When I was a little kid I was shy and deeply miserable. At home there was one girl who would only play with me outside, no matter how cold the wind blew or how deep the snow. I never understood why I never entered her house until I was much older and able to reflect on possible reasons. To put it mildly, I was weird.
My clothes were faded hand-me-downs from older aunts. The styles were old-fashioned and inappropriate for a kid. My shoes weren’t name brands, clearly from thrift stores and cheap five and dimes. Even my hair made me stand out, for my mom curled it into tight ringlets every night, that when combed out sprang from my head much like Little Orphan Annie’s.
Even my school uniform marked me as unlikable. It was of the old style, with a rounded collar and a droopy A-frame skirt that fell well below my knees. At one time it was blue, but mine were gray. Everyone else wore square-necked pleated jumpers that hit mid-knee. I was the only one in faded uniforms.
Even at home I was alone. I was the middle child, wedged between an older brother who my mother worshipped and a younger sister who could do no wrong. Even though I never articulated my desires, what I wanted more than anything was to be held, caressed, and even though I didn’t yet know the meaning of the term, to be held in the same regard as my siblings.
At school and at home I played alone, preferring my own company to the maneuverings at school and the tension-filled interactions with family. Even though I knew that I was often the cause of much yelling, I didn’t understand what I had done to trigger the lectures and revilement.
Several yeas ago I saw home movies that were taken when I was a child. In all the scenes in which I appeared there were brief moments when a tiny smile creased my lips. In one I was running toward my grandpa, in the other I was in his arms.
It was a great consolation to see that there were, indeed, periods of happiness.
When I was sent to school I understood that I was going not because I was smart, but because I was dumb. This was reinforced when my mother, who learned how to drive so she could get me to a school, reminded me daily of what she was giving up, the sacrifices she was making to enroll me in the private Kindergarten. I was, in fact, the dumbest kid in the class. I had no knowledge of letters or sounds, number values, shapes, and most of the colors. I couldn’t cut paper or tie my shoes or hold a pencil correctly.
I worked hard to learn, to blend in, but even so I often felt my teachers’ frustration with my lack of knowledge and skills.
In elementary school it didn’t take me long to figure out my place in the hierarchy. I was the dumb one, the girl who never knew the answers when the teacher called on her. I was the one who never got Valentine’s Day cards and who was never invited to play dates and parties.
Granted, it was probably my fault. I was a sullen, sulky kid who wandered the playground aimlessly, interacting with no one. My brother loved cartoons and I read whatever he was given. One time, buried in the back, was a magazine ad about how to create tornadoes in a jar. Every recess I carried my jar, twirling it, setting the miniature tornado in motion, finding limited solace in watching my creation. Imagine what the other kids thought when they saw this strange girl roaming the playground with a glass jar in her hands. No wonder I was alone.
There was one girl who befriended me in fifth grade. She had recently enrolled so didn’t know my status. Imagine my surprise when she invited me to spend a weekend. I had never slept away from home before except when visiting relatives, so I had no idea what to expect. I figure life would be the same: with yelling, accusations, physical torment. But it wasn’t.
During dinner her parents conversed quietly. They asked questions of me and included me in discussions. There was no name calling or bickering. Everyone had smiles on their faces.
I fell in love with that family and wanted to live with them. I prayed for them to adopt me. I didn’t want to go home and cried when my mother took me home.
In eighth grade an odd-looking quiet boy invited me to go roller skating. I went because it was a date, my first one, and he was a nice kid. I could skate as long as it required going around the oval. I knew how to stop and start and to keep a steady speed. That was it, but it turned out, as we skated side-by-side, I knew more than Geoffrey. Modern tunes were played, which pleased me tremendously as I knew all the words, but poor Geoff was lost. After a few laps, his hand brushed mine and then morphed into hand-holding. It was my first time being with a boy, so I was nervous. He must have been as well because his was damp. I didn’t care.
In ninth grade Geoffrey invited me to my first school dance. My mom made me a powder A-line blue dress for the occasion. He arrived in a suit, bearing a corsage which he couldn’t pin on me because neither of us were comfortable with the idea. My mom did the job, but only after stabbing me with the pin.
Neither of us knew how to dance, so we spent most of the time standing on the outskirts leaning against walls or, if available, sitting on folding metal chairs. I didn’t have a great time, but a pleasant one because he was kind.
My family moved to California that summer. I was excited to go, for a new place brought hope for new adventures. No one would know me there; no one would remember my faded uniforms and weird ways. No one would have known the stupid me, for now I was one of the best students in my grade.
My mom insisted that I bring addresses of neighbors that she thought were friends. They weren’t, but I carried the information on our cross-country drive. Once we had a place to stay, I sent them letters and postcards every week. Even though none of them wrote back, I cried.
