TO SEE AND BE SEEN by EMILY YIN

How easy it is to forget. You’re in the therapist’s waiting room, the hospital, the throes of a panic attack—and then you’re not. The nurse calls you in and the doctor sees you out; the darkness lifts and the sun begins to shine. These are just things that happen in passing, and reality has no hold on the liminal. That’s what you count on: the ability to wake up the next day and pretend it was all just a dream.

*

Your first memory: Planet Gymnastics, age four. The instructor’s telling you to stretch—no, tumble. Something happens here. Maybe you glance up toward the parents’ viewing area. Maybe you turn toward the other kids. In any case, you suddenly realize that everyone’s looking at you. And this awareness, in some unexplainable way, makes you want to disappear, want never to be seen again.

*

You have many euphemisms for your social anxiety. Shy. Nearly always a slip of the tongue. Antisocial. Self-deprecating and patently false. Reserved. A conservative pick, suitable for dinner-table conversations. Introverted. An homage to the What’s Your Personality Type? BuzzFeed quiz. At first, this kind of self-labeling is simply ignorance. Later, it becomes duplicity.

*

And so it goes: rehearsing phone calls and restaurant orders like they’re lines in a play, your life a kind of play, except the script is ever-changing and the performance never ends. What you have is much like stage fright. What you are is glass, on the cusp of breaking, or maybe wood, too easily set afire by the friction of a passing gaze; what you are is shaking knees, fractured voice, a body too ashamed to stay in place.

*

Isolation becomes a kind of respite. Better to avoid conversations, you think, than to botch them. But to evade is to be lonely. To evade is to hover on the periphery of happiness—always but a spectator to others’ offhand jokes, sideward glances, the kind of casual banter you can manage only in your dreams. Life passes you by. But it isn’t until high school that you begin to suspect a problem. It can’t just be shyness, you write. A Google search gives you the words you’re looking for.

*

The therapist is a small woman with a perpetually-bemused expression on her face. You like her well enough but disdain her methods. Learn quickly enough that the difficulty isn’t in disclosure but in revealing the true extent of your self-flagellation. Which is to say: you talk about the loneliness but not what you do to dispel it. Which is to say: when she doesn’t ask, you don’t tell. The truth is that you are afraid. If you try your hardest and still fail, where does that leave you?

*

In public, your pulse quickens. You look down, or away, or past: self-sabotage. People reach out and you rebuff. Every day there are fewer and fewer bridges left to burn. And yet, cocooned in the privacy of your room, you convince yourself that tomorrow will somehow be different. That you’ll muster up the courage to do what other humans do. This optimism (or is it foolishness?) is both curse and boon.

*

It starts with a routine check-up and spirals into something bigger. A stethoscope, an electrocardiogram, a cardiac MRI. Just as a matter of course, nothing to worry about. Some abnormality—I want to do three more tests. Suddenly, abnormal is no longer a self-directed epithet but a potential reality. How fitting that it should be your heart. Maybe it’s your fault. Maybe you let it beat too fast one too many times. What does that equate to? Two phone calls, one chat, a fraction of a party. Maybe if you had been able to control yourself.

*

You glance up at double skylights glazed over with rain, listen to the Beach Boys on repeat. Well it’s been building up inside of me/For oh I don’t know how long/I don’t know why/But I keep thinking/Something’s bound to go wrong. Discover for the first time how ignoble the body is, how little it takes to make it disappear. Five colored wires. A Holter monitor tethered to your chest. It’s probably just nothing. They say the odds are low, but it could always be you—right? Someone has to be the statistic, the un-person, the ghost. You find yourself invoking nameless gods. Discover that you don’t want to disappear after all.

*

It’s the little things that get to you. The studied non-pity of the receptionists at the cardiovascular practice, the tissues in the therapist’s office that you never need to use. The way your cardiologist speaks with an exaggerated clarity. How you still don’t understand, can only watch the movement of his lips with hazy eyes, as if you’re underwater or in another world. But then the appointment is over and you’re outside, bathed in an unassailable morning light. And you go home, listen to the Beach Boys on repeat, don’t worry baby. And after twenty-four hours you peel off the electrodes that connect the Holter monitor to your chest and you’re new again. Or you get back from therapy, throw your CBT workbook on the couch and call it a day. You’re lucky, you know, to have the privilege of forgetting. Maybe there’s an expiration date on that privilege, but you’re no longer afraid. Because the future will never be more certain than it is today.

 


Emily Yin is a sophomore studying applied math at Princeton University. Her writing has been recognized by the UK Poetry Society and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. Read her work in Indiana Review Online, Five 2 One Magazine, Track Four Journal, and Rust + Moth, among others.

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