I have padded sock-footed on the edges of groups all my life, not so much disallowed from their embrace as disallowing myself, peering through their windows Little Match Girl-style, drawn by their golden circle of lamplight spilling onto the sidewalk.
Exception: Scotch in hand, I’d rush headlong into their fray, entering stage right, casting myself in the lead, hollering round for the others to hurry up, let’s shoot darts, let’s play “Electric Youth” on the video jukebox over and over, oblivious to the glares of the regulars, sloshing my drink on the table, wondering where my friends were when the music stopped, finding out they’d all gone bowling without me. Later, alone in my apartment, wearing a frayed gray comforter and a face mask I’d concocted from a recipe in Glamour, I struggled to position the rabbit ears on my UHF-only television to stabilize the picture for “Quantum Leap.” Snow on the screen, tears in my eyes.
Taxi-cab privacy screen locked in place, I have held myself at arm’s length from former classmates, coworkers, and even my own family, situating interstates and time zones between us. Through the magic of Facebook, I can still peer through the window, seeing law school classmates celebrating 25 years of friendship – why there they all are at the lake again this summer! Their babies now old enough to captain the boats and me, a mountain range and a lifetime away, having never gotten the hang of water skiing anyway, remembering them yelling from the dock Lean back! Lean back! as I dropped the line again and again, turning blue from cold, red from shame, pale white because I refused to wear shorts ever – hating my legs – an all-American loser in the land of 10,000 lakes.
I could say it all started with the hair intervention in seventh grade but that would be a lie. In photos from three, four years old, I’m all white-haired silkiness, my flyaway ends curling up to complete a smile my mouth refused to form, giving me away: Loner. Then ten, eleven years old: there are pixie cuts and darkening and coarsening and a horrible perm and mall haircuts, always – never at the good place that cost $18 where the girls on the tennis team went. I had no right to attempt the Dorothy Hamill wedge, disastrous as it grew out, widening, never lengthening, me yanking it down, willing it to straighten so no one would notice.
Oh, but they noticed. Four or five of them approaching in the hall at school as friends, maybe? Hi! We want to talk to you! Me thinking this would be a big moment, plans would be made, something that perhaps would not include water skiing but instead studying, and I was good at studying. But wait, what were they saying? We need to talk about your hair, you just can’t wear it like that, have you tried a curling iron, you can use mine, here – thrusting it into my hand and pointing me toward the bathrooms – no, I’ll go alone, I say, gosh thanks for letting me borrow this.
But I had no business curling my hair in the junior high bathroom. They might as well have handed me a circular saw and sent me to shop class to build shelving for all I knew about how curling irons worked. My sisters were grown, in college, and there was a curling iron at home, yes, caked with years of hairspray, but I had no idea how to operate it other than to turn it on and watch the red dot turn slowly to black, signifying danger, not beauty.
Alone in the bathroom, I made a valiant hair styling effort. I maneuvered the foreign instrument to the right side of my head, some confidence in my dominant hand, attempting the little sausage curls that seemed to be in style, so effortless on other girls. Then panic: What of the left side? I’d surely burn myself, the tool backward and inside out and me, already confused by viewing my mirror image – for god’s sake how was I supposed to get the left side?
So I didn’t. I waited for the iron to cool, had missed nearly all of lunch hour by this point, marched back out, overgrown wedge brushing the door on the left, failed sausage curls sagging on the right and there they were, still in a group, waiting for me. Gape-mouthed: What have you done? Why didn’t you do the left side? YOU JUST TURN IT UPSIDE DOWN TO GET THE OTHER SIDE! Laughter, me heading back into the bathroom, tears now, stepping on the floor pedal for the sinks, a waterfall springing up around me, Vegas style – those were the sinks we had, communal dancing waters so all the junior high girls could wash up at once, this considered beneficial somehow by the designers – cupping and filling my hands and wetting my hair over and over, curls on the right disappearing, unruly thicket on the left unmoved by the flood of water dripping onto my plaid blouse with the peter pan collar and the red grosgrain ribbon tied sweetly in a bow at my neck. Now attempting to squeeze the water out with the cloth towels that went round and round in the dispenser, but which, apparently, had no absorptive qualities whatsoever, because there was no disguising it: I was drenched.
And of course they were still waiting, now shouting: You didn’t have to get it wet! You shouldn’t have slicked it down! The bell ringing, fifth hour was it? Counting: three classes and a long bus ride home ahead of me. Their circle of light disappearing and me again on the other side of the window, shivering, no more matches to strike, as I parked myself behind my desk in Mrs. Maruska’s English class, intent on my notebook, my eyes seeing nothing.