I stopped within an inch of indulging in my first kiss when I was fourteen years old. Since escaping that mishap, I’ve been convinced of one thing – in my lifetime, I would never experience that basic coming-of-age milestone.
I would bet my life that I, Jane Knoll, was the only twenty-nine-year-old person in my office who had yet to tingle at the touch of someone’s lips against her own.
According to all modern-day social norms, I was pathetic and lonely. However, I had way too much going on to be forced into believing for one second that I was lonely and pathetic. Just because I lost my BFFs back in the eighth grade when they drew their daggers against me didn’t mean I would never smile or laugh again. I’ve managed just fine without the need of a right-handed, left-handed, and back-handed lover or friend to guide me.
Most people only dreamed of their destinies, whereas I controlled mine by taking action on it. Like just the other day, I wanted strawberry ice cream. So, I bought it. I didn’t have to justify to anyone why I ventured out to the twenty-four hour convenience store five blocks away. Nope. I just climbed out of my pajama bottoms, put on a pair of jeans and a bra, and drove to meet up with my destiny for the night – spoonful after spoonful of strawberry heaven.
I’ve always been grateful for those wide expanses of freedom that defined my life.
I was hardly pathetic or lonely. At least I wasn’t the type of girl who would be so pathetic as to neglect watering her plants on Saturdays, or especially not the type who didn’t understand the principles of proper Feng Shui and alignment of good space. I made time for those things without having to regard how it would impact anyone else’s time and space. When I wanted to place a giant water fountain near my front door, I did so with reckless abandon, pulling no stops on its lavish display. Surely if my mother had ever pulled such a stunt, my father would’ve crucified her hard work and time by forcing her to take it down, repackage it, and send it back.
I was free, and for that I was grateful.
I was also grateful for my job as a marketing headline writer and proofreader at one of the country’s leading sporting goods manufacturers. I just loved my cushy cubicle with its tall beige checkered walls and view of the beautiful spider plant in my neighbor, Doreen’s cubicle. She resembled my grandma with her floral dresses, wide hips, and shimmering silver hair that was most certainly set on rollers every Saturday at the corner beauty shop.
She always spoiled me. No one else got to sink her teeth into corn muffins every Wednesday and blueberry bagels with cream cheese every Friday like I did. She respected my space and only interrupted me when she dropped off those delicious treats or wanted to share big news that might shake our days. A few weeks ago, as she passed me my corn muffin, she told me that a new branch had opened up in New York City and some of the new staff members were coming to our Mid-Atlantic office for introductions.
On the last introduction day, my team leader tasked me to brew the coffee and ensure the creamer jugs were filled. She honored Doreen with the task of creating labels for each attendee. We were a couple of important people at Martin Sporting Goods. How would the enterprise ever remain intact without us if one day we up and decided we’d rather dig holes in a garden and plant tomatoes?
I wondered that all the time when I wasn’t fretting over my hair, my makeup, my clothing, or for that matter, when I wasn’t worrying over how we’d manage to keep the Earth rotating in its planetary alignment or how we’d ensure that the clouds rained down enough water to keep us drought free for the remainder of the planet’s lifespan.
Yup, you guessed it. I happened to be a tad bit sarcastic, and justifiably so. Years of bullying did that to a person.
Hey, at least the cynicism kept me company. If it weren’t for its constant presence, I probably would’ve drunk poison or leaped off the side of the pretentious office building’s roof by now.
I enjoyed my daily work. Cynicism didn’t stand alone as my friend. Nope. Piles of excitement blanketed my daily grind. I was so thrilled that I spent thirty-thousand dollars on a master’s degree in English, and that I enjoyed the full advantage of that big splurge by spending my days swimming in a sea of marketing jargon that touted the world’s best-fitted golf shirts and swimming trunks. I was that lucky English major who got to spend her day in a private cubicle searching for misspelled words and parenthetical phrases placed in the wrong parts of sentences. Oh, yes, you guessed it again. I was the lucky one who lived out her dreams correcting others’ mistakes. My lips are tugging upwards into a smile with that confession. I was the epitome of happiness sitting in my cubicle, snacking on corn muffins much too stale for human consumption, and drinking coffee that tasted more like dirty water than delicious java beans.
I would like to tell you truthfully what I’d really love to do one day. I’d love to stand up on my desk and tell all the glory stealers to kiss my ass.
Speaking of wanting to tell someone to kiss my ass, Katie, a graphic designer in marketing, just left my boss, Sanjeev, in his office. If anyone deserved to be stuck in a cubicle making less money in a year than what I owed back in student loans, sitting in a chair less ergonomic than a concrete slab, it would be her. Thank goodness she did.
