The first friend I made in college turned out not to be a friend at all. Though his invasive touches didn’t leave a scratch on my skin, his betrayal of my trust was devastating. I couldn’t help but think that my inability to see had made me vulnerable, and for the first time in my life I began to hate my blindness.
The only lifeline I had at school was my a cappella group. But it was only November, they were acquaintances, not friends, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell them what had happened. I worried they would perceive me as immature, melodramatic and incapable of coping.
Much to their credit, the group intuitively learned never to playfully bear-hug me from behind or leave me stranded in unfamiliar spaces. They kept me close in noisy venues, looked out for me at parties and allocated more time and consideration when teaching me choreography. They were sensitive to the fact that, though I was typically affectionate and hands-on, there were exceptions. Abrupt contact sometimes alarmed me. Occasionally, and seemingly without reason, I shied away from their touches. Jostling crowds and small, cramped spaces made me nervous. I tended to panic when people I didn’t know invaded my space, something which, as a blind person who looked more like a young teenager than a college student, happened often.
By sophomore year, my a cappella compatriots and I, particularly our senior director, Andrea, had all become good friends. I began to feel at ease in my skin again, knowing that my well-being mattered to them.
Still, every so often, an unexpected trigger knocked me back a step.
The girls voted on a sundress for a cappella competition: skimpy, low-cut, spaghetti-strapped. For the past year, I’d managed to avoid wearing clothes that were even slightly revealing. Blindness had a disconcerting way of making me feel as though everyone was staring at me. The thought of being onstage, wearing so little and feeling so much, was terrifying. But I couldn’t voice my fears.
During dress rehearsal, several of the girls, doubtless picking up on my anxiety, loudly complimented my figure and whispered that the boys were ogling. Their well-meaning intervention only exacerbated my discomfort. By the end of the night, I was miserably overwhelmed.
As my fellow singers left in a spirited group, Andrea held me back. “This dress is really bothering you, isn’t it?” Draping her well-worn hoodie around my shoulders, she took my hand to guide me. “Let’s see what we can do.”
At her apartment, Andrea dished up a plate of chicken and pasta for me before sitting down with my dress and her sewing kit. She adjusted the spaghetti straps so the dress would sit higher, then closed the gap in front. Knowing that Andrea acknowledged my struggle and cared enough to remedy it comforted me as much as the altered dress.
While Andrea set out a tub of ice cream to thaw, I changed into one of her button-up flannel shirts and a pair of her sweats. Though I hadn’t planned to, I found myself confiding in her about what had happened freshman year, why I sometimes flinched and froze and acted out-of-sorts and how certain things, like the dress and the girls’ teasing comments, could bring everything back.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her tone was concerned, not at all accusatory.
“You hardly knew me when it happened. I was still the little blind freshman. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”
“It’s not like that. I’m just mad, as your friend, that something bad and unfair happened to you.”
We were lying on her bed, side by side on our stomachs, not touching. Maybe she knew that, if she held me, her tenderness and compassion would almost certainly make me cry.
“I want to punch him in the mouth,” Andrea seethed.
I laughed. “You can’t protect me forever.”
“I want to, though.” There was no humor in her reply, only sincerity. She did touch me then, her hand running gently up and down my back. “None of us would ever let anyone hurt you. We’d kill them first.”
I nodded. I’d clung to that truth for over a year, leaning into its safety whenever I felt afraid or alone. Nonetheless, Andrea’s reassurance filled me with a deeper sense of security. She and the others would look out for me when I felt unable to look out for myself, and over time they would prove, though touch had hurt me, it could also help me heal.
Grateful, I turned onto my side and reached out. Andrea drew me in close, and we both held on.
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