Faking It and Very Nearly Making It
My best friend in secondary school was a huge dork named David. I would change his name but his entire role in this story is pretty inconsequential, except for the fact that he glowed the fuck up, which I think he would appreciate as a compliment. Dave and I were both huge dorks, and gravitated toward each other through a mutual understanding of kind of being ostracized. We both belonged to pretty popular groups, but no one within those cliques understood our weird, dark humour as much as we understood each other. We were teased constantly, everyone assuming we were a romantic item, but we weren’t. Knowing what I know now, I should have taken these incredibly minor and not even insulting jokes on the chin, but at 14, 15, 16, I had the self-esteem of a rhino at a ballet class full of unicorns and therefore these comments got to me. Not because being with Dave was in any way an embarrassment; dude was the richest kid in our school and was well on track to becoming an underage doctor, Doogie Howser style. No, what bothered me the most was my belief that being involved with me was the worst insult of all; that I was so unquestionably repulsive I was literally a walking punchline. David never made me feel like this, and never seemed in the least bothered by the romantic rumour that followed us around for seven years, but it made me shrink and cringe at the thought of people being embarrassed for him.
Dave was a year above me and when he turned eighteen he threw a party in his family’s pool house. (We grew up just outside of Dublin, he was and remains the only person I know with a pool house). I was the only one of my friends invited and was terrified. Everyone going was a year older, they had constantly ridiculed my relationship with Dave and in general made rocking up to school every day a feat, I still feel, made me deserving of a Purple Heart. That being said, David was my best friend. He always had my back. I had to go. I voiced my concerns to a friend of mine and the advice she gave me has easily been the single most influential tip in my life to date. “Just act really confident,” she soothed, “they won’t know the difference”. I know, ‘fake it til you make it’ isn’t exactly ground breaking and can be found in nearly every self-help section of terrible women’s magazines the world over, but at the time I was floored. I could have been pretending this whole time? I went to that party in that steamy pool house and tried my best not to stand ubiquitously against a wall. I smiled wide and gravitated towards people I recognized, laughed at their jokes and asked them polite, unassuming questions. My behavior was straight out of “Socializing for Dummies” but if I was coming across like the clone from that one Sabrina the Teenage Witch episode (“Mr. Poole can be SO annoying”) no one commented. Half way through the night I went with Dave into the main house to say hi to his parents, who loved me. This sounds suspicious but trust me, if I was sneaking out of a pool house to have a teenage hook up with someone, everyone would know about it. When we came back someone had written “Kinger and David are having sex” in the condensation on one of the glass walls. My blood ran cold and I froze. Everyone laughed, but beside me Dave laughed too. He shrugged the comment off with a joke (I didn’t hear, thanks to the blood rushing to my ears) and the party continued. I was still alive. Somehow, my worst fears had been realized and I had not died. Later that night Dave’s mom rang mine to convince me to let me stay later than my curfew and Dave and I got drunk off of some terrible banana liquor, a memory we make a call back to nearly every time we speak.
Since that party, pretending to be confident became a tool I exercised with wild abandon. I spoke up more in class, I teased my friends back instead of becoming numb and limp at their jokes. I went to parties and made jokes and after a while the front I had put up dissolved and I became a confident person. At six foot two I had always towered over my peers, but I began to tentatively embrace my height as a positive. Instead of shrinking into myself, I expanded. I was loud. I started to take up space.
The summer between finishing secondary school and starting college was wildly eventful for a book loving wallflower who was used to spending those three months alone in her room. I met a new group of friends through a theatre program. They seemed to like me instantly, no strings attached. I began to drink and socialize more, going to bars and clubs with them, even a weekend away in Galway. Despite a banner last year in school discovering my own voice, I realized how truly unhappy and uncomfortable I had been there. I was opening up and embracing myself for the first time, enjoying my new experiences believing that I was actually worth something, someone’s time and effort. I wish that was the end to this story, but “woman falls in love with self at age nineteen and has no self-esteem issues for rest of life” is pretty implausible. Especially with our nation’s greatest invention running around like a herd of feral deer; male egos! The downside of new friends who loved to party and frequent bars was the proximity with which it brought me to toxic masculinity. I mostly hung out with my good friend Jessica, an out and out babe, whose celebrity comparison was Megan Fox. I’m talking peak Megan Fox, Transformers Megan Fox.
