4/12/19

Sore Thumb


Howdy. This was a Patreon early release months ago. I decided it was time to publish since I'm in the process of searching for an editor. This essay was originally written for the spoken word and I haven't quite stuck the landing/ending yet. (That's where the editor will help.) It also means I'm presenting it to you with somewhat non-traditional paragraph chunking, a trick I learned at Hello Giggles to help with emotional emphasis.

I hope that even in its unfinished state, it makes you laugh.

SORE THUMB

When I was a kid, I was self-conscious. Not a great revelation, I realize. We were all kids, and to some extent, we were all self-conscious. But my sensitivity was different. How different?

Let me tell you a story.

One frigid February morning, our kind fireman neighbor gave me a ride to grade school in his pickup truck. He got into the driver's side. His two youngest daughters climbed into the middle of the front seat. These girls were everything I wanted to be. They were stylish, pretty, and popular. They were good at sports and they smelled like Jean Nate. Their family was comprised of five beautiful sisters with blonde, silky hair, just like Barbie. And whether I was wrong or right to think this, I felt like Igor anytime they were around. 

Because I was this:  



I hopped into the truck last and closed the passenger door behind me—on my right thumb.

But that’s not the weird part.

What’s weird is that I looked at it and decided not to say anything. It’s only a few blocks to school. It won’t be that bad. I turned to face front and when I did, in my peripheral vision, I saw our neighbor and his daughters staring at me, horrified.

“Is that your thumb in the door?” the middle daughter asked, her side ponytail jostled just a bit as she talked.

I tried to play it cool, “Huh? Look at that. Whoops!” I opened the door, calmly removed my thumb, which was happily housed in a thick knitted mitten, and shut the door again. I looked back at them and laughed a little, shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes like, what are you gonna do? The old body part slammed shut in a car door problem

When I got to school and removed my mitten, my thumb was red and bleeding. But I still didn’t say anything. That is the kind of self-consciousness I mean. 



You’re probably wondering why I so desperately needed to fly under the radar. That’s a question I still ask myself, but it’s at least partially because I faced a rising tide of social anxiety. I don’t mean run-of-the-mill self-awareness, like, “Oh, do I have something in my teeth?”

Nor do I mean the mild fear of disapproval your average Jane experiences from time to time. 

My social anxiety back then certainly didn’t fit the current definition of geek or nerd. Words that now make you imagine Tina Fey, Rivers Cuomo, or the latest Silicon Valley billionaire. I want to tell you what it was like to be a nerd before being a nerd was cool, and at risk of repeating myself here, it has a lot to do with self-consciousness.




Picture it, small-town Indiana, 1992ish. I’m ten. It’s fourth grade. I’m so painfully uncool, that each day at school, I do my very best to implode into nothingness. Each day, I pray that a Wrinkle-In-Time-esque dimension will open up and whisk me away. In fact, I am so devoted to this idea that I watch movies about alternate dimensions on a regular basis, like Labyrinth and Alice in Wonderland and then Labyrinth again. 




Calgon, take me away. Forever.
To another dimension where I'm not a nerd.
I was the kind of nerd who was so out of touch, I didn’t know how to use a curling iron. The situation was Jan Brady, invent a boyfriend bad. I was so out of step with 95% of my classmates, that when a new boy moved to town, the rest of the boys hazed him by convincing him I was the coolest girl in school.

But as you now know, I was not.



His name was Brad. His name was not Brad. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. But his name was Brad-ish. I don't blame him at all for what follows.

In my memory, Brad arrived at our school wearing brand new Air Jordans, looking like an extra from the Disney channel. He had the requisite butt cut, which was tres chic at the time. Brad acted self-assured, but he also arrived asking everyone questions about what was cool at this school. I overheard them telling him about me as I was picking persimmons off the ground near the basketball court at recess. 

Yes. That’s how I spent my recess. Because I heard they made good jam, that’s why.


By this time, I was accustomed to the old hazing gag in one form or another. The new guy never believed it, but the laugh they all shared about how absurd the notion was that I was cool bonded them as a group, you see.

 The first time it happened was in third grade after I got glasses when a boy named Carl (his name wasn't Carl) moved to town. The last time it happened was in sixth grade. But let's focus on Brad.

“She’s the coolest girl here?” he asked. I didn’t know if they were pointing at me because I was too scared to turn around, but one must assume.

In fact, I always pretended I didn’t hear what anyone said. I wanted to run away, but I learned you needed to spend a requisite minute or two pretending not to hear so they wouldn’t tease you about being upset. Mean kids are like dogs in that they smell fear. And sadness. And off-brand body spray.

Anyway, Brad believed the story. He was the only kid to ever believe it. I still don’t understand how that happened. But the more he believed it, the more the other guys egged him on to try to become my boyfriend. A prospect that sent adrenaline pumping through my body. I was afraid that when he figured it out, he’d be mad at me. 

Let that sink in.  



As luck would have it, the teacher sat him at my desk clump. So, every day, for about a week, Brad drew doodles in my art box. He talked to me. We laughed. We got along great. He even tried to braid my hair once. It was the first time a boy I wasn’t related to ever touched my hair.

Every day when I came home from school and watched reruns of Full House and Family Matters, (after a two-hour block of cartoons called the Disney Afternoon and before Entertainment Tonight and Night Court) the shows felt different to me. Because now I could imagine myself in the place of DJ or, God help me, Stephanie instead of always relating to Kimmy or Urkel. 

I started allowing myself to enjoy Heavy D songs on the radio instead of listening to my Best of Fred Astaire cassette. I was actually talking to people at the bus stop. My whole life felt different.




 

One day, Brad asked me to be his girlfriend. And I said yes. I overheard him go to the basketball boys to report his victory and get this, I was thrilled. Nay, excited. I was ecstatic to hear him stand up to them when they revealed it had all been a joke. It was gonna be just like the end of Can’t Buy Me Love, only I was the Patrick Dempsey and he was the whoever that girl was. Just like all the best movies, what started as a cruel joke became real.  




But of course, it hadn’t. When they told him, everyone laughed and he said things like, “Are you guys serious?” and poured out all the reasons he suspected maybe it had been a joke all along and, you guessed it, they bonded. They pointed out the actual cool girl, one of the many Michelles in my class, and he looked visibly relieved. Michelle had long, straight, blonde hair and straight teeth, and new clothes, and she was nice to me so I couldn’t even be mad at her.

He asked the teacher to move desk clumps and she let him. We didn’t talk again. Ever. Not in junior high, not in high school…not ever, ever again. And listen, we were kids. Everyone had pain and struggles. I’m not mad anymore. Somebody had to be the nerd, right? And I wasn’t the only one. 

~

That's a terrible ending. No ending at all really. Please allow me to distract you with this authentic nineties commercial as recompense.