By Raph al Guul
I remember the first time I saw her; an ugly duckling with the ears of an elephant, nose of a pig, and a chin that is pretty much unrivaled in the animal kingdom. I have to admit that I thought she was absolutely ugly – the kind of person who photobombs even their own pictures just by being present. She seemed like someone who, instead of making an effort to stand out through beauty, probably had to make the same kind of effort not to stand out at all. And she wasn’t doing that good a job at it, I thought. Not that it should have bothered me much. I was at a friend’s party and he came over, introducing her as Clarissa. I didn’t even know why that was supposed to be of interest to me. He was acting as if I had come here just to meet some chick he knew from the college he was attending. I sipped on my beer and tried to nod in some sort of polite manner, hoping that it would be enough to conclude the encounter. Unfortunately, at that moment some more guests arrived and my “friend” immediately abandoned us. She smiled uncomfortably and I noticed that despite everything else, her teeth were actually quite pretty.
It was the strangest thing: ever since that smile, every word she said, every look she gave me, every little gesture made her more and more beautiful. And it wasn’t that her teeth were absolutely spectacular or that her chin had magically started to recline. It seemed as if her rough exterior stood in contrast with everything that was not apparent on first sight. Clarissa was clever, interesting, kind – every now and then she was even funny – just the type of person you’d want to have around. Consequently, after that night at the party, I made sure we’d meet again – and so we did. We went for tea, coffee, drinks, you name it. She showed me around campus, I showed her where I worked. We went to a carnival once, where she got sick on one of the rides, so we didn’t do that again. We became best friends and met up all the time and for no reason; sometimes she’d wait outside the office until I was done with work just so we could have a smoke and a chat. I once even went to one of her lectures, but didn’t understand much and probably distracted her way too much as well. And every time we met, Clarissa grew a little bit more beautiful.
One day, some two years after we met, we went to a zoo. I wasn’t really into this sort of thing, but Clarissa seemed very enthusiastic about it. There was something about her eyes when she was excited, so I probably went along just to see those, rather than the caged animals. “Look at that tiger,” she said, “isn’t it absolutely gorgeous?” I don’t know why I answered, “Almost as beautiful as you,” but I did. Perhaps I just felt that the tiger didn’t deserve that much credit when in her presence – that could well be it. Although it seems more likely that it was just that I had developed a stupid crush on her and clumsily tried to find a way to express that. And it worked, too, because Clarissa looked at me half bemused, half bewildered and said: “Are you hitting on me?” I turned into a stammering twelve-year-old, trying to formulate an honest answer; since I felt so much shame at that moment that I didn’t dare looking her in the eyes, I found myself staring at the tiger, which seemed entirely uninvolved and completely unhelpful. I don’t remember the exact wording of the ensuing speech which was undoubtedly void of any eloquence whatsoever, but I think it started out with a pointless recount of how much time we had been spending together, ineptly transitioned into countless affirmations of how much I enjoyed them, and eventually tumbled into the awkward expression of my feelings towards her. When I found the courage to look at her again, I saw her smiling uncomfortably, something I hadn’t witnessed in a very long time.
“That’s not good,” Clarissa said, and something inside me gained a massive amount of weight and dropped a few hundred meters. In a sweet, slightly apologetic voice, she gave me the bullet points from the back of the “how to shoot him down gently”-pamphlet. The gist of it was that she thought we were better as friends. She never really thought of me in the same way and I wasn’t even her type. The tiger had left its spot by now, probably because it didn’t want to witness my humiliation. I didn’t say much after that – what was there really to say? We left pretty soon and I dropped her off at her place and drove home myself. First we tried to act like this conversation had never taken place, as you do, but after that day, we made less and less plans and soon we only saw each other once a month at best.
About a year later, she was waiting outside the office again after work, something she hadn’t done since the day at the zoo. She offered me a cigarette and we walked for a bit. She asked me why I kept avoiding plans with her, if I didn’t want to hang out anymore, and if it had anything to do with – “you know what.” And so I explained to her that it did in fact have to do with “you know what.” I explained that the feelings didn’t just go away because they received a cease and desist order. That looking at her beautiful face hurt and that I felt helplessly lost every time we met, including right now. She seemed to understand, although I had my doubts if it was even possible for anyone to understand someone else’s pain. She stopped walking and turned to me and asked what we should do. A little tear ran down my face when I told her that perhaps someday the way I felt would change and that only then it would be possible for me to behave like a normal human being again. That only then I could be a friend again. We hugged for the last time that night, and parted ways – to go and wait for “someday” on our own.
The last time I ever saw her was today in the dentist’s waiting room. It had been about eleven months since that unpleasant night and consequently we had not been in contact for almost a year. Although, I still often thought of her – little things in my life reminded me: a cigarette after work, a theme park ride, a tiger on television. It was not always painful anymore and I had slowly started to hope that this was the beginning of change – a change of heart, if you will. But I was wrong. In the waiting room I sat down after grabbing one of the random magazines on the tiny glass table in the middle. It occurred to me that I had no idea what I was reading, nor did it bother me. It was just a means of waiting, a surface to hold in front of your face to hide your boredom. I leafed through the magazine, mostly looking at the pictures. And there she was. At the top of one of the last pages there was a small picture of her face. I had already not been paying attention to the written portions, but now that I saw this, the text became even more irrelevant. I had forgotten how much it hurt to look at her beautiful face. Instead, something else popped into my mind. My eyes became watery and little drops began falling over my face and a wistful smile: an ugly duckling with the ears of an elephant, nose of a pig, and a chin that is pretty much unrivaled in the animal kingdom.