When I was little, I blamed it on the dresses.
This, of course, made no sense. Back then, most little girls wore dresses. I had long dark hair and bangs, and my mother would put my hair in pony tails and put me in beautiful knee-length cotton things. I was probably adorable, as little kids went.
But I hated dresses. I’m not sure why. All I remember is that I loathed dressing up.
My most vivid memory around dresses is of the first day of second grade, when a girl I had just met told me I looked pregnant. I said to her “I’m seven,” and she shrugged. She had frizzy blonde hair and pierced ears and was wearing a dress of her own, and after that exchange I flatly refused to wear dresses to school.
I blamed it on the dresses, but getting rid of them didn’t help. I was still the misfit, still the strange one. Not that I didn’t have friends. I fell madly in love with one girl who was rather horrible. She was a classic Queen Bee, collecting all of us like figurines, and when she was bored she would point to one of us and direct the others to attack. I never knew, from one day to the next, if I would be favored or not, if my day would go smoothly, or if I would be spending recess hiding from people who the day before had been my closest friends.
I don’t remember if I attacked when it was someone else’s turn. I don’t believe I did. I hope I didn’t. But every single time, when my turn was over, I forgave this girl, and let myself believe it wouldn’t happen again.
So for a while, it was the Queen Bee’s fault I didn’t belong.
By the time junior high rolled around, I’d given up on the idea of fitting in. I had a small circle of fiercely good friends—the Queen Bee had moved on to greener pastures by then—and we were all more or less united by the ordeal of surviving the day. High school was slightly better, but not much. When you live in the same town for your whole life, when you are going through puberty and growing up with people you knew in kindergarten, there’s nowhere to hide and no way to start over.
No way to belong, if you’ve never belonged.
I was different. I’m still different. We are all different, of course, and I don’t discount the possibility that everybody feels it the same as I do. All I know is it’s always been true for me, and what I’m feeling now is familiar.
I assume, sometimes, that I don’t fit in these days because of my age. Among other things, it is mystifying—and bloody annoying—to have people assuming I’m technically illiterate because I’m over fifty. Some of that is my fault. I talk about not having a cell phone, and people for whom they have always been critical tools of organization assume it’s some form of gadgetphobia or Ludditism. The reality is much simpler: I hate talking on the phone. I’m sure I’ll bow to necessity at some point, but in the meantime I claim cheapness and bad reception and anything else I can think of, and I let people think I’m old and stupid because it’s easier than discussing telephone anxiety with strangers.
But I don’t really think my age is at fault, any more than it was the Queen Bee’s fault or the fault of the poofy dresses I wore as a little girl.
A friend of mine was lamenting once that she knew a person who had tons of friends—twenty or thirty—and wondered what she was doing wrong because she did not have so many. I ventured the theory that the person she envied used a different definition of “friend” than she did. The word “friend” gets overloaded, I think; we use it for people we see daily at work or running errands, people with whom we can exchange small talk or even trade sob stories, but who we’d never think to call on a weekend when we were looking for something to do. We use it for people we haven’t seen in years (like the woman who started this paragraph, who I lost track of a decade ago). And we use it for people who are the first ones we think of when something good—or bad—happens to us, who we can count on to listen with kindness and tell us what we need to hear without being either too harsh or too careful, who we check in on if we haven’t had a word in a while.
When I use the word “friend”, it’s the last sort of person I think of. And no matter my age, I’ve never had many of those.
And sometimes that’s hard.
I like people, as a general rule. I’m an introvert, which means I need a fair amount of time to myself—two and a half hours at The Kid’s crowded gym once a week makes me want to retreat to a desert island—but people make me laugh and think and hope. In aggregate, humans seem rather horrible, but when I pay attention to individuals the world seems like a much, much nicer place, and sometimes I can believe it won’t all fall to pieces. Most of the time I soak up people passively, listening in on conversations in the coffee shop or in the checkout line, but sometimes I’ll chat myself. Usually I babble, and sometimes I get That Look from the others, like the toaster has suddenly become animated and spoken up.
It’s not age. I always got That Look from people. All the way back to kindergarten, as far back as I can remember, I got That Look.
It puts me in a bad feedback loop sometimes. I use it, when I can. There’s a reason most of the characters I write about—certainly the ones I love the best—are lonely people, clinging for dear life to anyone who understands, even a little. But childhood is never far away, and I’m so much more self-aware now, and I still find myself bewildered so much of the time. The world seems to work differently for some people. I’m sure there’s a reason, but it’s like a sort of colorblindness: I’ll never see it, and if I could see it, I wouldn’t be different.
And maybe we are all different. Maybe none of us can see.