The other night, after dinner at a local restaurant, we (two fifty-something) couples decided to try the hot, new craft cocktail bar in town — the one with the $12 rye cocktails and twee artisanal cheese boards. I felt like I was 23 again.
Which for me, was not always such a rollicking fun time.
Growing up, I was never the pretty one. I may have been the smart one, the one with the car or even the tall one, but I was never the pretty one. In high school, that was my best friend Linda, with her straight, glossy, waist-length brown hair, at a time in the '70s when I would try anything to straighten my frizzy curls, even ironing them between two towels. In college, it was my roommate, Alice, with her perfect little figure and tooled cowboy boots and exotic Panhandle accent; when the phone rang, it was always for her. And when I started working, it was my blonde, blue-eyed sidekick Fredericka, who had an easy talent for perfect manicures and flirtation.
I could see it in their eyes when I went anywhere with these women, the guys who looked past me to the other person I was with. Waiting for the train at a bar in Grand Central terminal one evening, I saw a pair of Wall Streeters in expensive suits negotiate which one of them would get dibs on Freddie. I saw one of them mouth the words, “You take the other one,” and I’ve never forgotten how sad and embarrassed it made me feel.
Lots of girls grow up feeling 'less than' — maybe guys do, too, but I wouldn’t know. Maybe it’s not being a cheerleader or part of the popular crowd, or being a little plump. It doesn’t have to be a truly unhappy physical problem or disfigurement. For me, it was getting glasses at the age of seven and having geeky parents and unfortunate hair, and shooting up to my full height of 5'9" in fourth grade. And I never did really acquire a bosom in the time that I waited to.
Later in life, I sat with one of the smartest, most engaging friends I know, and listened to her as she tearfully described what it was like growing up with a twin sister who has always been the pretty one.
You learn to cope. You get contact lenses and learn how to wear your hair and get fitted with a good bra. You cultivate different attributes. You stop worrying about what other people think about your looks.
I did OK, of course. I’m still tall, and I pride myself on being an interesting conversationalist. I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been, thanks to the spinning and the yoga. And the man I’ve been married to for more than 25 years noted with some surprise during our first date that I’m actually quite pretty when I’m having fun.
But as I sat in that bar, sipping my $12 Applejack Stinger, surrounded by women in their twenties and $400 Frye boots, and men looking right past me when I got up to use the ladies’ room, I gotta tell you, I could have been right back in Grand Central.