Most criticism and mockery is born out of insecurity. When the guys call each other ‘homo’ or ‘faggot’, it’s because deep down, in black waters too murky for them to see through, they’re afraid that they might be gay. Amy and Lindsey’s savage critiques of other girls’ hair or clothes or make-up are rooted in the fear that they themselves aren’t pretty or cool. It’s not so much about being gay or fat as it is being the thing that’s rejected and ridiculed.
It’s kind of obvious, if you think about it. But when you’re on the receiving end, all of that recognition goes out the window. Your face warms, your nerves buzz, and everyone around you appears as confident as you feel clueless.
There was a flippancy to Shelly’s barbed remark, one side of her lips curled in muted amusement. It was the sort of dig that required you to force a smile and a fake a laugh, as any protestation or offense could and would be viewed as a sign of your uptight inability to take a joke.
‘Lighten up’, your tormentor may say with a scoff and an eye roll, somehow morphing themselves into the victim of their own attack. ‘I’m just messing with you.’
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was as uncomfortable and nervous as I was. And yet, I still found myself feeling inferior, clutching my knees in an attempt to stop them from trembling. I bummed a cigarette off of Amy, even though I didn’t smoke, and fumbled with the lighter, my attempt to look cool and confident having the opposite effect.
If the playing field were leveled, and neither of us constructed our actions based around what others would think, or who came ahead on the proverbial scoreboard of a game without rules, then Shelly and I would probably just hug and cry and gargle about how we much missed and loved each other. But we’re much too cool for that now.
She sat down next to Marty, who gave me a ‘what-can-you-do?’ shrug that made me want to cry. It’s not the fact that the world is cruel that hurts. The real pain comes from knowing that a lot of people can see the cruelty, but they join the parade, anyway.
Being publicly ridiculed will never stop being terrifying, but the older you get, it’s not the taunts and laughter that get to you so much as the apologetic glance of a bystander, a look that conveys they know what’s going on is wrong, but aren’t about to speak up. Knowing that there’s evil in the world can make you shiver. The idea that the good are too sheepish or selfish to combat the evil is what makes it hard to get out of the bed in the morning.
I found myself unable to focus on any of the half dozen conversations going on around me. All of the loud and slurred debates, declarations, recantations and raucous laughter blended into one useless disjointed symphony, muffled by my preoccupation with Shelly’s presence. It hissed like white noise, though I made gestures that implied my engagement, alternating between stealing glances at her and pretending as if she didn’t exist.
At one point, Shelly bellowed out an impression of this local car salesman who shouts in bizarre, cheaply produced ads that air on late night cable. Everyone laughed, though mine towered over the throng, a little too loud and a little too stilted, just as it was years ago, back when I was trying to get my new friends to like her.
I took a look at my watch every two or three minutes, reassuring myself that Trent should be back within the next five. I had never wanted him by my side more, though the feeling made me realize that I didn’t really like him all that much. My desire for his presence was a wish for a shield or a distraction or a trump card over Shelly’s boyfriend. I wanted a sense of comfort.
Had Trent been there, he probably wouldn’t have comforted me. He probably wouldn’t have even noticed that I was hurt. Shit, he may even have laughed at the ‘Titty Fuck Girl’ crack.
After about twenty-five minutes or so, Trent and the rest of them tumbled out of the tent, giggling with grapefruit colored eyes that glowed through the slits of their drooped lids, shaking hands like senators who just struck a budget deal. He poked his tongue through his teeth as he walked towards me, dangling a Ziploc bag with a bunch of dried up mushrooms in it. Other members of their tent summit did a variation of the same as they strutted towards their respective tribes, the crowd hushing yet humming, like a concert audience when the house lights go down, The slaps of a few high fives echoed over the crackle of the fire
I didn’t really know all that much about drugs. I’d smoked pot before. I had done coke once at a college party, and snorted Adderall a few times. I’d never bought any or sold any. But I’d been around them enough to notice that more often than not it looks like the giddy high of acquiring the drugs is a better feeling than actually doing them.
Trent doled out shriveled mushrooms caps frosted with what looked like blue and silver spray paint to everyone huddled around him, hands cupped as if waiting to take a communion wafer. I lingered on the outskirts of the scrum, a part of me hoping they’d gobble it all up before it was my turn, or maybe not notice that I hadn’t taken any.
I’d noticed that Shelly had been employing the same strategy with her cluster, and at one point her eyes caught mine. It was an earnest look, and a frightened one. She cocked her head towards the woods and I nodded without hesitation, years frozen by animosity thawing in an instant as we both tiptoed away.
