Without This Woman, I Wouldn't Remember Your Name

Marina Shifrin

Celia. Deanna. Drew. Leigh. Toni. Rob. These are the last six people I’ve met, and I will always remember their names.

Not because they’ve had a profound impact on my life. They haven’t. As of this writing, they are acquaintances who stopped by for a handshake, some eye contact, and a small reminder that we are all still living In Real Life. I'm just very good at remembering people.

My penchant for instantly memorizing those I meet has become one of my strongest social weapons, but it used to freak out kids in college. I had to pretend like I didn’t know who they were when re-meeting them, years later, at some party.

Before I was good with names and faces, I focused my obsessive neurosis toward less productive things. Like rampant upper-lip hair growth.

“Marina, this is Mike,” a friend would say. Mike who lived in Schurz Hall freshman year, studied Political Science and has a sister named Candice, I’d think. “Nice to meet you,” I’d respond.

It’s a small detail, but when someone remembers your name you are reminded that you exist in this world. And for a brief moment, in high school, one woman reminded me that I existed.

Before I was good with names and faces, I focused my obsessive neurosis toward less productive things. Like rampant upper-lip hair growth. I was so desperate to get rid of my teenage mustache that I once ripped off a sizable patch of my skin, thanks to an at-home waxing kit. (I woke up the next morning, only to find a perfectly square, black scab developed directly beneath my nose. I was "Heil"d in the hallway for a week.) My complete inability to calmly exist in my body made me hate the girls who could, especially this one girl in my homeroom class.

Stuffing myself into a locker. Obviously. (Marina Shifrin)

She was from a different world. A world where beauty was social currency. She looked like she was straight out of a dELiA*s catalogue. The elusive, cool girl: too hot, too mean, too cold to ever bother with girls like me. She floated through the halls on a sea of admirers, while I drowned in them. I didn’t bother remembering her name.

She was a gymnast, I knew that much. On meet days, her red leotard looked as if it were painted onto her lean body by DaVinci himself. I’m not exaggerating. This girl was a work of art, and it felt criminal that she was in the same category of species as me. I mean, I cannot picture her without thinking of the four-inch space between where her jeans ended and her t-shirt began (known colloquially as a midriff). Her tan abs peeked out from under her shirt, taunting me with their sporty flatness. Before seeing her stomach, I thought abs were a myth, like Chimaera or social security benefits.

She was the victor in the silent war brewing in my mind. She was nice, and I was mean.

As for me, I kept my midriff tucked into my underwear. (It perpetually looked like I was shoplifting hoagies.) Aside from this girl’s athletic extracurriculars and low-rise jeans, I knew very little else about her. Why bother learning something about someone you hate? (This was before women learned to stop competing with each other and start supporting each other, mind you. When I was in high school, it was a cat-eat-cat world out there.)

I ended up learning her name halfway through our sophomore year. I was walking down the hall, and she was passing me just like in all those slow-mo movie scenes: the cool girl flanked by her popular friends (she was friends with these two, blonde identical twins who stood on either side of her like some sort of chic-girl cavalry). I was trying my hardest not to make eye contact. As she walked by, she said, “Hey, Marina!” Her sing-song tone was cheery, without a shadow of sarcasm.

Here I am at 18, doing my best impersonation of a pregnant woman. (Marina Shifrin)

My stomach melted. This “popular girl” took the time to at least learn one thing about me: my name. She took the time to look at me when I said “here” in homeroom. She reserved a tiny space in her brain for me and it felt good.

She was the victor in the silent war brewing in my mind. She was nice, and I was mean. I swallowed my ego so hard that it made me choke.

This girl showed me the dangers of projecting all my envy-stereotypes onto someone without taking a goddamn second to figure out who they are. When my name left her lips, I felt like I existed on the same plane as her. Never judge a dELiA*s catalogue by its cover.

That was the last time I let someone’s appearance intimidate me out of getting to know them. It was also the last time I forgot someone’s name, I promise you this.

I came home and pulled out my freshman yearbook. I scanned through the black-and-gray photos filled with stick-straight hair, gelled boy-bangs, puka shell necklaces, and I found her. She had a cheesy yearbook smile, and two messy braids on either side of her delightfully cherub-like cheeks.

My finger traced to the left of her photo and stopped at her name: Rebecca Miller. I wrote her name down in my planner, vowing to say “hi” to Rebecca the next day.

Bustle's "Without This Woman" is a series of essays honoring the women who change  — and challenge — us every day.

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