The doctor pokes at my eye, fiddles with some lenses, asks me questions, then tells me: You need to start wearing reading glasses.
Me: Huh? But I have contact lenses on.
Doctor: Yes, on top of them. How old are you--38? It's normal for people in their midlife to begin wearing reading glasses. Napaaga lang sa'yo konti. Here, try this. (Hands me a pair.)
Me: Okay, luminaw nga.
It's been two years now, but I haven't adjusted fully to the routine of fishing out my pair to read the papers, the menu, a book. Worse is when I take off my contact lenses and revert to my ordinary glasses. They're no double-vision spectacles--I'm still thinking whether to order a pair of progressive glasses, which is a fancier version of doble-vista but without the tell-tale variation in lenses--so, minus the added firepower of the reading glasses, and since I'm not only near-sighted but also astigmatic, I have to actually remove the glasses and bring what's in front of me much, much closer to my face for the images to swim into focus.
That, or the more common “senior moment” of trying to read the material at a distance farther than usual, spectacles meanwhile perched on the edge of my nose. Ah, growing old.
I'd always wanted to wear glasses. In our small town, kids looking nerdy were, in fact, pointed out to their peers as the smart, intelligent ones worthy of emulation. I grew up a frail, insecure boy--shy, bookish, shoulders perpetually hunched, wispy frame drawn in--and with a growing dread that I was feeling something different inside, which manifested itself even more in wary, socially inept behavior. The only thing I felt a bit of confidence in was the knowledge that I was good in class. More often than not, I knew more than my classmates did. I was soft-spoken, diffident, avoided sports, was too refined by half--all the classic signs were there. But I was also topping tests and was Best in Spelling every time.
Wearing glasses was the ultimate validation that I was a smart kid. My classmates might call me names or jeer at my mincing ways, but sporting a pair of grown-up-looking lenses would, in my mind, allow me to have a different identity, a different life. Of course, I wasn't thinking at all in this deliberate, crystalline way I'm doing now, with the aid of clarifying hindsight. Then, I just knew, inchoately, that the “matali” (intelligent) look was my way out of being the laughingstock of kids my age for being, well, queer.
With big glasses crowding out the rest of my face, they'd have something else to look at. I'd be set apart, marked as somehow special--a freak, perhaps, but the kind parents wished their dull, ordinary, happy-go-lucky spawn would take after.
I got my first glasses in late first year high school. Every time we rehearsed for the upcoming concert of our seminary schola cantorum (that's just Latin for school choir) and the song lyrics were written on the board, I'd strain to make out the text. My parents had my eyes checked during Christmas break, and when I came back to school I was already sporting a pair. Grade: 300. That high that early, which only enhanced my reputation as the brainy one. The glasses looked ugly--two enormous lenses with thick frames that basically made me look like an owl--but I realized that only years later, with the old pictures now making me cringe.
I got to test my unarticulated theory in our senior year, when the Bicol high school seminaries held their annual meet--a week-long sportsfest slash fellowship event. For an adolescent gay guy like me, already mortified with enormous guilt, self-loathing and confusion at the psycho-sexual changes roiling inside me, it was a most terrifying time. We were expected to fraternize with peers from other schools, play ball with them, engage in horseplay and banter, be one of the boys.
I didn't play basketball or baseball, and while I ran well, it wasn't enough to make a mark. I couldn't perform in front of the crowd during fellowship nights when priests and fellow seminarians tried to outdo each other in the name of their respective schools by taking up the guitar and crooning a tune, acting out an impromptu skit or aping Michael Jackson (or Menudo) on the dance floor (yes, seminarians danced, too). And I desperately didn't know how to do small talk with the other boys.
Fortunately, there was the matter of the sportsfest newsletter--a crude daily chronicle produced by mimeograph, to which the best and the brightest of each school were expected to contribute. I took charge of the project as editor, lead writer and tireless nag--so I'd have a good reason never to be out of the room. I worked my butt off producing that rag; I didn't know it then, but it was personal to me--out there I felt like an eternal outsider, unable to do “manly” stuff. But inside that room, where I reigned with my tiny frame and heavy-set glasses, people deferred to me, gave me the benefit of the doubt. It was my refuge.
On our first general assembly, when each boy needed to introduce himself in front of the hooting, hollering crowd--even the sturdiest ones were reduced to stuttering jelly in the face of that gauntlet--the obvious limpwrists of each class took the brunt of the catcalls. From the recognizably effeminate to the one with just the hint of a swish in his step--they all had to endure the collective taunting.
My insides were all acid as I waited for my name to be called. Finally, when it was my turn, I walked stiffly to the front--and heard the words that were literally my reprieve from the gallows.
“Uy, genius, genius!” a couple of the boys called out. Not "bakla” or any one of those purring, shrieking, mocking sounds that earlier had branded other guys as the designated homosexuals of the pack. The name-calling, to my bone-deep relief, reflected entirely positively on me. Were Harry Potter already a byword then, they'd have probably called me that, too.
I'm sure I spoke nonsensically--I couldn't have made much sense in the numbed state I was in. But I was certain of one thing at that instant: My eyeglasses, and what they represented, had saved me. Because of them, I was looked at differently. If I was smart enough, or at least looked and acted the part, I could perhaps lighten the harshness, deflect the pain.
How I finally learned to stop using these framed pieces of ground glass as a prop for my callow self-esteem--now, that's another story.