Chuck Klosterman wrote, in the essay “This Is Emo” from his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, “My witty banter and cerebral discourse is always completely contrived. Right now, I have three and a half dates worth of material, all of which I pretend to deliver spontaneously.” I related to this so hard that it hurt. I am always extremely aware of how I am presenting myself to strangers, and I have been for as long as I can remember. If I’m at a party and someone asks me a question, I rifle through all the possible responses, then all the possible reactions to each response, in my mind before opening my mouth. The answer I settle on is designed to satisfy curiosity, inspire more conversation, and hopefully get the other person to like me.
As far as I can remember, this all started when I was six or seven and my parents were told that standardized tests had placed me in the “gifted” category at my school. My parents were (understandably) proud, and I remember their bragging about me to their friends, who’d look at me approvingly and cry, “How smart!” Hmm, I thought. Being clever and precocious gets me all kinds of positive attention. I started memorizing stories and facts to dazzle people with, gleaned from “factoid books” they used to sell at gas stations. “Did you know a duck’s quack doesn’t echo?” I’d ask visiting adults. Or: “Did you know that some people can draw on a grain of rice?” I would then smile and haul out my stuffed animals for a round of introductions, which always delighted my parents’ guests. Being a clever kid gave me a routine, a shortcut to adult approval, and a tiny little bit of identity to cling to.
As a teenager, I decided that I’d rather be seen as “cool” than “smart.” My older sister was conventionally gorgeous, and I didn’t feel like I could hold my own next to her unless I was completely different, so I picked a direction and went for it. I dressed in men’s pinstriped pants and animal-print shirts and dyed my long hair a multitude of bright colors. This look, I believed, expressed “who I was,” and it had the bonus effect of making other people think I was “weird.” I continued my habit of researching random things to impress people with, but this time the stories I collected were about Kim Gordon, or people surviving being buried alive, or just weird piercings. I wrote poetry and short stories about machines that ate feelings. I wanted people to believe that I was special. I wanted to be the cool, mysterious, irresistible person in the movie who comes along and enchants your life. I wanted you to wish you could live in my world every single day. Basically, I wanted to be a living, breathing Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
This was a ridiculous aspiration for many reasons, not least among them the fact that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is never the focus of the movie, she’s just a plot device. I had no model for what such deadly fascinating girls were supposed to do a year into a friendship, or a year into a job, or anytime they were by themselves. Were they still delightful? All through college and for a long time after, I skipped from job to job, working until I felt bored by the place (read: felt like I was becoming boring to the place). In my personal life, there were a handful of people who really knew me and “got” me, but the majority of my relationships were as brief as they were intense. We’d have all kinds of adventures and what I thought were “deep,” “profound” talks late into the night, and six weeks later, we’d just drift apart (read: I’d start getting anxious that I couldn’t keep up the mirage much longer and skedaddle). I couldn’t make the shift from being the “mysterious cool girl” to just being a loyal, dependable person, a crucial transition if you’re trying to turn an acquaintance into an actual friend. Friends are people who see you cry, who notice if you’re having a bad day and try to cheer you up. Mysterious cool girls, I thought, didn’t need cheering up. But I did.
Looking back, I can see that I was scared. I put on a big show for everyone to protect myself from rejection. No one could resist the mysterious cool girl, and even if they did, they weren’t really rejecting me, just this other girl I introduced them to. If they saw “the real me,” the girl who is sometimes overly emotional or has nothing funny to say, I believed, people would not find me worthy of their time. I didn’t think my regular self deserved friends, and I felt lucky for the few who tolerated her. The fact that people liked being around “the cool girl” just confirmed my fears. (You see how sad this merry-go-round is?) In short, I felt unlovable, and I didn’t want to give anyone the chance to confirm this feeling.
Always being the new girl is a hard lifestyle to maintain, though, unless you’re a serious drifter/vagabond. It also gets exhausting, and lonely. I had a few friends I’d made as a teenager, close friends, but I’d left them behind when I moved to college, and my single-serving friends just weren’t cutting it. I needed more connection in my life. I needed to bond over more than just being fun. It was less risky to keep myself fun to be around, but after a while it got hard to keep people at arm’s length. I learned that no matter how hard you try to be a weirdo fairy tripping around in the breeze, some people and some places will force you to get comfortable. Those people and places feel like home, and you can’t help letting your guard slip down a little bit when you’re around them.
I slipped out of my role and into being a person slowly, cautiously, and gingerly. Over time, I allowed myself to demonstrate affection and competence rather than quirky charm, and I found that caring can keep things just as interesting as taking people to hot dog festivals in the middle of nowhere (something I did more than once to prove how weird and interesting I was). At this point I’ve had the same job for almost four years, more than double the time I’ve spent anywhere else. I’ve been in the same relationship for almost seven years. I have three best friends from high school and college that I took the time to reconnect with, because when I thought about my future, I wanted it to include those parts of my past. This job and these people are so fascinating enough to me that I knew I couldn’t let them go, so I was forced to take a chance that they’d still be there even when my “new car smell” wore off.
I still have to fight the urge to put on a show when I meet new people—old habits die hard. But lots of the people in my life now have seen me cry, and they’ve seen me get angry. They’ve seen me fall down and be dull and shoot snot out of my nose while laughing. I’ve discovered that I don’t have to put on a façade to be liked, which feels pretty exhilarating. I may not seem as mysterious or cool as I used to, but I do get to have truly meaningful relationships with other people, and we can still dazzle each other with factoids about seahorses or arcane rituals from faraway lands or Victorian death photography anytime we like. ♦