Perfect Imperfection


Julia Cates-Addison


       There’s a small crack in the glossy white paint on the ceiling above my bed. It’s a few inches long at most; a fracture in the effortless uniformity that is the rest of my ceiling. One of the only imperfections in my otherwise perfect bedroom. With its pastel blue-tinted walls, coordinating furniture, and minimalistic decor, it’s perfect. Almost. Everything in my room has a place. Its minimalistic sensibility and organization is what makes me love it so much. It’s so close to perfection—if you ignore the crack on the ceiling.

       I try to keep everything in my life the way I keep my bedroom: polished, pristine, and orderly. I want people to think how clean and put-together I look when they first see me. I want them to add me to their Pinterest boards and their lists of what they want their lives to look like. I’m not a people pleaser—it’s just what people expect from me. I’ve always been the organized, well-mannered popular girl with straight A’s, and I intend to upkeep that same reputation. I feel like I’ll let people down if I do otherwise. I’m always the advice-giver, the mentor, the shoulder to cry on, and I’m fine with that. I can’t be vulnerable in front of others, anyways. I have to put up a front to make them happy and keep things the way they always have been.

       Lying on my bed under the covers, my eyes immediately fixate on the crack on the ceiling. I need to figure out how to fix it. It makes my room look inelegant. I asked my mom if she could help me fix it a few weeks ago, but of course, she said she was too busy with work stuff. Tearing my eyes away from it pains me, but I know I have to get things done today other than think about the imperfections that crowd my bedroom. My gaze shifts to the small LED clock on the wall, which reads 9:03 am. I should get out of bed and be productive, but stay laying in bed zoning out for another ten minutes. Eventually, my feet finally catch up with my brain and I swing my legs out of bed, feeling the soft plush of my carpet between my toes. I open the curtains to let some light in. It’s snowing outside. Footprints of all shapes and sizes speckle the streets; disruptions to the crisp, clean perfection of the freshly fallen snow.

       The full-length mirror on the wall next to me catches my eye. I see the reflection of a girl who looks like me, but not the version that others expect to see. The girl I see in the mirror is wearing a shirt from her school’s production of Cabaret last year, which she cropped and cut the sleeves off of. She has on black and grey plaid pajama shorts that came untied overnight, shark socks, and an oversized zip-up sweatshirt that has fallen off of one of her shoulders. Her dark brown hair is a mess, somehow having shifted all to one side of her head in a deep side part, with stray pieces sticking out in every direction. Her face looks tired and puffy, and she isn’t wearing any makeup. She looks natural. She looks vulnerable. 

       I put my hair in a ponytail in an attempt to make it look at least a little tidier. I walk out of my room and into the kitchen. It seems like I’m the only one awake right now. My mom tends to sleep in on the weekends. I open one of the overhead cabinets and grab one of the mason jars I always make my coffee in. It looks prettier that way. I fill it with ice from the freezer. Even though it’s snowing outside, I still drink iced coffee because it’s prettier. I fill the jar about three-quarters full with coffee from a bottle in the fridge and the rest with oat milk. Regular milk makes me bloat. I then add a tiny bit of liquid sugar and some cinnamon on top. I grab a metal straw and put it in the jar, but don’t mix it because it’ll combine all of the ingredients and make it look weird.

       I walk over to the dining room table, where I put my coffee down on one of our fancy geode coasters. I turn on the light, which casts a yellow glow onto my cup and take my phone from my pocket, opening the camera app. I photograph my drink, making sure to get pictures from all angles. I then scroll through all of the photos I took, comparing them and making sure I choose the best one. Once I’ve found the perfect picture, I post it to my Instagram story for everyone to see. I let out a sigh and bring my coffee into my room, putting it down on my desk a little too hard, so a few drops slosh out and land on its clean, white surface. I use my sleeve to clean the drops off of my desk. I don’t feel like getting a paper towel.