All of the daydreamed lectures and apologies, the half written crumpled up letters, the mold-covered anger and hurt, the years of silence and doubt and guilt that had festered to the point where it felt like amputation was the only option – it just disappeared in an instant. Slipped right off our shoulders, like the book bag of a bored student walking through the front door. And all it took was a few head nods.
Some relationships in life develop a shared intuition that can’t be weakened or rusted or forgotten by time. It’s a lot like riding a bike – it may be wobbly at first, but the muscle memory returns quicker than the fear lingers.
‘Have you ever done mushrooms before?’ she whispered, both of us hunched together behind a tree, hands on our knees, glancing around, like a team in a huddle.
‘No.’ I felt a pang of shame when I answered, though I couldn’t say why. I knew that Shelly wouldn’t think less of me because I hadn’t tripped on mushrooms before. Actually, she’d probably think less of me if I had. But most people have a hard time admitting that they don’t really know what’s going on. They spent so much of their life pretending they do that a naked admission of cluelessness somehow feels wrong.
‘Do you want to?’ She had to lower her gaze to line up with mine, which was pretending to study a patch of dirt too dark to see. I wasn’t really certain of the answer to the question, but after a brief silence scored by the chirping and humming of insects, I shook my head.
‘OK,’ she said, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear, nodding as if she’d just talked herself into something. ‘If anyone gives us any, we pretend to eat it. Just shove it in your pocket or toss it, and pretend like you’re chewing. Fake it. They’ll never know.’
I nodded along, a private’s trust in a general, the gap separating our ranks less about wisdom than courage. All I could think of was what to say next. ‘I’m sorry’ was on the tip of my tongue the whole time, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.
‘Actually,’ she said, snapping her fingers and slapping her thigh in one fell swoop. ‘Let’s just say we ate them out here. If anyone asks, we’ll rattle off some bullshit about nature and spirituality.’
‘Right. Maybe when we get back to the circle we can laugh real loud or something. Like, one of us told a joke, and we can pretend to chew when people look. Like an alibi.’
‘Nah,’ she said with a tone of dismissive wisdom picked up at some point since we’d parted ways. ‘The less noticeable you are, the better.’
We both froze up at the sound of leaves crunching under footsteps nearby. Despite no one being around to see us, we both acted out rigid and slightly over-the-top behaviors indicating the nonchalance of two people not in the middle of a deep conversation – letting our limbs go limp and dangle, avoiding eye contact, scratching the backs of our necks, as if we were strangers waiting for a bus.
‘C’mon,’ she whispered, grabbing my wrist after the crunching and laughter had trailed off, pulling me towards the campsite. ‘Play it cool. Act natural.’
The buzz of the circle had quieted, the drugs taking a bit longer to kick in than everyone anticipated. Nicole and Amy asked where I’d been with an urgency implying an absence of days. Trent offered up some mushroom caps he’d saved for me, and I waved them off, claiming to have eaten plenty with Shelly in the woods. Things quieted down again, everyone fidgeting and sighing as if life were a sluggish checkout line.
‘I think I’m starting to feel weird,’ Nicole said, her hands grasping the summit of her knees, which were curled against her chest. Her body rocked back and forth slowly, her unblinking eyes lost in the fire.
‘My hands feel weird,’ Trent muttered, mouth hanging open, holding his right hand a few inches from his face, turning it slowly.
‘Yeah, I think it’s kicking in,’ I said with a spacy drawl, the delivery as jagged and wooden as the dialogue of a porn movie. No one responded, but no one seemed to object or suspect, either. You want to be noticed, but you don’t want to stand out. It’s a fine line, but navigating it becomes almost effortless after time.
Seabury kids aren’t too hard to figure out in that regard. When The Doors come on, you say that you love The Doors. When someone says that Vice Principal Lombardi is a fat asshole, you say ‘Yeah, fuck him’. If you’re asked whether you’re ‘cool’ or if you ‘party’, always ask for a clarification (it can mean a lot of different things). Try to act bored with everything around you, but don’t be too negative – aim for a sort of indolent contentment. Make well-timed comments that don’t alter the course of conversation, but give the idea that you’re cool and interesting and self-assured, without really saying much about yourself.
It sounds kind of convoluted and complex, but it doesn’t take long before it becomes a sort of an involuntary reaction. You’ll find yourself saying or doing things and realizing ‘wait, I don’t believe that’. But everyone nods or laughs, and you feel accepted for who you are, ignoring or outright forgetting the fact that every word and action has actually been an attempt to disguise the real you.
