now and then

Whatever nice things happen, a week with a bullying suicide is always a crap week. I am nearly forty and I am a proper grownup now, with a green card and a 401k and a personal style (yes I do, it’s cowgirl-librarian, shut up) and Optimal Husband and the Sproglets and the sorts of achingly, awesomely sympatico friends I only dreamed about and read about in books when I was growing up. I can drive stick shift and cook a delicious meal for an impromptu dinner party of 12 and write a publishable short story or eight, and I jump Thoroughbred horses over fences for fun.

Back in the day, though, I was the weird nerd, with stupid glasses and horrible pimples and bad hair. I was hilarious. I stank of fear the way roadkill stinks of carrion, and like roadkill, I was irresistible to the grosser sorts of vulture. It was side-splittingly funny to point out that my skirt length was incorrect, that my shoes were not approved, that I had said something that I had apparently read in a book. The fact that I read books was just beyond funny. I was frigid, and a slut. I was uglier than shit. How about a little kiss?

This was at high school; at university, I realize now, it actually got worse, because it was subtler and more barbed. It was howlingly funny that I said “mankind”; Glenn, obviously a far better feminist than I would ever be, corrected me to “humanity” with an indulgent chuckle. I was, hilariously, “the most pretentious person” Julian had “ever met.” “I knew there had to be something I liked about you,” said Alistair, and the entire cast of the play fell about laughing. Twenty years on, the memory of these exchanges, preserved in far more vivid detail than anything nice anyone ever said, can still make me angry and ashamed.

If the bully culture I grew up in was meant to make me want to conform, it failed: all I wanted to do was get away, or failing that, set fire to the entire city, and I’m still awkward and uncomfortable whenever I go back to Sydney. I am on the defensive there, and constantly surprised when people treat me with ordinary courtesy. But I don’t think it was meant to change me. I think it was just meant to hurt. I think hurting me made the bullies and their hangers-on feel safe and included. A nice little bonding ritual for them. Bless.

I think it’s how privilege works, and that’s why it was worse at Sydney Uni. They were Grammar boys and college boys. They knew exactly how to shut people out, and why.

And even that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was how desperately I craved their attention and approval: how badly I wanted Glenn and Julian and Alistair and others like them, many others like them, to be my friends. That’s why I didn’t walk away. They couldn’t hate me any more than I hated myself. It’s still hard to forgive myself for that.

Anyway, my point is, Tyler Clementi was actually way too cool to have been friends with then-me; he could play violin fantastically well, and he got into Rutgers. And the thought of him closing his computer and his cellphone and stepping off the George Washington Bridge, the thought that there will be no more violin solos, the thought that he won’t move out to San Francisco after he graduates, and get his heart broken by some asshole he met at Center Camp, and cry into his mimosas at Mission Beach, and then meet a nicer guy on OKCupid and settle down and adopt a couple of kids and join the PTA… Well, fuck you, bullies. Fuck you. You have no idea.

And to the people I bullied myself: I am beyond sorry.

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