Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the revenge of meek

Someone’s always sending me a link that whisks me off to a site like awkwardfamilyphotos or peopleofwalmart. A site that’s supposed to make me snicker with malicious glee.

And I do.

These poor schlubs: rolls of fat escape their tube tops; braided rattails swing beneath varicolored mullets; reverse-fit jeans have been donned from the backs of their closets. You know the drill: electric pink velour track suits; themed and bedazzled Christmas sweaters; Liz Taylor sunglasses.

How could they be doing everything so wrong? Don’t they know?

In the eighth grade, Lisa Beagle committed fashion suicide by wearing saddle shoes, ankle socks, and plaid skirts with a giant safety pin to school every single day. Saddle shoes? Anklets? Plaid knee-length skirts? She really ought to have known better. Even those of us who were socially vulnerable could snicker at Lisa Beagle. Poor girl: she had thick legs and a flat chest. And she wore saddle shoes and ankle socks.

She should’ve just worn a burka.

Only now, as an adult, does it occur to me to try to inhabit Lisa Beagle’s consciousness. Was she upset that she had to dress like that? Did she have tearful fights with her mother? Or was she just oblivious? Did she laugh back at us, draw nose hair and outsized genitalia on our pictures in the yearbook? Or perhaps she had a secret life, an older lover, a heroin habit, diplomatic immunity: we never would’ve known. While I thought it was possible that someone was laughing at me—in fact, I knew the mean girls were laughing at me—it was inconceivable that Lisa herself would be ridiculing me.

So every time I follow one of these links—even the links to gentler sites like PeopleOfThePark or regretsy—I experience the sinking sensation that somewhere in the world, a fat woman in a muumuu is following a reciprocal link to a web site and scrolling through page after page of pictures of me, or people who look just like me. Or people who dress just like me. Or have hair like mine.

You get the idea.

And the fat lady in the muumuu is laughing.

I got used to avoiding the mean girls’ scorn in junior high. The mean girls knew your weaknesses long before you did; they had x-ray vision that could see right through your burka.

“I feel for any guy who tries to hold hands with you.” Sheree Olgman said to me in PE class. She was looking at my long fingernails.

Up until then, I’d thought my long fingernails were one of my greatest physical assets. Now they were a point of shame, a liability. I pulled the arms of my sweatshirt down over my hands. We were playing basketball, and I’d gone to great lengths to hide on the sidelines so I would be the last to rotate in; sometimes I’d even change teams mid-game to ensure I wouldn’t have to play. Not only was I the shortest girl on the team (besides a girl we actually called Shorty), I didn’t want to risk breaking my fingernails. That is, until Sheree implied that I’d die a virgin if I didn’t lose those fingernails. And fast.

“I don’t like the way your necklace hangs,” Debbie Oard said in 5th period science. My new necklace had taken an unfortunate path around my breasts. We were seated alphabetically, so I couldn’t take a desk strategically distant from the mean girls. All I could do was let them copy from my test, and hope a few right answers would mollify them. Sue Nivens was cataloging my split ends, and Laurie York was noting a fresh blemish.

Once in seventh grade I fell down a long flight of stairs. These were outdoor stairs with a sandpapery edge to give your shoes traction in the rain. But it wasn’t raining and I was wearing lime green patent leather high heel sandals. I lost it on the top step and tumbled down the entire flight.

Humiliated, I gathered up my books and hustled to the nurse’s office. It wasn’t that my knees were skinned and bleeding. No. I didn’t care about that; my knees would heal. My stockings had giant runs in both legs. I had no intention of going back to class until I had a fresh nylons.

I had fallen down the stairs, incidentally, because I hated my glasses. And without my glasses, I couldn’t make out the edge of the stairs. And because I couldn’t see where the stairs began, I’d stepped off into space.

Did I mention that Lisa Beagle wore glasses?

Meanness was contagious; there was always someone weaker who was waiting to become a target.

“Did you see Susanna’s senior picture in the yearbook? Did you?”

“Yeah. They airbrushed off her zits. I didn’t even recognize her!”

See? Mean.

The other day, I was sitting with my colleague Mary, waiting for a meeting to begin. She’d arrived before I did, and had pulled a sleek new laptop from her fashionable leather-and-canvas bag; she was tip-tapping away at her email, no doubt right on top of things. Her blonde bob was neat; she was wearing a forest green and navy blue dress. The colors were in a geometrical pattern that said, “I know a thing or two about fashion.”

