See, this is what was not supposed to happen. The exotic Valentine’s Day lilies on the Facebook wall of a size 0 Floridian beauty queen. The man who hyphenated his last name with his wife’s. The gigantic costal house with two and a half curly-headed children playing quietly in the yard. Respectively, these things belong to the jerk who teased me on the school bus in sixth grade, the girl with the best reputation and most perfect teeth in the whole county, and my freshman year crush who would. Not. Even. Look. At. Me. EVER.
Aren’t they supposed to have horrible lives, waitressing at crap bars and living in their parents’ basements? These prom queens and football stars—they had their shot in high school. Real life was supposed to be my turn. I mean, I practically had “duckling now, swan later” written all over me. Glasses and gravity-defying hair, lots of cackling tween girls in my periphery, troubles at home, never-quite-fit-in but persistent as all-get-out, and a depressingly boyfriend-less existence. Woe was me. So I knew what was coming next. All of the romantic comedies said so. Getting out of my hometown meant friends! Fame! Fabulousness! Boys who liked me! Happily ever after!
A lot of that happened. I went to college and found out that some people thought about the world like I did. I dumpster-dove, majored in Saving The World, kissed many boys and girls, and learned how to meditate. I took a year off to live in a Buddhist monastery and unpack all of my emotional baggage—including getting rid of my Facebook account and buzzing off a few feet of hair, as a way to cut off unhealthy attachments. That accomplished, I went back to school for a Master’s and landed a high-power internship, which turned into a career-building job. Now I have an executive-level position and a big enough professional network that I may not even have to apply for the next thing.
However, I do have an executive-level position in a sorta lonely part of the country. When I took it, I knew that it was a stepping-stone. But while I only planned to be here for a few years, having shallow roots gets old. After about a year here, I decided to return to the nourishing roots of decades-old friendships.
Enter Facebook! At first, it felt like I had come back home. Pictures of Hazel’s new house! Status update that Perry is at my old favorite restaurant! Adrian’s little baby toddling around!
Then… everybody’s little baby toddling around.
Then… who are all of these people on my feed? I don’t recognize any of these names…
Oh. So, when, exactly, did everybody from my high school decide to get married?
And—three years into a relationship with more downs than ups of late—when would it be my turn?
Growing up, I glommed on to the stories about the ugly duckling turning into the beautiful swan, slow and steady winning the race, and good things coming to those who wait. The stories for the rest of us, the ones that prophesied redemption from our sorrows. But, returning to my hometown for the first time in six years, the present-day triumphs of my former playmates seem to fly in the face of the promises these stories made to me.
Remember Betty, who graduated with us? She’s now teaching at our old high school, and her husband is a wealthy contractor. Anna NewLastName and her beau live in a neighborhood that didn’t exist five years ago, with two big happy dogs that my quasi-nomadic lifestyle won’t be able to support for the next several years. Wrestling champ Jerry has a sweet little daughter; I experience a moment of cognitive dissonance as this world-class partier lovingly cleans her up after she springs a leak. I see many of my former schoolmates and their new families. Nobody asks me what I’m doing, and all the while I want to scream, “But, I have a career! Here, take a business card! I’m successful, I am!”
There’s a Buddhist saying that goes, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.” I realized I had come to believe that the Happily Ever Afters of my schoolmates somehow detract from the quality of my own life. That there isn’t enough happy to go around. And while I was busy worshiping at that altar, I was blaspheming all of the good fortune that I have been given.
While my classmates were getting married, I was working through the life stuff that would allow me to experience a groundedness and level of interpersonal intimacy I never knew I was missing; whole other layers of myself that make me better at being me. All that other stuff is great for the people who have it, but it was never going to give me myself. As it turns out, life gives us whatever we need to work with, regardless of what we think we want.
So, maybe all the stories were wasted on me. I don’t have the traditional happy ending. This duckling is, in fact, a duckling, and no other bird. But there’s no other bird I’d want to be.