I didn’t know girls still did cliques at this age. I mean, I guess I could’ve figured it out, but I didn’t really give it much thought.
I was homeschooled, so I missed a lot of that stuff, which I’ve always felt lucky for. But no one can miss all of it.
It takes about two seconds of remembering to whip me back in time to the girls’ bathroom at the synagogue, where I am engaged in that most classic and venerable of traditions: crying helplessly, locked in a stall. It is my first day of Hebrew High School. I’m thirteen, and none of the other girls will talk to me. It’s not just implied, it’s outright. They cross the room to avoid me and then cluster together, whispering.
They are the same girls who I was in class with for the past few years. It’s Lauren and Elise, and then their friends. Lauren is the pretty girl with the amazing black hair who told me I don’t know how to dress. Elise is always following her around, at her heels like an eager puppy, practically panting, her blond hair bouncing. Hebrew school was OK, because I had David, and also Shana, and also Andrew, who was really smart. And I avoided the others, the way you learn to do. But at the beginning of Hebrew High, I am alone with all the wrong people. And I thought that things would be different, for some reason, because we have all had our bar and bat mitzvahs. Because we are supposed to be adults now. And adults are supposed to all get along with each other.
But still, when I joined a group of girls (ahem, women) about six months ago, I thought that probably we would all be able to get along.
I’m not going to go into a lot of details about the girls or the group, because it’d be awkward. Let’s just say we were meeting to do something I like doing, and somehow, they had all gone to the same college. Many, but not all of them knew each other from college. The ones who didn’t know each other could at least reminisce over the names over various dorms and professors. Except for one other girl, literally everyone in the group had all gone to this very prestigious college. I did not go to a very prestigious college, and neither did the other girl. Which is not to say that this was really a problem. It definitely didn’t have to be.
Except that they were always talking about that college.
But it was more than that.
They were not really talking to me.
Or the other girl. Let’s call her Georgia. I like that name.
For a while, I almost didn’t notice that they weren’t really talking to me. They all seemed nice, and interesting, and funny, and smart, and I liked them. They were snarky and clever and they laughed a lot at each other’s jokes. They didn’t laugh so much at my jokes, but I thought that they might need some time to warm up to me. That it was more a matter of not knowing me.
So I made more jokes.
Georgia, by contrast, appeared to shrink. She got even quieter and smaller, and barely participated. I got louder and more demanding. I told whole stories, with punch lines that I felt couldn’t go unappreciated. But for some reason, people’s eyes slid away from me. They turned back to each other.
Something crazy happened. Sometimes I would make a little joke and no one would react, and then a few moment later, someone would make THE SAME joke (sometimes even worded the same way) and then everyone would laugh.
It felt surreal. It felt like it wasn’t actually happening. Does this stuff really happen?
We’re all smart and nice and educated and thoughtful and grown up, I kept telling myself. So this isn’t happening. They’re just a little prickly. They just have to get used to me.
But gradually, I began wondering why they were that prickly. And why they seemed so nice but weren’t being particularly nice to me. And why it might take so very long to get used to me. Am I that difficult to get to know?
Georgia stopped showing up, but I was still going.
And then came the moment when everything was clarified.
The moment when my boobs popped out.
I don’t know what is with me and the clothing that does really embarrassing things in really public places (i.e. my yoga pants with holes in the crotch the day the teacher went rogue and made me demonstrate how much I suck at yoga in front of the whole class).
The group was meeting in someone’s charming apartment, and I was wearing this fabulous red dress with buttons in the front. I had this whole fabulous outfit going. Someone walked in and complimented the girl standing next to me on her outfit. Someone else complimented literally every other outfit in the room. OK, fine. Not a problem. They definitely have more conservative taste. I definitely never shop at J. Crew. To each her own.
We started talking, and I made a joke that no one laughed at and then someone made the same joke and everyone laughed. OK, maybe they missed that. I should be louder. Should I be louder? Maybe I’m obnoxious? Maybe they don’t like me because I’m obnoxious? Why am I even analyzing this right now? I should just relax! This is fun!
People were telling long stories and I was listening raptly. Sometimes I didn’t know the characters, because they were professors at the college I hadn’t gone to. But whatever—I could follow.
And then I decided to tell my own story, about something related, and I did. I thought it was going pretty well. I had their attention. Everyone was finally looking at me, and me alone. And so I was getting into it. Gesturing, smiling, getting louder. And then, with a rush of horror, I realized that something was wrong.
I sort of sensed it, with this sixth sense that always seems a bit late to the job. I glanced down and oh my god—my dress had popped open, and there were my boobs.
Well, technically, my bra. Most of my bra, though. Displayed for everyone to see.
And I got the feeling that it’d been like that for longer than one split second. I didn’t remember feeling the buttons give. What if I’d been talking like that for a minute? Holy shit.
But also—come on—kind of hilarious.
I burst out laughing.
“Annnd, here are my boobs!” I announced, gesturing at them. “Apparently they were feeling left out!”
I glanced back up, but no one was laughing with me. There was maybe the scattered, polite chuckle.
I quickly buttoned the dress and kept telling my story, shaken.
I finished the story, but by then their attention had drifted off of me.
COME ON, I thought. I just FLASHED you guys by accident! Give me something here!
But they didn’t. And suddenly everything was funny. It was funny that I was even still there. And funny that they didn’t seem to want to get to know me. It was funny that I am funny, and that my boobs popped out. I stood up and got my purse. I was done.
But no one reacted. They just kept talking around me. I was standing there, ready to leave, holding my stuff, and everyone else was sitting and just talking through me like I didn’t exist.
“Excuse me,” I said, loudly, finally. “I have to go! I’m so sorry. This was fun.”
And then I left. I was grinning in the elevator on the way down. I was grinning on the street. I was never going to go back.
And here’s the thing about being a grownup—maybe people are just as clique-y as when you were a kid. Maybe they will sometimes talk around you as though you are invisible. Maybe they are still unwilling sometimes to get to know a person they don’t already know. But there’s a really important difference between when I was thirteen and crying in a bathroom stall because Lauren and her posse wouldn’t even look at me, and now.
I can leave.
Have you run into cliques as an adult? If you’re a teenager, are you running into them a lot now?
[Note: I don’t think the girls in the clique even know that they are in one. And I don’t want to make them out to be jerks. They really aren’t. They’re just doing their thing, and they all have something in common. I continue to think they are surprisingly witty and, in general, fantastic.]