In reality it was only a few seconds. But it felt like several minutes, if not hours.
I stood there helpless in an outlet store staring at a selection of red summer shorts. Usually a “summer sale” would have helped me feel better about making a purchase. No luck this time.
“Just pick up two sizes – it’s no big deal. Try them both.”
“No way. Just pick up the one size and if they don’t fit, work harder.”
“You worked so hard and threw it all away. What a shame.”
“It’s really not that big of a deal – just buy some shorts that fit.”
“You said you’d never go back to this – and look, right back where you started.”
“It’s not your fault you had to cut back on exercise – it’s the cancer’s fault.”
“You should have had more self control.”
My internal dialogue revved its engines, flashing me back to junior high. The “game” had begun. I stared skeptically at the women offering polite half-smiles walking around me, wondering if they were playing.
Nobody taught me how to play or its rules; I just picked them up along the way. The locker room's where I remember watching the games begin.
Once changed out of sweaty gym clothes, skinny girls with slender waistlines would slip into tiny jeans and prance around the locker room before heading down the hallway. They’d smile, obvious to how many early developers with worse metabolisms secretly watched out of the sides of their eyes, invisible tears dripping with envy of such head-turning luxury.
The game we, as in those of us not skipping around half-dressed, played was simple: find the size. In sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious stares, we'd try to uncover others’ sizes. Somehow, in some way, if we wore smaller sizes like the seemingly victorious, we wouldn’t be the lowest on food chain. Like sly poker players, we’d hold our cards (and our clothes) tightly while trying to steal a glimpse at others. Relief came when we’d find a size bigger than our own. But we’d still have work to do. Victory meant access to the other side of the locker room - the place where you skipped around freely, comfortably in your own skin thanks to your small size.
Thin, hormonal, adolescent girls might have well been dancing around the outlet store in tight jeans and teenage bras when I finally came to.
“Alright – I'll try both.”
I picked up two sizes of the red shorts. Out of habit, I arranged the smaller size to cover the tag on the larger size before trekking to the dressing rooms. I prepared myself as large photographs of small-framed models advertising the clothes formed an imaginary tunnel to the back of the store.
"I will look nothing like that - but I'm not them, I'm me."
At the door frame of the dressing room hallway, embarrassment started to leak in and nearly stopped me.
A stronger flood of sadness rushed in, reminding me of why I needed shorts. Too many bowls of ice cream and handfuls of peanut m&ms caught up. They were easy go-tos for handling the disappointment of slowing down my physical activity because of post-surgical pain and residual side effects from cancer treatments.
Buying new shorts was hard and humbling, but better than the defeat of having nothing to wear.
Relieved by the absence of an attendant who could have possibly made things even more uncomfortable, I clung to the shorts, darted into the stall, closed the door and exhaled.
I stared at the two pairs of red shorts on the bench and knew the struggle wasn’t over.
At least I’d learned my lesson.
Years of squeezing into clothes with absolute defeat taught me to try the bigger size first. Peeling off the old, I closed my eyes and slipped on the new, careful to not rip any hanging tags.
To my relief, they easily slipped over my hips without any uncomfortable stretching – a problem area in the past. They weren’t too tight around the thigh, either. Then came the true test. I went in for the button. Without any tugging or sucking in, they fastened.
I opened my eyes and stared. To my amazement they fit. Really well.
Really, really well.
For a split second I started to wonder if I could squeeze into the smaller size sitting on the dressing room bench. Although they were the same size as my other shorts fitting snugly at home, I bargained with myself, trying to believe I could spare another inch or so. As I went to unfasten the button, something stopped me.
“Give it up.”
I sat the smaller pair down and looked at myself in the mirror once again.
The bigger pair of red shorts fit really well. They weren’t too tight, and I could move freely. They weren’t too short or too long. I envisioned myself wearing them all summer without embarrassment or shame when leaving the house. The size was irrelevant because when I wore them, I felt comfortable and free.
Finally, I resolved to buy them.
I gave myself one final look in the full-length mirror before heading to the checkout. What started as a quick stare turned into a slightly longer gaze as something else drew me in.
I'd just disregarded size for (what felt like) the first time in my life. I felt comfortable in my own skin. But, I wasn't dancing around. I'd been deceived by a projected definition of victory.
With my shirt slightly lifted so I could see the waistline of the red shorts, I caught a glimpse of my long abdominal scar, a battle wound that had been opened and closed from a decade full of surgeries. With the most recent several years behind me, it was fading once again.
My eyes continued to make their way up as I examined my arms. Although less toned compared to years prior, somehow they still looked strong. They were free of needles and IV lines, tubes and tape.
My long wavy hair flowed over my collarbone – the same hair that I’d watched fall out in clumps yet grow back again when chemo treatments ended.
Then, I finally met my eyes.
I looked long and hard into my own reflection. The more intently I stared, the more I knew. I knew where I’d been, yet I also knew where I was going. I knew who I was... and who I wasn't. I knew everything was going to be OK. I felt it - this was real victory.
Then, I finally saw her – the brave girl everyone else had seen all along.
On the outside, she was in an outlet store dressing room.
But on the inside, she was somewhere foreign.
Walking down a long windy path, she knew to not let anything sidetrack her or get in the way. Knowing her true identity, she was determined to face what lied ahead.
She appeared alone, but she wasn't. She had all she needed.
She was wearing a pair of red summer shorts.