Bethany and I were not friends. She lived in a two story blue house that backed up to the lot where our elementary school sat. It looked like an upscale barn from the cover of a home décor magazine. Each day, she walked to and from school, skipping and tossing her long blonde hair to and fro like the president of The Babysitter’s Club.
At school, her clean blue denim overalls matched the blue rubber bands on her braces and her friends looked stereotypically popular, like the pretentious kids in Tommy Hilfiger ads. She was the All-American girl before I knew what that was, bragging about her soccer team making the finals or her Girl Scout troupe selling the most cookies. Whether it was softball or cheerleading, she was always involved in something she happened to be the best at.
I didn’t try to establish myself on equal footing as her, but I stumbled into it anyway. I attended the audition for the Coppell Community Theater’s production of The Music Man with my father because he’d always wanted to sing in the barbershop quartet. I was standing near him while he waited to audition and a woman with a kind voice asked me if I was there to audition as well. I said I wasn’t, my father smiled and said I was. Trickery. The kind-voiced woman ushered me over to where the other boys were reading for the part, handed me a script and I waited my turn.
If I was auditioning for something today, I’d probably overthink it, get ahead of myself and I would, without question, be nervous in my shoulder. Some people feel their nerves in the form of butterflies in their stomach and while I also get that same feeling of butterflies playing badminton with my emotions, I get it in my right shoulder. I didn’t think it was weird until Tiffany, my oldest friend, told me it was, but when I was eight, I didn’t know I should be nervous. I felt nothing in my shoulder.
After my audition, we went home to have dinner around the small wooden table in our kitchen nook. Our house wasn’t expansive; it fit us like relaxed fit jeans. I really loved the nook in the kitchen. It was only big enough for our small table, but it was a happy place to sit. The walls were covered with a bright fruit-patterned wallpaper and the table was full of enviable food my mother made each evening. Sitting around the table, my father would ask us what happened that day while he was at work, he’d tell us funny stories about his coworkers and we’d eat together as a family. Many families don’t have the benefit of habitual family dinners, but for us, it was expected. Our TGIF shows could wait.
The phone rang and both my father and I were needed back at the high school for callbacks. My mother was excited but I was more concerned with finishing my dinner. I begrudgingly went back to the school, sang the same song about Indiana, a state I knew nothing about, and somehow wound up cast as Winthrop, the pint-sized kid with a lisp, just across the stage from my father in the barbershop quartet.
For however long we were in rehearsals, my father and I spent two or three nights a week together at the high school, learning music and blocking. It was a really cool experience because it was the first thing that was our thing. It was an experience we were able to have together, and then for two weeks we got to perform and feel like celebrities in our small Dallas suburb.
The entire summer was surreal for an eight-year-old. I marched in our town’s Fourth of July parade, my picture was in the local newspaper and I stood on the giant high school stage in front of a sold-out audience. During the show, I had a few moments in the blocking where I stood center stage, singing out my eight-year-old hopes and dreams. To me, it was the biggest production in the biggest auditorium in the world and I was the child star set to usurp Ron Howard, Shirley Temple and the Mouseketeers to become a childhood idol.
At the conclusion of each performance, I’d triumphantly strut on stage with my bandmates and my trumpet, outfitted in my red and white uniform for my curtain call bow. The other boys bowed before me and did so all together. I, however, got to stand alone in the center of the stage and take my bow without them flanking my side. After one of the performances, as I stepped forward to take my bow, I saw Bethany sitting in the front row with two of her equally perfect friends. She’d never said so much as a word to me at school, but I knew who she was. She clapped politely as she stared expressionless at my tiny costumed frame. I beamed with pride knowing I’d performed for a sold-out audience, but also knowing that when school started in the fall, I would no longer be a faceless kid in the middle class sludge beneath Bethany’s Keds. I’d been Winthrop on the high school stage. I also was able to do something.
When I’ve done something artistic, be it on stage or at church or in a book or magazine, I’ve never really cared about recognition; it’s always been about wanting a seat at the table of ability. I have talents too, I know how to use them and I want to do so in a functional and inspirational way. At that point in my young life, being popular was about doing something – you played on a club soccer team, you took gymnastics, you rode horses – in order to be popular and acknowledged, you just had to be a doer of something. Looking back on it, it was elementary school. No one did anything of worth. Except that summer, I had.
School began around Labor Day and Bethany and I ended up in the same class. Her braces had come off and she had a Texas summer glow from being at the pool for three months. She then spent a solid calendar school year pretending I didn’t exist. She looked past me and only acknowledged I was a breathing organism when we were forced to work together in class.