‘Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?’, Trent whispered in my ear, the rest of the group focused on the account of someone who had, in fact, taken acid and synched up The Wizard of Oz with The Dark Side of the Moon. It, like, changes the way you look at reality, he’d confirmed, the group nodding with starry eyes as if he were some shaman.
All of it had the tired familiarity of a syndicated rerun you half-watch while making dinner. I’d heard the conversation enough times to know that you start the album on the third roar of the MGM lion, and I’d been asked enough to know that ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ is a lead-in to ‘I think you’re really cool/smart/funny’, which sets up ‘I’m serious. You’re different from other girls’, all of which is a coded way of saying ‘I want to titty fuck you’.
‘I think you’re really cool,’ he said after we’d walked for a minute or so in silence, shoving his hands into the pockets of his Abercrombie jeans, faded and torn by design, not natural wear. His eyes tried to meet mine, but gravitated towards the ground, pulled by the magnetic force of the knowledge that compliments and honest expressions of admiration are frowned upon, seen as a pathetic sign of weakness. Much like his jeans, the words came off more like a facsimile than something natural.
It’s easy to get swept up in the warm, buzzy idea of validation – the chase of such a feeling is more often than not what led you to such a position in the first place. You want to believe, and so you do. After all, being told that you’re cool or interesting or funny is exactly what you’d hoped for when you put on eyeshadow or dyed your hair or skipped lunch, isn’t it?
Moments like this used to bring on a reverie that made every pop song achingly poignant, large chunks of the day spent daydreaming about the names of future children and what to wear. But after enough sweaty, smelly, weird looking dicks rammed between your tits or down your throat, it all feels more like a lead-filled burden – an obligation you have to choke down like an in-law’s steamed vegetables.
I had become convinced that the only reason guys told me that I was cool or funny or different from all the other girls was because they want to fuck me. And if I wouldn’t let them, all of the stuff about how unique or pretty or smart I am would cease, or transfer over to the next girl they thought they had a shot with. I would go from a girl special enough to elicit a mix tape so urgent it had to be delivered in homeroom on a Tuesday to someone they pretended not to notice in the mall concourse.
The things I did or said or wore, my favorite books or albums or paintings, the stories of my life, the feelings that made up my soul – none of it seemed to matter. I could read Cosmo or Kant, listen to The Smiths or Hanson, vote Democrat or Republican – it amounted to little more than trivia. The only thing that mattered was whether or not I rubbed my breasts against their dicks.
‘I mean that. I’m serious,’ he said with the steady enunciation and serious look of a drunk steeling himself to appear sober. There was a faint whistle to his ‘s’ at the tail end; Trent always looked and sounded like he had a wad of tobacco in his lip, even when he didn’t (though he often did).
‘Thanks,’ I said with a purr, batting my lashes despite being unable to look him in the eye. Neither one of us spoke for a bit. It was a tense silence – the agonizing quiet of a theater when the lead blanks on their line. When I finally remembered to say ‘I like you, too’, it came out like a rushed afterthought, blurted with the frantic exasperation of a last second Pictionary guess.
I had come to realize that I didn’t really like him all that much, and knew that saying so would be his green light to move in for a kiss. But somehow I felt obligated to, even as I warned myself over and over that I wasn’t.
‘You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do this.’ The mantra grew louder and faster when he moved in. My mind told me to shirk away, but the body reciprocated, slipping my tongue between his lips. When he began running his hand up my shirt, the voice in my head shifted from a pleading whimper to the stern and disgusted shouts of an angry parent.
‘Don’t do it! How stupid are you? Say no! You can say no! You don’t want to do this!’
By the time he’d peeled my shirt off, fumbling with my bra hook for a few seconds before just yanking the front down, lunging for my breasts like he was a fighter who’d just survived the tenth round and my nipples were a water bottle straw, the silent pleas had crescendoed into a jumbled panic that began to lose all meaning.
It began to cool down around the time he put his hand on my head and gently pressed downward, settling into a calmer and more reasonable chant of ‘Please don’t. It won’t make you happy. ‘Please don’t. It won’t make you happy.’
I didn’t give much resistance before melting to my knees and tugging on his belt. Wrapping my mouth around him, the words became more of a lament than a warning, their rhythm a metronome to time the bob of my head.
‘It won’t make you happy, it won’t make you happy, it won’t make you happy.’
You wouldn’t have known that’s how I felt by looking at me. I moaned and flipped my hair, ran my tongue up and down his chest, winked and giggled, called him ‘baby’, etc.
It felt like I was raping myself.