The six of us sat cross-legged in flannel nightgowns around the game board.
“It's my turn,” Susan said. She picked a card from one of the stacks in the middle of the board and read it out loud: Assume the fetal position, close your eyes, and rocking back and forth, make appropriate sounds.
She got an easy one.
It was a few months into the start of seventh grade. The week before, Susan had called to invite me to her sleepover. She had lots of plans for the party. She wanted to put on a cabaret where we made up the songs and dances. She thought we could build a stage using books and pillows, and make a curtain in the doorway. She wanted everyone to dress in men's clothes as costumes.
“Be sure to bring an oxford shirt and a necktie,” she'd said over the phone. “The shirt can be any color but needs to have little buttons on the collar. Okay?”
“Okay,” I'd said.
But it wasn't okay. My father didn't have that kind of shirt. His button-downs had spread collars, the ones with thick triangles that flared stiffly. And he didn't wear pale blue, white, or pastel pink, like Susan's father did. My father wore shades of yellow and brown, which complemented his dark complexion. And my father's shirts didn't have a logo on the pocket—no alligator, or polo player, or sheep suspended by a ribbon. But I couldn't tell Susan that; I didn't know her that well. In fact, I didn't know anyone at my school well enough to admit that I didn't have the right shirt to bring. That afternoon on the phone we'd talked only about the cabaret; she'd never said anything about the game.
After her fetal-position performance, Susan received five “with it” votes from the rest of us and moved her piece on the board.
“Now me,” said another girl. She drew her card: Do an interpretative dance that shows how you feel when you think nobody likes you.
Another easy one, I thought.
We were playing Group Therapy. When Susan had gotten the box down off the bookcase outside of her parents' bedroom, the other girls either seemed to have heard of or played it before. In white writing on the all-black lid, the box read: Is it really a game?
Game night at my house was sporadic and typically involved rounds of Clue or Monopoly. When Susan unpacked the pieces for Group Therapy, I didn't see any silver medallions, fake money, or golf pencils. The playing board was a circle divided into yellow, red, and blue segments labeled “hung up,” “group therapist,” and “free.” Besides the bulbous, white playing tokens, the rest of the game consisted of stacks of cards.
“I don't know how to play,” I'd said, hoping to sit out.
“It's easy,” Susan said. “You'll get it right away.”
In the game, each player takes a turn and chooses a card from one of the three piles of color-coded “therapist” cards. The player then performs the action that is stated on the card. After the player responds to the card she has drawn, everyone else votes to determine whether the player was “with it” by acting honestly or had “copped out” by not being open with the group. The player who drew the card then moves her piece according to the results of the group vote. The object of the game is to get so many “with it” votes that you are the first to reach the “free” spot on the board. I didn't know it then, but the game was the byproduct of the sensitivity training experiences and personal growth groups popular in the 1960s. By the time of Susan's party ten years later, these therapeutic principles had been boiled down to the dimensions of a ten-by-twenty-inch box and were available in retail stores.
So far, I was losing the game and trying not to be obvious that I was losing on purpose.
I went to a private middle school, where I wasn't like most of the kids. They wore sneakers I couldn't afford and spent weekends at their country houses in the Berkshires. They often ate out at restaurants and knew how to ski. And what impressed me the most was that they lived in apartment buildings with doormen. When I was invited for play dates, I measured the distance between my life and theirs by whether they had a housekeeper, a cook, a nanny, or all three. My family had none.
Susan was new, and I thought maybe she would be more like me or maybe she wouldn't notice when I was pretending to be someone else.
My parents worked hard to afford the school. We weren't poor, but we weren't rich either. I never invited kids over to my apartment because even if I could trust them enough to ignore what I considered the obvious deficiencies of our small, three-bedroom apartment, I couldn't risk that they might discover we had cockroaches. During the day, the bugs usually didn't show their twitchy, antennae heads, but you never knew when you might spot a papery brown egg case on a counter or in a corner. In seventh grade, I looked forward to meeting new kids. Susan was new, and I thought maybe she would be more like me or maybe she wouldn't notice when I was pretending to be someone else.
I had been to Susan's house once before and we'd had a good time listening to records and flipping through copies of Seventeen magazine, but with the other girls around, there was more pressure to impress her. Seventh grade is a time of developmental awkwardness, marked by training bras, sanitary napkins, and acne. That makes going to a sleepover with a bunch of twelve-year-old girls you don't know a form of social risk-taking: everything has to be just right. When I told my mother that I didn't want to go to the party because of the shirt, she rummaged through my father's clothes to find one.
“How about this one?” she said, holding up a tan button-down. “Or these?” She had a light brown shirt in one hand and a gold one in the other.
