Last Friday Jeff and I went to see the first preview of Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, at the Bowery Theater. If you haven’t heard of Mike Birbiglia, you should download his stand-up on iTunes, or get his book, Sleepwalk With Me. He is hilarious, and my favorite thing about him is that his humor comes pretty much entirely from his own painful or awkward life experiences.
I don’t write a lot about pain on the blog (awkwardness, I think we can agree I've got in spades). I touch on it, in a self-deprecating way, but I’m still a little scared to dive in. (Which may be because I can’t dive. I never learned. The closest I can get is putting my hands together like a steeple and falling as gracefully as possible off of a diving board while bending forward. I also never learned how to tread water for more than thirty seconds at a stretch, which is why I avoid boating and also why I was never allowed to go on “dingles” at Camp Onas, which sound like scatological underpants findings but which were actually day-long canoe trips.) Anyway.
Mike’s show (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis, in my mind) got me thinking about pain and humor, and how they’re intertwined. So I thought I’d share a story of one of my most painful memories, from the files of adolescence, that nebulous period of budding self-awareness in which all emotional pain is new and sharp and most likely to burrow under the skin like a jagged splinter for decades to come.
This particular story takes place in seventh grade. I looked, as you may recall, like this:
For reasons at the time confounding and deeply hurtful to me, one April afternoon my best friends Vanessa and Jesse suddenly and unceremoniously broke up with me in the locker room before gym class.
“We don’t really want to hang out with you anymore,” Vanessa said.
“Yeah,” Jesse piped up. “It’s not you … it’s us. We’ve changed”
“Also we’ve been talking about it,” Vanessa said, “And we think you’re really annoying.”
So that happened. I self-medicated with bedtime Garrison Keillor tapes and Blossom hats. And then I tried to find some new friends. The only other girls in my class were, for lack of a better term, the Asian clique, a group of about six Chinese-, Japanese-, and Korean-Americans and one beautiful, dusky Indian girl named Marina. I don’t remember how or why we started hanging out, but knowing 7th grade me I just inched closer and closer to them and started laughing knowingly at their jokes and following them around, hoping they wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t always been there.
Things seemed to be going well for about a week, but then one afternoon, as I was having a snack with my mom after school, I reached into my backpack and found a folded-up note.
It had been typed up and printed on computer paper—an incredibly formality for adolescents in the early nineties. And it wasn’t a note, really, or even a letter. No, it was a one-page burn book.
“I don’t even know why she hangs out with us.”—Alice
“I hate her clothes!”—Dorothy
“She’s so annoying!”—Helen
Yes, they had typed up quotations as a means of rejecting me, as if they were blurbing a nonexistent book I had written called The White Girl With No Friends, or testing out dialogue to workshop a play of the same name.
It stung. The instant pain and humiliation knocked my breath out of my lungs. And the worst part was that my mother was right there. She saw it. She knew.
I was thirteen, friendless, and, by all accounts, unbearably annoying. I had acne and braces and a mushroom haircut. I wore the wrong clothes and fetishized A Prairie Home Companion. My life felt over.
But it got even worse.
The next day, at school, Marina approached me in the hallway.
“Did you get our note?” she asked gently.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s okay.”
That’s the part that breaks my heart. It’s okay. It was not okay. It was cowardly and cruel and devastating. I had nothing to lose at that point. I could have said, “Yeah… and fuck you and your dot-matrix printer.”
But I didn’t. I said “It’s okay” because I wanted them to like me even while they were rejecting me. I wanted to be voted Most Agreeable Middle-School Outcast 1993.
Which is funny, when you think about it. And, of course, sad and more than a little bit pathetic.
But funny. Because it so completely sums up who I was in seventh grade. And who, in many ways I still am.
When I do write my bestselling memoir White Girl With No Friends, however, I'm so going to use the dot-matrix line. Because that bitch had it coming.