Confessions of a Popular Crowd Confidante

They told me their secrets and then cast me aside

Beverly Garside
ILLUMINATION

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A young girl whispers a secret into another girl’s ear.
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

Growing up, I was never in the popular crowd. It wasn’t that I had any of the severe differences that condemn so many to the bottom ranks of kid society: I wasn’t heavy, disabled, poor, or dark-skinned in a majority-white school. I was slim, white, middle-class, and average-looking. My social sin was being introverted and as a military kid, an outsider.

I envied the popular kids. Life seemed so easy and happy for them. I dreamed of being like them but could never put my finger on what it was they had that I was lacking. Somehow, fate had just chosen them, giving them a blessing I would never grasp.

A shocking secret

I was nine when I saw a crack in the vision of fun and ease that oozed from the popular kids. My family was living in Fair Oaks, California and my friend Lacy’s big sister was having a pool party at their house. It was for the high school popular crowd, or wannabe popular crowd, and we were being tolerated if we kept out of the way.

I was looking for something in the garage, which separated the backyard pool area from the front, when I saw one of the guests making her way toward the door. She was wearing a bikini, and walking in that swaying, hip-swinging gate like the other girls. Then when she got to the garage door, her stride changed to a normal walk as she hurried through to the front to meet someone. She returned to the garage shortly, walking normally. Then she stood at the door to the back, straightened herself, checked herself from head to toe, and proceeded out to the pool, swaying and holding her head high.

Wow.

She was afraid to let anyone see her as she was. She had to put on a mask and an act — for everyone except me, of course. She didn’t care what I saw.

I never forgot that girl or what I discovered that day. Being popular meant more than just fun and friends.

It meant being afraid.

A trusted confidante

I went to high school in rural southern Virginia, where my father had retired. By this time, I was less in awe of the popular girls. I saw their anxiety as they stood fixing their make-up in front of the bathroom mirrors, and how they straightened up and tugged at their clothes before striding out into the hall.

It was the same fear I had seen that day in California.

By now, I shared a kind of tacit acknowledgment with them. It wasn’t like we would ever be friends, but in the South, people are friendly. They will talk to anyone, even the weird outsider with the northern accent.

Especially in the bathroom.

“Oh my god! Did my hair look like this all morning? Maybe I can at least pull it up in a ponytail. Here, what do you think?”

“Oh shit! My eyes are a red mess! Should I take the contacts out, or are these dorky glasses even worse?”

“I’m going to die without a cigarette. Do you think this cologne will cover up the smell on my clothes?”

And it wasn’t just in the bathroom. The popular kids would feel free to gossip or discuss their exploits within my hearing range anywhere. As a social nobody who didn’t talk much, they sensed that their secrets were safe with me.

I remember learning so much about the hidden corners of their lives, like:

  • several junior varsity cheerleaders boasting about taking showers in a male coach’s motel room at an away game,
  • who snuck the booze into the party in one guy’s house and who broke the TV screen, and
  • a girl describing how her parents had caught her out drinking with an older man.

They were right to trust me. My lips were sealed.

False friends

A man in black holds a white mask partially covering his face.
Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

The popular crowd expands vastly in college, merging with other cliques into a large, diverse party club. I attended James Madison University in Virginia, which drew most of its students from the state’s wealthy, northern suburbs around Washington DC. And it was here that I first became real friends with some popular kids.

Or at least I thought they were real friends. I lived in an off-campus house with a bunch of other students. I became close with two of them who could be described as big partiers — Barbara and Matt. And for the first time, they not only shared their secrets with me, but I also shared some of mine with them.

Barb and I had a shared background as military kids, and I had a lot of the same classes with Matt. I valued both of them because, as an introvert, making friends was hard for me.

My friends, however, had more serious problems. Barb confessed that she had contracted herpes the first time she had sex — from a hook-up after a party as a freshman. She was also having painful digestive disorders, which had been diagnosed as some kind of sensitivity to beer.

But she couldn’t possibly stop drinking beer or hooking up with guys at keg parties. It would be noticed, especially by her party friends. She didn’t want to “look like some kind of loser or a prude.” So, she kept doing both, despite the consequences.

Matt liked talking to me, he said, because he “could relax and just be real.” I understood what that meant — he could take off the mask and be himself. He had joined a fraternity, and it was demanding so much of his time that he was starting to fail his classwork. He was hopelessly over-scheduled and eventually even got fired from his campus job for being late too often. But there was nothing he could do.

The fraternity was first and foremost. He couldn’t be left out to “just go back to being a nobody” like he was before.

I enjoyed my friendship with Barb and Matt for a long time before I started to notice that it had a limit. Specifically, the limit was the walls of our house. Inside the house we were buddies. They sought me out to confide their problems. We would talk, watch movies, and just hang out.

Outside the house, however, they never wanted to be bothered with me. Pop out for pizza? Catch a movie at the campus theater? There were always excuses. They even got uncomfortable if I sat down with them in the campus dining hall.

One day I finally put the puzzle together. Matt was walking down a sidewalk on campus with a few of his fraternity brothers, I was coming in the opposite direction and called out to him. He glanced up, saw it was me, and deliberately deflected, pretending not to have heard.

He was ashamed of me. I was not cool enough to be seen with.

Later in life, I learned that some people choose friends only for specific purposes. One to go running with, another to play video games with, and another — always an introvert — to relax and “be real” with. They don’t see you as a friend at all, just as someone to be used for something.

But on that day, I was just confused and hurt.

The deep secret

Over the years I have known many Barbs and Matts, and their adult version is a little different. Their entire identity remains hostage to maintaining status in their crowd— status with very cruel criteria. After parties and hookups, it becomes wealth, style, and perfection. To conform, they create problems for themselves that others easily avoid. Because protecting the mask is primary over everything.

Deep down, it all seems to stem from fear.

I long ago stopped envying the popular crowd. There is no easy life, no blessing here. To me, it looks more like a curse.

This is the secret I wish had been confessed to me all those years ago.

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Beverly Garside
ILLUMINATION

Beverly is an author, artist, and a practicing agnostic.