Ever get the feeling you are on the outside looking in?
You know everyone there. You recall snippets of memories and moments with every face that turns to you. These are not strangers, yet the only thing familiar is how you’re feeling. It’s happened again. You stare as they sparkle around you. It’s as if they are on a merry-go-round, their clatter and colorful mating display on loop. All the pretty people doing pretty things. There’s a brief respite. You speculate. Is there room for me? You hesitate. As much as they don’t see you, you don’t see them. Everything you’ve observed is the tip top of what you can make out over a wall--the wall that divides you from their playtime. They spin around on one side, kissing, twirling, waving, and laughing in their fabulous commonality of couples. You stand on the outside.
Like you’re the last single standing.
Take a bow, Annie. That was a helluva melodrama you just wrote. Kinda early John Green, but maybe a little too drippy. Good effort, though.
Except that, drippy or not, being the only anything sucks, especially when everyone pairs off and you’re still going a strong stag.
I was always the single one. With the exception of when I had short-lived romances, dating guys who were huge mistakes or a convenient ticket onto the carousel, I was the third, fifth, even seventh wheel. Back in the day, I experienced the overall feeling that even though I had more friends than fingers, I was alone. I wasn’t a main character in the story. I was maybe the sidekick, but mostly a cameo appearance. In the big picture, I wasn’t crucial to the story arc.
But of course I was important, maybe not crucial but definitely wanted. And if anything, I built the majority of the wall. I felt inferior. I felt small and forgettable, and certainly jealous. And it wasn’t until I snagged a permanent spot on the carousel that I realized not only is the view from the carousel obstructed, the carousel itself is relative.
The irony is that I was the first of my friends to get married. It all happened quickly in a swirl of New York puppy love. At the time, I didn’t feel young, but I was a baby. Hancock County, Mississippi permitted a baby to get married in 2003. I haven’t a clue how they got away with it. I seriously should have held a baby bottle instead of a champagne flute and taken a chaperone on my honeymoon to Puerto Vallarta. But with the whirlwind romance, my friends rallied behind my change of status and we danced until three in the morning at my wedding reception. The couple carousel was lovely, and I would have been content being the only riders if I hadn’t looked out.
Lesson one of the couple carousel: Couples are often jealous of singles. I now had someone I’d promised to consider every day for the rest of my life. That’s a tall freaking order.
Lesson two of the couple carousel: Nothing bumps you off the ride quicker than being the only one with a kid. I was the first to marry and the first to procreate, and for years, the only one to have offspring. I peeked over the wall as beach trips, bar crawls, and road trips whipped by--that same swirl of laughter from years before.
I could’ve nursed my wounds with mom friends, but just the sound of that was gross. Mom friends. Ugh. All I pictured was saggy jeans and sippy cups. I’d seen those moms in the park, chattering, cheering on their babies as they did something completely unremarkable like scoot down a three-foot slide. Did these women own eye shadow? When was the last time they did a shot? Did they even remember how to curse? I hated them because in spite of their unfortunate jeans, they seemed so happy.
And I learned the third lesson of the couples carousel: It was never a couples carousel at all. It was a perceived picture of totality. Everyone else had it all, and I was the odd girl out. If only I knew when I thought I was the last single standing that all along I had the power to change my perception.
On and off the carousel we ride. Sometimes the carousel is the happy couples. Sometimes it’s the singles with all the freedom. Sometimes it’s the ones with money. Sometimes it’s the mommies or kidless. Sometimes it’s the world travelers, or the book smart, or the super connected who seem to know everyone everywhere. Round and round they go, glorious in their shared assuredness. By and by we stand wishing we were just as pretty. And as when I was ten and my best friend’s refrigerator and pantry always seemed to have better food than mine did, someone’s ticket to ride is so much better that mine isn’t worth mentioning. Their grass is always greener. Their carousel always sparkles brighter.
Some people are assholes, and that’s just a reality we all need to accept. Assholes don’t want you to be on their carousel because you’re single or because you don’t have kids or don’t even want kids or because you don’t have money or maybe because you do have money and they don’t. These are the people who don’t care that you’re off to the side. Walk away. They aren’t worth the price of admission. But others just might think you're an asshole because you won’t tell them why you keep staring and never hop on board.
I believed that I’d always be single, the awkward friend who pretended to be happy to go stag--a description of my own creation. It was my delusional mind telling me that I was so different that I didn’t belong. The same story repeated when I was a lonely mother. Like the perfectly good food at my house with which Mom stocked our fridge, snacks that I begged her to buy, I was perfectly good enough to be with my pretty friends, begging me to hop on with each turn--single, married, kid-strapped. The problem was never the people on the carousel or even the assholes. The problem was always me and how disadvantaged I believed myself to be.
Sometimes I think we get into this habit of building obstructions because we don’t want to validate what’s really going on--whether it’s loneliness or another insecurity. We don’t want to see it ourselves. It’s ugly and the complete opposite of the pretty people on the carousel. But how can anyone acknowledge us if we don’t first acknowledge ourselves? No one wants to admit the ugly things that exclude them, but ignoring them only separates us more.
I’m still learning.
Recently, I was at a lovely party where laughter erupted around every corner and everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there. I saw joy trimmed with joy, the type that is catching. Yet, I couldn’t emulate those around me. I laughed, but with a filter. I smiled, but determinedly. Eight months ago, my dad died and I don’t know how to fit in anywhere outside of my immediate bubble. Every social event is viewed on tiptoe, me peeking over the wall once again. All the pretty people go round and round, and I stare with expectant wonder.
Is there room for me? Room enough for me and my scars?
I know enough to know that someone always has it better and someone always has it worse. It’s easy to see the pretty people. We gravitate to what looks finest. But a scar requires a second look. It requires giving a damn. And even there, beauty can still be found if we bother to see beyond first glance. Beauty isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s just a human quality--fragility, vulnerability. Scars can fit in. Scars have a story. Scars are a sign of strength. We’ve made it this far--all of us--because the pretty people are scarred somewhere too. Those of us on the outside? We need to give a damn too.
I was always on the carousel. I’m on the carousel now. Someone is looking at me, just above their wall. Someone is looking at you. They don’t see my scars. I don’t see yours.
Will we see each other? Will we extend our hand before we turn away? Will we help one another onto the carousel?
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.