She slapped on a sugary smile each day and fed me small helpings of her sarcasm. She hated me for things outside of my control. I couldn’t help it if her husband was a dirt bag pervert, and that Sanjeev would rather suffer a fall down a flight of stairs than deal with her.
In a messed up way, I enjoyed sharing sarcastic smiles with her. We volleyed our fake niceties back and forth like a couple of well-trained experts. She played hard. I did too. My years of bully hell taught me well.
That morning, she walked right past me without regard, strutting by in her high heels and goody-two-shoes attitude.
Sanjeev walked out of his office and headed straight toward me. He straightened his blue corporate tie, smiled into a few cubicles as he passed them, and stopped right outside of mine.
The rest went down as such:
“Hey, Jane,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I hope you don’t mind, but could I ask for your help with proofing some pieces before our new colleagues get here? I want them perfect.” He handed me a black folder with the company’s gold embossed logo on it. “Katie mentioned you’re in between projects.”
“Oh, did she?” I pointed my eyes down at the pile of work she had placed on my desk that very morning with the big note, due by noon.
“I don’t mean to bother you. Is it too much?” He always spoke with reserved respect. I adored his Indian accent. He added a ‘w’ into places it didn’t belong. That little speech oddity powered me with confidence around him and created a safe haven for those times when he stared at me a little too long.
“Of course not, Sanjeev.” I smiled at him, and he flushed. “I’ll take care of it for you.”
He whispered a thank you, tapped the doorframe to my cubicle, and strolled away with his hands knotted at his lower back.
Doreen popped over to my cubicle a few seconds later. Her hair was cropped tighter than usual and her lips were a shade too pink for the fluorescent lights. “He’s got such a crush on you. It’s ridiculous.”
“You’re insane.” I spun my chair away from her and waved her off like I did every time she said that. He only flushed around me because of the time I forgot to button my shirt completely and, to both of our horrors, I caught him staring into the deep cleavage that my ill-fitted bra created.
“He’s not going to be single forever.”
I swiveled back around to face her. “I’ve got zero interest in hooking up with Sanjeev.” I said that like a pro, like a girl who hooked up all the time. I also had zero interest in men, but like everything else about me, I kept that safe.
Nostalgia danced across her face. “If only I were thirty years younger, I’d be all over that.”
I’d love to step inside her worldview for a day just to experience life without the overcast shadows of doubt left behind from years of listening to mean girls tell me how much they didn’t like me, and watch as they destroyed my life and the lives of those I cared for the most.
A week later, the new staff from the New York City office arrived.
I dashed off to the bathroom before having to succumb to long speeches and endless applause. I was washing my hands when in walked a tall, dark haired woman wearing a smart, fitted dress and a smile. She reminded me of someone who would’ve grown up in middle-to-upper class America, living in a mini-mansion in a bedroom swaddled in everything pretty and pink. I imagined she was always followed by a trail of pretty girls who spent their time laughing at girls like me, girls who shied away from anyone who could’ve damaged their already damaged lives.
She passed by and stopped right before entering a stall.
“I feel really silly asking this,” she said in a low, raspy voice, “but can you tell there’s something kind of strange about my outfit?” She rested her hand on her curvy hip, posing like a runway model.
I stopped lathering soap in my hands, biting down hard on the derisive words that, had I been a braver woman, would’ve knocked her down a few notches from her pretty little perch. I knew her type too well – entitled to stares and dropped jaws. Rather than attempt it, I scanned her taupe dress, her bare calves, and her sandaled feet, like a fearful bird pecking crumbs in the wake of hasty tourists. I turned back to the sink and the safety of the running water and shrugged. “Looks fine,” I mumbled.
“So, you didn’t notice my mistake?”
I looked back up at her reflection in the mirror, skirting around her penetrating eyes, her dark, wavy hair resting at her breasts, and her exotic features. I shook my head.
In my peripheral, I saw her nod with gracious appeal. She turned and entered the stall. “Okay then. All is good.”
I continued washing my hands while checking out her slender ankles and the way her sandals cradled her feet so delicately. Her crimson toenails sparkled, and the strings of her sandals flirted with her soft, smooth, creamy skin. I grazed from one pretty sandal to the other. That’s when I noticed her mishap. She wore one dark blue sandal and one black one.
An imperfect beauty.