If I had given her a moment longer, she would have also found the peach- and butter-colored ones. But I turned to leave the room before she could ask, “What's wrong with them?” because I didn't know how to tell her that everything was wrong with them. And they weren't just the wrong color with the wrong collar style. My father's shirts lived downtown, and the shirts belonging to the other girls' fathers lived uptown. My father's shirts came from stores in our neighborhood and not the stores east of the park. And even though the shirts the other girls would be bringing might be subtly different in cut or color, they would have a general sameness to them and wouldn't look like anything my father wore.
The days before the party, I chewed the inside of my lips and cracked my knuckles until they felt hollow and wide. Being invited to Susan's was a sign of inclusion, but being included was no guarantee of acceptance. The night before the party, my mother folded one of my father's shirts and a tie in a plastic bag and put it by my door. In the morning, I pushed it under my bed, told my mother I had packed it with my things, and strategized how I'd lie to Susan about forgetting it.
When I arrived at Susan's, the cabaret planning was already in full swing. Susan opened the door and swept me up in the action. When I told her I had forgotten a shirt, she ran out of her room and yanked an extra from her father's closet. The tight cotton weave was soft like pajamas; it was perfect. We spent the late afternoon making up routines and scavenging for props. When the girls asked my opinion about whether we should build a stage, I didn't take a side. “A stage would be cool,” I said. “But maybe we don't need one.” I wanted to stay on good terms with everyone. After dinner, Susan's parents politely sat through our haphazard production before retreating to their bedroom and surrendering the living room, where we unrolled sleeping bags and made pallets out of sofa cushions to settle in for the night. The oxford shirts and ties were scattered on the floor like shed skins. I felt free of them. We made popcorn and huddled around the TV to watch the ABC Saturday night primetime lineup: Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
Anyone taking a quick survey of the room wouldn't have picked me out as different in my plaid flannel nightgown, fuzzy blue socks, and ponytail. A casual observer would not have detected my secret: how much it mattered to me that I didn't have the clothes, trendy shoes, fancy apartment, or rich parents the other girls had. In science class we'd learned about how some animal species have natural camouflage that helps them avoid attack. Some change their appearance to blend in to their surroundings and others alter their behavior. Then there are species that don't try to hide at all and instead protect themselves by standing out. We'd read about brightly colored tree frogs that clash with their green surroundings because vibrancy sends the message that they might be poisonous. For me, Susan's party was like a small ecosystem within the larger, hostile environment of middle school. I just wanted to look and act like everyone else; I felt safest when hiding in plain sight.
When Ricardo Montalbán delivered his closing lines on Fantasy Island at eleven o'clock, I thought I was in the clear. I thought we'd turn off the TV and get ready for bed. But instead, Susan tiptoed down the hall to see whether her parents were still awake and returned with the box she'd pulled from the bookcase. She didn't say that we weren't supposed to play, but the way she carefully closed the door between the living room and the hall leading to her parents' room made the act feel forbidden, as if she'd plucked a copy of The Joy of Sex off the shelves instead of the Group Therapy game.
When we'd started the game, everyone hammed up their responses the first couple of rounds, mostly trying to get the other girls to laugh. But Susan wanted us to take the instructions on the cards seriously and told us we should stop goofing around. She wanted us to play to win.
Now, it was my turn. I drew a card. It read: Talk about your loneliness.
This card would have been hard to answer honestly, but it was an easy one to dodge.
“My brothers don't live at home anymore,” I said. “And I really miss them.”
I looked around the circle of girls. They seemed to be waiting for more.
“They're much older than me, but we're really close. I feel lonely now that it's just me at home with my parents.”
I got one “with it” vote and four “cop outs.” I moved my playing piece backward on the board. If I had been interested in winning the game, I could have told the girls about the time in grade school when a group of kids snickered at my polyfill jacket that was supposed to imitate the down jackets that were so popular. I could have told them that I never said anything about the incident to my mother because it only would have made her feel bad about not being able to buy the fancier coat. But saying those things would have blown my cover.
The instructions to the game didn't include any explanation of an effective therapeutic group. We didn't know, for example, that good groups emphasize the universal truths that bind individuals together. Nor did we know that groups have ground rules about creating a safe environment for sharing thoughts and feelings, reserving judgment, and protecting confidentiality. Or maybe the instructions did include that information, and we skipped over it. Growing up with two brothers, I'd learned that boys tended to test their boundaries with each other through physical feats and fights. But my experience with girls at school had taught me that they could do more damage with an over-the-shoulder glance or a well-timed raised eyebrow than with any thrown punch. That, after all, was why I hadn't dared show up to the sleepover with the wrong kind of shirt, and why, now, I didn't dare tell the whole truth when I drew my cards. I just wanted someone to win so we could stop.
