by Rachel Rear
“You were at the Friday show of Once on this Island. You have dark hair and lovely dark eyes. I think you saw me, too.”
My eyes landed on the personal ad in the back of the Rutgers Medium one fall afternoon my junior year. It was for me. I knew who’d written it. He had shoulder-length hair and sat catty-corner from me in the small black box called Cabaret Theatre, wearing an Allman Brothers “Eat a Peach” T-shirt. His gaze – unnerving but not lascivious – kept me glancing over.
Though intrigued, I couldn’t respond. It seemed too bold. So I carried the flattery around like a secret bird in a crystal cage.
That way, he could imagine I was perfect…
My father used to announce, “No boy will ever like you,” in between yelling at me that I was “a worthless good-for-nothing.” He shoved me on slippery ice because I wouldn’t listen when he said not to walk there – I was two. He hit me, too; I went to school with bruises a few times – but I cringed more from the verbal tyranny. When someone who should love you keeps saying you’re garbage, it’s hard to resist believing it.
Other kids offered no refuge. Middle school boys screamed, “You’re ugly!”, shoving me. One boy invented a song about how I should shave my legs and sang it when the teacher wasn’t looking. The girls hair-sprayed their bangs while I skulked past in the bathroom. I was voted “Biggest Bookworm” because a classmate convinced her whole homeroom to vote for me. I felt gawkish, outcast.
There were two of me – one a gangly loser, the other a graceful creature with superpowers no one could see.
I daydreamed through adolescence, walking in the woods, talking to imaginary companions. The world where I rode dragons outshone the real one. I girded myself with illusions; they formed a force-field. Still, a deep-seated belief in my own despicability gnawed at me, like I gnawed at my fingernails.
The fantasies subsided. The self-hatred didn’t, even after I got contact lenses, stopped pulling my hair out, and morphed into something more acceptable.
When I was 19, my parents divorced. It rattled me more than I thought it could or wanted to admit. Dangerous fissures tore in my world’s concrete. I stayed in bed, crying for hours; my trichotillomania resurged. I imagined crashing through my dorm window and bleeding onto the snow. I totaled my Plymouth Horizon and grieved like someone died.
Worse, I clung like ivy to the sweet boy I’d been with since high school – even as I slept with another. My infidelity ended a relationship I’d entered for safety, not one that cracked me open and let me burn.
Frozen inside me was a need for adoration, but when offered it, I was terrified to expose the monster I was. To allow someone to worship me from afar was a perfect solution. So I contemplated that personal ad like an exhibit in a museum.
A year later, the guy from the theatre walked into my music theory class wearing the Allman Brothers shirt. Sean. I never let on I knew; he averted his eyes when they met mine.
When I auditioned for A Midsummer Night’s Dream the next spring, half-feigning a plucky air, and was cast as Snug the Joiner, Cabaret’s scene swept me in. Those parties – there was always a handful of people clad in underwear or less, a group singing in harmony, a wild game of Truth-or-Dare.
At first, I observed, but I began to feel daring. I was more fun, more me, when I danced salsa with my new boyfriend Jeremy, when I wore more glitter, when I stood on fire escapes shouting poetry into the cool May night.
Sean was at parties often, sitting on the sofa’s edge, sipping a beer. One night, the new moxie in me flashed a smile, and I knew he knew I knew.
I found myself, at sunrise, walking to the Grease Trucks with some drunk, giddy friends, Sean among them. I slowed my pace so we lagged behind. “It was you, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“You know it was me,” Sean said with shy, shining eyes. “You are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
It was only true to him. I knew I’d look in the mirror later and curse the dark shadows under my eyes or the cellulite that remained visible no matter how skinny I got, that I’d again slip into the quicksand of depression, that misery would again hatch from its egg. But I saw myself in a momentary vision from Sean’s eyes, a guy who still saw and only wanted to see my best self. I wanted him to never see anything else. I wanted to believe in my own magic. Sean helped me inch closer to that.
I felt he saw the version of me I’d believed in as a little girl – sparkling, sharp, otherworldly – who wanted to be a lion-tamer, who hid under mountain laurels pretending she was a sorceress. I’d lost her in the crush of havoc of my teen years.
That spring was sprinkled with Midsummer magic. Snug the Joiner plays a lion in the play within the play. I was an actor playing an actor playing a part, somehow becoming real. The little girl who wanted to be a lion-tamer became something better – a lion.
It’s twenty years since Sean said, “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” There was never more between us, and our intersection is better for not facing the snarls of real life. We’re friends on Facebook, that funny space that allows for sanctioned nostalgia. His life looks bucolic, full of sunshine and babies in pumpkin patches. His wife looks tender and kind.
My life is vastly different. I live alone in Brooklyn. I write, I dance, I fly on a trapeze. My friends say I should do a stand-up routine about online dating. There is a pulsing quality to many of my days. Despite combating melancholy and anxiety, I am more and more a lion.
So, with the conviction of a woman who knows herself – almost – I send this personal ad out to thank Sean for his unabashed admiration. He probably never thinks about it – that’s good.
But when I remember the beat my heart skipped when I read Sean’s anonymous missive, I’m reminded of a gaze that is not my harsh own, reminded of the aspects of myself that are scintillating and intrepid. I’m grateful.
So here’s my answer, Sean, twenty years late: I did see you. Thank you for seeing me.