavement.
Like: my dad wrote us a letter within three months of my mum’s funeral to tell us that he was marrying someone else.
Like: the someone else was my sister’s godmother.
Like: the wedding took place in the same hotel that we went to for food and drinks after the funeral.
Like: he’s so much happier than I’ve ever known him.
Like: their house is at once full of my mum and devoid of my mum.
Like: my relationship with him – never brilliant – shattered into thousands of tiny, sharp pieces. Trying to reassemble them hurts. It’s easier, less painful, to leave them lying in shards around my feet; a broken hall of mirrors that reflects what’s worst of us both.
Mostly, I try to pass it off as a funny anecdote. My dad got married to my sister’s godmother! What larks!
Fleabag’s dad lives with her godmother, in the house where her mum lived and died. It is grimly humorous but starkly awful, for all of them in different ways. I watch through the gaps in my fingers. I want her to skip ahead, to show me what the future holds – to give me a glimpse of a frame full of mirror fragments glued back together in a semblance of their original form. I want it to run for 20 years. I want; I want; I want.
Ways in which Fleabag is not a perfectly perfect representation of me:
- My sadness has not been compounded by the death of my mad-but-brilliant best friend.
- I have no time for guinea pigs.
- My sister is a delight.
Rebecca (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)
I’ve mentioned before that I spent my teenage years endlessly crushing on basically every boy who crossed my eyeline. I have my own private, retrospective, introspective theories about just what gap I was trying to fill for myself – but it’s possible that the actual explanation is no more deep than hormones.
There are a few that stand out for their particular intensity, and they all have one thing in common.
PERFORMING ARTS, you guys! The highs are so giddyingly high. Sleep deprivation and adrenaline and costume changes in confined spaces and bucketloads of talent spilling out all over the shop. Sometimes you’re play-acting at adulthood. Sometimes you’re pouring your heart and soul into music. It is all very, very serious and important.
My first love was forged over a set of timpani. I dedicated dozens of diary entries to the complex tapestry of relationships that was woven through every rehearsal at the Jersey Youth Wind Band. (It’s for good reasons that Sexually Active Band Geeks formed one of the core cliques in the Mean Girls cafeteria). One of my deepest and most overwhelming crushes was on the Romeo to someone else’s Juliet.
(I played Peter, the Clown).
Rebecca’s almost-revelation at the end of Series 1 that the formative emotional moments in her life have all been linked to performing arts comes as no surprise to me. Of course they did. Of course.
It’s not only that in which I see myself in her, though. Rebecca is, of course, utterly mad. But the situation’s actually a lot more nuanced than that. Her mental health is Not Great, Bob, but she’s still really good at her job (when she manages to turn up for work). It is such a joy to see the two things represented in tandem; I wish it were not so rare.
Ways in which Rebecca is not a perfectly perfect representation of me:
- I could never, not even for big-old-lols, bring myself to wear a skintight bodysuit.
- There is no way on this earth I would choose Josh Chan over Greg Serrano. IT IS OBVIOUSLY THE WRONG CHOICE.
- Rocks With Words On are not for me.
All flippancy aside: representation matters.
May this world give you mirrors, whoever you may be.