I didn’t realise until the last minute, on the way home, that he was taking me to meet his mother.
It had already been a day of small humiliations, the kind that arise from the fact of being so entirely in love with someone that any slip-up causes the enormous fear of rejection. And it hadn’t been so long, either, and I had been out of my depth all day, worrying about how I looked, and looking at him out of the corner of my eye. Still at a loss as to what he saw in me, really, because , quite honestly, he was the most beautiful creature that ever walked the earth. That’s a fact I still maintain as a truth: he was. I felt like such a peahen beside him.
He hadn’t said anything, he just turned into the gate of a small modest house. I followed him up the path, and onto the porch, where he opened the screen door and disappeared inside. I heard him call his mother, and felt sudden sharp waves of self consciousness numb my face. I stopped, paralysed.
I don’t think he noticed I hadn’t followed him in.
I couldn’t move.
He had disappeared into the darkness, and when I hesitated, I lost him. I didn’t know whether to open up the door and go in, to look around in unknown corridors, walk into a strange bedroom by mistake, or even worse, an unknown bathroom.
He didn’t come back out to fetch me, so I stood there, realising how rude this must look. My heart cracked and thumped, and stole my voice away with its hammering. Minutes passed. My face prickled and I stared down at the ground, with no way I could go in now, it would look too awkward, and by now he would be angry, or embarrassed. Perhaps he had told her I was coming, and now I had refused to enter the house.
I waited woefully on the porch until he reemerged, unable to speak. I was like that, sometimes. As a child I was quite shy, and hated speaking in public. In class I shuffled and whispered when it was time to give my speech. But this was far worse: I wasn’t a child, and I had humiliated myself in front of the one I wished to impress the most, and was left completely mute by the experience. I couldn’t have cared less had it been anyone else.
We walked out the gate. It was some time before my voice returned.
She never liked me much, his mum. I tried for years to make her like me. Years later, I asked him why she didn’t.
He reminded me of the summer holiday we had joined his family, in a beach house, of the night we had been overtaken by passion on the sofa and had rolled off onto the floor.
His mother had wandered in to see what the noise was, and he had looked into her startled face over my shoulder. I was completely oblivious.
“She made a little squeaking noise when she saw your bare bottom” he explained, helpfully.
Naturally, I was mortified. Thank God I hadn’t known at the time.
It may not have been my most humiliating moment, that paralysis on the porch, but it’s the only memory I have, of being speechless with embarrassment, that actually still bothers me. It still makes the shame flare up in my cheeks: I was just so self-conscious then. That afternoon retains the power to make me feel shamed, but has informed the way I have conducted myself ever since.
I’ve not really been in my current job that long, this will be my fourth year: most people my age have spent lifetimes writing and researching and lecturing, and have much more fancy curriculum vitae than me. But it’s what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to be, despite the fact that I have lost a decade, and am so far behind. So when good things happen, which is rare, I celebrate them with myself. Nobody knows the dramas I have to go through to do anything, the fighting for time and the endless stepping around the huge domestic elephants that sit in my house, the late hours I spend at my books, the research that gets tossed aside due to some unannounced activity, or a blown-up car, or whatever hundred and one obstacles are placed in my path as I struggle to do things. If I am successful, I have had to work twice as hard as anyone else for the success.
I cannot say any of this, of course. I just have to get ON with it. So when it comes together, I am wildly pleased.
Last week when I spoke at the conference, I knew I would present well: I always do.
I just hate the lack of thorough preparation that circumstances present, or the thought that I have not done my best.
It’s a point of honour, you see, a vow I made to myself, a long time ago, that no matter what, I would never be mute again. I would always speak up and never be silenced, not ever.
And so, as always, there were two persons in that lecture theatre who always come when I am speaking. That blond girl in the front row, with the smiling, unlined face, that girl on the cliffedge of a serious daydream, but listening now, to my every word. I suspect she doesn’t recognise me.
How can you DO that? She asks, and I tell her,
it’s just practice, it’s just breathing.
She has no idea how sweet and hopeful she looks, with her shiny hair and untroubled face. No idea, silly thing.
The other sits closer to the back, smiling that smile, the one he tries to suppress, but can’t. He was the most beautiful boy in the world, once, long ago. He’s still pretty gorgeous.
Look at you, he says, Look at you.
He certainly remembers that fair haired girl in the front row, even though she can’t see him, up the back in the dark: she’s busily squinting at me, with her head to one side.
I speak to him. He listens, to my clearspoken words, as he always does, and disappears when I am done, as he always does, fading then into darkness.
And that young me in the front row? She disappears too, selfconsciously standing now, shaking back her bright hair, moving towards the door, already becoming taller, thinking, dreaming, looking out for her beautiful boy, who is surely waiting for her just outside, holding out his arm, to go together somewhere, finding her voice, speaking up.
Softly at first, then a little more boldly, bit by bit, as best she can.
After a moment, when they are gone, the sound returns, the chair is fielding questions, and I am back in the moment, answering them.