       My eyes find the full-length mirror once more. The girl looking back at me looks the same as before, just a little less tired. I walk over to the vanity I have in the corner of my room, with its white drawers with gold handles to match the gold mirror hanging on the wall above it, full of makeup and skincare items. I sit down in the plush chair at my vanity, and look in the mirror, analyzing my face. I look like a zombie. My pores look clogged, and a new pimple has appeared on my chin. This won’t do.

       I open the top drawer of the vanity and take out my toner and a cotton pad. I wipe the toner onto my face, which stings a bit, but in a good way. I then start putting layers upon layers of makeup on my face. Foundation, concealer, powder, bronzer, blush, highlight, brow gel, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, lip gloss. I’m aware that I wear too much makeup, but I like the way it looks. And I know others do too. Looking in the mirror now, I start to see the person that comes out at school. The girl who looks like me—the me I allow others to see. Not the natural, vulnerable me.

       I take my hair out of the ponytail and start brushing it. The hair tie has left a bump—a reminder of how I looked when I woke up this morning. A ghost of what I truly look like, haunting me. Reminding me that this heavily made-up, polished version of myself isn’t who I truly am. It’s who others want me to be, so that’s who I must be. I shake the thought from my head and grab the straightener from one of the drawers. I plug it in and wait for it to heat up. I begin to straighten my hair, erasing one of the last memories of who I am. Slowly morphing more and more into who others want me to be. 

       I walk over to my closet and open the door. Organized piles of neatly folded clothes line the shelves. Out the window, it’s still snowing. I grab a sweater and a pair of jeans. I put them on, and look in my full-length mirror once more. I’m all dressed up, and for what? Where could I possibly have to be at 11 am on a Saturday in the middle of a snowstorm? Who do I have to impress except for myself? I take one last look at the mirror, and walk out of my room. 

       My mom is sitting on the couch on her laptop in sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt. Her glasses are falling down the bridge of her nose, which she realizes and pushes up with her pointer finger. She’s a financial advisor, meaning she’s almost always dealing with some work thing no matter what time of day it is. I had to have dinner by myself on my birthday last year because of one of her dumb work emergencies. She looks up from her laptop and gives me a slight nod acknowledging my presence, and then goes back to her work. Whatever. I bet she has better things to do than to say “hi” to her own daughter.

       I go into the kitchen and grab an apple, sitting down at a barstool to eat it. I open Instagram on my phone, which is flooded with hundreds of likes and comments on a post I shared last night. Comments from people at school; people I don’t know. Telling me, “you’re so pretty!” and “i wish i looked like you”. I grimace at these comments. It took me 400 tries to get the perfect picture. 3 outfit changes, multiple different locations, and lighting. They don’t wish they looked like me. Or at least, the real me. They wish they looked like the girl who spent an hour getting ready. Imagine if they saw me when I woke up in the morning. No makeup, messy hair, pajamas. What would they think then?

       I look over at my mom, hard at work, sporting sweatpants, a sweatshirt, glasses, a messy bun, and no makeup. She is successful, even though she looks natural and unpolished. Why can’t I be the same way? Why do I always pay so much attention to what people think of me instead of what I think of myself? If I looked at myself using my own eyes instead of the eyes of other people, what would I see differently, if anything at all? Why can’t I just be me, and be happy with just being me, instead of trying so hard to be someone I’m not? 

       I run to my room and close the door. I wipe all of the makeup off of my face and look at myself. I look better without it, anyways. Why do I bother wearing it every day? I take my phone out and take a picture of myself. Just one. I put it on my Snapchat story—no filters or editing, just me. Barely a minute later, I get a message from someone from school replying to my story. “r u okay? u look sick”. My breath catches. I delete the picture. It wasn’t a good picture anyway. I lay down on my bed, feeling the mattress adjust to the weight of my body, engulfing me in its warm embrace. I know the girl from my school was genuinely concerned about me and wanted to show she cared, but her words felt harsh and judgemental. I feel like crying, or throwing up, or both. I want people to like me for who I am, not who I pretend to be. It’s exhausting putting up a mask all the time, concealing how I really feel. Sometimes I just want to let it all out and scream but I know I can’t. 

       My snowball of thoughts is interrupted by a knock on my door. I wipe my eyes and softly squeak out something that sounds like “Come in.” The door creaks open and my mom’s head appears in the doorway. She looks uncomfortable; almost scared to come in. She slowly pushes the door open the rest of the way and sort of shuffles inside. “Can I sit?” she asks, motioning to the space on the bed next to me. I nod. She sits down, and I can feel the bed shift under her weight. 

       She looks concerned as she asks, “Are you okay?”

       Those three words trigger something in my brain, and tears start to roll down my cheeks. I bury my face in my pillow as I mumble, “I’m perfectly fine.”

       I feel her hand rest on my lower back, as she skeptically remarks, “Well, it doesn’t seem like you are.”

       I turn to look at her and roll my eyes. “I said I’m fine.”

       “Have you ever wondered how I got so successful?”

       Typical; she’s making everything about herself. 

       “Not really,” I retort, rolling my eyes as I whip my head back around to face her, hugging my pillow tightly against my chest.

       She sighs. “Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. I used to be exactly like you are now. I was the most popular girl at school, I had tons of friends, I was involved in so many activities, I had straight A’s, I was hard working. Some may have called me a bit of a perfectionist. In other people’s eyes, I was a role model in every way. I always looked put together, had everything neatly organized, and was always on time for everything. On the inside, however, I had this longing to be liked by everyone. I wanted to please everyone, no matter how hard it was for me. I chose to put others’ happiness before mine. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t the popular, preppy, ideal girl everyone saw I was, but I thought that if I changed myself and prioritized my happiness over theirs, people wouldn’t accept me for who I really was.”

       She looks at me with a raised eyebrow. I realize she’s right about us being exactly alike. If I hadn’t known she was describing herself, I would’ve thought she was describing me.

       She continues, “It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I realized I should be putting my own happiness first. I started pursuing a career I was interested in instead of one that others were interested in for me. I stopped trying to look perfect all the time, and instead focused more on schoolwork and spending time with my friends. The fact that I was happier with myself ended up improving so many other things in my life; things I didn’t think would be affected. The quality of my work got better, the relationships with my friends improved, and I met even more people, now that I finally allowed myself to be who I truly was. So, Mina, what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t always be hard on yourself. You’re perfect just the way you are, and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” 

       My voice breaks as I whisper, “But what if I can’t do that? What if I never learn how to be myself without worrying about what others think of me?”

       Her expression softens. “I’ll admit, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide, ‘I’m going to stop caring about what other people think of me and thinking that their opinion matters.’ It took some time for me to get to that mindset, but eventually, I got there. And you will too someday. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but eventually. I’m sure of it.”

        I sit up and wipe my eyes again. She wraps her arms around me and hugs me tightly. It feels reassuring. She pulls away and gives my shoulders a squeeze of encouragement, smiling at me. “You’re the best daughter I could ever ask for. I hope you know that.”

       “I know,” I reply, jokingly.

       “I know you do. I just wanted to remind you” She grins and nudges me with her shoulder, “Oh, hey! Best daughter I could ever ask for, you asked me about getting that crack in your ceiling fixed a few weeks ago. How about we go buy some supplies and fix it either today or tomorrow? It’s stopped snowing, and the hardware store opens at noon.”

        I look up at it, and all its perfect imperfection. The smaller lines that branch off of it, overlapping and merging, and how they all meet to form one main line. It starts to comfort me. The fact that my bedroom—my neat, organized, polished, perfect bedroom, has a visible flaw, yet still looks perfect, brings me joy. It’s been there for so long, and I’ve thought about fixing it, but never actually took any initiative to. It feels like a part of my room now; a part of me. “No,” I say with a smile, “I think I’ll leave it the way it is.”