Seeing and being seen

Love in Conversation

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Madeleine: Recently, I walked a winding course around Berkeley for nearly two hours, talking to my friend Vivi on the phone. I listened, smiling, as she untangled and metaphorized all that she was  feeling, back home in Davis in that 100-degree heat. 

When I listened close enough to her voice, I could imagine her whole, in front of me, perhaps wearing her astonishing lavender jumpsuit. Her curls pulled back, revealing bright, dangling earrings. Filtered through each other’s earphones, we walked and talked in endless loops — the way we would when we were together. 

She is conjurable now because of all those campus meetups and morning runs and late nights spent baking, all those moments of observation. Her face is one I’ve seen so much: hair escaping in wisps, a wide smile creasing freckled cheeks.

This is love, or an act of it: to see and listen. To take that fractured scope of attention and narrow it on one object. That attention feels the most fun in moments like this, when being an active observer means basking in the brilliance of someone I love. It is a gift to see someone the way they want to be seen. 

Sonnet: At the helm of a dinner party, our friend Josie is dazzling. I love to watch her stride into the dining room, arms full of the latest experiments. This is her in one of her best lights: proud, joyous, cheeks flushed from the heat of the kitchen.

I know she relishes being seen in this way, and I am all too happy to sit back and admire her. But there is, too, everything she leaves behind the kitchen door.

I’ll often watch from a barstool as she “measures” flour into a bowl, shoving handfuls of herbs into the blender, grating the plastic wrapping of the parmesan in after them. Her fingers fly from the mixing bowl to her mouth and back again, tasting the batter with the same index finger she just dipped in the green sauce. A rogue elbow sends a ceramic bowl shattering into the sink. 

Sometimes I catch myself frowning at her haphazard kitchen conduct, the criticism plain on my face. “Aren’t we serving that to friends not in our quarantine circle?” I’ll ask as she’s mid-lick of the mixing spoon, about to put it right back into the batter.

“Yeah, but I have to make sure it tastes good!” She gets defensive. “I don’t know how chefs cook without getting their spit in it. They must use a lot of f—ing spoons!”

Then I laugh, and relax. I dip my own finger into the sauce and lick it off. It is, unsurprisingly, delicious.

I’m reminded that her zest, her fearless experimentation, even her disregard for onerous protocol — these are the traits that make her such a nimble leader, such a passionate advocate. I’m reminded what a privilege it is to watch these traits play out, whatever the setting, and my heart aches a little with affection.

To the rest of the world, it’s easy to selectively expose ourselves, to let people see us only in our striding-into-the-dining-room moments, freshly plated creations in hand. But the people we love most will inevitably see us make a mess in the kitchen.

Madeleine: Sonnet, from her perch on the barstool or the edge of my bed, has a pretty exacting gaze. Her eyes tend to follow, and whatever they see is spread on her face.

There was a time — not, admittedly, that long ago — when I would run from this kind of constant, interpretative observation. In my sourer moods, I would retreat into my room or into myself, afraid that, in their unobstructed vision, those around me would conclude that I am more trouble than I’m worth. 

I thought that the answer was a distracted love, someone who would join me in studiously avoiding any examination of my faults. 

But I’ve made friends — Sonnet among them — who refuse to look away, even when I ask them to. She’ll knock on my door, sweep into my room with a smile on her face. I will be hiding for a reason: angry, ashamed or tired. 

She’ll come and sit with me in silence, shooting me the occasional searching look. She’ll wait for whatever is coming: a confrontation, an apology or a slow dissipation of the mood. She doesn’t demand confession, but I can tell she sees it all: my insufferable need to know everything, my passiveness, my capacity for cruelty.

Next to her, there is somehow more room: The bad parts of me seem to deflate, take up less space inside of me. Later, when I’m smiling again, we’ll name whatever she saw, the fear or the flaw. My breath will catch, and I’ll search her face for those reactions I always expect: disgust, disinterest, distrust. But she’ll just look at me, face open, and smile. 

Sonnet: For better or worse, I don’t share Madeleine’s instinct for concealment. I tend, instead, toward transparency.

Some days, I reach into the dark places and hold my flaws out to my friends, unable to keep knowledge of them to myself. Maybe I think that by naming and apologizing for them, I can blunt their potential to do harm.

I’ll say, hey Madeleine, look, I found this vanity, this arrogance in myself. I found this complacency, this fear of commitment, this willful ignorance, this shame.

She will look at me evenly, hands open to what I’m holding out. She’ll say, “Yeah, I see that too.”

In most cases, she’ll help me change the story. She’ll remind me patiently that on the other side of my commitment-aversion is a bountiful curiosity; a generous, unjudging openness. That the shame of not knowing comes from a commendable desire to learn.

Other times, there isn’t a flip side. Maybe the trait I’m holding out is actively challenging for her to deal with. But she’ll sit there anyway and keep looking right at me. And, held in her unflinching regard, in her refusal to recoil the way I do from the ugly parts of me, I feel like maybe I can begin to heal from the damage I do to myself.


When the only eyes trained on ourselves are our own, it’s easy for that gaze to fixate on the parts of us that feel misshapen or shameful. And when we allow another gaze to see it all, there is often that moment of fear: What will you do with what you’ve seen? 

But when we meet each other’s fear with mutual, unwavering attention, those parts begin to feel smaller, a little less damning.

This is one of love’s implicit agreements: I won’t — or can’t — hide, but whatever you see, you won’t look away. And vice versa.

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected]