a short story
It felt like looking through a window, constantly watching everything happen around you, but never being able to find the door. It was as if an entire world of happiness existed just inches away, but the glass barrier between that world and her was immovable, unbreakable; there was no way around it, she could watch the life she wanted, she could feel almost as if she were right in the thick of it, but she could never really be a part of it.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying though. Her every act, her every thought, seemed to hinge on her desperate attempt to break through that glass wall. It had been that way for as long as she could remember.
She did all the right things, joined the right clubs, wore the right clothes. She said exactly what she thought they wanted to hear; she watched them and she learned from them, and she did whatever she could to assimilate into their ranks.
There were times, in the past, when it had worked for a while; but with her, it never seemed to stick. She would mess it up somehow; she would miss one party or forget one thing she was supposed to pretend to hate. She’d choose one person to be honest with and then they’d fault her for it all. It just never seemed to work in her favor; so instead, she’d spend her Saturday nights studying or reading the latest book turned movie series, and silently watching their seemingly better lives unfold. They never seemed to mess up; it was as if this group of people was born with some trait she inherently lacked, as if they’d always been polished and poised, and it could never really be taught. There was a naturally charmed element to their lives; everything seemed to fall into place for them, to be easy for them, in a way that she could never understand.
This time, she was certain that she’d gotten it right.
Her usual attempts to climb the social ladder started at the bottom, befriending those on lower rungs, those who had been all but cast out into the sea of average mediocrity where she existed, determinedly treading water, searching for the lifeboat of popularity; it seemed logical that they’d be easiest to reach. Instead, she had opted for a more aggressive approach this turn.
It was the start of their senior year, they’d all be going off to one in a handful of state schools they’d been cheering for since birth with the occasional outlier heading out of state to some obscure liberal arts college, and she wanted to see what it was actually like inside, not just to be looking through the glass, before her chance was over.
It wasn’t even that she had no friends, or that her life was particularly deplorable; it was just that she could never quite shake her infatuation with the in crowd. The polished, popular presence that paraded through the school hallways every morning, the utter manifestation of cool that shrouded over their prized portion of the parking lot, a complex combination of BMW driving Barbie dolls who’d bought their way in and beat up pickup trucks driven by jocks who had somehow overcome their financial inferiority with impressive athletic superiority: the whole scene had an enigmatic hold over her.
Every time she’d gotten close to being a part of their group, and subsequently fallen from her near rise to high school fame, she’d tirelessly realigned her focus as a result, telling herself over and over that popularity wasn’t important, that instead, she should focus on being herself and cultivating the friendships she had. Nonetheless, with time, her attention would again fall to that of those on the highest rung of the social ladder.
The perfect opportunity had come to her over the summer, and she had seized her chance without a second thought.
She’d been working as a kid’s club coordinator at one of the country clubs in town for the past three summers, and while several of the jocks worked as lifeguards as well, the kid’s club staff and the pool staff rarely fraternized with one another, and certainly no one from the popular crowd had ever befriended her. When queen bee, captain of the dance team, Macy Everly walked into the front office the first day of summer, in Kate Spade flats, Lilly Pulitzer shorts, and monogrammed earrings to finish the look, she had assumed Macy was there as a member. When the kid’s club supervisor introduced Macy as her new partner, and told her to show her around, she was absolutely floored.
“Don’t think I don’t wanna be here,” Macy pulled her aside mid-tour, obviously expressing some concern. “I mean, just in case that’s what you were thinking.” She paused, choosing her words carefully, “I know your boss told you my dad got me this job, and I know all my friends are assuming he made me take this job, but I really do love kids; I wanna be a teacher, so I could really use the experience.” Macy finished with a smile so genuine it was almost shocking, an element of honesty she’d never witnessed from such high school royalty.
They continued the tour, and as summer ticked by, they became surprisingly close. Summer drew to an end, the leaves on trees started to change, their senior year began, and she quickly found that if Macy Everly approved of you, everyone else would too.
With that, she was thrust into the world to which she’d dreamed of belonging from the start. Like every time before, she relied on the extensive knowledge she’d gathered on how this crowd operated through years of observation. She played the part perfectly; she knew all the games, and by now, she knew exactly how to win. There was no party foul or gossip conversation that could trip her up; she knew exactly how to act, what secrets to keep, what information to share, who she could use as a pawn in her climb to the top, and who was too big to be taken down.
This time, she had Macy as her secret weapon; more forgiving, and less critical than the rest, most likely because of her reigning status, Macy helped her learn the rules she hadn’t been able to pick up from outside of the circle. Before long, she knew everything about everyone; she was Macy’s second in command and the life she’d once known had all but disappeared as a result.
For a while, it was everything she’d hoped it would be. She felt lighter somehow, all wrapped up in this new life and new opportunities her social mobility had afforded. It seemed like things did start to come more easily for her; she always had a place to sit in the crowded cafeteria, she no longer had to hike from the lower parking lot on rainy days, ruining her hair and homework in the process, and for the first time in her entire existence, guys started to show some level of interest in her.
