the wrong side of the bed

Friday, May 23, 2008

Whatever will be, will be

When I was in high school, I had something of an obsession with a girl named Mali. We had been in school together beginning in kindergarten. We had a lot of things in common, but she was always more popular than me and things often seemed to fall into her lap. As an adult, I realize that she was more outgoing and tried much harder than I did, but as a kid, it really just seemed like magic that she was so popular and I was a pariah.

I was fascinated with Mali. I simultaneously hated her and had a crush on her. For every reason that everyone else was enamored of Mali, I was too. Bitter and jealous, I tried to sabotage her when I could. I paid too much attention to her every move. Talked about her too much to my friends. Even I recognized that my feelings were unhealthy. Still, I wanted to knock her down and make her finally the same as me.

In our junior year English class we read something in which a character was a mistress. Everyone in class was eager to malign the woman in question. Mali asked a question, phrased a bit strangely, that caused an uproar in class. "What if you plan to be the other woman?" she asked. She surely meant "are" and not "plan," but we were quick to jump on Mali. Girls in class were especially angry. How could someone be a party to someone else's infidelity? I have no idea what I felt at the time. Now I would likely argue that it is much less the fault of the interloper than it is for other parties involved, but at 16 I really hadn't given it much thought. I did, however, see an opportunity to humiliate Mali. My barb was sharp, complicated, and painful. I was effectively able to imply that not only was it Mali's goal in life to be a whore and home wrecker, but that she perhaps already was. The way I said it brought the whole class to silence. All of this because I wanted to hurt Mali just as much as I wanted to be her and just as much as I wanted to always be around her.

I am not sure why I had such little compassion then. I was generous to people outside of my world, but those I interacted with regularly were not to be trusted, even my friends. I felt that betrayal was always around the corner. My mother has said that teenagers are selfish and self-absorbed and she is absolutely right. Even still, it upsets me that I matched this formula so exactly. I remember thinking that I was a compassionate person, but maybe I never did. It is possible that I recognized my potential to be cruel, but I am certain that I blamed it on other people.

This morning I was listening to a segment on NPR with book recommendations. One bookseller recommended a collection edited by Jeffrey Eugenides called My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro. A story called "How to be an Other Woman" by Lorrie Moore stood out in my mind. It sounded like a guide for the life that we had all decided Mali had planned. A workshop that might be offered or a short course at a community college.

The bookseller recommending the book read this selection, "When you were six you thought a mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet." I'm not sure I understand how a child might understand mistress to mean putting your shoes on the wrong feet. Like mis-dress? I think I may understand better the adult meaning. It would making walking awkward but doable, you could maybe make it so people wouldn't notice, but it would probably hurt a great deal in the process.

The year before we read whatever it is we read that lead Mali to announce her plan to be the other woman, we read To Kill a Mocking Bird. This book, I always thought, was the closest thing we ever got to sociology in my high school. At least it encouraged us to examine things from perspectives other than our own. I believe there is a part in which Atticus tells Scout to imagine herself walking in the shoes of someone else. Maybe Mali was just doing this. The other shoes just happened to be on the wrong feet.

Anyway, Mali, I'm sorry for being a teenager and selfish. I know you wanted to be an actress, and I have looked for you on IMDB and seen that you have been in some things. I don't know if you really wanted to be an other woman and I don't know if you are now. I am sorry for making fun of you if that was really your plan. If it is and you are, I don't know if I would still be jealous of you. It doesn't seem an enviable position, but I am, after all, a very jealous person. I do know that I would think of you with compassion and then try not to think of you at all.
8:38 AM


Lorrie Moore was my fiction teacher.
Blogger Ang, at 7:50 PM  
Dorotha, this story reminds me a lot of myself when I was young. I was unpopular and the popular kids were very mean to me. So I guess I tried to be popular by being mean to others. It didn't work, and I still really regret the things I said back then. Sometimes I think about tracking down the people I was cruel to and sending them apology letters, but that would probably be creepy.
Blogger AK, at 8:02 AM  
AK: It is always a shocker when I remember that I was mean to people when I was in school. I always felt so downtrodden. It turns out that we were all such assholes.
Blogger dorotha, at 10:16 AM  
Very amazing and interesting post

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