My heart twirled as I shut off the water. I tore off the paper towel and hid my giggle until I passed well out of earshot of the woman wearing two different colored shoes. The joy of such a discovery saddled me in giddiness.
Eva Handel was her name. I guessed her to be part Chinese, part white. When she entered the meeting room minutes later, my breath hitched. She moved through the air as gentle as wind swept through a field of wild flowers—delicate, yielding, and breezy.
When she took to the podium, she sprinkled us in smiles and good wishes for a successful second quarter. Her eyes sparkled under the golden overheads, and they waltzed from one person to the next, connecting us in her sweet lullaby. Her golden cheeks glistened, her dark hair cascaded like pretty ivy around her shoulders, and her inflection pitched in just the right places. Her sandals stood out to me like a well-wrapped gift, offering me a most impeccable view of a most flawless mishap.
She spoke with eloquence and grace, undeterred by her mismatched sandals and the three-hundred-plus people who sat staring at her. She joked about her bumpy motorcycle ride down the New Jersey Turnpike from the city and about how excited she was that her bike came complete with a small hatch so she could pack her running shoes and her sandals. Even from the back row of the room I caught the gleam of humor in her eye as she balanced her secret like a well-trained model balanced a book on her head. She danced around her secret, playing with it and placing it out in front for all to see. A magician with an invisible wand. A hot biker chick with a knack for humor.
Eva Handel could carry a crowd with ease. Where luck failed, she used wit to pull her through. She said how excited she was to be part of our team and eager to learn from each of us how she could take live events to a whole new level. She discussed future plans to initiate a series of public service announcements geared at piquing the interest of the youth into setting exercise into their daily habits. She opened her arms wider and talked with her hands as she climbed the rudders of joy. She loved camerawork and couldn’t wait to get started on those short clips.
When she finished her speech, she sat back down on the stage next to a bald guy wearing a bright orange shirt and blue tie. She smiled and joked around with that guy who gazed into her eyes and swayed into her. The two chummed-up in private musings, leaving the rest of us to guess what playful secrets they were sharing. For the remainder of the speeches, I couldn’t help but stare at her from the safety of my back row seat. I enjoyed the soft way her lips curled up into a smile whenever someone referenced her and the subtle sexiness of her ankles as she crossed them over each other time and again, a movement so unobvious to onlookers yet so intense to me. At one point, I looked up from her mismatched sandals and up to her eyes. She caught me and offered me a knowing smile. I flushed and sank lower in my seat, surprised by the flutters and my racing heart. I circled my gaze around the room with my head in a halo of joy, wondering if anyone else noticed that the most beautiful girl in the room just smiled at me.
Yes, she smiled at me.
I had signed up for Twitter a year ago, after being forced into it. Sanjeev required everyone in the marketing department to take part in a free webinar, Five Easy Steps to Building an Online Presence, being hosted by his alma mater—College Park. I had sat through the first fifteen minutes of that webinar rolling my eyes at the information, information that I knew darn well I’d never use. Why would I want to socialize with a bunch of strangers from across the world when I could walk out my front door and be trampled on by any one of the eight-plus million people who lived in the greater DC and Baltimore region?
I was too sarcastic for my own good. I knew that.
Sarcasm comforted me, though.
So anyway, while everyone else listened in to hear all about Twitter’s bells and whistles, I played Solitaire. When the tone of the instructor’s voice changed to that of a person set to close up the lecture, I tuned back in to ensure I didn’t miss her instructions on how to access the presentation slides. I had no doubt that Sanjeev would insist on some sort of follow-through action step. Even in his most reserved state, he was a manager who exuded passion about education. He loved learning new things, and his enthusiasm toward personal and professional development overpowered his soft tone, averted eyes, and flushed face.
Twenty minutes after that webinar ended, Sanjeev rounded us up like cattle at feeding time and requested that we each create a Twitter handle that mirrored our personalities. Then, he instructed us to follow each other and test it out. For thirty agonizing minutes, I combed through the downloaded PowerPoint slides, racked my brain for a unique Twitter name, and finally created my online persona, @jktwitter. I opted to use the generic “egghead” image Twitter provided for my profile picture. Katie, with her one-thousand and eleven followers already, had followed me first.
I didn’t reciprocate the follow.
I followed Doreen right away, and then a few others. I read their feeds for about one month, entertained with the conversations between people. Tom, a graphic designer, told Carly, a print production associate, that her smile was lovely. Yes, he used the world lovely. She responded with a wink and “ditto.” A few short weeks later, they snuck off to lunch alone. Soon, I found them snuggling up in a hug at the copy machine, walking hand-in-hand around the duck pond, and sharing many more winks and kisses on Twitter for all of us to see.
