I’ve been giving it all a lot of thought, but I keep thinking of that road in Death Valley, California, some fourteen, fifteen years ago, when I was about nine years old. Nine; that’s too young to truly appreciate a journey like that, but old enough for me to realize that a roadtrip through Death Valley was, you know, cool. Dad was driving, ma riding shotgun, and my brother and I were in the backseats with a large bag in between to keep us from fighting. I remember that, by law, we had to have two liters of water in the car per person, so eight in total, just in case the car broke down and we’d’ve been right in the middle of a, you know, desert.
What I remember most from our one-night’s-stay in Death Valley was that about half an hour after my dad checked us in, my brother and I went for a swim in the pool at the center of this U-shaped motel. Getting in the water was a relief, but the thing was, when we got out of the water, we were cold. I climbed up those tiny metal stairs or ladder or whatever that thing really is and ran for my mom, who I remember was lying on a poolside bed, not reading, cause it was too hot to read. She quickly wrapped a towel around me. I remember the excited confusion of being cold in this desert, not yet understanding the combination of wet skin and wind, and that, shivering, I asked her how warm it was. “49 Degrees Celsius,” she told me.
I remember asking my dad if this was really true; if it was really 49 degrees out. I asked him this the number of times only a child can ask their dad if something’s really true –but of course my older brother, the know-it-all, was the one who confirmed. And I remember this made me very happy, because it meant that I had a really impressive story to tell my friends back at school, and I wouldn’t even have to exaggerate or lie to be cool. I had been cold in a desert named after death at 49 degrees out. I pictured Fay’s face when I’d tell her, and she wouldn’t believe me, and be like; “It can’t possibly have been 49 degrees.” And that I would then drag my dad by the hand onto the playground and say: “Tell her, Dad, that it was 49 degrees out in America,” and that he would then nod and tell her. Or, if it wasn’t before or after school that I’d tell her, I could make sure we’d go ask a teacher whether it was possible and they’d tell her that I was right and that she was wrong.
But the thing is, people are never gonna like you more because you proved to them you were right. I’m not sure if I was already aware of this in Death Valley, but I do know that at quite an early age I noticed that I didn’t particularly appreciate that Noelle and Haley knew more about my favorite girl-band than I did; and that I had developed a sense that Nathan wasn’t gonna think Phil was any more bad-ass ‘cause his brother was four years older instead of only two; and that Claudia wasn’t gonna be happy for Haley that she had actually had that shirt first; and that Rowan wasn’t gonna like Fay more because she had it worse, because her ankle hurt more than his, because she once actually broke hers and he just sprained his. But kids don’t know this. Heck, judging by the fact that some adults, and you probably know the ones that I’m talking about, still only talk about their houses, and their cars, and the holidays they’ll go on, even they don’t know this. Anyway, as I was sitting at the foot of my mother’s poolside bed, beginning to get extremely warm again, I couldn’t help but imagine outsmarting Fay at school.
A few years later, when I was in high school, fourth grade, the abstract ideas I had had on these competitive concepts that had intrigued me as a child, started to take shape some more. I became friends with a girl named Hannah. She was one of my closest friends. But I don’t think I ever actually really liked her. I think it was more that I had always looked up to her. She was pretty, popular. Creative, too. I think it’s more that I wanted to be like her, so I hung out with her. As we got older, I started to hate her more and more, in a way only a girl could hate a girl that she called her friend. Though always being the prettiest girl around, Hannah had never had a relationship. At sixteen, boys were willing to sleep with her, sure, but she never really got a text back. She went on first dates, but didn’t get asked on second ones. I knew that this made her insecure and lonely, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt as if she was proud of the names on her list. As if every boy that she told me had stayed in her bed at night, was rubbing it in my face that I hadn’t been kissed yet. It annoyed me. And I know it annoyed other people, too. Talking behind backs. A lot of it. I don’t really know where she is now, but she made me think, sometimes, that maybe it’s better to be relatively okay, and averagely pretty, ‘cause when you’re totally cool, and you’re totally the person everyone else wants to be, and you’re also hot – as long as you’re not a celebrity, I realized I was not going to like you. I was going to tell myself I wasn’t jealous as I accused you of being incredibly high up your own ass.