This final year of high school, and this singular year of popular bliss, passed all too quickly, and before she knew it, prom loomed over their heads, a cloud of uncertainty promising equal parts excitement and misery for the student body.
She sat in the courtyard surrounded by the most beautiful group of teens she had ever seen: Macy and her equally preppy boyfriend Tyler whose outfit looked as if it came directly off a J Crew mannequin; Alex Roberts, the all-American good looking quarterback who’d grown up on a farm, and his petite blonde girlfriend Cassidy who religiously wore pink bows in her hair and Chanel sunglasses even when she was inside; Jamie Brewer, captain of the volleyball team, with the long, lean body and never ending tan of a Victoria’s Secret model; and Brandon, Zach, and Michael, all members of the football team, who provided the group with all the mindless muscle it could ever need, all drooling over Jamie though she’d never give them the time of day. She was certain that a more picturesque, idealistic high school experience could not possibly exist, and yet as her new group of friends droned on about dress shopping and after party plans, she found her mind wandering.
In truth, she’d found herself bored of the conversations she’d been a part of the past several months with increasing regularity. Finally, she had played the game so well, only to find that for her, it was still just a game. She’d said all the right things only now to realize that they were all just empty words. She had finally found the door into the world she’d been desperate to experience, only to feel trapped and claustrophobic once inside.
Her disdain for their conversations and interests had risen almost to a tipping point. She couldn’t continue spending all her free time thinking about her appearance or how to impress others. She couldn’t listen to the fodder they called conversation, nothing more than a diatribe on their classmates and everyone around them. Still, this had been what she’d wanted, and surely being popular would somehow enhance the high school experience that is prom; so when Zach, her date, picked her up, she only slightly begrudgingly slipped on her corsage, and took her place in the stretch limo that Macy and Cassidy had insisted the group take.
Most of the night faded by in a blur: dinner somewhere much too fancy for any of them to actually feel comfortable, dancing to a mediocre DJ playing a montage of songs supposed to represent their high school experience along with the occasional request, sneaking sips from the flasks the guys had snuck in their tuxedos. Through it all, she felt stiff, almost outside of herself, going through the motions as she thought about the banality of it all. Tyler and Macy were crowned prom king and queen, as everyone had expected. Brandon left early, duping some insecure underclassman into believing the whole sex on prom night requirement myth; and Michael disappeared for some air after emptying the contents of his flask in record time. The last song was played; they all piled into cars for a party at Tyler’s family’s lake house, and the night continued with the cliché debauchery so inherent to this group’s existence thus far.
As the party winded down, she wandered outside and found herself sitting perched on the bottom step to Tyler’s porch. Amid the stillness and blackness of the night, she allowed herself to really think for the first time in months. She found now, that her thoughts were no longer affixed on the popular crowd. Instead, she thought of the months and years to come; she thought of who she envisioned herself being years down the road, and she wondered how any aspect of her current life fit into that at all.
She found her mind to be a whirlwind of confusing thoughts, and for the remaining weeks of her high school career, she found herself hostage to those thoughts.
She graduated; she turned her tassel, tossed her hat into the air, and took tearful, smiling photos with countless classmates. She did it all within the circle of popularity and it all felt as hollow and inconsequential as everything had felt at prom.
She packed her things for college, and in doing so she found a collection of memories from all her years in school. Through a compilation of old notes, photos, ticket stubs, and trinkets she watched years of wanting flash through her mind. Years of getting close, but never close enough, and finally of succeeding played through her thoughts; she realized every bit of it was as tainted as what came before it, and that no phase seemed any more significant than any other. She realized, that playing the game, whether losing it or winning it, she had always just been playing. For years, for her entire teenage existence, she had been so wrapped up in becoming what everyone else wanted her to be, that as a result, she had entirely lost who she was. She had taken on the persona of whoever she thought would fare best amongst her peers, whoever she thought would reach the highest social heights, and doing so, had left no time to think about herself or who she wanted to be.
She thought about it all; she put the memories of the past, all boxed up, into her closet. She stared at the mostly blank walls of her bedroom, and she felt like them. She got in her car, laden with suitcases and Target bags stuffed with towels and cleaning supplies, and she drove through her town, the meaningless memories all flashing through her mind again.
She pulled to a stop in a giant parking lot on her college campus. She had no idea where her dorm was relative to her location, but she couldn’t help herself. She put the car in park, and climbed out. She stared all around her; it was too much for her eyes to take in all at once, and it felt almost painful in contrast to the blank walls of her room still searing into her mind.
She looked at this new world and she thought about the blank spaces inside of her and she wondered if this place could possibly fill them.
inspired by all the people I thought were cool in high school and all the people I later realized were much cooler