During that first month, I would try to sneak into a conversation and add my opinion, but each time, I’d go well over the one-hundred and forty character limit. I’d try erasing a period or a comma, but I couldn’t bring myself to send out grammatically incorrect tweets. On those lucky occasions when I could fit my thoughts within the character limits, I’d erase it anyway. My comments were usually derisive and challenging, and the last thing I wanted to do was toss myself out to marketing and the rest of the world like shark bait.
One time Glenn, the associate director, tossed a good tweet out there that demanded an intelligent response. He asked what we’d do if we were president of America for a day. People came up with the usual boring answers like feed all the hungry, no taxes for a day, blah, blah, blah. I wanted to say I’d fire all the current staff and hire a competent one. That would be the truth. The current White House staff wasn’t letting the president do his job. Fire their asses, I’d say. But, @jktwitter kept silent, sat back, and observed her colleagues socializing. From behind my computer screen, I lived vicariously through their emoticons, whimsical phrases, and banter with perfect strangers about weather, sports, politics, causes, and celebrity mishaps. I didn’t need such affirmations and ego-massaging to keep me intact. I quickly grew bored with that e-voyeurism and resumed my exciting life as a proofreader and marketing headline writer in a cubicle.
I survived through one winter and one season of House without logging into my Twitter account.
Then, three days after our introduction meeting to the New York City staff, Twitter managed to pique my interest. I had been proofing the latest sporting goods catalogue, sipping on some lemon-flavored iced tea, and licking a cherry Tootsie pop when Doreen popped over to my cubicle.
“I’m following Eva Handel on Twitter—you know that funny one with the motorcycle?”
I shrugged and shook my head, putting up a compelling act. “Which one was she? I don’t remember.”
Doreen smiled. “She was the only other pretty girl in the room besides you.”
I smiled back at her and chuckled. Doreen spoiled me with compliments all the time. That’s what mother figures did. They baked you muffins, fed you fattening bagels, and smothered you in niceties to try and build up your self-esteem. She offered them to me so often that, after a while, thanking her seemed a futile thing to do.
Dodging the compliment, I charged ahead. “I didn’t notice. You know me. I don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff.”
“Well, you might want to pay attention to it this time because you’ll never believe what she said on Twitter.”
Had she mentioned me? Mentioned our smile? Mentioned her mismatched shoes?
I flushed. My temperature spiked. My skin prickled and, in a flash, a blanket of goose bumps covered my arms. I twisted around the chaos and whispered, “What did she say?”
“She tweeted that she loves everything about the mid-Atlantic—especially the wonderful hospitality of her new colleagues—but she despises Old Bay seasoning.” Doreen stretched her eyes in horror like Eva had insulted her personally, and she expected me to defend her.
I happened to love Old Bay seasoning, and, as a good Marylander, held it in the highest regard. Old Bay represented Maryland perhaps more than the Ravens, more than the Orioles, and more than Inner Harbor. We doused our burgers, our fish, our clam cakes, even our salads with the stuff. She may as well have insulted our intelligence, our culture, and our belief systems. I latched onto that stimulant, gripping it like it was a machete that I could use to clear the pathway to the likes of people like Eva. Instant access.
“I might just have a reason to get back on Twitter, my friend.”
Doreen nodded with a hint of pride weaved into her wide smile. “Good. Go get her.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I sat in my cubicle proofing. At one point, I read the same line of text over and over again until my eyes blurred. I turned the page and focused in on a block of sidebar text. I read it. I read it again. I read it a third time and still I didn’t know any more about the stroller with one wheel in front than I did the first time my eyes scanned the information. The only thing I did recognize after a tenth final attempt was that I wanted to tweet to Eva.
Even though my deadline for proofing the fall catalog loomed in front of me, I took to the Internet and opened up Twitter. Curiosity sneaked its way in and wouldn’t release its grip. I logged on about ten times that afternoon, typing in my tweet comeback to her, and each time going well over the character limit. Each time I backspaced my comment, my eyes wandered to her picture. Warm flutters tickled through me as I settled in on her sly smile; her dark, rich hair falling past her golden shoulders; and the light twinkling on her lips. I snapped away from her picture each time, sidestepping the danger of my ego-driven mind. I’d last a few seconds before focusing back on her again. Her eyes, cascaded in mystery and intrigue, peeked up over an oversized purple mug, teasing visitors to her Twitter page. My tummy rolled. I stared at her and imagined that secretive smile spreading across her face again.