Looking around the living room I pictured Susan's parents playing with their friends, chairs pulled around the coffee table, empty wineglasses set down on the floor by the couch or on one of the built-in bookcases. This was a game for people who entertained; it was no wonder that my parents didn't have a copy. My parents went bowling on Friday nights, but never invited anyone from their league back to the apartment for a drink. My father was an alcoholic, and my mother refused to have liquor in the house, so my father drank at the local bars instead. Each night we didn't know what to expect when we heard his key in the door. My mother never suggested hosting a cocktail party and bristled when they had to attend one. It was too easy to imagine how quickly an evening of Group Therapy at my house would turn sour after my father had had a few beers. Of all of my secrets, this was the most important one to conceal. It was the one that even my mother didn't tell anyone. As we played, I made a list of the questions I prayed weren't hiding in the stack of “therapist” cards:
Pantomime your father's greatest flaw.
In one sentence, tell the group what you'd change about your parents.
What's the last thing you want anyone to know about you? Act it out.
When I suggested we all go to bed, the girls accused me of wanting to quit because I was losing. When I asked if I could just drop out, they told me not to be a baby.
“Okay,” I said. “I'll keep going.”
Two turns later, one of the girls drew this card: Which one of your fellow players is the least honest? She didn't hesitate before pointing at me, saying that my answers were too polite and that I was trying too hard to be everyone's friend.
“Yeah, it's a game, but you're not really following the rules,” someone said.
I thought, Even the makers of the game didn't think it was a game. It said so right on the box.
“And you never had an opinion about the cabaret,” said another.
“No offense,” the first girl said. “But it's really annoying.”
Everyone held up their “with it” cards in support of her frankness about my lack of honesty. They waited for me to vote. I had a choice to make: lash out, red-hot angry, and give them a reason to think twice about hurting my feelings in the future, or go along with it. I held up my “with it” card. It was the first honest thing I'd done all night. My face felt warm and my throat started to purse. I willed myself not to cry. I thought the girls were being mean, but really I was upset with myself because I hadn't been fooling anyone all day. I pulled my knees up to my chest and tugged on the inside of my lower lip with my teeth while the girls played on. I tested how hard I could bite down on the flesh without flinching or breaking the skin.
I don't remember how much longer we played or who won. When we finally turned off the lights, I only remember pretending to be asleep while the others talked in whispers. When I woke up, there were Group Therapy cards scattered around the floor. Someone must have swatted the board with an arm or a pillow in the night. I knew I didn't want to help clean them up, so I told Susan's mother that I felt sick and wanted to call my mother to pick me up early. I got dressed and packed my things, and sat in the kitchen with the other girls while they ate breakfast and I waited for my mother to arrive.
The girls laughed remembering how much trouble we'd had putting up the curtain for the cabaret and sang lines from the songs we'd made up. But I focused my attention on Susan's mother, who was making pancakes for everyone. She worked two pans and served each girl one pancake at a time. I thought this was inconsiderate, because it's never satisfying to eat them that way. My mother had a much better system. She kept pancakes warm in the oven, put a whole stack on the table, and then doled out fresh ones to add to people's plates. When Susan's mother offered me a pancake, I told her I felt too sick to eat. But really I was thinking that nothing I could eat here would satisfy me. At my house, I could put a pat of butter between each pancake and keep a small lake of syrup on the side. My father liked an extra-tall stack—five or six in a tower that he soaked in syrup. He wouldn't have liked eating breakfast here either. I asked Susan's mother for a glass of water. Drinking it made me feel less hungry.
When my mother arrived, she instinctively raised her hand to my forehead to feel for a fever. I thanked Susan and her mother for inviting me and told everyone I'd see them at school. They waved and screamed my name. “Feel better,” they said. I could still hear them at the elevator after Susan's mother had closed the door.
“Did you have a good time?” my mother said.
“Did you feel sick all night?”
On the way home, I asked my mother if she would make pancakes for me.
“I don't feel as sick anymore,” I said.
We walked to the subway station and while we stood on the platform waiting, I made a plan for retrieving the bag with the shirt from under my bed. I'd get it while my mother was cooking, bring it to the kitchen, and set it on an empty chair. Then I'd sit in my usual spot at the kitchen table, in the corner facing the window. I'd rest my feet on the supports and press my hands on the tabletop to settle into my chair. This always made the tabletop creak when it shifted on the pedestal. I could hear that sound so clearly—a low wooden groan accented with a throaty pop. The train roared into the station, and we boarded and found seats. A tension softened in the space between my shoulder blades as the doors closed and the train lurched in the direction of home.
2 comments have been posted.
Dionisia gets a "with it" card for her clear, insightful description of how it feels to be the girl who doesn't fit in. Her story conjured my own old, half-buried memories. I love her underlying sense of pride in her own family even while knowing they are outside Susan's family's sphere. Congratulations on such a well-written piece.
Ariel Ginsburg | September 2015 | Corvallis, OR
I loved this piece - spoke to me about a singular experience for this young girl, and resonated because it seems like such a universally painful experience that I shared as a young girl at a sleep over caught between fear of discovery and the painful desire to be included. thank you!!
Emma Coddington | September 2015 | Salem OR