Behind The Red Curtain

November 30, 2022

Photo by Tyson Humbert

The red curtains open; she’s anything but herself, and she’s praised for that. The structure of a script, what she wore, and how her hair and makeup were done gave her a sense of control, for she would be applauded. She would be applauded until the thankful bowing stopped and the red curtains fell, once again throwing her back into a reality where she was anything but the star.

Stepping up to the stage with her during our fourth grade show choir was when I finally understood. We both scored singing solos and I was a nervous wreck, but she did this kind of thing all the time. As I stood in the spotlight with my Q-Tip-applied makeup and hairspray-cemented bun, the crowd went quiet.

And for what seemed like the first time in my life, I was the center of attention, and I was perfect.

I was on top of the world. However, I knew deep down that the power I felt was too good to be true. I would eventually have to fade into the background once again.

The background was like a dark abyss, one so deep and infinite that if you fell inside you would never reach the bottom. It was an eternal fall — never touching skin to earth, nearing madness as you slipped through the darkness. It’s only when we are placed under the eyes of perceived accountability that we find discomfort, one that snaps us out of the darkness we have grown so accustomed to, touching skin to earth once again.

Performing on stage provoked that same feeling of discomfort, but it was fleeting, for as soon as the red curtains dropped we would fall back into the abyss.

She may have realized she needed more than fleeting, temporary praise. Because that girl — once sporting cargo pants and natural brown curls — was now strutting down the hall, scrambling every few steps to keep up with the top clique of our school.

Now she wore miniskirts and mascara and shaved her legs smooth.

Now she got up before the sun to spend two hours taming her curls down to a long, pin-straight style that emanated the smell of burnt hair everywhere she went.

Had she escaped the background?

Photo by Tyson Humbert

Her expeditious transformation from tomboy to girly-girl seemed magical. It reminded me of Cinderella as if it only took a bippity-boppity-boo from her fairy godmother to send her on her way to the ball. I didn't understand how she could have made such a drastic change overnight. It was as if who she was before never existed. Perhaps the curly-haired, hippie tomboy who roamed the halls laughing huskily was just a figment of my imagination.

But when the clock struck 12, the magic wore off.

I wonder if she ever thought about who she was before and whether that version of her existed anymore. I wonder if when she stood in the mirror with bare skin and brushed-out hair she saw her raw reflection, the one that housed all the things that built her up and cut her down. These were all the things that kept her alive, and all the things that killed her.

Our reflection is what walks the earth all by itself.

Even when we try to fix what we are on the outside, the inside is what owns us — growing bigger and stronger while we try to hide it beneath superfluous material items and superficial friendships.

Reality is what awaits us all behind our own red curtain.

When I got to The University of Texas, I was ready for my perfect, movie-like college experience. You know, the one where you get into your dream sorority, go to crazy parties, ace your classes, and all is good in the world.

Yeah, well… none of that happened.

Photo by Tyson Humbert

I was torn and lost and spiraling. And too often found myself on the bathroom floor, head in knees, with the fan on and the sink running, drowning out the sound of my meltdowns. I looked endlessly for the feeling of control I felt when I was on stage, but control was elusive in this climate. A thousand dollars later I found myself in perfect preparation to find my “sisters for life.” But with every dollar spent I would come to find out this part of life wasn't written for me. I would have to look into the mirror and see myself as someone who didn't belong.

I wanted to hold the red curtains up for as long as I could, but now they had come crashing down, suffocating me in blood-red velvet.
Photo by Tyson Humbert
The velvet covered every inch of my body, pulling my hair out, and removing my Q-tip-applied makeup. I screamed and cried in the torturous darkness that consumed me. I rubbed my eyes raw so that I might never have to see who I was when the curtain fell.

But this wasn’t the end. I needed to keep going.

I never was this person, and I know that now. I am not expensive clothes and layered makeup, I am a beating heart and a throbbing brain. I am how I see myself, not how others perceive me.

I am everything I learned from knowing her.

Everything I learned after seeing the day that her red curtain fell, never to be opened again, leaving the world in mourning.

I miss her every day. I miss her effortless beauty, her brilliance, and that husky laughter — all the things that made her who she was, the things that were real.

Photo by Tyson Humbert

In the end, when I become weak and frail and tired, my red curtain will fall too. When it does, I won't break down screaming or crying, I will simply smile. I will smile for all of the times I got back up and all the times I came out better and stronger than I was before. I will smile because I lived my life in my bare skin. I will smile because I was loved not for being who I was under the spotlight, but for being everything that I was behind the red curtain. ■

Model: Neha Kondaveeti
HMUA: Reagan Richard
Stylist: Angel Huang

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