I clicked into her images and scrolled through screens of her in different shots. One she was jogging. Her legs curved and sculpted like I’d always wished mine could be. Another she was hugging a Boxer puppy and looked about ready to burst with love. I loved Boxers and remained firm that, one day when I bought a house with a fenced yard, I would get one. In another shot she was swinging on a tire hanging from a tree. Her hair fanned behind her, spraying the air.
I used to swing on a tire, too. We had so much in common.
I landed on another shot, that one a seductive pose. She was leaning back against a wall with one foot bent against it and the other supporting her. A sexy, sneaky smile danced on her lips. Her eyes bore into mine, as if she knew I’d be sneaking around her photos one day. Just as I leaned in a bit closer, Doreen sprang up behind me. Flustered, I spun in my chair.
“Do you have last week’s hard copy proof of the Escape Outdoors ad we were running?” I shuffled my feet around for balance. My face grew red hot. Her large figure overtook my senses, overpowered my breathing, and stole all air from my cubicle. I was a little girl caught playing with matches, flushing deep shades of red, and covering up my naughty snooping secret with a rapid tap to the computer screen’s power button.
My emergency response system fired off all sorts of pulses, which raced along my arms and to my chest, exploding like firecrackers on my delicate skin. “Hmm.” I circled around pretending to rummage through my file cabinet, knowing full well I never put the proof in there. I needed an escape. “I’m not feeling well.” I bolted past her. Her curious eyes branded me in embarrassment all the way to the bathroom.
Burying myself under work protected me from those types of crazy situations. I wasn’t used to leaping into fire pits, taking to the open road, or diving into pools of hot lava. I never ignored a looming deadline. I shoved that deadline way into the back seat that day. My mind wrapped around one thing, and that one thing had nothing to do with whether every letter ‘i’ was dotted and every letter ‘t’ was crossed in a sporting goods catalog.
Eva Handel intrigued me. Playing with such intrigue tickled me in all the right places. I was addicted, and it wasn’t even lunch time yet.
I stood in the bathroom and splashed water on my face, shook my head, and tucked some loose strands behind my ears. Composed and back in control, I went back to my desk and pressed the on button to my monitor. Without looking back into her eyes, I clicked the little x to close out Twitter and its compromising effect on my sense of control. When Doreen asked me what happened, I simply shrugged off her question and told her I was fine. I was always fine.
Absolutely freaking fine.
My neighbor Larry understood me. I understood him, too. When he first moved in across the hall from me, I freaked out because he knocked on my door wearing nothing but black boxer shorts with yellow smiley faces and a look of panic. He danced on his toes and wiggled around like a worm, screaming about a spider in his bathroom sink. I led the march to his bathroom, weaving us through a tidy maze of moving boxes and stopping only once to take in his beautiful upright Baldwin piano. He pointed me to the farthest door at the end of his condo’s hallway. His scrawny chest bellowed in and out, and his fingers, stuffed halfway in his mouth, trembled. I never saw a man look more like a scared little girl than I did in that moment. His fear comforted me right away, breaking down my usual defenses before they even had a chance to stack up.
Larry was gay and just finally started to date a decent guy. He had been seeking a boyfriend since that day I met him; that day I removed the rabid wolf spider from his bathroom sink. In his defense, the spider was big and hairy. I understood his need to cry once I picked it up with my bare fingers and placed it in a plastic cup. I stood bravely against anything nonhuman that could threaten my salvation. Stick an Anaconda in front of me and ask me to wrap it around my neck and take it out for a walk, and I’d be just as comfy as if I were lounging in a bathtub of soapy bubbles listening to Baroque. Yet, put me in a party environment where cracking jokes and idling on current events were supposed to pass as fun, and I clammed up tighter than a hermit crab basking in the glory of salt water.
I trusted insects, reptiles, and amphibians because I understood why they acted the way they did. They didn’t set out to be mean. They didn’t set out to bully others just for the fun of it. When they attacked, they did so because that survival mechanism weaved into their DNA. They killed for food. Their survival depended on their ability to be the fitter, the stronger, and the alphas. Human beings, we didn’t need to do that. Yet, we swung around like a bunch of wild monkeys shelling out insults and punches like useless banana peels. Instead of killing each other, we hurt each other and that hurt lingered on, sometimes, like in my case, forever. That hurt sneaked up on me at odd times, like at a buffet when someone pushed me to grab a slab of bacon, or like when my birthday rolled around and I blew out candles alone in a dark room because I remembered the pain of humiliation from when no one showed at my slumber parties. I’d rather be alone than deal with rejection. Facing such ordeals alone was just easier.
