Last night Charlotte and I put Emma to bed. Emma loves nothing more than reading a bed time story, and she chose a set of contes to read, the first of which was "Le Vilain Petit Canard," or "The Ugly Duckling."
Although not my favorite tale, it's one that I have, since my early adolescence, identified with. At thirteen, I was deep in the midst of the awkward stage, my skin--which is still, to this day, sensitive--wouldn't behave, my hair went haywire with its curls, and my features couldn't seem to settle themselves under my round glasses. In fact, I'm still so embarrassed by this that I dare not even post of a photo on this blog.
I'm long past those days, but I can't help but retain their imprint. I don't have the acne, the bad hair, the braces, or the ignominy of being intellectually curious--oh, the horror! in junior high--but I still have a tad of what I like to think of as an "Ugly Duckling" complex. This hung over me a bit more in college, especially when my two roommates always seemed to have boyfriends, and even more so now that they are out in the 'real world' with serious relationships, while I floated through Cal dating here and there, but was nevertheless incredibly shy and didn't get involved with any one. I try not to let the ugly duckling image hang over me consciously, but no woman (unless she's Giselle Bundchen) can deny that there are days when she wishes she was taller, thinner, prettier, and the list goes on...
This particular reflection is pertinent as of late, precisely because of the conversations I have with Charlotte. Charlotte, at nearly 13 (her birthday is the day before mine) is on the verge of adolescence. Talking with her is one of the things I enjoy about being an au pair, because she reminds me of the tumult of that time period in my life, for better or worse.
A few weeks ago, Charlotte expressed to me that she is "moche," and that there are girls "a whole lot prettier" at school. Naturally, feeling the same way at her age, I tried to assuage her in saying that she's neither ugly, nor fat. In fact, she's far from it--gorgeous with a stunning olive complexion, deep brown eyes and hair. I explained to her that believe it or not, I was much more horrid looking at this age than she, who is downright beautiful, is, and I proved this to her by asking my stepdad to scan and send mortifying photos of me at age 12-13ish. Indeed, I sacrified myself on the altar of ugly duckling dignity and sat mortified at the computer while her jaw dropped. She could hardly believe it was me. I laughed: neither can I.
For Charlotte, I'm sure that much of this appearance hooplah is tied to boys and dating, which she's been asking me a lot about as of late. This is hilarious in some respects, because all of you who know me well know that I'm *probably* not the best one to turn to for advice. I've very, very shy in that realm of life, so I can only share what little experience I have. In the words of my friends: "You. Are. In. Ept." And that about sums it up perfectly.
Charlotte amuses me, though, because with a coy smile she often says, "hey, hey, you should meet a French guy, you might marry a French guy, and then you could move here." I've replied that I'm not opposed to the idea, but that in the long run, I think I'm more compatible with an American, although of this I am not sure, because I've never really dated a French guy.
Instead, I tell her what I do know about: I know how hard it is to have your heart broken for the first time, and how you see the world differently afterward. I know how much it hurts to fall for a friend and be confused about where you stand while wanting that person to have every ounce of happiness possible, even if that means that happiness is not with you. I know what it's like to get your hopes up thinking that something might just be starting with the person you just went on a first date with, only to have it blow up in your face. I know what it's like to feel a little bit lonely on the road to possibly finding someone. I know what it's like to feel like the ugly duckling in a room full of swans.
What I see in Charlotte is a bit of myself at thirteen, perhaps a little piece of who I am now. Like Charlotte, there are days I wonder if I will ever find "Mr. Right," while she wonders if things will work out with the cute 14 year-old "Mr. Right Now." I'll be frank in admitting that I know with certainty I'm too young for the question of "Mr. Right," to be a legitimate concern, but nonetheless, I ask it. I ask it in the name of the thirteen year old girl inside me who worried if she was attractive and charming enough and if this could make up for the fact that she was just too damn smart for anyone to want to pay attention to her. I ask it in the name of the 17 year old girl whose first love taught her what it is to be bitter and to forgive. I ask it in the name of the almost 23 year old single girl living in France and wondering where this life is going to lead her.
I know that Charlotte is not an ugly duckling, though I can gleam from our conversations that there are certainly days when she feels like the canard in the storybooks. Likewise, I'm sure that I'm no longer that ugly duckling...but sometimes, I don't quite feel like a swan, either.