Yes, no doubt about it: she looked put-together, like she could toss her head back and laugh with an attractive companion as she handed the valet parking attendant the keys to her freshly-detailed Mercedes.

I rummaged through my oversized briefcase, a lumpy piece of luggage that screams “I was purchased on sale! No-one buys this metallic khaki color on purpose!” and withdrew my laptop. It was trapped beneath a tangle of power cords, USB connectors, and the remnants of a buy-on-board United Airlines snack box. As I opened the lid, dislodged pretzel crumbs flew from the keys.

At least all the keys on this laptop still have keycaps, unlike its predecessor, which was missing the R.

I set up my laptop on the table next to Mary’s. It looked distinctly unappetizing.

Mary continued to tip-tap politely at her keyboard, dispatching incoming email with the finesse of an air traffic controller.

I’m used to the sound that my laptop makes when I push the power button, a noise in an auditory range somewhere between a whisper-chipper, an off-balance washing machine, and a weed-whacker. But in this large room with an audience, it seemed extra loud.

Mary glanced at me.

“I guess I should call IT when I get back to Mountain View,” I say.

“I think you should.” Mary’s tip-tapping accelerated briefly. Then she snapped the cover of her laptop shut.

“The noise must be driving you crazy.” I’ve said this before; my laptop has been making this much noise since last September.

It’s just another item on a long list of broken or nearly broken stuff that I’ve learned to ignore. If IT comes to fix my computer, they’ll discover that I’ve turned off backup and am not encrypting the hard drive. They’ll give me a lecture and after they leave, I’ll discover that I can't print anymore.

Mary sighs. What I really want to do is head off to Twitter, but I don’t have the audacity to do it in front of a co-worker. I putter briefly with my email. I can’t fake it; there’s nothing particularly important in my email.

Abruptly my laptop enters the spin cycle. The noise changes frequency, and then it sounds like the automatic sprinklers have come on. It’s way too noisy to do any real work.

Mary sighs again. I put my laptop back into hibernate mode. Instantly the room is quiet.

“Gee. My laptop is awfully noisy,” I say.

I picture what's been posted to the website. Maybe there’s a photo of me carrying my briefcase. It’s not just too large for me, suspiciously stained, and insanely misshapen; it’s also in obvious disarray. A small pharmacopeia rattles whenever I sling the strap over my shoulder. Loose pages of notes, business cards, review copies of journal articles, and unaccounted-for receipts fly out as I search for my New Yorker calendar.

Deep in my briefcase, fourteen little pink rubber pigs are in a repurposed earbud case. I am tempted to take them out and line them up on the table like spectators. But I can well imagine what Mary would think of Spike, Lefty, Roger, and the gang. I suspect Chompers—the viral porcine sensation that podcasters Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn spotted on Antiques Roadshow—is not on her radar.

“What time was this meeting supposed to be over anyway?” I say. The Thursday rectangle on my calendar just reads AM: NUTMEG! in slanty block letters. My printing, at least, is neat.

AM:NUTMEG. What might that mean?

I find a glasses case toward the bottom of my briefcase, underneath the pigs. It has two pairs of reading glasses crammed into it in case I break one. Mostly I break them by cramming two pairs into a case at once. I grab one of the pairs—two bows, check; two nose pads, check; two lenses, check—and put them on.

The view through the lenses is cloudy and dim. I'd like to catch the thug who messed up my glasses. There are plenty of fingerprints to search for in the police database, but there's no time for that now. The meeting is about to start.

I wipe off the glasses. Aha! AM: NUI MTG is what my calendar says. That’s not much help.

Mary pulls out her phone. Tappety-tap-tap. Wouldn’t you know it? She’s got the meeting on her calendar. She knows exactly why we’re here and exactly when we’re slated to leave. I can feel swelling with new content.

“I have to leave in 10 minutes,” she says.

“Oh, me too,” I say, although I don’t really have any other meetings on my calendar. The bathroom! I’ll need to stop in the bathroom. That counts as a meeting, doesn’t it? I want to feel busy and important too, not to mention continent. But it would be disingenuous for me to prepare to leave; I don’t have anywhere else to be.