Did it suck? I would imagine for someone who was social and outgoing, it would. For someone like me, someone more comforted by solitude, not in the least bit. Being alone was a freaking party; one big, laughing opportunity after another. I got to celebrate holidays eating as much pie and cookies as I wanted and never had to be judged by onlookers wearing skinny dresses and monitoring their water, fruit, and veggie intakes. You would never find carrot sticks and celery overflowing with cream cheese at my solo parties. And salad at a Thanksgiving Day table? Ha! Please, I would never eat rabbit food. But, sweet potatoes floating in a sea of brown sugar and melted butter? Now we’re talking.
Another great benefit of being alone was I never had to share the remote control with someone. If I wanted to lounge in my baggy sweatpants in front of the tube and watch a House television marathon, then move over to-do list.
Single life didn’t suck.
Single life fucking sucked.
I lived my life hidden behind my condo door, behind my endless piles of crap work, and behind my pile of rejection letters from editors of magazines. Living life from behind a comfort prop, be that a slice of pizza, a laptop, or a double locked condo door, sucked. It cored me open like a volcano and spewed all sorts of life-erasing lava around so no one could get near me. Well, no one except for Doreen and Larry.
Thank goodness for those two, otherwise I might’ve been committed to a rubber room where guards served me happy pills round the clock just to keep me from stabbing myself with the leg of a folding chair.
Before Larry met his newest love interest, Tim, a man I had yet to meet, he obsessed over finding a boyfriend. We’d have web search parties. We loaded up profiles on every gay dating site known to mankind. He would get some hits, but none ever met his standards. He wanted a hunky, tall, rich man who enjoyed dogs, kids, and sailing. Oh, and the man needed to love Riesling wine and own a company. He was not into men who desired to climb any corporate ladders. They needed to tout an entrepreneurial spirit, because that spelled adventure and free thinking. According to Larry, that dream guy needed to be on his same path. He’d say that with a straight face as if he owned and managed a life of his own where he could come and go as he pleased. The only trek Larry took out of his comfort zone was volunteering at an LGBT youth center. Larry, by all other accounts, was what I could only refer to as a security and safety junkie. He worked for the government for five years, was fully vested in his retirement account, enjoyed his fringe benefits package which included, but was not limited to, twenty-two vacation days a year, twelve sick days, ten holidays, and of course a flexible spending account.
Yup, you guessed it; Larry was just as screwed up as I was. I couldn’t love him more for that. If he was straight, and I was even a smidgeon attracted to him to the point I wouldn’t throw up if he tried to hold my hand, then we’d be a perfect couple.
Larry was the only person on the planet who knew my story. Well, part of my story. He could only handle so much drama. Yes, a gay man, who screamed at the sight of sugar ants crawling up his windowsill, wanted to avoid drama. Let’s just say his brain could only cradle a certain amount of backstory before he exploded into a torrent of tears. I couldn’t stand to see a grown man cry. Especially a gay man who tended to slip into overdramatic weeping at the confession of a bully attack.
Big deal, I was bullied and tormented as a kid. Bigger problems plagued the world than a teenager, in her most vulnerable years, being bullied by her supposed best friends at the time. The global economy was going to shit. The air quality was ridiculous. Gas prices had soared out of control. Children were starving in the streets. So what, I had to brave a dozen girls and their mean attacks for several years during my most formative stage and my parents and sister had to uproot to avoid the retaliation? Oh and that little sister was still battling a drug addiction brought on by moving away from all stability and being tossed into a feeding frenzy of popular girls doing drugs.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, I caused not only myself loads of trouble, but also everyone who trailed alongside me, too. I was danger. I should’ve worn a sign attached to the center of my chest that read ‘toxic.’ If, as members of society, we had to create a tag line for ourselves, mine would definitely be, ‘I fuck up lives.’
I only allowed myself to go into the deep, dark recesses of my mind every once in a great while. Usually I dove into them around the same time when the leaves started to crisp and fall off the trees in piles deep enough to jump into and get lost. Something about the ripened smell of Macintosh apples and brisk mornings pulled me back to those days when I’d press my thumb onto the tip of a bottle of Jean Nate perfume, armed to defend myself as I walked past the tangle of girls drenching me in insults. They’d line up like a chained link fence, supported in strength by their numbers, and laugh as one would trip me with an outstretched foot, or pelt me with rocks as I ran into the building’s only unlocked entrance. They’d call me names, chanting rumors about my being a lesbian.
