The world is me, and them. They are the ever-present audience, waves of faces in rows and rows of seats, filled by people I know and even more people I don’t, all leaning forward in their chairs to watch me, hanging on my every step, on my every word, eyes fixed. I live my life for them, on a stage where there are no red curtains to pull open, because there is nothing else to reveal. There is only a black void of a backdrop and me in front of it. The spotlight follows me, the living art piece. I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I just live. Constant performance art I never asked to take part in, never taking a break, never standing still for the fear of what the reaction may be if I do. Breaking the fourth wall, fifth wall, sixth, whatever ones I need to break to reach the eyes of those watching. Always watching. I stare into the camera, into their eyes, into the void, into God.
There is a constant running track in my head, a hypothetical critics review of my 19-years-and-still-going performance. What would be thought of my current actions by those watching- if everyone, if anyone, were watching. Am I the hero, the lover, the martyr, the rebel, the villain? Do they admire me, sympathize with me, feel inspired by me, hate me?
Do they love me?
I want them to love me.
They have to love me.
When I was 18, I met a boy. A auburn-haired boy with tawny-brown eyes and a honeysuckle voice. He joins me onstage the night he tells me he is in love with me, the first time anyone has ever said that to me. He whispered into my ear in the dead of the night, a secret for us two, the LED lights of his wall illuminating us in the moment. We dance on stage, an old-fashioned waltz, fingers laced, eyes looking into each other. His burn, mine glow. We dance like that for what feels like forever, and I am too busy looking at him to remember there are others here. With him, there are no others here. Not even God.
And then he breaks up with me, and the dance ends so abruptly I am thrown onto the hardwood of the stage floor, my lip busted open, blood staining my dress. I get up, looking wildy around for him, my eyes scanning and searching and -oh. There he is. I stop to stare into his eyes, as I had done so often before.
He has become the center of the audience, the spotlight flipping from me to him, and the audience is watching him watch me, his whiskey eyes to match his breath, his smirk hidden in a ginger beard. He whispers my secrets, the ones I told murmured in the dead of the night when only he was listening, and the audience clings to every word. The audience watches me stare at him, a deer dumbstruck in the headlights, waiting for him to smile at me. He keeps the same, his harsh leer never letting up.
I want to hide from him, but on stage there are no props, no curtains, no escape. Just me alone in a sheer dress- no makeup, my hair wild and unbrushed, every flaw illuminated by the burning stage lights. I am exposed through and through. Blue eyes shining, windows open and letting the outside in and my insides out.
I don’t know what to do now, without him by my side but with his eyes still on me. I don’t know what to do without his love distracting me from the piercing gaze of the world, waiting for me to do something. How can I be loved and then not?
What does the audience think of me now? A lover turned to lover-spurned? What is he saying about me? Who do they think I am now?
I do the only thing I know how. I keep going. The performance begins again.
I want to show him up. Make him regret leaving me, make him hate me, envy me, desire me, love me.
I want him to love me.
And I want to say I do not love him in return.
My ex and the audience and God are always watching me. Except in the moments the world goes dark, when the shadows cave in and form a bubble around me, protecting me from the cruel burning of the spotlight. I used to be so afraid of the dark, so scared of what I would discover about myself when I had no eyes to hold me accountable to neither sin nor virtue. What am I, if not the amalgamation of others thoughts of me?
I learn in the moments I live for me alone. My moments. No cameras, no soundtrack, no T.J. Eckleburg eyes above, not even a boy who said he loved me once. Just me and the silence of a spinning earth spinning around a star that stands still. Moments where I get to stand still.
I am walking in the woods, the sun blazing up above. I have left the marked trails, wandering in the untouched grass of the burning fields, fallen dead trees in a pool of green.
Something brown in the corner of my eye moves, and I turn my head. In the distance, I see a doe and her two fawn. I look around for anyone else, for this must just be another stage, beneath another spotlight. But the audience is gone, and the light above me is not a burning stagelight but the sun. Whiskey eyes can’t reach through the shadows of the trees to see me here. God has turned a blind eye.
He gives me this one.
I take a step forward, tentatively reaching out my hand, though I do not know what for. A branch snaps under my foot, a gunshot in the silence. The children run to their mother, who has already snapped her head towards me. Her eyes are jet black, and I am scared she will charge me for being a disturbance to their moment, an audience to a performance not meant for me, but she simply stares into my eyes, ice blue. A held gaze between strangers. I am tempted to speak, to see if she’ll respond. I look around again, but still, we are alone.
I don’t move any closer. I don’t even go to take a picture, because this. This is mine. This clearing is in another dimension away from the stage. This doe doesn’t care what I have to say, what I mean to do. She watches not to judge, but to know. She is not the audience, and this is not the stage where all I ever am is a girl playing at being a daughter/sister/lover/crazy-ex-girlfriend. Pretending I know what it means to be anything but myself, for myself.
This doe, and her fawn, they don’t act. When they play in the field, they never think of the reception of their actions, and when they make their journey through the woods, they have no concerns but for that of their own life. There is no audience for them, just the whispers of the trees, but not whiskey whispers. The trees whisper kindly. The tree’s don’t pry where they do not belong. They leave us in peace.
I hold my breath, for I fear even the tiniest movement of the air will break this bubble and the lights and the audience and whiskey eyes and God may find me. I hold my breath. I blink. I stand still.
In a wide, open clearing, the doe and I have found a way out of the show. Or maybe these creatures saved me from the show by letting me into their moment. A secret garden, tucked away in a dream, where only we exist and the only light is the sun and the closest thing to an audience is the rest of the life running around, except the other animals of these woods are barely an audience. They never stop to stare. They could care less about me, and there is nothing I can do to impress or disgust them.
God, It’s beautiful. Unthinkingly, I wave at the doe, my eyes still on her soft gaze.
We are alone, a mother and her children and me, who in this moment doesn’t have to be the latter and can stop worrying about if I will ever have to become the former and what it would mean to do so. This doe, she cannot fathom I am anything but myself- she sees no labels, she sees no performance. I do not have to pretend I am anything or anyone other than the very core of my soul. Not a daughter, not a mother, not a lover or sister or wife or whore or anything except a 19-year-old girl who would like to live in this bubble forever. Here, I am not a girl who a brown-eyed boy loved until he didn’t.
I am just a girl who lives for myself.
The children begin to move again, hopping through long grass and around fallen trees. The mother keeps my gaze. Black and Blue, alone. Finally, she turns, striding towards one of her children.
But before she does, I think she waves back.
Juliana Johnson is a 20 year old college student from Southern New Jersey, attending Stockton University as a Literature Major.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021