Parties are always a strange experience for me.
A few Sundays ago I attended the going-away party of a lovely girl. For six hours, approximately thirty youngsters aged sixteen to seventeen congregated and diverted themselves inside a suburban home some ten miles away from the city. We wiped down chairs wet from the previous night’s rain and spread pattered tablecloths on plastic patio furniture, where we, a collection of elaborately coiffed adolescents in glittering jean jackets and floral skirts would eat room temperature cheese pizza and microwave lasagna. Underneath the roar of today’s pop music, the boys and girls pile onto suede sofas, sucking on freeze pops and making faces at the camera. Later on I marvel at photographs of myself seated on the curb in the darkness, or next to a few classmates, unable to recall when they’d been taken. The whole time I am there, in fact, I feel as though I am the patient in an operating theater, aware despite the anesthesia, looking up into a world of masked physicians and bright scalpels that I am undoubtedly a part of but somehow very far away from. Only by virtue of my age do I belong here, among brethren born the same year as I, and raised in similar conditions. With the exception of this, they and I could not possibly be more different.
Throughout most of my childhood the only parties I attended were my own birthday celebrations, and so I am delighted to receive invitations for these gatherings. Like many females in identical positions, I enjoy cleaning and fixing myself up, like a young cat preparing for a nighttime excursion into the underbrush. For a few hundred minutes worth of my fellow’s little games and conspiratorial smiles I will take great pains to make myself presentable. I have a desire perhaps greater than that of most to give an impression of general likeability. I have never had great friends; in fact, I think of them as I do mythological creatures. I’ve never been to one of those sleepovers where giant tubs of ice cream melt on counter tops while little girls in polka-dot dressing gowns share confidences like tiger-eye marbles. The few attempts at good, solid friendship I have ever made have ended in failure or separation. It’s not only my bad luck, no –
Dear readers, you who see me only through what I tell you, know this: for my all of my life I have suffered from chronic social anxiety, and it has crippled me.
A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
A striking young lady in a kimono-style iceberg blue dress. Well-meaning but much too needy. Absolutely impossible to get along with, but count on her to crawl into your bed in a thunderstorm. Stuck with what appears to be super-super-super adhesive glue to Emma’s back.
How to explain, how to explain! Riddle me this, dear readers: girls skin knees on trees, lose themselves over gutsy boys and shopping sprees, dream of afternoon tea with the marquis (petite bourgeoisie!), glamorous anchorwoman jobs at the BBC (hello dearies, here to discuss the Nepalese rupee), girls are devotees of rouge and a number 53 lipstick called red sea, girls work late nights for doctor’s degrees and pretend they are Nancy Drew holding the skeleton key, they are named Bree, Rosalie, Marie, Amy, Katie, they plea and disagree, they call each other sweet pea, they leave when they so will it and (JeSUS is that Tommy Lee macking on Deirdre?) feel free every day of their lives.
Riddle me this: how is it that I fulfill the biological characteristics of What A Girl Is, but I’ve never felt like a proper one? What-what-what do I lack?
A girl riddled with canker sores and beta burns all along her brain-blood barrier, destroying her ability to speak. A girl lacking a Dark Ages backstory to complete her babydoll image, opening her mouth and big surprise, nothing comes out! I was a nice enough girlie, but so stricken by social fear that I could not dial a number or visit a classmate’s house without the mass and temperature of my insides going up by 500%. I accepted without complaint that I’d never be accepted by my compatriots and that the best I could do was appeal to their sense of morbid fascination. I wanted to be the endearingly strange gal, but all I ended up doing was convert myself into a zoo attraction.
A MAXIM DEEP AS MUSCLE MEMORY OR MOTHER’S SMELL
Grade school circa 1999, twenty or so children seated around a whiteboard, the teacher seated on a stool and crying out: Be yourself!
WHAT THEY DO NOT TELL YOU
Human beings are not the stony stuff of legend. They are not as imperturbable as sentences on the page or rocks in the kidneys. Their characters, with enough determination, can be melted down and remade. Yourself is not permanent.
How to explain, how to explain! Allow me to confide in you, dear readers: I wanted so badly to be THAT PERSON! That person who won’t leave troubled people alone, who’d loan time and heart, homegrown lass in Mama’s cologne, a pure tone like whale song, a little lady who’d drag strangers out of combat zones and across stepping stones, not a bee drone humming along in dumb solitude, no groans, no moans, just an eager, lovable child who knows how to love and how to apologize, girl chock-full of sweet bones. And if I am honest –
I WANTED THIS MORE THAN I’D EVER WANTED ANYTHING
THOUGH I CAN STILL CHANGE ONLY LITTLE OF THE WORLD AND ITS COMPONENTS, THERE IS NO REASON I CANNOT BECOME WHATEVER IT IS I WANT
“To seek, to strive, to find and never to yield.” I smiled as hard as schoolchildren on bicycles pedal up slopes. I took a real interest in other people’s lives, picking out the bits they loved from the rolling jumps of their jargon. I was as wholesome as Thomas Aquinas, asking for forgiveness without shame. There was no gentleman’s commodity I did not bargain with Mephistopheles for, no code of conduct I did not kill myself to emulate. I spent bus rides with Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and How to Make Friends and Influence People, I slept with them in my arms. I fought tooth and nail to speak cleanly and honestly, at all times, in all situations. The beauty of genuine human interaction: it is something of which I loved to think.
Oh yes, I pinned her down, my horrific elephant girl. We stared at each other, her body buckling under the pressure, but who had fear in her eyes? My twin in everything, insufferable and petty, she was that part of me I sought to disguise, but in a room empty but for me and her, she was the stronger of the two. In my attempt to be extraordinary I had forgotten her, the great eye of all my hurricanes, that secret frontier! In a moment of clarity, I spared her. In all honesty, how could I have laid my hand on her? She pardoned me, and I her. Despite all her faults, that little lady, living three inches inside my forehead, is the best pal I’ll ever have. She was often nervous, at times destructive, but always persistent. That perseverance took physical form in the deepest parts of my gut. It said: WHO YOU ARE NEVER HAS TO BE INCOMPATIBLE WITH WHO YOU WANT TO BE.
Parties are always a strange experience for me. I do my best to be good, but of course I am afraid, I, the simpleton in shiny shoes. I laugh at the roughhousing and the poolside bickering, one madcap lad grabbing another by his shirt collar and delicately dropping him into the clear water. I listen attentively to reenactments of daring escapades, recipes to all possible combinations derived from alcohol and soda fountain alchemy (let me tell you about this rum and cherry coke I had at a bar in Benicassim back in ’09). The core of me has not changed. My responses and little smiles are as giddy and foolish as ever. And yet I have managed to put myself at ease. There is a eager quality to my speech, now that the fright is gone. I am no spitfire, but I am comfortable among them, these dragons and amazons, perched upon blue leather loveseats and fishing in the fridge for Nutella and celery sticks. Above all else, I have come to know that these are children (red-blooded courtesans and courtiers, winking from unlit streets!) I can easily adore. In all probability they will never come to adore me, and for this I do not blame them. I am certain, however, that some other people, some other day, maybe will –
When I walk home, I look back, watching them leave like birds, and I think, arms crossed behind my back, eyes turned towards the road: Oh. How far it is that I still have to go. My elephant friend squeezes at me and, in one of her rare communicative moods, responds: How far it is, that you have come.