The summer before 12th grade I went away to an eight week program for high school students at Cornell. I arrived with visions of popularity in my head. When no one knows you, you can be anyone you want. I had every intention of using that anonymity to recreate myself into the queen bee I never was at my school, but it never quite happened. Other girls got that distinction first and I was the designated weird chick on the periphery.
One day in the dorm lounge a group of the "chosen ones" were hanging out while I studied a few feet away from them. Their conversation piqued my interest and I wanted so badly to join in. I thought if I just said something extra witty and funny they would invite me into their circle, ending my tenure at the bottom of the social food chain. So, I kept listening and formulated in my head the perfect remark. I rehearsed it over and over and when the time came to interject I delivered my line flawlessly. Silence. They all looked at me for a moment. Then one of them said, "I'm sorry, were we talking to you?" That's when they laughed. I wanted to think of a scathing come back but the combination of shock, embarassment, and disappointment left my mind blank. They went back to their conversation, ignorning me once again. I went back to studying.
At the time I hated that girl for being such a bitch to me. Even now, a part of me still does. But I have to admit that sometimes I really wish I had the ability to be that bitchy, because I finally realized that I am entirely too friendly.
Last Sunday after church a large group of us headed to the diner across the street for brunch. This diner serves some of the best food in town and is always packed on Sundays and this one was no exception. We were ravenous when we arrived and the smells of home fries, omlettes, and pancakes wafting into the waiting area were not helping the situation. After roughly ten minutes our waitress led us to our table. I squeezed past the adjacent table, barely saying excuse me to the woman sitting there before sliding into my seat. I immediately dove into the menu, even though I already knew exactly what I would order to soothe the savage beast rumbling around in my tummy.
We laughed and talked as we waited for our food. Eventually my friend Choir Girl asked me what television show I would be renacting that afternoon (I love making fun of reality TV shows, The Bachelor in particular..."I really feel a connection and I just want to let you know that I'm here for the right reasons, because I think we have a connection." Blech!). Somehow we got on the topic of American Idol and started going over our favorites (Katharine - AMAZING, Kevin - Chicken Little's twin). All of a sudden a voice that doesn't belong to any of us said,"I really like Paris. She's my favorite." We turned and the woman at the table next to us who I damn near trampled to get to my seat without a second thought a few mintues earlier was now leaning towards our table. Choir Girl and I engaged her in about 30 seconds of conversation about the Idols until our food arrives. The woman turned back to her dining companions and we began shoveling eggs, french toast, pancakes, omlettes, and home fries into our mouths as fast as humanly possible.
When the frantic eating subsided to a more subdued pace, Choir Girl asked if I'll ever make it to church on time so I can do my solo with the praise team. My solo is a long running joke between us because I've often been told I shouldn't even sing in the shower. Plus, I never make it to church on time for the singing anyways. I told her I had been practicing and was seriously considering singing Mariah Carey's gospel infused song "Fly Like A Bird," complete with ear shattering high notes. Choir Girl wasn't one of the 5 million people who bought the Emancipation of Mimi so she had never heard the song. I gave her a sample. "Fly like a bird, take to the sky, I need you now Lord carry me high," I sang softly. I didn't sing soft enough. The woman at the next table leaned over again. "I had a solo last week in church," she informed us. Choir Girl and I nodded and smiled politely. "That's nice," we said. But before we could turn our attention back to each other, she decided we needed to hear that solo. In a strained soprano reminiscent of a first grade teacher trying in vain to hit the last note of the national anthem, she serenaded us with a song that must've come from the Puritan's hymnal.
Choir Girl slowly turned away, leaving me to entertain the unwelcome solo by myself. Initially, I sat there and smiled, hoping that she would stop after a few bars. She didn't. My ears were starting to bleed, so I asked her what church she went to in an attempt to stop the song. She just kept on singing. I asked again. This time she answered....then went right back to singing. Time for verse two. I could hear my friends snickering at her and I wanted to tell her to shut up. But I didn't. I could only wait it out until she was finished.
Mercifully, she stopped midway through the second verse. I think she finally realized she didn't have a receptive audience. Unfortunately for both of us, that only made her try harder.
"Oh, this is a song that was sung at my wedding." Immediately she launched into "'Tis a Gift." Maybe it was because she was trying so hard, or maybe it was because I knew the song, or maybe it was because I wanted to make her feel comfortable, or maybe it was because I lost my damn mind but I started singing with her. "When true, simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed," we sang. I tried to cut it off at the end of the verse but she kept going, "Make new friends, but keep the old." I didn't follow.
"Let's sing it in a round. I'll start," she suggested eagerly. "Make new friends," she started, then pointed to me for my cue. I noticed a faint hint of desperation in her expression. That's when I knew she wasn't singing because she wanted to, she was singing because she felt she had to. Stopping at this point would mean acknowledging that she didn't belong and that was a humilation she was unwilling to bear. This had now gone too far. I begged off, insisting I was not a singer. She tried to coax me into joining her, but I stood firm. I couldn't stand to hear her sing another note, but moreso I couldn't bear to watch her make a fool of herself trying to be one of us as my friends mocked her. She finally relented and refocused her attention back to her table.
I never wanted that woman to be a part of our conversation, but once she barged in I didn't have the heart to kick her out. I smiled and played nice, but never really welcomed her contributions. Trying to be polite only made the situation worse, and I now think it would've been much nicer if I had just dismissed her from the start, like I was dismissed all those years ago. Yes, it hurt, but allowing me to flounder the way that woman did last Sunday probably would've hurt more. Maybe what's often perceived as bitchiness is actually an act of mercy and kindness. If I had shot her down, I could've put her out of her misery before she became the target of our ridicule. And ridicule her, we did.
Then something interesting happened, as we were leaving the woman turned to us again and slipped Choir Girl a $5 bill. "Use this towards the tip," she said. "I'm blessing you, so now you go be a blessing to someone else." We were shocked and felt a little guilty because we knew we didn't deserve that gesture. We weren't nice to her by any stretch of the imagination, but maybe that was her way of saying thank you for not being mean.