Later, on the plane home, I am tucked neatly in a middle seat between a flatulent Chinese man in an expensive pin-striped suit and an attractive blonde saleswoman—shades of Up in the Air’s Alex Goran—who is mysteriously able to talk on her cell phone mid-flight without being told to turn it off. Probably both are 100K flyers on United, and the flight attendants are respectfully leaving the preferred customers alone.

I imagine my seatmates talking about the flight later.

“Oh, the flight down here was super full,” the Alex woman says to her handsome dinner companion (who in my mind has eyelashes as luxurious and minky as George Clooney’s). “I had to sit next to a homeless person who was carrying everything she owned in the ugliest briefcase I’ve ever seen. Luckily she was really tiny. I could hop right over her.”

And the flatulent Chinese man says to his dinner companion, a man he's known since college, “The flight down was very full. But the seat next to me was empty. The only empty seat on the plane. I have many miles on United; they treat me well.”

Is it any wonder that I feel invisible at times?

At home, I pull my 8th grade yearbook off a shelf to take another look at Lisa Beagle. Lisa Beagle was not a mess. Probably if it had been a decade or two—or perhaps three—earlier, she would’ve been fashionable. A Frank Sinatra fan girl. Or if it were now, she’d be so hip, so renegade in her tidy white bobby sox and unscuffed saddle shoes, I’d expect to find her in one of those dive bars down around 17th and Mission. But in 8th grade—in an era when I’m ashamed to admit, kids wore Halloween costumes that now would be grounds for expulsion—she was an object of ridicule.

I look at my 8th grade self amid the sea of 13 year-old faces. I don’t look that different from everybody else in my class. The mean girls aren’t nearly as glamorous as I remembered, and even the tough boys exude a surprising aura of innocence.

“Look! There’s Francine.” I tell Mark.

“She has quite the schnozz,” he says.

“No!” I say, shocked that Mark would not recognize junior high school royalty when he saw it. “She looked like a model.”

“You were so cute,” Mark says.

“And there’s Donna B_!” I point at a picture of the student body officers. They are lounging on the stairs between the 6th and 7th grade wings.

“Yeah. I recognize her,” Mark says. I have made him watch parts of Paradise Hawaiian Style (a vehicle that combined the Thespian talents of Donna B_ with those of an already-dimming Elvis Presley), as much of it as he would endure. I have not forced him to watch Family Jewels, her other major motion picture, although there've been times it was conspicuously part of the regular broadcast tv movie line-up.

Mark scans the yearbook page. “Where are you in these pictures?”

“I’m not there. I wasn’t elected to anything,” I say. “I wasn’t the type.”

“You were so cute,” Mark says again. I can tell he's anxious to put the softcover yearbook back on the shelf. “Adorable.”

No. I wasn’t adorable. When Donna was quietly dismissed as our student body president, I wanted nothing more than to write an article about it for our junior high newspaper (a not very elaborate affair, lightly edited by a harried teacher and mimeographed on legal-size paper). It was not an adorable impulse, but it was also not—as the paper’s adult advisor thought—a precocious case of Schadenfreude. It’s just that she was a celebrity, and the doings of celebrities are always worth reporting.

The article was not published. I was rescued from my worst impulses.

Donna B_ disappeared when we were in high school. Rather than being disappointed, I was even more swept up in her story: just as she had come into our midst, shrouded in mystery and glamour, so she exited. It couldn't have been better. A frisson of thrill accompanied her disappearance: it was said (among the in-the-know circles in 10th grade) that she had committed suicide. Fabulous! Tragic and fabulous! Commit suicide? Of course she did, following the normal VH1 artistic trajectory, the narrative arc of every child star.

I told the story for some years after (as the odd Southern California brush with celebrity), until it dropped off the end of my repertoire.

In fact, as time passed, I wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing--I remembered it, but none of my high school friends could corroborate the story. I'd google casually, not expecting to find anything concrete amid the IMDB listings and DVDs for sale.

Until one day, she seemed to appear, fully-formed, reincarnated as an adult.

Oh, curse you, Internet! Destroyer of dreams, spoiler of stories!

At first she appeared in dribs and drabs, but then more concretely. A video on YouTube. An interview in an Elvis fan magazine. A CD. And finally, a profile on MySpace.