Jessica caused a stir everywhere she went, literally crowds would part in front of her as I would lumber along in her wake like a hulking body guard. And body guard I was! Jess, understandably, got a lot of attention from guys and having grown up beautiful, was politely baffled and uncomfortably used to it. “This guy won’t leave me alone”, she would whisper to me, her beautiful brow furrowed. Not wanting or understanding how to not be adored, she couldn’t outwardly reject men. All she could do was ask me to do it for her. “Make him go away”, she would plead, and continue grinding on men and women more worthy of her attention. I would stalk in like a put upon bouncer and break the news to the hopeful romantic, desperate for her hand. “Not tonight, mate” I’d say, or more often than not “sorry man, she has a boyfriend. Er, yeah that’s him, the one she’s tongueing. Now away with you!” As you can imagine, the men — sorry, boys — in question did not take it well. They abused me. They thought it was my fault! Me! They called me a giant, jealous lesbian and told me to fuck off. As if I was the decision maker here, and if it wasn’t for me they would be riding into the sunset on their motorbikes, with the Irish Mikaela Banes. I was horrified. I wanted to tell them I didn’t give two shits if Jess fucked them or not. I wanted to dance, do shots and be hit on like everyone else. I did not relish the feeling of rejecting them on behalf of someone better, prettier, thinner than myself. It made me feel like an unloved grandmother and their abuse did not help.
Nearly every night would follow this same routine. Eventually all my hard won confidence eroded. I realized how physically undesirable I was. I questioned my friendship with Jess, whether she even enjoyed my company or just liked having me around as a shield from thirsty twats. I was wearing a lot of busy, floral patterned dresses at the time, compounding the fact that I looked and felt more like a walking couch than a human woman. I was back to where I had started and the fact that I could make people laugh, that people were happy to confide in me and a host of other things I loved about myself, meant absolutely nothing. All I could think about was the way those men made me feel in those crappy clubs. They weren’t even good clubs! We were still too young to know what a good night out was. It’s obviously humiliating looking back but at the time these nights out were everything; we lived for them. I started developing crushes on guys in our friend group, usually impossibly kind guys, “the nice guys”. And they were nice guys, but we’re all brought up in the same image centric world; as nice as they were they had a type and that type was not me. I would become obsessed with them purely for the fact that they didn’t want me. I listened to sad music on the bus to college, Warpaint mostly, and fantasized about a time they might love me. It was the early warning signs of my depression but at the time I just saw it as heartbreak. Heartbreak over a relationship I never had, with people I didn’t know, that lasted for months. I started hooking up with whoever looked at me sideways. One dude dragged me out of the club we were at and tried to push me into a taxi. Thankfully I wasn’t so bereft of self-worth that I let him and I was able to push him off and go back inside.
Thankfully I loved college. In college I found my people. They were funny and weird and they didn’t care that I thought I was hideous. I made them laugh and we cared about all the same things. I started to center myself again. I began to remember who I really was. I didn’t belong in a tight dress on a dance floor unless I decided that’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t have to tell skeezy guys to take a hike unless I wanted to. I didn’t have to let their words hurt me. They were worthless to me, and when I realized that, they couldn’t make me feel worthless.
Making fun of egotistical men to their face is my favourite thing to do. I still encounter them in bars and clubs, in work and on the street. They’re still hitting on my friends. All my friends are stunningly beautiful. Pretty girls love funny girls. It’s an unspoken law of the universe. We say all those stupid things they never had to say, were never allowed to say, because shitty men in clubs decided their beauty spoke for them. They sit across from us on high stools and make obnoxious comments about women’s pubic hair and they preen for my friend, and they look mockingly at me believing I’m so grateful to be in the presence of a man I’ll simper along. I do not simper. My eyes narrow and I destroy them. They take it better than they did when we were nineteen. “This one doesn’t like me” they say coyly, expecting me to back track, to make amends. But they don’t care how I feel and that feeling is mutual. “You’re absolutely correct”, I smile. They try to impress by talking about politics or, laughably, movies, music and literature. The douche trifecta. My friend smiles politely, laughs when she feels it necessary. I decide not to laugh until he says something funny. I rarely laugh. This irritates the man. He gives me a challenging stare and I know he’s dying to say it; to call me the worst insult straight men can throw at straight women. Lesbian. Moody lesbian, maybe. Angry, sour, no fun. I hope he does. Then I would laugh, at his pathetic attempt to control me, to put me in my place. Maybe he’s done it before, when we were nineteen. Maybe we’ve met already. Back when I was wearing a mask of confidence, one in which holes can be poked, one that can slip. But I am made of it now, made of that steel. I make people laugh. They like to confide in me. I know I am attractive; I attract people every day. It took a long time, but I realized that just because someone says or thinks something about you, it’s only true when you decide its true. I have decided my worth, and since then I have become untouchable.