“I think you’ve got something really special,” he said. “All those workshops and classes you’re taking are paying off. You have rare talent and maturity for someone who is thirteen.”
I startled at the sound of his voice, soft and low on the other end of the phone. It was just before dinner and I was standing in the kitchen, having finished my homework. “Thank you,” I said.
“I think we should meet, outside of class sometime. You can come by my place,” he said, before abruptly ending our conversation and having to rush off the phone. It was the first time he had called our house, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“He thinks I’m really special,” I told my mother hanging up the phone in the kitchen, where she pretended to busy herself at the counter cleaning.
“I’m sure he does,” my mother said, scrubbing the kitchen counter.
“What?” I asked, getting defensive, my fears that maybe I wasn’t so talented, rising up on me.
“Of course, you’re special,” she reassured me, coming close, “I don’t need him to tell me that.”
But I did. I’d been told I was pretty and talented, but I didn’t believe it, so I worked hard at it. I dieted, exercised, and dressed carefully to cover flaws I’d convinced myself would hold me back if I didn’t stay vigilant. But like a lot of young women my age, I was terrified inside. Terrified, that at any moment if I dropped my guard, everyone would stop and point and yell: Fraud! Imposter! Who the hell does she think she is!
My mother wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close to her side. “I just don’t know what a married man, three times your age, is doing calling you at home?”
“Married?” It was the first I’d heard about it, and I felt sick.
“That’s what I heard.”
I didn’t know much about married men, but I knew that there were some that still flirted with women, or made passes at them, like the teacher at my school, who everyone thought was sleeping with his favorite student. I’d heard my sister and her friends say that some men will sleep with anything, anyone stupid enough to let them, and suddenly I felt like one of those stupid anyone’s and not someone special. Thankfully nothing had happened between this older man and myself, and thanks to my mother and her Nancy Drew detective skills, nothing would.
But it could have, if I’m honest with myself. Because that man knew something about me I didn’t yet know, that I was so insecure, so worried about not being good enough, that I had a hard time believing that anyone would be interested in me... in that way. Not me. The good student, the girl who believed that she had to work ten times harder than anyone else, always striving for approval, hoping to get a gold star for my efforts and please anyone with authority. Because I didn’t believe it, I often didn’t see it, even years later.
There was the director who dangled an offer of sex at lunch that I didn’t notice until after, the boss who took me out for dinner and then laughed that now I had to go back to his place, because he paid the bill, both older men who knew that as a young woman, in spite of being smart, and beautiful, and loved, I had a hard time calling someone out on their actions if it made someone else uncomfortable. Never mind what made me uncomfortable. I had gotten so good at helping others avoid disappointment by not seeing events clearly that I became unable to recognize the truth when faced with it. The truth could be scary; it was messy and confrontational, and could mean hurting feelings, or even worse, not being liked, so I made excuses for the men in my life instead.
When I was in college there was the boyfriend who told me that I better fucking cry when I took him to the airport if I really cared about him, but I decided he didn’t really mean it, the senior to my junior in college who dumped me over the phone because I didn’t sleep with him right away, and I didn’t because he was on the rebound and I hardly knew him. I catalogued events in a way that let the other person off the hook. Hilarious director, jokester boss, troubled ex-boyfriend, hurting young man, they all had reasons for their behavior. But me? I decided that well, I should’ve known better.
My mother never took me back to those acting classes. But neither of us came right out and said why. It took me a long time to say it myself, because he was a creep. But it took me even longer to know that I didn’t need someone else to tell me that I was special. I didn’t need someone else to say it for it to be true, the same way that someone saying I wasn’t, didn’t make it real either. The truth is, no one could give me that. And no one could take it away. What makes anyone feel special, is deeply personal, and I believe everyone has something that is unique to them, that gives them happiness, purpose, or joy. And we get to decide what that is.
The other day, I was at my mother’s and we were sitting and talking. “Remember that guy that wanted to sleep with you when you took his acting classes?” My mother said. We were both older now. We could be truthful.
“I do,” I said. “What a jerk, calling to tell me he thought I was special.”
“He was. And you are,” she said, understanding that both of those things could be true at the same time. Something my older self is no longer afraid believing.
Gina Sorell is an author living in Toronto. Her debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers was published by Prospect Park Books in May 2017.
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