Instead of questioning the adolescent rumors, I thought her presence must be the work of an impostor, a clever identity thief. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but yes, I dug around on the Internet like a full-fledged stalker. There was evidence—good, solid evidence—that Donna B_ was alive, well, and living in Hawaii.

It seemed so odd that junior high school royalty could play out in such an ordinary way. She’d just left our high school, and gone on with her life.

In fact, there she was, clad in an Elvis t-shirt and goofing with a fan. I muse about the condition of her laptop (might it be noisy?), and whether she’s ever sold Elvis-themed crafts on etsy (for now, it seems that the co-starring role in Paradise Hawaiian Style is the one she falls back on, not the Jerry Lewis comedy we knew her for).

So did Lisa Beagle change her name to Sharon Stone? I think she might’ve.

There's a little Lisa Beagle in all of us. Next time you go through airport security, look down at your socks.

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Anonymous Aurora said...

Great blog post, glad I found it, even though I supposed to be writing a wikipedia page on a different Cathy Marshall.

You're hilarious.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Sharon said...

Cathy, love your writing!
Great post.

Have you thought about internet stalking Laurie Beadle? You know she probably ended up being a CTO of some Silicon Valley government-contracted ontology computing technology company.

What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, no?

1:13 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Lori rendered herself Internet-invisible by marrying someone (I ordered the "Memory Book" from our reunion, an event I knew better than to attend). Without revealing her married name, I will tell you that she refers to herself as a "Domestic Goddess", has been married 23 years, has been a Scout Leader for 10 of them, and went back to college briefly to learn computers to "keep up with the kids." Her hobbies? Camping. Just camping.

I always thought she might be campy.

Lori did not include a photo.

1:02 PM  
Blogger matt said...

Hey, I had to go buy some new 3XLs after the 2XLs shrank.

9:56 PM  
Blogger matt said...

Is there a Tweet graveyard high up in the escartment somewhere? If not, it is kind of oxymoronic for a retention specialist being addicted to ephemeral comms.

10:01 PM  
Blogger matt said...

No sooner than I snark, but the Tweet graveyard is identified,
The library of Congress

1:06 PM  
Blogger Nathaniel said...

Hahahahaha.....why you invest so much time in Me and Everts affairs when in fact you never cross our minds and i say this with full confidence NEVER CROSS OUR MINDS. Are you that fuckin dense women. How dare you make any assumptions on Who i am, what my intentions are, and even go as low as to call me a THUG of all things. You have to be the sketchiest and down right cinical of decaying fag hags i have ever met. and the whole is brilliant but unfortunatly not my doing. GET A LIFE YOU TROLLUP .......sincerly yours NATE

7:26 PM  
Anonymous rich mealey said...

Bravo! I read this entry on Friday and laughed intermittently throughout the weekend recalling it. It proves all the more relevant to me as I'm expected to (horror, of horrors) attend a 25th reunion in a few weeks. Don't ask why - I've certainly stopped asking myself the question. Vowed I never would, and now coaxed into it. I guess I secretly agreed in the hopes of my private revenge of the meek. Although I didn't have to deal with the Mean Girls too much, there is another dynamic that would raise your worst impulses - artistic kid in small town ESCAPES to the big city to learn he has a different orientation than the rest of the returns for triumph (or tragedy) some 25 years later - ha. Wish me luck.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Susan said...

Hey Cathy! I remember Lori Beadle. Remember me?

Susan Aha

7:11 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Hey there, Susan!

Of course I remember you. I think I might've even seen you at PDX one morning several years ago. I started to wave and call your name, and realized that (a) it might not be you and (b) you might not remember me, and I might be causing an awkward moment all of my own doing.

What're you up to? Write me if you feel inclined. My email address is on my web page.


12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a disgusting read. I enjoy looking back through the pages of La Cumbre every 10 or 15 years, and it cracks me up how goofy everyone was even though they thought otherwise. You, however, appear never to have grown up, and still revel in the mean girl 'thing'. Pathetic...I'm sorry I wasted my time on this pice of garbage.

4:47 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Sorry the post provoked such disgust. Perhaps you were looking for something else when you did your search.

I'll be sure to remove your name from the mailing list.

3:19 PM  

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