Monday, January 18, 2010

Just Two Words

It happened at a random moment, in a sunny stairwell, on a generic week day, the spring of my sophomore year in college. Morning classes were over, the turkey sandwich had been scarfed down quickly in the cafeteria, and I was hustling my way up to my friend’s dorm room to work on an almost over due group project.

I had a tight grip on the stair rail, my silent way of compensating for a left foot that was a bit deformed (although hidden well in a trendy high top tennis shoe) and generally uncooperative in most situations involving stairs.

I had paused for a second, scanning the courtyard below through the wide windows that bordered the stair well, looking for one of our other friends, who was supposed to be on her way back from lunch also.

A person of the male variety scooted by me. He easily cruised up each level, almost as if floating his way to the top. But as he passed me he caught my eye and said two words I will never forget. Two words that pierced through me and left me speechless.

“Nice legs.”

I cannot explain his boldness and was baffled by his comment until way past the point of having a cute or clever answer. I never saw him again and sometimes wonder if he ever really even existed.

But the memory is so clear. I know he was real.

Maybe he was feeling especially generous that day and made sassy comments to every girl he passed. Maybe he had been challenged by roommates in some dorm initiation ritual. But whatever his story, he said the words. To me.

I was not a pretty girl but not an ugly one either. I had been extremely successful at hiding my twisted foot from everyone at college, even my own roommates. My left leg was pretty skinny, worn out from numerous surgeries I’d had in elementary school and junior high. But my right leg was in decent shape. Having to pull the weight for a weak partner had made my right thigh long and lean and my right calf round and strong.

After years of occasionally analyzing that comment, I have come to believe this is what happened. The way I was standing blocked his view of my left leg and what he saw was just half of the picture - my stronger right half. But no matter what the reason, what the motivation, what the intention, the outcome was the same. Those words stuck in my brain.

To a girl who spent most of her childhood hiding an ugly foot and looking for reasons to avoid running because it never worked right, this boy’s comment was a miracle. To a youngest sister, growing up behind two older, gorgeous sisters with amazing abilities to pull off the latest styles, feeling mostly lost behind their brilliance, a comment like that pierced my being.

I walked taller for weeks after that moment. I thought of those two words when I was riding my bike, trying to keep both of my legs strong enough to keep up with college life. It changed how I saw my own body. Being away from home, out from under the umbrella of being ‘one of the Johnson girls”, had been liberating in many ways. But there were still pockets of insecurity and physical fitness was one of them.

Suddenly I realized that I could be seen as attractive too. Not just a leftover, the extra sister, but someone with my own positive points to offer.

Two words. Just two words. And I remember them clearly, over twenty years later. I remember the stairwell, I remember the moment. I remember his blonde hair and the surprise that was like an aftershock of an earthquake, rendering me paralyzed for at least a full minute. Nice legs. My legs. (or at least as far as he knew, seeing one and assuming the other would match)

It makes me think about the power of words. They can so easily hurt and tear down. Senseless comments that are not well thought out.

“Too bad you couldn’t get an A in that class.”

“Wow, your friend is so thin and beautiful.”

“Aunt Jesse’s always been the loony one.”

But in the same way, the simplicity of simple words can move mountains. Change self perceptions. Be bundled up and carried in someone’s heart for years and years afterward, taken out and revisited when the need arose.

To a shy child, “I love to hear your laugh, it makes me smile.”

To a friend with the four week old baby, “Wow! You look amazing!”

To the tired girl in the checkout line at the grocery store, “You have the nicest smile.”

It doesn’t take that much. Just slowing down long enough to see outside the bubble of your own busy life. Challenging yourself to pick two people a day and imagining what they are feeling and which handful of words might do them the most good.

Because you never know. Those eight words, or five words, or even two words, could change a person’s day. Heck, it might even make their week. Or maybe, just maybe, those words will travel with them for decades to come.

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