For an introvert, I’m almost unbearably social. I live in this weird gelatinous state of both needing people and needing to keep away from them. I suspect this way of being stems from my bullied childhood; throughout middle school and the early parts of high school, I lived in the outermost exurb of Popular City, and every time the queen and her minions needed to turn on someone, they turned on me. I think it had to do with my sad combination of neediness and smart-assery, but maybe it was just because I wasn’t yet allowed to shave my legs. It doesn’t matter. For days I’d be ostracized, teased mercilessly, and then, for reasons I could never ascertain (although I spent hours trying to), I was let back into the fold. For a week, two, sometimes even a month, I was once again invited to birthday parties, allowed to hang out with the cool kids at lunch – but soon enough I was kicked out anew, tagged as untouchable, knowing that anyone caught talking to me would be considered untouchable too.
I can remember like my favorite song the sting of that cruelty, what it felt like to be ignored every time I tried to enter a conversation, what it felt like to have freakishly nasty rumors spread about me. I remember hiding in the bathroom every lunch period, turning in tear-stained homework sheets, faking illness so I didn’t have to face school. I remember the way, on Everyone Wear Your Benetton Rugby Shirt to Hebrew School Day, when I didn’t have a Benetton rugby shirt to wear, I was jeered at to the point where, for the first and only time, a teacher got involved on my behalf. “Girls, what horrible things are you saying to her? That isn’t very nice.” Her useless intervention meant, of course, that the next day I got it even worse. Not only did I dress like shit and was probably poor (otherwise whence the Benetton?) but also I smelled and was an ugly loser and needed to shave my fucking legs and didn’t know what a blowjob was. Etcetera.
So now here I am, a married woman, a mother, a professor, with several published novels to my name and twenty-five years between me and grade school – I even knows what a blowjob is – yet even now the chill of being an outcast haunts me. I will do anything to keep my friends on my side. Six years ago I moved to the Philadelphia area after seventeen years in New York, but most of my New York friends wouldn’t know it, since I’m forever making the four hour round-trip to go out for dinner with them, to go shopping, to just hang out. I’m so thrilled, even now, that people want to hang out with me that the commute barely registers. I am constantly on call for heart-to-hearts, for helping out, for fixing things, for listening into the night. I bake cookies for my neighbors and drop them off. I watch their kids, happily. At least once a year I fly across the country for a visit with one of several distant friends. Doing these things makes me feel connected, and feeling connected makes me feel safe, and therefore happy.
But even now, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wait for all the people I consider close friends to realize that I need to shave my legs (or that I’m no fun, or that underneath everything lies this pathetic horrible neediness that clings to me like a smell, fuck you you smell).
And this fear exhausts me. And my lingering distrust of everyone exhausts me too – even the friends I love best in the world, the people I’ve known for decades, even them, sometimes, I don’t trust. It flickers on and off like a fritzy lightbulb; we’ll be having lunch and I’ll look at them and think you, you’re going to find out the truth about me soon, that I’m an ugly loser, and for just that second, I want to fake an illness to get out of the whole thing.
But then we continue eating lunch, and I remember who I am, and the lightbulb turns back on. I am not the kid I was at ten eleven twelve. I am a grown up woman. I have a job, I have a family, I have a life. And I have friends who would never know the truth about me if I never wrote this down.