Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Outsider

Last night was warmish so we kept a window open in our bedroom. The cool night air though kept me awake, the air permeated with a skunk's bitter perfume. For hours I drifted in a half-sleep, too awake not to smell the skunk but too asleep to get out of bed to shut the window. Later, I dreamed angry dreams - my sister had taken something of mine and I hated her. We cursed one another and yelled. When I awoke, my bed was filled with little creatures, M on my one side, D on the other, and Sassy at my feet. I could barely move. I grew uncomfortably hot, stuck under the covers, limbs pinned by bodies. If I moved, I'd waken them. The dog would most likely get up and wet the carpet, M would would ask for food and television, D would rage, and my night would be over. Or worse, I'd throw everyone out of the room and I'd remain comatose until noon.

I lay still.

When I was ten, my parents sent me to an exclusive private girl's school in Pasadena that went from the fourth grade to the twelfth. From the moment I stepped onto that campus, I stuck out like a sore thumb and to this day I have no idea why. All I can figure is the girls knew something about me - perhaps they sensed an inherent vulnerability, a weakness. Perhaps they sensed I was in between worlds. Neither Mexican nor Jewish, neither rich nor poor, neither pretty nor ugly. They snickered behind my back, they shunned me at lunch. I'd get upset and sulk. I became profoundly self-conscious. I never could do anything right. I read the wrong books, I wore my hair the wrong way, I developed far too early. The girls in my class remained beyond my reach.

In order to pass the time, I followed various groups around but was never invited to be a part of them. I watched the Lesbians kissing in the bathroom and stood by as the Thieves stole the goods out of a forgotten notebook in an empty classroom. I stood in line with the Athletes to play handball, and I walked with the Ditchers to the outfield to eat sour weeds. One time I spent the night with the Short Girls, bringing the wrong kind of stuffed dog, finding the night long and painful as I endured make-believe games that didn't include me.

The only friend I had was a Polish girl who played the cello and with her own body in class. I caught her once and was fiercely embarrassed. For some reason on that day, we were sitting all over the classroom. I was one of a few who sat facing the bulk of the students. She was in the back, sitting on top of a desk and I saw her touch herself between her legs. I remember my reality dawning on me - it made sense she was the only girl willing to be my friend. I knew then why she had none. When I told her I saw her, trying to help her not be as much of an outcast as she was, she of course became angry. She spread rumors about me. Told people she and I had sex together. I was horrified because I sort of knew what sex was - I'd learned about it from a book - I assumed it was an extension of the kissing lesbians in the bathroom. She'd laugh at me openly in her newly found acceptance among her peers. She was no longer the bottom girl. The other students snickered even more. The year was agonizing.

Towards the end I'd cry in the mornings, begging my mother not to take me to school. I never told her about the Polish girl - she had a feeling though something was going on. I remember her telling me about "blackmail," asking me if someone was blackmailing me. I figured, yes, that's what it was. Of a sort. I kept the nasty situation to myself. When the year concluded, my parents relented and sent me to another private school, a smaller one. That year I spent not as much on the outside, but more on the verge of independence. I knew the following year I'd be in a public school, with hundreds of students. I couldn't wait. I bit my tongue and bided my time.

Years later in the public high school, I joined the tennis team. I wasn't very good, but I had a good time with my friends since none of us took the game very seriously. We couldn't. After all, we were at a public school. Few students could afford private tennis lessons, me included. We always lost our games. One afternoon, we were scheduled to play the same private school I'd attended when I was ten.

The day had been a hot one and we sweated buckets as we drove across town in the hired school bus. Everyone was talking, chatting, giggling - we'd lose, we knew it. Just another day. What mattered was coming home, the bike ride home. Pizza maybe at someone's house. Not for me, though. I gritted my teeth in memory of my miserable year. I wondered who I would see, if anyone. They all had their private coaches. I stared out the window as I saw the changes in the neighborhood. We left the average to less-than-average suburbs and moved into the higher end of Pasadena. Massive lawns spread in front of equally massive homes, expensive cars lined long driveways, the trees and gardens were impeccable.

We unloaded our stuff and walked to the tennis courts with their beautifully maintained green concrete and the flowering, shading shrubs covering the surrounding chain-link fences. At our school, we had black asphalt, open fencing, no shade. The courts at home were unforgiving on hot days. I was sick with nerves. Determined. I couldn't play for shit but that day I was going to be a monster on the courts. I knew it wasn't possible but it was what I wanted.

