Call me a voyeur.
I spend a lot of time watching people and trying to figure them out. For years, I sat in a newsroom and watched. I didn’t write full time for money back then, but I paid attention to nuance. The hubs watches doors and scans for shady characters, hidden weapons, undercover cops and escape routes. I study and stare and try to figure what’s going on behind the scenes.
So it’s a small jump to see I’ve always been somewhat on the fringe of things, a wallflower, and as I age, it’s become a good place to live, but it wasn’t always such. For a long time, I stayed over to the side because I was unhappy and figured everybody else was happier. My friends who had married parents and not a procession of boyfriends for mom, happier. The people who went out for brunch on Sundays, happier. The girls who could get their hair to feather just so, happier.
I drove the streets of my town, looking at houses and at the seemingly warm lighting behind the windows, wondering what went on in the homes. They all appeared cozy and safe. I learned then to distinguish between cool lighting and warm lighting, something that drives me to this day to test and replace with OCD lightbulbs and light fixtures. The warmer the lighting in the house, the happier the inhabitants, right?
I figured then that if we lived in one of those homes with the warm lighting, everything would be better. We would have heat that came from vents in the floors, and not from an oil-laden contraption that died once a winter and left us in the cold and that worked only in the immediate area and not in my back bedroom. We would laugh at dinner, tossing our heads back to roar with laughter, rather than eyeing each other with distrust and anger, or burying ourselves in books so we didn’t have to talk.
If we lived in those homes, I would have the perfect little tush because that’s what those houses made – not the derierre that I tried for years to eliminate.
People in those homes didn’t spend a summer reading headlines about Grandma’s manslaughter charges, or Thanksgiving and Christmas at the state prison. Their grandparents lived in a cottage that had the perfect amount of snow in the yard, the right types of chairs, a perpetual plate of non-caloric cookies on the table.
They didn’t hide from their great-grandma’s tirades, didn’t cringe and bury themselves in the back of the closets and listen to her plan, out loud, a fitting punishment, or beg her to stay when she threatened to die or simply leave home. They didn’t call the police on their family because the arguing had gotten so bad.
But now, more than ever, I realize that theory was so, so wrong, that the perfection was often my misinterpretation of fact, that because humans lived in those houses, and not iRobots, they, too, lay open to life and its unpredictable ways.
They, too, struggled with fears of abandonment. They, too, hid from parents and their fury. They, too, wished for a hug that was meaningful and not for show. They binged and purged. They shot up. Had sex too soon. Fought. Abused pills. They were beaten, bullied. They wanted different bodies. Better skin. Or they really did have great lives and homes, made good decisions, lived in the glow. Or somewhere, usually, between the extremes. The difference in their lives and mine was only in the details.
In retrospect, what would I have changed?
I had it better than many and realize that now. A mom who, between bipolar episodes, saw to it that I became bilingual in French and English, had ballet lessons, music lessons, summer trips to see relatives. She let me, as a fourth-grade kid, drive the car when we visited cousins in the country. She encouraged questions about faith and didn’t judge anybody else. Eventually, there was a Grandpa who loved me and Grandma; he married her the day she got out of prison and they stayed married for almost 20 years. I had godparents and aunts, real uncles and cousins, and immense freedom, and a family that loved to tell me how cute my shape was and didn’t I want another slice of pie? And I know I don’t want to go to prison.
It’s not to say that everybody was unhappy. But it is worth saying that many people struggled through much and lived to tell the story. The difference in their lives and mine – in the details.