When I was little, I never understoof the concept of teasing. When my father would pinch my upper arm or gently dunk me under the lapping surface of the pool, I would be horrified that someone who said he loved me would be capable of such cruelty. From my swatting and splashing, you would think he had tried to sell me into child slavery.
"It's just teasing, Em," he'd say when I protested. "You have to be able to take teasing because when you're a big girl, people won't want you to take everything so seriously."
If you only knew me now, you'd never guess that I was a shy, intense child. Peering at the world through big brown eyes and scraggly bangs that were perpetually a half-inch too long, I tried and failed to understand just how people who were supposed to like you could find the most sensitive places in your body and your spirit and poke them until you squirmed. It wasn't even "how"-- I was so stuck on why that fundamentally incongruent act was even allowed to take place in the world. I was light years away from the nuance of verbal jousting and sly nudges.
It's ironic that now it's my wit and yappiness that gets me out of (and to be fair, into) a lot of life's jams. By college, I was so incapable of speaking without bantering that I actually had friends ask me to talk to them without one-liners and pop culture references. However, underneath the banter that I shovel onto those around me, there are vestiges of the intense little girl who simply could not understand some very basic, if unpleasant, facts of life, and who was incapable of letting such things go.
For as long as I can remember, my mistakes have stayed with me longer than my successes. I can't tell you about a single curtain call I took, or the feedback I got on my thesis, but I can perfectly describe the feeling in my stomach when I fail at something. Remember in The Matrix, how the search ships of the machines had the long tentacles with the pointy suction-y cups at their tips, how they would open and snap shut like spiky metal eyelashes blinking? Picture one of those opening up inside my gut, and you get the idea. The time my old boss called me a fucking idiot in front of another person. The time I drunkenly yakked all over the apartment of a guy I had a crush on. The time I called one of my residents by his roommate's name and walked out of their room only to hear them yell "Oh my God, she's useless!" as I shut the door behind me.
The Stomach Blinking is especially potent when it's work-related. I grew up in a family where women worked, women were expected to always work, and a great deal of my mother's identity was shaped by her work. Now that I'm back on the market, I hear the palpable disappointment in her voice when I have to tell her that no, I haven't heard back from them; no, they decided to go for someone else; no, they're not in Washington. I want her to be happy for what I do have, for the friends, travel, relationships and home I've built for myself, but am reasonably certain that she was more proud of me when I was working at a job I hated that left me unable to do much beyond cry and drink whenever I wasn't at the office.
To blame it on her would be a cop-out, because as my mother's daughter, I value work just as much as she does. It's ingrained in me: just like some people are taught that gays are going to hell, we learned that laziness (not sodomy) is the biggest sin. Moreover, it's incredibly difficult to read one emailed rejection form letter after another and to not doubt myself, to avoid the Stomach Blinking feeling that I am not smart enough, skilled enough, functional enough. To wait for the Red Line home from temping, surrounded by hordes of old and young workers in their suits and linen skirts and white commuter sneakers and not think "Every single person around me is better than me because they work."
I really look forward to the day where I don't feel so intensely, and can drift along on a placid sea and not interpret every passing boat as a judgement on my life. Got to believe it's on the horizon... after all, the little girl who had no sense of teasing is now the biggest sass around. Maybe there's hope for me yet.