For MOT, the day after his birthday
When I was in Kindergarten, I received in my Easter basket a small yellow autograph book with dancing bears on its cover. Everyone in my family was forced to sign it, and when I returned to school the following Monday, I passed it around for the entire class to sign with markers that smelled like apples and cherry and bubble gum.
I grew up in a small, well-to-do town where most of us started together in pre-school and stayed together until we graduated from high school. And even after that, many of my peers attended the same colleges, bringing a piece of home with them in the shapes of shared preadolescent crushes and carpools back to our tiny town. When I looked back over the pages of my autograph book years later, as a high school student in the midst of a trip down memory lane (or maybe it was just that my mother said I had too much shit in my room and I had to clean some of it out), I saw many familiar names, scrawled onto the page with the shaky precision of someone just figuring out how to cross their T’s and dot their I’s. Two pages, however, required a double-take, because they bore the names of people who I’d long forgotten: MOT and Bat Bronwyn.
MOT was how my friend Tom spelled his name as a kindergartner – backwards, and in all caps. Bat Bronwyn was, apparently, my alter-ego around that time, since that page of the autograph book read, “To: Bronwyn. From: Bat Bronwyn.” No message necessary. Not for MOT, either.
Upon re-discovery of Tom’s backwards ways in kindergarten, I swiftly took to calling him MOT all the time, as we traipsed through the halls of our small high school and sat near each other in our AP Government and Politics class. Though Tom and I were never best friends, we shared an affinity for each other, the type of intimate bond formed when you spend over ten years together learning how to multiply, flirt with your crush, chuck a dodgeball, and chew gum without getting caught, among other things.
As for Bat Bronwyn, she was just one of many alternate identities I’ve maintained throughout my life, though is the only one who materialized enough to sign my autograph book. I spent much of my childhood pretending to be someone else: the sixth (and only female) New Kid on the Block; an orphan escaping her evil mistress via the chicken coop and forsythia bushes out back; a line cook who only prepared dirt coffee and mud pies; an Olympic somersaulter; a psychiatrist; a comic book artist. The list could go on forever. I think that my propensity for pretend was just a much a product of an active imagination and an ample box of dress-up clothes as it was the feeling that I never, ever fit in in my town.
My parents were outsiders, since neither of them voted Republican or commuted into New York City to work in the financial district. I lived in a rented old farmhouse on acres of land, where my mother hung the clothes out to dry on a clothesline strung between the barn and the sour apple tree, instead of at the end of a cul-de-sac in a development, with wall-to-wall carpeting and pools out back. I shared everything with my mother who was, in turn, brutally honest with me not only about my writing or my attitude, but also sex, drugs, and how she thought most of the other families in town were composed of ignorant twits. And I cooked for those families with my chef father on the weekends, serving shrimp cocktails and bites of filet mignon to the parents of my friends, liquored up and sloppy in their million dollar pre-fab homes.
Because of how my parents raised me and because I didn’t fit the mold – ideologically or physically – of the “in” crowd, I made it my business to stay far enough from the maddening crowd that I could look at them with disdain and judgment, but close enough that, usually, they wouldn’t make my life a living hell. Though I was loudly in the liberal minority during debates in history or AP Gov/Pol classes, when it came to speaking up socially, I hung back. I watched a lot of kids get teased without saying anything. I wasn’t ostracized. I had my crushes on the popular boys, and it was rumored that, once my glasses and braces were shed and I grew some boobs, they thought I was cute too (though nothing was ever acted on, on either side). We kept respectful distance of each other, but by the time I was a senior, I was ready to get the hell out and never look back. There was nothing – and no one – I wished to hold onto from my years in that town.
When I graduated, I flew as far away from the tiny, racist, close-minded, blue-blooded elitist town in New Jersey as I could, and ended up amidst hippies and intellectuals in Portland, Oregon. Almost immediately, I repressed my memories from my childhood back east, and it suddenly became normal to see more bumper stickers in support of Democratic candidates than Republican ones. This trend has continued since graduation, where now I find myself in a pretty liberal city (and industry), replete with the crazy creative bleeding heart freaks who I always believed would welcome me wholeheartedly.
But the thing is, I still feel like a bit of a wanderer. I don’t feel myself even with the super creative, super liberal, super crunchy kids. I still find myself holding back. I still can’t find myself in a crowd. Maybe some of us are meant to travel in a pack, and others of us are destined to flit from group to group, but always, more or less, alone. I have people in my life, people who make me laugh and who make me feel at home, but most of the time, I still feel as though I’m still Bat Bronwyn, whose super-human ability is to match any social group’s tone and attitude, so as to not make any waves, to fade into the background, whether it was a group of girls clad in Abercrombie flares and Coach bags bags, or hippies crowded around a banjo, howling at the moon.
About a year ago, I started putting some of my writing on the internet, on various websites and blogs. I didn’t receive much recognition for it (not that I was asking for it – but it was nice when it happened), though one day, I logged onto my facebook to find a message from my old friend, MOT, who said that he followed my blog and loved my writing, and felt a lot of what I felt in high school (that I’d since articulated in my blogs). I would never have expected this to come from him, a guy who towered over me even in high school, who played baseball and wore Birkenstocks and teased me good-naturedly for my ardent, liberal politics. It was one of the kindest, most genuine gestures I’ve ever received. Tom – MOT – surprised me. I hadn’t give him – or anyone in New Jersey – that much credit. I’d never thought they saw the same things I had, the same way I did. That, ten years later, looking back, they too were conflicted about their childhood in that sequestered part of New Jersey. MOT had no reason to get in touch with me all those years after we’d tossed our red and white mortarboards up in the air, but he did, and I will always be grateful to him – always consider him a friend – for that.
I think that we all fake it til we make it, to a certain extent. Most of us work really hard at cultivating the personas and reputations of the person we’d like to become, instead of the person we are right now. We pray that one day, it won’t take such conscious work, and we’ll just become that person we always thought we’d be, without any effort. That we won’t find all the voices on NPR annoying. That reading The Atlantic Monthly won’t be a chore. That we may finally learn how to apply eyeliner. That we will wake up one day and have the job we always dreamed of, without doing any of the grunt work leading up to it. That we will turn the corner and run right into the love of our life, the person who sees our magnificence – our real sparkle – even when we don’t. Even when we’re sure we’ve lost it and we’re never going to get it back.
The truth is, sometimes I wish that I could go back to the days where, to make myself feel better, I’d throw on my aunt’s old prom dress and pretend to be a fancy lady in the Victorian Age, drinking tea with my sister in the backyard. I wish that to fit in would either feel more natural, or feel more like a game, instead of like a chore, as it does now.
But I guess that’s the nature of growing up around these parts, to constantly experience the pull of who we are and who we want to be. All I can say though, as I think about my friend Tom one day after his birthday, is that MOT and Bat Bronwyn were (are) some of the best people I know, and anyone who manages to meet them – or at least get their autograph – is very, very lucky indeed.