In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: I love being alone. Being lonely and being alone are two different things. I’m one of those people that want to be invited, but doesn’t want to go and if I do go I want to leave in thirty minutes once I arrive, that’s just when my social battery runs out. This essay validates my love for wanting to be alone, but when it comes to business we know how to put on a good face.
Initial publication date: 06/07/2016
I write for the people who don’t belong—for the ones on the outskirts filled with otherness. I write for the people like me.
It’s our not-fitting that makes us the same. The not-fitting brings us together, but we also know the not-fitting will always keep us apart—even from one another. If you are one of us you already understand. If you are not one of us, we want you to know: we will never belong because we can never be something we are not.
We are invisible, tucked inside the bodies of human chameleons flitting at the edges of social acceptance. We don’t fit into a genre, age group, or social demographic. We sit next to you at work, flirt with you at parties, take your order at your favorite restaurant. You interact with us every day, but it’s improbable we will ever let you see us. We have learned to let you see what you want to see. It is easier for all of us that way.
It takes years of study to understand what roles we are expected to fill and when. Our studies begin in pre-pre-school, the first time we’re left in a group and forced to interact with other Cheerio-infested, snot-nosed children. In elementary school our teacher lets us sit in the back of the classroom. Here we take crayon notes as our classmates build the ladder of social hierarchy. Using purple we scrawl “there is no rung for me.” Middle school flails us into the cesspool of burgeoning identity; by the end of it we understand invisibility is the strongest weapon we now possess. It is important. It lets us pass from one world to the next, allowing us to walk amongst people to whom we can never belong.
Invisibility is only half of what we need to survive beyond our bedroom walls. Our individual evolution won’t be complete until we master appropriation.
We flirt with it in high-school—stealing the way the cheerleader flips her skirt when she turns the corner. Our first attempts lack her confidence, her nonchalance. But we know in her carriage hides an answer to some problem we will encounter in the future—so we copy her skill and tuck it inside. In college our professors feed us lines of intellect. We swallow and practice regurgitating on demand. Corporate doors open to us, and from our desk in the corner, we sketch a new ladder: assistants, vice-presidents, president. Trading on our stolen skills, we walk within this new world—without ever having to show our true self.
It begins with a mirror.
In two hours there is an event, where I am expected to interact with people and help put them at ease. Where I am expected to sell the idea that we are all having a good time. My hands are cold. My stomach is jittery. I made myself eat two handfuls of roasted chickpeas thirty-minutes ago, because I need the energy to keep me smiling for the remainder of the night. In the mirror no smiles are found. My body is reluctant at our imminent transformation, fighting to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over our head even though it is 4:30 p.m.
There is no room for chaos or excitement. I scan through the songs on my phone and search for soothing, landing on a melodic tune by a watery soprano accompanied by broken repetitive guitar chords. Unearthing the Hello Kitty lunchbox hidden in my vanity, I flip open the lid to find the tools to change me into her. Foundation. Powder. Eye-shadow. Blush. None of these things are me, but I use the armor women have worn for thousands of years and trace the lines of my eyes. Real me has no time for this crap on my face. Real me smells like sunblock, not lipstick. Real me fades with each swipe of mascara, hunkering out of sight so I don’t disturb the image of what they want. Flatiron and hairspray lock me inside, and she steals Phryne Fisher’s confidence like we did her haircut.
Our years of practice have taught us what they want: vivacity, humor, confidence, wit, interest, sincerity—every interaction a combination of each. Decades of reading the arches of eyebrows and crossing of arms has informed us to see what is appropriate to use and when. None of them come naturally to me, but that is okay because I am starting to dematerialize. She needs our space so she can do what needs to be done.
Tonight is about business. About making an impression and standing out in a room full of name-tagged faces. Tonight the goal is to be remembered, so the next choices are crucial. Pulling a little black dress from the hanger, she knows it is fine, but fine does not get us remembered. She pulls the fabric over our head and turns it around, putting the dress on backwards. The back-now-front has a turquoise zipper that runs from navel to sternum, conservative to unique because she knows we have to look at the ordinary differently. Stooping to the bottom dresser drawer, she scrutinizes the final variable, weighs the external factors: it is cold out, the dress is short, there’s a fine line of looking like a whore. The solution: flesh-colored fishnet-tights covered with over-the-knee black socks. Don the pink cardigan, snap into our shoes, wrap a turquoise scarf about our neck. I retreat to the space that looks out from our eyes.
She collects our nametag and smiles, walks us across the room to a person she recognizes but has never met. She holds out our hand and offers our name as if it is currency. Each stranger is a new friend, each room an unexplored adventure. By the end of the event she has tenaciously opened doors we were not supposed to have access to, left an impression on those we’ve been told to impress, found us new friends. In the car on the way home, the music is loud, a celebration of her accomplishment, an accompaniment to the adrenaline of success. Pleased for different reasons, we enjoy the moments before our impending crash. She is proud of her success. I am glad it is over.
At home we kick our shoes off at the door and leave a trail of scarf, cardigan, stockings, dress on the way to the bathroom mirror. We scrub the layer of shit off our face, and we’re both relieved. The world is back to normal. She is tucked back inside, ready for sleep—needing to build up her energy stores for the next time we need her. I no longer have to hide, because we are home. We are safe.
The next forty-eight hours will be spent in a combination of sleep and shock, waiting for the chaos of my mind to settle into the place of things that don’t belong—into the space where I am me.
For us it is a lonely world. The one’s not-like-us think lonely is bad. They will never understand that we would not change it. We would never want to be them, or live in their world. Our loneliness has a kind of magic that lets us see the world tilted on its axis—the way it should be. Our world is more exciting and vibrant than theirs. Our world is a safe-haven for people who don’t belong. It’s a world for all of the people like me.
By Jessica Conoley