by BETSY MORAIS
I saw an old friend on the side of a bus. And on a billboard. And out the window of a train as it pulled out of Hoboken station. I saw her, enlarged, her eyes wide and dreamy like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s: “blue and gigantic — their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.”
I haven’t seen or talked to her since high school. She was two years ahead of me. She played Maria in West Side Story and was elected student council president. She was the only person who ever convinced me to cut a class, once (an optional biology lab). She drove us to Panera for lunch, and I ate soup. I think we both felt a sense of accomplishment.
Since then she left for college to study musical theater, went out on auditions, and is now a contestant on The Glee Project, a show that is prominently advertised around New York. I pass her everywhere, and she gazes outward, voiceless.
The Glee Project, which premiered this week on Oxygen, is a competition to earn a role on Glee. I watched Glee during its first season, but the show eventually lost me. Its delightfulness unraveled and spun into an ineloquent tangle of caricature and saccharine song. Now, after three seasons, the stars have graduated, leaving empty seats in the choir room. If my old friend wins, she will return to high school again, and I will forgive the show’s flaws to dutifully tune in for her performance. I will not question whether she should be passing through the halls on a television show set, rather than by my locker in my memory.
The thing about this friend of mine, if I may still claim her as one, is that all of us back in school were quite certain that she would be a bit hit with the universe. It’s easy to say this while riding a bus with her face on it, of course, and every school doubtless has its star — its Hubbell Gardner or, sure enough, its Rachel Berry. But this one just had to be, we knew it: a girl who could knock your socks off, someone whose destiny hovered over. It hardly mattered your belief about promise or causality or chance. She was an arrow pointing upward, and we could only crane our necks and imagine her ascent.
Another thing about her is that she was in a car accident when she was two that left her paralyzed from the chest down. She’s been in a wheelchair ever since. When we were in high school she drove a special car with a brake by the wheel, which seemed to me a more logical place to put the break — right where her hand could reach it. She was a good driver, and she liked taking passengers.
She would hold hands a lot, especially uphill. Everyone wanted to be the one she reached out for. You didn’t have to help her, you got to help her. And even that isn’t quite right, because help implies a kind of pure assistance, when instead the gesture was reciprocated by being invited to walk along her side. She was like a celebrity. She was a senior when I was a sophomore, and she appointed me as a class delegate and she had pretty hair and her shoes were never scuffed.
I might call her a friend, but more to the point, I was a fan. This always seems a slippery distinction. Celebrity is two-dimensional. It’s shiny where you hope for a glimmer; it’s shadowy where you crave mystique. The ones you want to love return your affection in poses — whichever suits them is precisely the kind you want to see — and you can study them, glossy. Admiration is celebrity’s third dimension: it fills all the space between us. The greater the distance, the more wonder, the more depth. When I hear her sing, I recall the times I spent with her and the way I knew her then; in honesty, I suppose, I am thinking of myself.
The girl I looked up to in high school but didn’t keep in touch with is still there, as a remote pair of eyes, blue and gigantic. To see her out in the world, one yard high on 14th Street, it’s as if the file cabinets in my mind were left unlocked in a breeze. I see her pasted up on a poster, and I look back with an impulse to reply to the ubiquitous image of my unforgotten hero. I hesitate, and quietly utter a mild pronouncement of my connection: “I was friends with her.” If I were to pass her on the sidewalk, I don’t know what I would say, if anything at all. I would be too bashful to meet her eye to eye. Perhaps I would be disappointed — not in her, never in her — but in my own inability to see her as she really is, in person.
"Waking the Dead" - Matthew Perryman Jones (mp3)
"Sleeping with a Stranger" - Matthew Perryman Jones (mp3)
The new album from Matthew Perryman Jones is called Land of the Living, and it was released on May 29th.