I am learning how to be confident again and it’s something new and tender every day. I used to be charming around people, making folks laugh, asking good questions, always wanting to dance. But now I’m always trying to escape the room when I’m making small talk.
I ghost at parties because I’m a ghost inside. You will never know it, but I’m reanimating myself right in front of you, all beneath the surface, because I am too much in my own head. I am thinking what to say, how to say it. I am thinking how much it takes to be in a room. It takes so much to be in a room.
My mother, unfortunately, was a cruel person, and my childhood, unfortunately, was her masterpiece. I am made from mostly water and one hundred thousand beatings. I am made of hyperbole and perhaps one hundred dozen beatings.
It recently dawned on me that eye contact is everything. Eye contact moves people to tears and calms them down like a magic potion. It means beauty, it means honesty, and it means respect. It means confidence. Get on my level. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My eyes are up here.
Eye contact is something I can barely do. Sometimes I feel as though I have lost my past, present and future, and I am more watching myself, outside myself, than I am living real life.
My mother used to wake me up for school by slapping me in the face, beating me up and berating me. Not every day but often. She loved to do her nails in the morning, super bright red, right after she woke me and beat me. She did her make-up in the mirror, her hair wrapped in a towel, and told me I was useless. During the beatings, she used to tell me to never look at her. Don’t look at me, my mother said. Listen, but don’t look at me. I had always made her angry in ways that seemed as if I could never have prevented, like the natural and reactionary way I looked her in the eye, and so like a dog, she conditioned me: Don’t look at me.
Now my default is to look down and not giving you eye contact means you won’t trust me. It means you think I’m timid, you think I’m rude, you think I’m not paying attention, you think I may be lying about something. You think I might be hiding something, like I have to prove I’m a real person.
It’s a nervous thing I do. I look away because I feel like you could see how weak I am. Everything crumbles for me in eye contact. My head naturally tilts down to the floor as if a force field is preventing my eyes from looking back at you. And when they do, it’s like my eyes are made of glass.
Once my parents fought with knives. They didn’t use them on each other, but they were yelling holding kitchen knives. My mother was having an affair; my father was coming to terms with that fact and wanted to stab himself. As the oldest, I took my siblings into a bedroom, and we watched badly recorded episodes of the anime show Dragon Ball Z, which I made as a hobby. I thought recording TV with your VCR was the coolest shit, and when the world was falling apart for me and my sisters and my brother, we watched movies and TV endlessly on maximum volume and escaped into those narratives. The soundtracks protected us from harm. The heroes on screen were our real parents.
The one thing I have in common with my mother is our love for story. I remember her with the glow of the television on her face, yelling at me in our dark living room. She loved all movies, she loved TV—American shows and Vietnamese shows. Even if the picture quality was horrible, it didn’t matter, she would watch until her brain shut off. She didn’t want me to look at her while she was watching her shows either.
Movies and television shows taught me how to be a person, building pieces of myself with each viewing. Every scene was a little hint, a life lesson. I wanted to never be called useless ever again. I wanted to be confident. I want to look you in the eye. I want you to think “box office” when you think of me. Come through the turnstiles to see me.
I learned it’s better to be kind. I look you in the eye whenever I can even when it feels like 10 times gravity. My confidence is a full moon and you can’t take your eyes off me.