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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person takes a closer look at love and heartbreak.

In the 1980s, there weren’t any kids who looked like me in our town. My reflection showed me traces of my father’s Irish bone structure and my Chinese mother’s skin and eyes. At a time when first loves were unfolding around me, I wanted my face to look more like one or the other. I thought if others could be surer of who I was, a first love would be sure to come and find me, too.

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Back then, before music could be streamed from tiny devices, weekends were spent in a friend’s basement gathered around a radio waiting for a favourite song to come on so you could turn it up and sing along. We would call the radio station DJs and make requests. Numerous late-night singalongs led to the discovery that college interns came in on the weekends to answer the phones and take over the playlists.

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One such weekend, I banished my shaky self-esteem and made the call. Maybe it was because I was part of a bigger group that night and we were united by our various self-doubts. One of the interns took my request. He made fun of the song choice, then he asked for my name.

I was about to hang up and get back to my friends, when he said, “Your voice; it’s beautiful. I want to keep talking to you.”

I’ll never be sure how many other times he might have used a version of the same line, because I didn’t ask. I got caught on the word beautiful and decided I felt safe enough on the other end of the phone line to let my guard down and keep talking. He had no way of knowing how far I felt from that word, and it was a chance for me to pretend I didn’t.

Eventually, I moved into another room and we talked for hours more, while my friends teased me through a vent in the wall. For the next few months, we made plans for me to call him on the weekends he was covering the overnight shift. And in those early morning hours, we swapped stories about favourite books and songs that made us cry. He played every one of them for me.

Then, finally, he asked me what I looked like. “Go to a mirror and tell me what you see,” he said. All these years later, I can still remember how the cord stretched as I carried the phone across the room to a full-length mirror that had been a reliable audience for my insecurities. I sat down in front of my reflection and pressed his voice to my ear.

I studied my face as though I was seeing it with the eyes of a boy who knew all my secrets, and I was moved by the girl looking back at me. He had often admired my intelligence and humour during our conversations and each word of kindness chipped away at the ugliness I had assigned to my mixed-up features. By giving me the chance to reveal myself, without worrying about who he would see when he looked at me, I realized my story itself was beautiful and that it made me worthy of love. I didn’t need others to be sure of who I was, it was me who needed to figure it out. It was an extraordinary gift for a 17-year-old girl to receive.

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We finally worked up the courage to meet in real life. For our first date, we saw a movie at the drive-in and the car was filled with an electric energy that even now is hard to describe. It was one of the most tender moments I’ve ever experienced with another person. By then we had spent months getting to know one another, and I had never been as vulnerable and honest with anyone before him. In my day-to-day life, I had noticed changes, too. I was coming of age, and he was giving me a soundtrack to remember that magical time.

There were a couple more dates after that and we continued with our late-night talks. As we uncovered more differences between us, it became clear we would part ways. He was in his first year of college, living a life I had yet to discover. I was getting ready to begin that chapter, too, but we both knew we weren’t well-suited and that eventually it would matter.

It wasn’t easy for me to let go of something that had filled all my empty spaces. In that brief period of time, we gave each other wisdom that would serve us for a lifetime: If we judge ourselves or others only by what can be seen with the eyes, we miss opportunities to love and be loved.

We chose one night to talk for the last time, and we wished each other well. As his shift came to an end, he said, “I want to play you one more song.” Even though I could stream it anytime now, I never do. I only catch it when it plays on the radio by chance. On those lucky days, I remember that girl, and I always stop and sing along.

Louise Gleeson lives in Oakville, Ont.

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