Visible Girl

My son is only 2 1/2, but already I see he will be shy. Every parent knows the cold sudden drop in your stomach that occurs when you see your pathology manifest in your child. It's like being in a dream where you watch the disaster slowly unfold but you're too far removed from the action to have any influence.To others he is quite talkative and charming. But I've noticed the early signs: He doesn't like crowds, fears loud noises, and when he's in a room abuzz with more than two conversations, he retreats into another room and plays by himself. Most tellingly, he spends an inordinate amount of time lying on the ground. The teachers at his day care never tire of commenting on this. He will lie down for an hour in mud, in sand, the grass, the kitchen linoleum. I shake my head and laugh with them and change his dirty clothes. But I know what he is doing: He is seeking out the cool places. That is what shy people do. We are besieged by hot blood.I can still blanche to the point where every vein in my pale skin is visible. When I was young I thought this made me look like the Visible Woman. My entire body would mottle purple when I was nervous. I thought people could look through me, that my skin and my soul were as transparent as the belly of a baby bird -- everyone around could see my insides working.As a girl, I found solace in the shady places near our coastal Virginia home: the woods, the thick marsh mud, graveyards. When I grew older I found it in bookstores, libraries, museums. The first time I walked into Davis Library at UNC-Chapel Hill, my instinct was to lie down on the polished granite floor of the mezzanine; of course, I resisted, waiting to press my hot cheek against the metal shelves in the stacks.I knew from an early age that I would never have a wide array of friends -- I was unwilling to entertain and perform to win people over. Being shy was something I could deal with, though; it was just who I was.Painful shyness mysteriously, insidiously took root as I grew older. At times I found myself completely unable to speak. If I couldn't reach a book I wanted in the bookstore, it was simply out of reach. Unattainable. The thought of actually opening my mouth and asking for help made me feel hot and dizzy. My veins would start to appear. I thought people could look through me and were, of course, disgusted. I would flee.My mother was conspicuously ill, a source of some of my shyness, so when it was well past time to buy my first bra it was my shy father who took me to Junior Miss, a young woman's dress shop staffed by the scariest elderly society matrons in all of Virginia. I thought I could walk in, have my father dawdle around the dotted Swiss party dresses up front while I grabbed a couple brassieres, tried them on and got my father to pay for them. Then we would leave, refuse to speak of the incident and, of course, I would never, ever, walk by Junior Miss again.Once we were in the store, my survival scheme collapsed. All the Playtex training bras were lined up on a high shelf in little pink cardboard boxes with pretty girls on the front, each one with a different haircolor. All the girls' heads were slightly bowed toward her newly blooming chests, all eyes averted from the camera.The scariest saleswoman spied me and walked over, tapping her cane with each step. I looked at my father, fidgeting in the front of the store. The shop was too cold and this woman smelled of far too much baby powder and Estee Lauder Youth Dew perfume. I don't remember what I said. For some reason, I think I pointed to the shelf."Do you know your bust size?" she boomed.I shook my head. She brought out a menacing-looking yellow measuring tape and proceeded to snake it around my chest in the middle of the store. I thought I would faint. Then she lifted her cane -- which was not really a cane at all, but a long, forked wooden stick -- and brought down one box. Size 28A. "If this doesn't fit," she said. "Ask me and I'll bring down another."I stood in the dressing room and struggled. I couldn't hook it completely in the back, and there were intricacies of shoulder adjustment I couldn't even begin to fathom. I stood in that fitting room for what seemed like an hour, but must have been two minutes. Then I confronted the mirror. The cups were puckered and too high; strap ends stuck out of my shoulders like bug antennae. I looked nothing like the box girls.In the freezing air I turned into the Visible Girl again. There was no way I was going to ask anybody for anything, and if I declined to buy this bra, I'd be forced to try on more. I stuffed the thing back in the box. Sold.My father was still alone in the front of the store, his arms barricaded across his chest, when I emerged from the dressing room. He raised his eyebrows, a gesture of surprise. "That's it?" he was saying telepathically. "Great. Let's hurry."I slid the box, picture side down, onto the counter. The woman went over with her forked stick and brought down two more boxes, dusted them off, wrapped them in paper, put them in a candystriped Junior Miss bag, and thanked my father by name as we walked out of the store. I managed to wait until we got home before I threw up.I spent a good part of last year trying not to be shy. I met another writer from an advertisement; we found a few other people and formed a little writing group. I admired this writer for his spunk and determination. And for his social skills. He was a shy person who'd made a break for it. At readings, he approached authors and invited them out. He could work a crowd. He wanted to make it -- to have his book published, to acheive recognition or fame -- and sociability, in art as well as in business, is part of the game. Or so I've been told.My new friend's smiles were a little too long, his laugh a little too high and nervous, but he plowed ahead through his shyness. I could do the same, I thought: Shed my shy skin whole and slide away. After all, wasn't meeting people, making friends, all a game? But I kept worrying: What happens when you attempt to form friendships with people who earnestly believe you to be your own misrepresentation?Over a meal with this friend, I realized that I was part of his game. I asked him how he enjoyed a local reading by one of our peers. He replied that he was deeply unimpressed. "But if it were someone in my writing group, I'd just rave and lie and say it was wonderful."I was stunned. After all, I was in his writing group, and he'd praised my efforts and others' many times. Was he now being deliberately cruel? Or suddenly honest? I had no idea. But a semaphore was raised and I fell quiet, my body first becoming hot and then falling cool and distant. The friend across the table became a looking glass to my future, warning me away. He'd shed his shyness, yes, but he'd also lost himself and his integrity in the maze. And, at that moment, he'd shown me something I didn't want me or my child ever to become.The few friendships I made during that brief period no longer exist. There seemed no way of explaining, after the fact, that though I am no longer afflicted with painful shyness, I am still deeply shy, deeply private. I renewed my faith in honesty and earnestness; doing otherwise had gained me only a handful of dust.These days I've chosen to cycle back into my shyness. I spend much of my spare time in the coolness of my garden, in libraries, at mass. My son and I lie on the floor and read books and play with trains. The folks at the bookstore know my name and are always happy to retrieve anything out of reach. But inevitably the hardest part of my shyness is dealing with other shy people.I've had an acquaintance for years, a woman I've worked with some in the past, who seems interesting and witty and is the mother of two. We run into each other now and again and always say we'll get together soon or call the following week, but we never do. We went through this tired ritual last week in the grocery store when we were thrust together in the same lane. After I paid my bill, I realized she had mistakenly picked up my groceries. I walked out with my son onto the hot sidewalk and looked around. I saw the tip of her head bob across the parking lot and knew I could not reach her car before she left. For a few long seconds I stood there, wondering how to avoid embarrassment. My son took my face into his damp hands to get my attention. "Mama," he said, his lips touching mine as he spoke, "where is my food?" I wanted to let her drive off with my bag rather than point out her error. But how would I ever explain that to my child?Finally, I just called out her name -- well, yelled -- across the parking lot. We exchanged the bag and departed. I was mortified for hours, until finally it came to me that this woman was shy too. It wasn't this exchange that brought it to me, but another that occurred a year or so ago, when she unexpectedly dropped in to see the house I'd just bought.We were quietly standing in the little workshop out back, which is dark and cool and filled with jerryrigged drawers and sawdust. It's the place where my son retreats when he tires of playing in the yard with his friends. She stood in the center of the shed with her son on her hip and said, "Sometime you'll have to let me come over and just stand here." Which, when I see her again, is exactly what I will invite her to do.


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