When I was in first grade, I was made to wear saddle shoes. They were hated by all except a certain someone who, yearning to recapture her own childhood spent in Catholic school uniform, bought a pair for her daughter. Even my brothers, then nine and twelve, weighed in. They said they looked like bowling shoes. My father didn’t comment, but I always read his silence on the matter of his first-grade daughter’s shoes as unqualified disgust.
To me, they were just big and ugly and stupid, and I didn’t know how to wear things ironically. (Come to think of it, I still don’t.) I hated them because no one else wore them. But, even if I set aside how unfashionable they were, I still hated them. If I evaluated them as twin objects floating in space, absent the social pressure to be fashionable, absent all reference points (bowling shoes, boats, Minnie Mouse), absent the broader social structures through which we develop taste, I’d still hate them. They were big and ugly and stupid.
I wore them to school every day until, one day, I came home delighted to announce that the leather had ripped at the seam at recess. My mom wasted no time, driving me and my broken saddle shoes right down Preston Road to Stride Rite to replace them. I wore them to school every day after that.
I hadn’t thought of my saddle shoes until recently. I was eating at Ollie’s Noodle House with my friends Tran and Alex. I’m not sure that they actually asked me about my greatest insecurity, but I found myself looking deep into my health platter with brown sauce to identify what it might be.
Is it that I’m a fraud? That I have nothing of value to contribute? Nah. Maybe it’s that I’m not worthy of love? Unlikely. Is it possible that I’m not as smart as I think? As kind as I think? As fabulous as I think?
Tran and Alex were talking between themselves. It was taking me some time. I gave each of the possible insecurities a real chance at bat, and I struck each of them out with a shake of the head and some careful self-affirmations. No, I really do think I’m fabulous.
Finally, I found it. It is this: I’m weird.
Are my saddle shoes showing? I became hyper-vigilant of their visibility. I could tell you, at any moment, who in the room could see them and who could not. In the crook of the double-U seating arrangement in class, nearly everyone could. I’d hook my ankles on the front legs of my chair to hide them, but I knew it was no use. In PE, I developed a habit of sitting cross-legged on top of both of my feet. I tried to make it look comfortable—of course I prefer to sit this way—but I knew that teetering atop those giant shoes made it look like I had to pee. It was a trade-off.
Come lunchtime, I was free. The long lunch table, made sturdy by a framework of metal bars below, hid my saddle shoes. It was just chest-up me with a salami sandwich, and I felt confident to make my first-grade jokes, tell my first-grade stories, and share my first-grade mordant observations of life and the world.
Is my weirdness showing? Ask me at a party if I’ve been weird yet, and I’ll know the answer. Here I am pouring myself this drink. Here I am standing in this circle of people. Here I am taking this sip of my drink. Here I am laughing at this joke. Here I am saying something. There it is!
It’s remarking that the duvet looks like marshmallow fluff, or responding to “how are you?” by saying that my eye has been twitching involuntarily all week or that my ponytail is too tight, or listing the four ways I appreciate the bagel crisps. But it’s also talking very slowly, or attempting eye contact but missing it by a quarter inch, or losing interest in a sentence halfway through and hoping no one noticed that I stopped talking. This is my weirdness.
Sometimes, I consider my weirdness as I look out onto a group of my peers or students. So many of them either are or seem Grade-A American Normal. I’ll notice a group of sorority girls at the university coffee shop, and I’ll think, can they tell I’m not one of them? I’m sure that they’re super sweet and that they possess the full range of wonderful human qualities. But I’m not like them. They watch college football and care, get pedicures, and vacation in Mexico with their sisters. I watch The West Wing and care, make it my business to warn others of how polish yellows the toenails, and spend my evenings in a Miami hotel vomiting because of my sun sensitivity.
Yet, I recognize that I’d be cast as one of them, should I be cast in a movie. I look just like them with my long blonde hair, tasteful make-up, and flattering A-line mini-skirts. It was at this point in the conversation with Tran and Alex that I realized that my entire look is made to conceal my weirdness. It’s just as instinctive as sitting on my saddle shoes in PE. Looking normal buys me a little time when I walk into a party and makes it easier to pull off quirky when I do open my mouth to speak.
Wouldn’t you know it, weirdness is also my best quality. Not because it is, in and of itself, as an object floating in space, an objectively wonderful thing. It’s my best quality because it’s my dark matter. I can infer its presence by its gravitational effects on others. My weirdness pulls only the very best people toward me.