I was still shy so I made no friends my first year in my new high school. I drifted around campus as I had done in Ohio, constantly moving so that kids would think I had a purpose and a destination.
My Algebra teacher was the closest thing to a friend that I had only because he smiled when I got the right answers. A PE teacher also befriended me when I tried out for the softball team. She drove me to her house one day after school and gave me one of her mitts, then took me home. My mom threw a fit. I had no comprehension as to why my mom was upset. Now, as an adult, I do.
Across the street from the first house that we rented in South San Francisco lived a young man several years older than me. My dad liked him and spent hours standing in the street swapping stories with him. When Dennis asked permission to date me, my dad approved. I was only sixteen at the time, while Dennis was in his early twenties.
He looked like every glasses-wearing boy of the sixties. Black haired combed to the side, black-rimmed glasses, and button up the front plaid shirts. He treated me respectfully and spent money taking me on dates. We went bowling, to movies and hung out at his duplex, where he lived alone, listening to music. He wanted more than a casual relationship, however.
Sometimes after dark he’d park in an isolated spot behind a closed store and we’d make out until my lips hurt. I was never comfortable with these arrangements as I feared being robbed or killed. I was also terrified that the police would find us and arrest us for being someplace where we didn’t belong. If that happened then my parents would know about these trysts and I’d be in trouble; with both my parents and the law.
The closest call came after the bowling league ended. It was a chilly night. Dennis started his car, a blue VW Beetle, then while the engine warmed, pulled me close and kissed me. It went on and on. Bowlers walked past. Some pounded on the door or window, saying “Get a room.” Eventually we left, only to end up at his place.
At first we listened to music. We shared an interest in the Beach Boys, Beatles and other groups of the times. We’d sit side-by-side on his couch while the music played. After finishing a soda, Dennis pulled me to his side and resumed the passionate kissing. He told me how much he loved me and I believed him. I allowed him to push me down onto the pillows of the couch and didn’t protest when his hands went under my bra.
I was uncomfortable. I felt that a line was being crossed, but I didn’t know which line. I knew nothing about sexual relationships or what steps led to situations that could never be reversed. Fortunately Dennis never pushed me beyond what I did allow, even though he did ask for more.
He repeatedly said he loved me, but I never said the same to him. Because we dated for several years, my parents were thrilled. The daughter that they had felt was unlovable had someone declaring true love.
When I transferred to USC after graduation I lived on campus and ate in the dining hall. At first I ate alone, but one time when searching for a spot, a girl invited me to her table, a table at which sat lonely looking people like me. We were all odd-balls, and that was the bond that drew us together meal after meal.
One thing we had in common was that we are all quite intelligent and quite knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. Some of us were world-travelers, some were from overseas, some, like me, were poor. For the first time I felt an equal. I don’t know how they saw me, but I was always treated with respect. Over time I dated two of the guys. They were really nice. In fact, one of them wrote me a three-page letter explaining how great of a husband he would be, and that back in his country I would be treated like royalty. As intriguing offer until he explained that I could never go anywhere alone and would have to cover my face.
All was going well until one weekend Dennis drove down to see me. He took me to Disneyland where we had a good time, but all the while I was there, I knew that I was going to break up with him. He still loved me, but during our separation I grew to understand that I liked him, but didn’t love him. He cried when I told him. I did too.
It was after Dennis left and I returned to campus that I realized how much I had changed. I was no longer the lonely kindergarten kid but a part of a social group that did things together. That treated each other as equals. That valued intellect over money and appearance.
We did crazy things together, like drive across town just to buy Tommy’s famous chili burgers. We went to the beach when it was raining and ran through the damp sand, our wind-swept hair flying behind us. We studied together in the lobby of our residence hall, reinforcing each other’s strengths and helping overcome our weaknesses. We were inseparable.
After college I returned home to find that nothing had changed. I was still the middle child, not a woman. I was still unloved and disrespected. I was still considered a bumbling fool. When I got a job and saved enough money I moved out. My mom was despondent, I think, because she no longer controlled everything I did.
As an older adult I still have my lonely days but I don’t let them drag me down. I know that they are only a blip in what are normally busy times with friends and family. I have a husband who enjoys being with me, who respects me and encourages me to do all the different things that I love to do.
Being lonely as a kid was a terrible thing. I saw kids running around in groups that were ever changing, but never with me a part of the fun. There was no one to help me navigate the social circles, to teach me how to fit in.
Along the way there were glimmer of hope: the girl who invited me over to her house, the boy who took me roller skating, the young man who said he loved me and all the college friends who respected me. Because of them I entered the world of work prepared to interact with those who showed signs of openness.
For the sake of all the lonely people in the world, be open. That will help them overcome loneliness. Be kind.