At the end of the school year, she was having a birthday party. Because we lived in Texas and because she had an early summer birthday, she’d planned a pool party at her perfect barn-house home and I received an invitation. I’d been noticed after all. Like Charlie Brown finding a Valentine in his mailbox, I’d been remembered and my invitation hadn’t been aborted halfway through addressing the envelope. It was one of the few birthday parties I’d been invited to from a person at school. I went to the parties of all the kids at church but I didn’t have that same connection with the kids from school. Except that day, Bethany with the now perfect teeth had invited me.
My mom dropped me off and I scurried inside, wowed by the size of her house, smelling the holy fragrance of burgers on the grill and hearing the excitement of a pool party in progress. Bethany and her clan of ad-worthy friends were playing volleyball in the pool, some of the boys were chasing each other with large water guns, lingering moms and dads hovered over the grill and I spotted not a single person I felt comfortable talking to. I sat on the side of the pool, my feet dangling in the cool water as the melancholy lyrics “sitting on the dock of the bay” floated in my head. I wasn’t invited to play volleyball because I was told the teams were even already. I wasn’t given a water gun to play with either because the other boys had taken all of them. I was left to fend for myself at the food table, which in any other circumstance would’ve been perfectly fine but on that day, I no longer had an appetite. Over the noise of the party, I heard Bethany tell her friend that her mom made her invite everyone in her class. Just like Charlie Brown, I’d received a pity invite.
If time wasn’t passing slowly enough before, after the confession of my pity invite, time was all but glacial. Like watching the sun saunter across the desert sky, I watched my classmates have fun without including me. I even waded into the pool, believing my eager presence would at least land me an alternate position in the volleyball game, but it didn’t. Instead, I was told I should sit next to the net so I could retrieve the volleyball from the yard when it was hit out of the pool. I’d been offered the position of ball boy at the birthday party.
I sat in the Texas sun for so long that I’d completely dried off from my brief dip in the pool of drowned self-esteem. The burgers had been eaten, the cake had been cut, so rather than fetching the volleyball for the kids Bethany actually liked, I sat inside her barn house alone. Sitting in a very nice armchair by the front window, I peered out at the road like a dog awaiting his owner’s return. I tried calling home a couple times and no one picked up, so I sat by myself, praying for my mom to pick me up. When she pulled up to the house in our van, I didn’t bother to tell Bethany goodbye, wish her a happy birthday, or thank her for inviting me. I ran quickly to the car, reported that I’d had a good time as it’s always easier to paint on a smile after a birthday party then to dissolve into tears, and drove away from Bethany and her bitchy pre-adolescent world. I’ve never seen or spoken to her again.
As important as it is to figure out who you are, it’s equally, if not more important to figure out who you are not. I decided that day I would not be the person who was made to sit on the side of the pool. I was a good kid who was kind to my classmates and I did not deserve to be made to feel like shit. I was not worthless. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time I was belittled by insecure dumpster children disguised as popular kids, but I would no longer accept their view of who I was meant to be.
I also figured out that I did not want to be a Bethany, a horrible, no good, very bad person more at home in a Willy Wonka fever dream barking about golden eggs than around real people. I wanted to make people feel included and important, especially at my birthday party.
There are two types of people in this world: those who have parties thrown for them and those who do the throwing. I’m not referencing people who throw parties for other people, although that’s a noble act. No, I’m talking about someone who throws themselves a party. That is the group of people of which I am a part and it began that day as I left Bethany’s house. Birthdays became less a day to celebrate myself and more a reason to get all of the people I truly enjoy together at once. As we get older, it becomes more difficult to get everyone you care about under the same roof at the same time. Having a party remedies that since people will clear their schedules to be there on your day. So, once I was old enough to have a say in the matter, I began throwing my own parties.
My parents thought it was weird. Year after year, they would tell me how strange it was, and year after year, I continued to do so. I knew who I wanted there, what I wanted to do and how it should be done so it was easier to just orchestrate it myself. It makes rational sense to me. But more than an exercise in being a control freak, it was a way for me to ensure inclusiveness.
For my twentieth birthday, my closest friends and I decided to have a spur of the moment pool party at Tiffany’s house. I hadn’t planned anything that year and when we realized we had an empty Friday night, a pool and money for pizzas, we cobbled together a party. After a few dozen phone calls, everyone from the youth group whose number we could find was invited. We swam into the night, strobe lights illuminating the backyard and music keeping the dancing going when we weren’t in the pool. Ten years earlier, almost to the day, I’d slunk away from Bethany’s party, my heart on crutches and my spirit in need of a stretcher. As I turned 20, I laughed and played pool games with everyone in the youth group who could make it; kids who I was close to and kids I barely knew. Everyone had a seat at the table and no one was turned away from playing volleyball.