At twenty-nine-years-old, I still cringed when I traveled back through the memory of my former best friend, Barbara, and how she grabbed my personal journal and bolted down the school hall laughing at me for what I’d written about her. I was a dumb teenager, high on hormones or whatever. I wrote some silly stuff about her eyes sparkling and wanting to kiss her petal soft lips and a bunch of other sexually explicit stuff that I should never have written down. I had stupidly left my locker open as I talked with a couple of other girls, and Barbara decided to snoop around. Well, she locked in on the bright blue spiral notebook tattered and littered with flower and butterfly stickers and hearts that said things like – ‘I love someone’ and ‘I think someone’s cute.’ Barbara, being my best friend and all, took that to mean she could read its contents. I was too busy chatting with the others about Brian Luding’s new haircut and didn’t notice her reading it. One moment I was bubbling over in giggles with the girls about how adorable Brian was when he swung a baseball bat, and the next, I was ripping the spiral notebook out of my shocked best friend’s hands. Not fifteen minutes later, my life spiraled out of control along with her laughter and her lack of concern for my future happiness.
They marked me as disgusting, a mere pile of crap to avoid at all costs for the remainder of my time at the middle school. Rock pelting, foot tripping, profane graffiti on my locker, squirt guns, and the occasional black eye and bruised cheeks followed.
When I entered high school, and our neighbor ran to my parents and told them he had just saved me from suffocating under a pile of boys who were attempting to gang rape me into being straight, my father did the thing any respectable father would do. He called a real estate agent and placed the first home he had ever owned, his pride and joy, on the market. Within one day, a young couple with a dog and two toddlers purchased it. The U-Haul pulled up and all of our aunts, uncles and cousins piled all of our shit into it and moved us four towns over where surely my bullying days would end.
Thankfully they did. No one bothered me. I turned to reading instead of seeking out new friends. Books became my new best friends. They would never hurt me like people could.
My sister required more than a book to entertain her. She needed to belong, to be part of the in-crowd, and to live life out loud. So, she turned to drugs. She got reeled in by the popular druggie crowd. She smoked pot every night and dropped out in her senior year. She never came right out and said she hated me for uprooting her, for taking her away from the safety of a cheerleader squad, and for dropping her in the middle of what could only be described as teenager hazing hell. But I knew, when she scurried off to work as a bagger at the grocery store, she resented that I caused that rift in her future dream of becoming a doctor. Many would argue she carved out and followed her own path. I would argue back that with desperate times, came desperate methods. She didn’t know how to be unpopular. So, pot, and then other more potent stuff, massaged that cruel, new world into something doable, livable, and eventually unmanageable.
My parents still held firmly to their position that they don’t hate me for ruining their lives by forcing us to pack up all of our belongings and run away from the abuses of many. I still don’t believe them.
I often wondered if my bullies thought about me and wrestled with conflict over what they did to me back then. The intelligent adult in me understood their actions were marred in fear. The inner young lady who never got to dress up for prom, go on a date, or experience a first kiss, still shook and ground her teeth at the loss of it all. Now, as an adult, my life sped by, and time, my big enemy, stomped down on me, robbing me of experiences.
I dreamed about a day when I would arrive at their houses and spray paint their pretty faces and clothes, toss mud at them, flatten their tires, and of course, punch each one of them square in the eye and laugh as I watched their eye turn black as mine did so many times. The ultimate would be to sneak up behind each one of them and cut off their hair just like they did to me every three months or so in class. I’d love to see how they’d deal with raggedy edges.
Actually, the ultimate revenge would be to emerge as a successful writer and show up holding my head high, my name now famous—my badge of honor, my gun, my spray painter, my scissors—and surprise the prettiness right out of each and every one of them. I, Jane Knoll, despite being bullied and attacked and treated worse than a rat in a New York City alleyway, would be somebody they’d want to know now.
I mentally carved out my dream. Of course after receiving enough hurtful rejection letters for magazine articles to wallpaper a house, that dream took a back seat. I didn’t totally abandon the idea. I just put it to rest for a while until I could figure out a way not to break into a fit of tears every time I got rejected. Without a dream, what would be left? Sweet potatoes drowning in brown sugar and melted butter? Television show marathons for the rest of my life? More visions of Larry imploding from my sad, teenage stories?
I needed the dream to wake back up. That dream would restore me to the girl I used to be. It had to.
