During my sophomore year of high school, I spent nearly every lunch period in my geometry teacher’s classroom learning to play Bridge. I told Kent that once, hoping for either sympathy or a laugh, but truthfully, lunching in the math room wasn’t something that made me sad, or embarrassed. In high school I was not unpopular, more removed than anything else, and for lack of any better place to eat in 10th grade (we had no cafeteria, most of my close friends went to different schools), I wandered into Ms. Cox’s room. A few other people eventually joined me, and Ms. Cox taught us to play. The fact that when I was 14, I lunched with a math teacher and two semi-misfits, playing Bridge and eating bag lunches, is rarely at the forefront of my conscience: high school left me with no battle scars, no baggage that I still carry, no sadness or horror stories. On the contrary, high school was so fleeting, so temporary, so very, very long ago that I barely remember it at all, and when I do, I can hardly believe that I – me, who sits here right now, typing in a cold apartment at a white desk, living with a man, wearing his wedding ring, cooking dinner and returning voice mails and ordering sushi – ever actually experienced the events depicted in my yearbooks. I see pictures of me with friends, dressing up for Homecoming or sitting in the journalism room, but who I am now and who I was then are separated by so much more than miles and years that when I told Kent I spent 10th grade lunching with my geometry teacher, learning to play Bridge, it felt like I was recounting something I’d read, some characteristic attributed to a minor celebrity about whom I’d recently read an interview.
But I did spend my sophomore year in Ms. Cox’s room, and even when I left her room and ventured into groups of my actual peers – my friends - I was never entirely comfortable. I know for some people high school was golden, and for others it was hell. For me it just barely was; I was there, of course I was there…but as an observer. Parties weren’t meant for people like me, I was someone to hear about the parties on Monday, to gather and process and sort the gossip, to watch, to smile, to defer, to get through it but to leave things just as I had found them. I spent high school firmly entrenched in the Middle – my friends were popular, some were not. I was friends with the Homecoming Queen and the class president and the quarterback, also with the gentle queers in my honors English class and the geeky artist who drew the comic strip for the school paper. It never bothered me that I wasn’t more popular because it never occurred to me that someone like me could be popular: I was too quiet and worried and awkward, the truly popular people were clearly without a care in the world. Sure, I wondered what it might be like to wake up in the warm glow of security, I imagined that breathing, eating, sleeping were all different if you were truly popular – popular in a way that transcended context…girls you’d see at the mall and without having any idea where they went to school or who their friends were, you knew they were popular and probably, out of your league. It was evident in the way they walked, their lip gloss, their awareness of being watched. That kind of popular was mystifying to me. I imagined it was like a mild superpower, like being able to walk through walls.
Because I never imagined that I’d be part of the innermost In-crowd, I was content. I didn’t want a boyfriend, I wanted the idea of a boyfriend, I wanted crushes and at most, someone about whom to write notes. But sex and condoms and tongues and reputations and dark, squirmy nights seemed unappealing to me, which put more distance between me and the popular girls, girls who had been wearing bras since 6th grade and who knew about bikini waxes and blow jobs. I was content to dream about Johnny Depp for most of my high school career; the boys I did date were more a source of stress than joy. By the time I got to college, I was finally mature enough to appreciate what a boyfriend could provide. High school boys were still boys, they were bumpy and noisy and seemed most of the time to prefer wrestling with each other over most anything else. In college, the boys started to look like men. They all shaved, they called their parents on Sunday nights, they went to the dining hall on their own and fixed their salads or burgers or cereal just the way they wanted. It was during my freshman year of college that I lost my virginity, it was also during my freshman year of college that at one point, I looked at my friends, looked at me in the center of my group of friends, and realized that I was popular. And that it didn’t feel any different from before. One of my most excruciating memories of college is from freshman year: I was attending a Mai Tie party at one of the fraternity houses (upon arrival, every girl is given a tie from a large bowl at the door; throughout the party, the tie’s owner is meant to find his tie on the girl), and got to the party, walked through the door, was “tied,” and then promptly realized that I knew no one there, was wearing the wrong outfit, had lost the other freshman I came with, was a child in what I thought was a very adult situation. I think I nursed one mai tai the entire evening and wandered through the house, looking for other freshman and trying to figure out how I would get home later. Eventually a boy (man?) came up to me and said, “That’s my tie.” I attempted some awful banter, he looked at me, took the tie, and walked off. I remember standing there, feeling utterly stupid. Because I think I really thought that was how love began – you were wearing some frat guy’s tie at a dumb party, he found you, you smiled and walked outside, kissed and he put his sweater around your shoulders, music played, fade to black, the end. I thought by virtue of being In College and At A Fraternity Party, my life would suddenly become a made-for-television-movie, complete with newfound confidence, clear skin and a montage set to “Unbelievable” by EMF. But I was an awkward 17-year old wearing a sweater with denim shorts and ankle boots (the horror!) and he was a horny, rich fraternity guy surrounded by blond goddesses with tube tops and Cabriolets. I handed him his tie back and finally made my way outside where I found fellow freshman, all de-tied, all waiting for a ride home. We called a campus taxi, squeezed in and got frozen yogurt on the way. Later that year, when I had been at school long enough to realize that it was okay to not be BFF with your roommate, and that water polo guys were waaaaay hotter than fraternity guys, I had the realization that not only was I popular, but that popular was no different from unpopular.
