I was 21 and had freshly, very begrudgingly returned to my hometown. I was broke and had moved back in with my mom to make another go at college. I knew it was the right decision, but it stung to be living in the place I’d left at 17 and swore I’d never return to long-term again. I was already on edge that night when my best friend Katie and I went out for coffee at one our high school haunts. We huddled into a booth hoping not to run into anyone we knew, but of course we did and of course it was Big Bob, a dude who’d been a fixture at Scoville Park, the place that had been our main hang and centerstage to all of our high school drama. Of course he wanted to join us and of course we said yes because you just don’t say no to Big Bob and we were already self-flagellating with nostalgia anyway. But Big Bob immediately hit the most painful nerves.
The first memory of me that he mentioned: running into me daily during lunch while I sat on the steps of a boarded up train station with my abusive boyfriend. I felt my coffee go rancid in my mouth, but I held back from saying something like, “Thanks for bringing that up. FYI, we would sit there while he ate and I didn’t and then we’d go to a bathroom to have sex that I didn’t want to have. Good times!”
Instead I gritted my teeth as he dredged up some bit of ugliness from Katie’s past. I could not, however, stay quiet when he nodded at Katie, concluding, “I’ll always remember you as the angry one”–then turning to me–“and you as the sad one.”
“No,” I shot back, defensively. “I was the angry one, too! We were both angry!”
Big Bob shook his head at me, grim and honest as Eeyore. “No, you were the sad one.”
That cut me to the core. I continued to dispute it with Katie after we escaped Big Bob. She explained smoothly, “That’s just how he saw us. You and I both know it was more complicated than that. Both of us were angry and sad.”
She was right of course, and I could tell it bothered her a bit, too. Katie’s pain had always been hidden in high school and I knew it hurt her that people couldn’t see past the tough girl facade–the one that Bob had reduced to “angry.” I’d worn my pain outwardly in high school, spending my last year-and-a-half there writing about it in my zines. I’d been modeling myself after Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice (“My life is a dark room. One. Big. Dark. Room.”) since seventh grade and I’d spent most of my post-high school life hanging out at goth clubs. In many ways, “The Sad One” was an image I’d honed, and yet I felt so self-righteous, so wronged by Big Bob’s pronouncement that it stuck with me for years to come. I would bring it up periodically with Katie–“Remember that time Bob said…”–trying to work out why it bothered me so much.
I’ve now concluded that part of it was embarrassment at the idea that high school acquaintances might always remember me as an all-black-wearing Winona Ryder wannabe (Even if I was). Part of it was the reductionism that Katie hit upon (I was also a torn-fishnet wearing Courtney Love wannabe, you guys). But the biggest part was that when Bob called Katie “angry,” I interpreted that as “strong” and “tough,” and when he called me “sad,” I heard “vulnerable” and “sensitive.” Those are two things which I very much am and they have been both a source of pride and frustration for me.
I’m not sure who was the first to call me “sensitive.” My mother, maybe, or one of my teachers. I don’t have any specific memories of people speaking the word at or around me; it was more of something I gathered. My mom tells stories about giving me her handkerchiefs in kindergarten and first grade so that I could get through the school day without crying. In second grade, I had a teacher who was more drill sergeant than grandmotherly like I was used to. Knowing that this teacher actually meant well and was providing me with a much-needed challenge, my mother had encouraged me to have a “stiff upper lip.” I interpreted this literally and developed a technique where I stiffened my upper lip and pushed my tongue against the roof of my mouth so I wouldn’t cry. Though things ultimately did turn out well in second grade (I ended the year by giving a speech in front of our entire K through 8 school), the next year we moved, and at my new school, I regularly found myself employing the “stiff upper lip” technique to stop the tears whenever I felt anxious or upset–whether it was because of a boy antagonizing me on the playground or a test I thought I might get one or two questions wrong on. I knew that the popular girls at school saw right through me though. Even during the brief period we were “friends,” they teased me both behind my back and overtly. I could never take their sharp-edged jokes or tuck my feelings away and that was one of several things that made me “weird” and not one of them.
By sixth grade I had embraced my “weirdness” and emotional sensitivity. I started to attribute the latter to my astrological sign, Cancer. I highlighted traits like “incredibly loyal” and “good listener” with pride in my horoscope books. More importantly, I knew that artists were sensitive and I wanted to be a writer. I would channel my pain into poetry and make people face my truth.
This was when I began my life as an open wound. It felt honest, real. It mirrored the people I admired, like Kurt Cobain, who wrote in his suicide note that he loved people so much, had so much empathy, and was so sensitive that he just couldn’t take it. Being openly wounded also drew my fellow wounded souls to me–though I wouldn’t realize until later that this was a double-edged sword. Some of the walking wounded were people that genuinely got me, like Katie, and we helped each other. But others were draining and the very worst of them inflicted their pain onto me, creating even more wounds.