Over the years, of course, I grew into this issue and sort of became more comfortable with it. But it wasn’t gone completely. When I was 18, some of my friends and I went to Lons-le-Saunier, a town in le Jura, France’s prettiest province, you know, if you ask me. I had started literary studies at a university in Utrecht and moved into a big house that I shared with nine other students. Obviously, I had to find my way, but eventually I was more comfortable in my own skin than I’d been before. No need to lie or exaggerate to be cool. But during summers, I started looking at myself through the eyes of others all over again. With the holiday to France, my bikini body, and the judgment of my testosterone-fuelled-male friends (one of whom I was embarrassingly attracted to, I might need to add) in mind, I put on my jogging shoes and ran 5k three times a week. I also joined a basketball team and did YouTube yoga before bed every night. I barely ate. I knew I wasn’t fat, but puberty and hormones had caused me to gain weight, and just imagine the horror of someone seeing that I didn’t have a perfect body. Whatever that may be. Anyway, once in Lons-le-Saunier, the cellulite and stretch marks hadn’t gone anywhere, obviously. Not in my eyes, anyway. They still haven’t and probably never will. I’d put on shorts, sure, but I would always be highly aware of the backs of my thighs. I wore bikini-bottoms, but I would always be highly aware of my butt. Until, I remember this quite clearly, two of the guys and I went to the pool municipal. It was one of the most relaxed days of the whole summer. We basically just played catch-and-throw all day in the water. They had expected me to not really be good at this. To be fair, I had expected me to not really be good at this. And sure, I missed the first couple of throws, but after a while I started to make some pretty impressive saves. Basketball was paying off. I was aware that they kept throwing high balls so I had to jump and at least a good bit of my upper body came out of the water – and I’m not saying that to make them sound pervy or anything, I guess. I think. You know, they were just messing with me, didn’t see any harm, and they knew that I knew, and we all had a laugh. And I didn’t mind. When you jump out of the water and both your hands neatly wrap around a ball that was thrown at you by a guy who didn’t expect you to catch it, and in one smooth movement hit it out of the park – that just makes you forget about the unsecure fastenings of triangle bikinis, or potential underarm fuzz, or, whatever. I don’t know, it just made me feel strong. And, as such, I realized that it didn’t matter if my butt wasn’t as smooth as those of the other girls. That, in fact, it allowed me to have fun, with these guys, who liked me ‘cause they could laugh with me. And, that, in fact, would you believe it – the guy I really liked also didn’t have a perfect body. Objectively, you know. And that didn’t make me like him any less. And that, you know, the perfectness of your body isn’t necessarily what makes people fall in love with you. Or want to be friends with you. That it creates an opinion on your body, not your personality. I realized that not even good looks make people like you any more.
Looking back, down the line, I’ve recognized it in other people. I’ve seen people acknowledging, sincerily, that ‘life isn’t a ccompetition.’ And I’ve seen people who didn’t seem to have the slightest awareness of that. I dated one of those. I couldn’t help noticing it. And I really didn’t want to think I was smarter than her by telling her about, you know, all of this. But at some point I just didn’t know how to not be frustrated by her behavior anymore. ‘Cause what do you do when the person you love, turns out to be the exact person that you taught yourself not to be?
When I met this girl, she was like an epiphany to me. I know it’s naïve, and cringey, but everything just fell into place. It just did. In the beginning, I was flattered about how she bragged about me to other people. In the beginning, I took the stories about her exes as experienced tips. After all, I had never dated a girl before, and she seemed to know everything. But now I just can’t help rolling my eyes every time she pretends to know more than she actually does. And now, I get extremely tired of her stories about how Liza always remembered when she got her period and then bought her banana chips ‘cause she always remembered those were her favorite. Heck, I can’t even remember my own cycle, and there’s nothing wrong with how much I love myself so why should it mean I loved her any less? And if I heard her talk about how that gobshite Reza loved exotic foods and all one more time, I swear I was gonna call that girl and ask her if she happened to want to cook for my girlfriend.
I’m sorry, she’s great, she really is. I loved her. But I couldn’t take her competitiveness anymore. And not just with me – I grew tired of coming home to stories about how “some bitch talked about Amsterdam, her city, as if they were born there.” I grew tired of how she pretended to know more about any subject of conversation, I grew tired of how she always gave me advice, even when I just needed her to be a listening ear. I grew tired of her diets. I grew tired of her playing Pink Floyd on vinyl. Fucking vinyl. I grew tired of how she’d never shut up about the drugs she used, even when I’d be there and she knew I knew she didn’t do half of the stuff she claimed to have done. I grew tired of how she pretended to know wines, and craft beer. I grew tired of her always wanting to tell people about 49 degrees, about how many people she slept with, about her body. I grew tired of her needing to be cool, and not understanding that no one was gonna like her any more because of it. Especially not me, and especially not herself.
What’s funny though, because she sometimes told me not to be insecure. I’ve heard that more often. That I don’t need to be so insecure. The weird thing is, I really don’t think I’m insecure? I think I’m actually doing pretty great. I told her that, once. Then she said it.
“Tooting your own horn much?”
My reaction started with a bit of a confused silence. I felt that a defensive approach was expected – but…
“…yeah?” I answered. “Shouldn’t I?”
And I’ve been giving it some thought lately – I think I’m the most comfortable I’ve ever been, but also, I’ve gotten the least confirmation I’ve ever had. The other day, I looked in the mirror, and thought: I don’t think anyone has called me pretty in over two years. I don’t think I’ve been called funny, or nice, or smart, lately.
But I guess the important thing is, how many times do I think someone is pretty and not tell them?
How many times do I assume pretty people know they’re pretty, only to find out later they’re really insecure about, I don’t know, their teeth or something?
How many times do I think funny people know they’re really funny, without realizing they’re scared of being too loud or obnoxious?
How often do I quietly wish I was as tactful as one of my nicest friends, while she’s scared she’s said something wrong?
We stop giving compliments when we’re projectively thinking people don’t need them.
And that’s true, people don’t need them.
But I hardly think I’ve ever not liked a compliment. Let’s just give them. All the time. I think that would be nice. And while we’re at it, let’s admit it when we’re wrong, when other people are right. No need to lie or exaggerate to be cool. And that all that competition doesn’t make people like you any more, especially not yourself. You know?
By Marlon Schotel
(Based on the additional piece “What do you do when the person you love is the exact person you taught yourself not to be?” to her BA Thesis ‘Convincing Narrators,’ which was, in a way, on idiosyncratic narration. Sounds interesting? Read it here.)