I think about all of this, and write about all of this, because the other night I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. finishing a book that made me feel what it was like to be 14, 17, 20 again, so very, very vividly that I spent the first two-thirds of the book astonished by how closely the narrator resembled me, and the last third wondering if maybe everyone felt that way when they were 16. An epiphany, of sorts, to think that I wasn’t alone in feeling awkward, to think that during the years I kept to myself for fear of saying the wrong thing, I could have been saying anything to anyone because now, I can look back and see little it would have mattered. An epiphany to realize that I was not the only teenager experiencing the teenage years. Those years when I felt childish? I was surrounded by other children. I read Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and I enjoyed it so thoroughly that when I finished it, I closed the book and rested it on my chest and just held it for a few minutes. I wrote on Cartwheeled that it’s been a while since I’ve truly loved a book, and Prep is the first book I’ve felt such affection for in a long time. I don’t think it’s the story so much as the narrator’s voice, the self-centered yet self-conscious voice that practically screams MOLLY! AT FOURTEEN YOU WERE JUST LIKE THIS, AND YOU KNOW WHAT? YOU KIND OF SUCKED! BUT IN AN ENDEARING WAY, I SWEAR. AND PS, YOU TURNED OUT FINE!
I don’t want to give too much away about the book (or pretend to be a good reviewer, because I totally am not), but it’s the story of a Midwestern teenage girl who goes – on scholarship – to a tony prep school in preppy, preppy New England and finds herself dealing for the first time with that particular population of East Coast Establishment that until I moved to New York, I thought existed only in books and movies about girls who wore pearls and penny loafers. She is awkward and self-absorbed and envious and earnest and spends her high school career waiting for approval, basically. Even though high school left me unscathed, I still found myself aching for Lee (the main character) as she sat and wondered and waited for things to happen to her, not yet aware that we have control over what we do, what we say, who we talk to, how we live. It took me years and years to learn that lesson, and it finally sank in when I met my husband. I had spent so many years dating boys and men who filled me with anxiety more than happiness – fear of doing or saying something wrong: make a mistake, cause and effect, he would dump me. It wasn’t that I suffered from low self-esteem, just that my notion of how relationships worked was one-sided, and I always imagined myself on the “other” side. Relationships happened TO me: someone may decide I was interesting or pretty, and would pursue me. I then would begin a frantic scramble to NOT fuck it up, to not pick up the phone and call him, to not eat too much in front of him, to not have to use the bathroom at his apartment, to not ask too much about his past. That I might not even really like the guy was irrelevant; it was about the drill…you met a guy, you got the guy, you did A then B then C in order to keep the guy and if you fucked it up, it was your fault and next time you’d be more careful.
When I met my husband it was so, so easy. I called him late one night only two days after seeing him, and when he answered the phone, he said Hi and sounded happy to hear from me and I felt my anxiety lessen. Before meeting Kent, I had briefly (fleetingly, really) dated Rob. I met Rob in a group setting; I’d gone out with my roommate to meet up with some people from work (namely, J, on whom I had a huge crush). We walked into the horrible bar in the east 50’s and saw five guys and one girl clustered around empty pint glasses. I immediately blanched, because the girl – a bitch from Atlanta named Emily – was wearing a twinset and black pants, her hair neatly dried in a bob, her handbag a teeny, girly specimen, her makeup subdued. I was in jeans and a ratty old concert t-shirt, smoky eye makeup and Converse, with my i.d. and lipstick in my back pocket. It was wrong, wrong, wrong, Brooklyn on the fratty East Side, and I wanted to leave. (I always think the best way to sum up my early 20’s is not so much “Right Place, Wrong Time,” as “Right Place, Right Time, Wrong Outfit.” It took me a long time to learn how New York worked, and I remember with horror the first party I attended, in the West Village. My friend S had just moved to New York and was having a party. I grew up with S and knew her to be a casual person, so I went to her apartment in jeans from Old Navy and a long-sleeved baby blue t-shirt. All of her Yalie friends were in teensy tops and heels and cocktail dresses with little purses clutched under their arms. Worst, another friend from home was there, and while I remembered her as geeky Margaret with the teal sweatpants, she had reinvented herself in New York – she was attending Columbia – and appeared in front of me suddenly wearing a strappy top and talking about going dancing. Her eyebrows were pencil thin and she was suddenly, surprisingly, beautiful. My own adaptation to New York took much longer, was more gradual, and carries with it the memory of many, many faulty steps.) J ignored me, paying attention instead to the football game on tv and to Emily the Bitch in a Twinset. But next to J was a good-looking blond guy, so good-looking that later, when he wanted to share a cab with me to another bar, I assumed he was either gay or doing a very specific favor for J. Surely, he could not be interested in me, not when there were other, more appropriate girls around. But he called me later and we went to see The Matrix and flirted over email and I went to his apartment a few times. Then he hurt his knee, and I remember one night being in his neighborhood (the east 70’s, natch) with my roommate and debating over whether or not to call and see if he needed anything. Despite my screaming instincts, I called him, and sure enough, he was aloof and distant. I hung up the phone with the certainty that It Was Over. We always know – even when there is nothing you can put your finger on, no specific incident or moment, we know when it is over, and I knew that by calling him, I ruined it. What I didn’t know yet – even though friends had told me – was that all those guys who are “lost” over a phone call? The ones who disappear after WE make some perceived fatal mistake? Are fucking asshole babies. They probably grow up. Probably. But the notion that they are a prize to the girl who doesn’t fuck up stuck with me for many, many years when I was young.
It was when I met Kent and he and I took turns fucking things up and moving closer and closer together that I realized, once and for all, that I have control over my life. I wish that I could step back in time and let my teenage self know that, let her know that I don’t need to wait for permission, but really? I would not go back for anything, not for a million jillion dollars. Nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.