The coaches met and assigned courts to various team members. I was given one at the far end. Across from me was Tracy with her expensive racket, one of the Short Girls. There she stood, all five-foot-two of her, freckles, strawberry blond hair in a pony tail. She didn't smile at me, she barely acknowledged me. She tossed the yellow ball in the air and slammed it across the net. It hit the ground next to me, perfectly within bounds and bounced away. I stood there, grinned and shrugged. We tried again. I finally began hitting her lobs and volleyed as best I could. But I had no game, no strategy. All I did was hit hard as hell, all over the court. I watched her sweat as she ran around, huffing, exasperated, thanks to my total lack of game. She sweated profusely, her face reddening under the sun, as I watched her beat me.

By the end of our time together, she was so frustrated with my inability to play which made her unable to play that she let a few balls just fly past her. My only points. At last, having lost the match, I turned around without shaking hands as courtesy demanded and walked to the benches where my little clique was sitting. I danced a little dance, boasting my great loss to my friends, as we compared our losses, in stitches over all of our bad games. We chuckled as the rich kids sauntered by, exhausted to the core, dragging their metal rackets behind them, their pretty outfits and pony tails wilted in the extreme heat.

Thanks to us, the outsiders, they were a mess.

I brought M closer to me, kissing the top of her head. The dog raised her head and then plopped back down. From here, I heard J squeak, his usual tic. He's greatly improved with the new medication actually - he hardly makes noise now other than the occasional chirp.

Yesterday, D and I spoke of J's tics, concerned about the vocal ones coming back when he begins his music camp in August. They're stress-related - if he gets nervous he might end up hiccupping and squeaking like mad. D assured me that in the end it wouldn't matter much.

"He's got the goods - he's stylish in his own way, he's a damn good drummer, and he's funny. Kids forgive him - he's not an outsider."


"Yeah. In the last week of school, some of the girls in my class were talking about him and one said, 'sure he makes some funny noises, but I don't care because he's sooooo cute!' Honey, he'll be fine."

In that moment, as I do periodically, I sort of kissed the proverbial ground that in spite of obvious differences, he's accepted by his peers. Thank god. The door creaked a little as A came in, sleepy-eyed, and collapsed on my bed next to the dog. I looked at my brood as I perspired in the darkened room, pinned in place by them. I felt a part of something wonderful, accepted. A perfect ending, really.




Dale said...

I love the progression of this. Beautifully told. So sorry about the pain.

Fromage de Merde said...

When I was 11, and even before I was deemed incorrigible, I was sent to an all boys boarding school, lasted two weeks, kicked out for being too smart, scared the jocks. 10 years later I saw the school in the newspapers for some sort of sexual abuse scandal, funny, I never fit in there either.

Edge said...

So beautifully told. I felt every pang of not belonging, the ones we all feel, felt then especially.

Such keen insight Adriana

Tamar said...

Now you *know* how a post about exclusion resonates with me!! Beautifully written. Poignant. So sad.

I want to play tennis with you - I used to be quite good - as an outsider! Now, we would just have fun.

As always, I adore your descriptions of your beautiful family.

Thank you, Adriana.

8763 Wonderland said...

"Pinned in place by them"? Hmmmmmmm. Dr. Freud will see you now, Miss Bliss.

Adriana Bliss said...

Thanks so much for reading, NYC Taxi. Cool blog, btw.

Dale, thank you.

Patrick, it is interesting, looking at the people who didn't "fit in." I have to say, I rather love all the misfits I've met.

Edge, thank you so much.

Oh yes, Tamar, I know this is something we share deeply. Thank you for popping in here!


Shuana said...

Hemmed in by the beloved,
a fortress of hot, innocent, sweaty flesh.
Protection against feeling an outsider and against marginalization. Here you are at home, no matter how confining. Here you know the rules. Here you can play the game with expertise. You are the very center of your world.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I love the way you interweave past and present, in this and many other posts.

A. said...

beautifully written as always. You evoke Pasadena as I remember it. Hey, did you go to Westridge that one awful year? I graduated from there and am still working out the traumas.

Adriana Bliss said...

"Hemmed in by the beloved,
a fortress of hot, innocent, sweaty flesh."

I love that, Shuana...thank you.

And thank you, Richard.

Oh Adrienne...yup, that's the place. Hideous school. No surprise you're still traumatized. Looking back, the faculty and staff must have all been smoking crack in the principal's office to have allowed that place to become the festering boil it was. (How's that for lingering bitterness? LOL) Wow...I wonder if I've got you in my yearbook? You poor dear.

Jennifer said...

Outside in.

Funny how life can work, isn't it?

Beautiful. As always.