13 Going On 33 (February 8, 2011)

I felt stretched nerves pushing against my skin as Eddie and I searched for a parking spot on the familiar side street. Covered in a blanket of nearly 30 inches of snow, we had to be careful about where to leave our little Honda Civic if we wanted to depart without getting stuck. And on this Super Bowl Sunday, I required the security of knowing I could make a break for it at any moment.

For the first time in 14 years, and longer since we had substantially interacted, I was about to see Cara. Cara was my closest friend and confidante from kindergarten through fourth grade, the first person I idolized, the first person I allowed to make me feel less by comparison. That is not to say that Cara was a Mean Girl in any sense. In fact the situation was quite opposite. With her diminutive stature, smattering of freckles and unforced smile, my friend was one of the easiest people to get along with that I have ever known. Not only was she cute beyond all reason, but I can’t recall her once mistreating anyone. In a way this pained my bitter heart more than if she were a total bitch. We enjoyed the imbalanced dynamics of all lopsided relationships where one half possesses the perfect combination of beauty, academic excellence and athleticism while the other proceeds to bully herself before anyone else has the opportunity.

I don’t think Cara ever knew how much I envied her, because she exercised a frustrating lack of awareness of her own superiority, which only served to make her more damningly likeable. I was pretty intelligent myself, smart enough to look at Cara’s educated, healthy family and the way that every boy I had a crush on grew besotted with her instead, and experience a painful, burning jealousy.

After we completed our fourth grade year, my parents pulled my sister and I from formal education for a disastrous experiment in home schooling. When I saw Cara again at age 13, we had traveled down different paths: she now best chums with the other two most fabulous girls in our class, while I ran comfortably with the outcast, delinquent crowd.

Somehow the situation had actually gotten worse. I was the last girl to wear a bra, the last to get her period (that really seemed important at the time – oy!). I wore huge glasses and was desperately in need of braces after a first grade radiator collision caused all of my adult teeth to grow in haywire. I was in short, the most awkward looking, embarrassed young teenager to discharge hormones. In the meantime, if it were possible, Cara had grown more charming and attractive. I hated her just as much I wanted to be her.

Flash forward to February 6, 2011, the scene of my handsome husband and I parking our car in a snow drift. Almost poetically, Cara now lived with her brother in an apartment across the street from our grade school. Though I have supposedly matured, long since traded the Harry Caray glasses for contacts, and had my braces removed a year ago, I feel a familiar panic. After two years of missed opportunities, my old friend and I are about to reunite for some Super Bowl tailgating and a long overdue gab session. What should I say? Do I look ok?

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, there are multiple moments when I wish to take myself out to the shed and kick my own ass. It’s like no time has passed. When I laugh, I instinctively cover my mouth, as I used to do before orthodontic intervention, so that no one can see my crooked teeth. I reach up multiple times to push up slipping eyeglasses that haven’t been there in 15 years. Meanwhile Cara is effortlessly vivacious, chatting with Eddie, making genuine inquiries after my family and showing real interest in my career as a writer. It was almost more than I could take.

And that’s when I realized what I am certain I knew all along. I am my own Mean Girl. I am the one who stood in front of the mirror as a primary school student, poking at the various imperfections and mistakes in breeding I saw reflected back. I still do it now. In a quick flash I recall all the efforts at self-improvement I have undertaken that I vowed would make me happier – contacts, braces, Botox, personal training sessions, extensive therapy. Yet there I was, 13 again, feeling like a loser, the last picked for the team, though no one but I enforced the segregation. All along I needed Cara to put a face to my own feelings of inferiority. I required her to be perfect so I could indulge my own petulant worthlessness.

As the hour and a half session progressed, I felt myself relax by increments. It turns out, naturally, that Cara has her own set of adult problems. Once I finally took her off the pedestal and spoke to her like a real person, I was reminded of what drew me to her as a kindergartener in the first place. I began to castigate myself for being such an insecure wingnut, but abruptly ceased when I realized this is how all the trouble began in the first place.

One of the lessons I have learned in life is that in some ways, we never grow up. We may have careers, children and adult responsibilities but “they” don’t warn you that passing through life stages will not produce a corresponding level of maturity unless you do the hard work. I have fixed all of my visible imperfections, the aesthetic weaknesses I always believed held me back. It’s time to get out of own way psychologically. It’s fitting that Cara, long ago the impetus for outward improvement, now serves as the catalyst for a desire to be less petty.

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