As a survivor of abuse, Eirik Rogers spent many years suspicious of the kindness of others.
It happened at my junior high school’s weekend Spring Recital. The event was a series of student solo performances which were graded with ribbon awards – and I was playing the violin. I was fourteen – dealing with a cycle of damaging and unwanted intimacies at the will of my older neighbor. I was a confused and poisoned kid, seeing the world through an ever-darkening lens of distrust. I won a blue ribbon that day, representing a grade of B+. I knew I was better than my performance showed, yet I felt disaffection. Music was just one of a few things I used to be good at, things I was now screwing up and didn’t know why. In the face of falling grades, concerned teachers and disappointed parents, I wore a false front of apathy. I took pride in squandering my talents, empowering myself by embracing my dysfunctions as if they were purposely crafted.
The chairman of the music department was at the recital. He always seemed to have an unnerving focus on me – often singling me out in a crowd of kids with a special smile and greeting – an attention that embarrassed me. I was in the business of throwing away compliments because I didn’t trust them. So I remember wanting to stay away from him that day. In fact, I wanted to stay away from everyone. I took to the stage, but wished I was invisible.
As the storm clouds were churning over my head, I found a quiet place backstage to sit alone, totally away from everyone else, hidden. And this very nice man – the new school custodian – walked over and just sat down next to me, smiling. He gave me compliments, told me he liked my playing. He even cheered me up and got me to smile, then told me he liked my smile. He walked over to the soda machine, bought me a Coke and popped it open for me. We sat back down together and drank our sodas.
But I was wise to him. I knew the game, the meaning of the smile. Yet I craved the attention – the affirmation – and was willing to risk seeing him present the bill to receive it, a bill I would then refuse to pay. So I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. As I threw my head back and took a gulp, I spied a glance at him through the corner of my eye, just waiting for that move. And when we were done with our sodas ….. he got up with a smile, tousled my hair, and left.
I think that was the first time since my abuse started that a man gave me that special moment – a moment which said, I can appreciate you and your company – and I don’t require any reciprocation other than your smile. He gave me the simple compliment of his company without condition that I yield access to my body and soul to acknowledge it. What I had assumed to be another seduction was in fact a better truth. It elevated my collective regard for the world, and those dark clouds disappeared, if only for that afternoon.
There is an epilogue. I actually caught up with him a couple of years later and reminded him of that moment and how special it was to me, although I did not tell him why. So I did acknowledge it after all – but appropriately, and on my own terms. He smiled, and then I knew I gave him back precisely what he gave to me.
I think back on that, and on the music teacher whose personal attention toward me I now realize was probably nothing more than a sweet and simple regard for a student he thought was special. The unconditional smiles I threw away were wonderful gifts, and should have been among the happiest of simple memories. I regret that I did not own them. I know why I couldn’t. And I find comfort to look back and realize that I earned them nevertheless – and they are finally mine to keep.