When I returned home to my empty condo that afternoon, I headed to my laptop and landed back on Eva’s Twitter account. I read through her tweets and got sucked in by her wit. She played with followers, stringing them along with short musings, clueless that the girl from the bathroom stall who knew about her mismatched shoes reveled in snooping in on her.
So, I did what any other bumbling, hormonal idiot would do and tiptoed through her profile, through her mentions, through her Twitter feed, through her followers list, through her following list, and through her random images. Then, I sank into a warm and gooey crush I couldn’t squash. I needed to learn more about her.
I stared long and hard into her deep, dark eyes and welcomed in the flutters. She sucked me into her soul with those eyes. I sat helpless and vulnerable on my stool, a victim to the beginning stages of a crush that would tempt me, dance on my heart, and prey on my romantic weaknesses in the middle of the night.
I could be anyone to her from the safety of my computer. I could turn myself into a gorgeous babe with a flirty side that twirled her heart and sent her off into the land of flutters and tingles, too. That sent me reeling.
This could be fun.
A switch clicked in me. A challenge erupted. A jolt of what could be electrified me.
I would reinvent myself and tease her about hating Old Bay seasoning. Goodbye @jktwitter. Hello new self.
Who did I want to be? Rich? Fit? A published writer? A traveler? What a fun article that could turn into for a high profile magazine—an experiment in social networking where shy girls got a chance to have some fun from behind the protective barrier of a computer screen and whether that enhanced their pathetic lives.
If anyone’s life was worth testing, it was mine. All in the name of experimental research.
Sitting on my stool, still uncomfortable in my skirt that was a dress size too small, I set out to create my brand new Twitter account; one that marketing wouldn’t recognize; one that I could bait Eva Handel with about her hating Old Bay seasoning.
I stared at the blank fields that asked for a username and password. What could I call myself? Something cool. I needed something edgy. Something that sounded sexy. Something that would pique Eva’s attention. Something daring. Something bold.
Ten minutes later, after rifling through my thesaurus for different takes on sexy, bold, edgy and cool, I decided on @CarefreeJanie.
Someone stop me. I was so original and creative I astounded myself at times.
I needed a picture.
An egghead wouldn’t do.
I clicked through some of my photo albums. I was such a dork. My hair always looked like I needed a highlight, even though I’d never had a highlight in my life. My eyebrows were far too light. I was twenty pounds too heavy.
I needed sexy, alluring, desirable.
I took advantage of the magic of the internet and searched Google images. Why not use the tool if it handed itself to me? If I were on a deserted island and needed to construct a raft, and wreckage of my downed plane floated past me, you bet I’d improvise and mold that wreckage into something useful. Plane wreckage, images, eh same thing—both tools in a worthy pursuit.
I scanned. Perhaps I could go with something artsy, like a book. Or something sensual, like a curvy leaf. I scanned stock photography and plugged in the words sensual, cool, edgy, sexy, daring and bold. The erotic choices stunned me. Clearly, I’d been living under a rock.
In the soft glow of my living room, I scrolled through the breasts, the thonged butts, and the voluptuous curves that ran rampant across my screen. I scanned page after page of nudity and insanity before landing on an adorable animated picture of a pretty girl partially hidden behind a Victorian fan.
In my bio, I played myself up. I was a lover of words, of risks, of playful debates. I, Victorian-fan-waving @CarefreeJanie, was someone fresh, someone fearless, and someone interesting.
Once complete, I tweeted to Eva Handel, “How can you possibly hate Old Bay seasoning?”
I waited for twenty minutes in front of my computer, staring at it, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, I closed my laptop, stood up on an exhale and pushed back, away from Twitter, away from the obsession of wondering what she’d say back, and away from the ridiculous notion that she’d even care that someone named @CarefreeJanie wanted to know why she hated Old Bay seasoning.
I washed my dinner dishes slowly, caressing the handle of my scrub brush as I slid it in and out of my coffee tumbler, watching as suds piled up the sides of it and overflowed in a frothy mess down the white ceramic of my kitchen sink. I’d always enjoyed the simple pleasures of performing acts like that. They calmed me, centered me, and expanded my presence in my small kitchen nook, placing me in the path of something grander than I was in the life I led outside those walls.
My lemon colored walls, with their daisy flowers sprinkled around the border, had always cradled me in peace, blocking out the gray world that existed outside where people yelled, honked horns, and chucked each other the bird. In my small kitchen, I was safe and free to enjoy the simplicity of running water, of fresh-smelling bubbles, and of green ivy leaves waving at me from the window sill.
Oh yes, my life was one big joy fest being obsessed over domesticated novelties and now possible tweets from Eva Handel.