Getting married changed my life.
I grew up thinking that my family was firmly 'middle class.' It's taken me years to realize that my parents just did an extraordinary job of making ends meet, and that at times we were probably not much above the poverty line. We always had clean clothes and food to eat, but the extras were very extra and rare.
I was married two weeks after college graduation. My new spouse also grown up considering himself middle class, though his family had probably scratched for a living even more than mine had. His dad often worked two or three jobs to support them, despite the benefit that his two Master's degrees should have brought. However, his mom had grown up 'monied' and still thought of herself, and her child, as at least 'upper crust' if not precisely upper class. She had pretensions and played them out wherever possible. She found me lacking in all sorts of ways, and rarely hesitated to let me know. My appearance did not meet her standards of, if not hygiene, prehaps grooming. My hair was too long, my clothes 'unique', my concern about all of that sadly lacking. My education and career choices were completely wrong, vain and pointless. She was never able to criticize my care about or for her son, though, which was all that saved our interactions.
It was in that state of mind that we started married life, in the crucible and surrealism of graduate school. He was a year into his Ph.D. program when we married. I had no plan for what to do after college and so just went with the flow for a while. A couple months after moving to his new college town, getting used to the city and being married and having no money, I got a job. I was hired as an Enrollment Counselor at a test prep company, a position that soon morphed into Office Manager—both because I am a natural organizer of things and because I am fundamentally unsuited to be a salesperson. That was an excellent role for me, a terrific company that I believed in, working with a crew that I completely adored and who helped me not be so terribly homesick.
A year or so into the job, we all went to an event together. It may have been a wedding or holiday party, but those details have faded. What I recall with crystalline brilliance, is when we team members greeted each other and introduced our dates to the group. Among others, I met the wife of my 3-levels-up boss. He was a fairly big-wig in the company, which turned out to be a stepping stone to an outstanding career. His wife, though, was really something. Her job was Marketing Director (or some such title) for a country. An entire country. Not a huge country, but a cool one: it's a Caribbean island, in the Antilles. Marketing Director for a tropical paradise. My friends were reporters and factory workers, computer techs and low-level store managers. Our vacations were staying with family, a weekend up north, or sometimes a huge splurge to visit a waterpark. No one I knew had ever visited a place like that, where she flew several times each month.
Needless to say, this woman intimidated me, and in ways that I did not yet comprehend. She was glamorous. I don't mean that "glamorous" was a way to describe her—more like, she defined glamorous (in a way).
So there we were, a pack of colleagues, introducing our spouses and dates. There were handshakes...and cheek kisses. Need I explain that I'd never kissed anyone's cheek? Except for babies, of course, and boyfriends being given the let down speech. My heart sank, immediately, at the prospect of participating in this literally foreign custom. When Boss presented her to me and we leaned toward each other, she murmured, "Kiss low."
What the Fuck did that mean?
I am not a tall woman. My spouse was not excessively tall, either, maybe four or five inches more than me. Boss Man is downright short, maybe my height at most. His wife, though, towered over all of us, and in heels. If I was going to kiss her cheek, I would need to stretch to my maximum height, and even then rely on her benevolence to bring herself down to my level.
What the fuck? Kiss low?
I was adept enough to realize that I was not to precisely kiss her cheek. It was the journey that counted, rather than the destination. It was a kissing motion in the direction of the left side of her face. It was intensely artificial, awkward, and quaint but not in a pleasant way, like going to your favorite corner bar and being expected to dance a waltz. I was enormously uncomfortable, not just with the realization that I would need to do it, or the actual task, but afterward as well. I knew I'd done it wrong, that I'd clearly needed instruction to do something that others take for granted, and that I had been and would be judged for my patent inability to fit in. No one ever mentioned it again, and indeed I've probably not been in a position to cheek-kiss even a handful of times since then. No one else ever said anything about it.
What brought this up?
I've been pondering social anxiety. Isn't that precious? To take advantage of isolation to contemplate the inability (or unwillingness) to fit in? Most days I exercise in part by taking long, rambling walks. Because I like to take pictures along the way, I don't use headphones or earbuds to entertain me, instead listening to/for wildlife and generally letting my thoughts guide me. Often the thoughts are practical—"what was that?" being a common theme, followed in frequency by "what's for supper" or "fuck fuck fuck I'm tired/hot/sore"—but sometimes more theoretical. What should I blog about? What's keeping me from sleeping? Why is so-and-so behaving such-and-such? What is the meaning of contentment? What about solitude? How much is too much, and when will I know? And earlier this week, I was pondering my independence, which is also characterized as isolation or ego or solitude. Self-sufficiency or non-engagement. Have I, in figuring out how to be alone, turned away from connections? And if I have, why?
Introversion is suddenly a badge of honor, celebrated for its quirky joys, embraced by many—and poorly understood. It is a state of being, a personality facet, but also coming to be viewed as a deliberate choice. Social anxiety is an increasingly popular self-diagnosis. It is used as an excuse for antisocial behavior, for laziness, for rudeness. Can an otherwise socially adept person also have social anxiety?
Ayup. That's what this is. It's the fear and intimidation inherent in the mere idea of social interaction. And it's rooted in situations like the one above, which lives like a nagging wound that won't heal. What will I do wrong this time? Who will see through my sufficiency and confidence? What short phrase will be quietly spoken, even just to me, that can utterly undermine my poise? And won't it just be easier and safer to remain disengaged, not to harbor that kind of risk?