We were three women standing side by side – taller and older and far more weathered versions of the eleven-year-olds we were when we first met. Life, that bitch of a word, had happened in the last nearly thirty years. A lot of it, that two of us do not know about each other. The woman in the middle, the bride, had tied a string to both of us, held us close and far and close again, from half a world away, and so we were both here, as she started her life over, again, with a man who makes her smile in ways I remember from those years before high school, before the tight lips and drunken eyes of our black-clad teen years. But there was no wistful nostalgia in that three woman circle. Not for me. And so there was no group hug, no warm embrace to close the circle. Because of me. The one who would not budge.
If you know me at all – in real life or even just here – you know that I am an opinionated person. I believe certain things without waver. I am also able to see a thousand shades of gray and can understand the reasons behind mistreating each other. But seeing them does not make me forgive the ways we (myself included) wage war on each other day by day. I also believe, deeply, in being kind to people. In giving someone the benefit of the doubt, in knowing that I have no idea what they are facing, that very day, that may cause them to be short or rude or glib. And from arm’s length I will forgive that for almost everyone. But I will not be your friend if you think less of me than any other human on this planet. I will be civil (that loaded word of antiquity) but I will not have real conversations or share my life or act falsely happy to see you. I will be what I call real. What often just looks bitchy.
I am a compassionate person. And if you mean enough to me, if we have enough history, and the loss would be immense, I will fight tooth and nail to work out our differences, to find a place to meet, in the middle or just to the side of it – wherever need be – in order to stay connected. In order to be friends. But my face hides nothing. It is virtually impossible for me to pretend when it comes to real emotions (which, perhaps, makes holding to my convictions, if not easier, more necessary than for some people).
So when this long-ago friend came up to me as I was talking, for the first time that wedding day, to the bride – to the woman who links us both now – and acted happy to see me and put her arm around me and asked how I was, I answered, good, but I kept my arms at my side and my face neutral. Against accepted social order and politeness. Against expectation. It’s such a small thing really – what I did not do. I did not hug back. I also did not pull away. Or make a scene. I simply stood still, smiled a small upturn of my lip and let my arm remain at my side. And she said, oh, we don’t want a hug, do we? while she stood up and stiffened and looked me in the eyes.
What I did do, though, was keep my mouth shut except to say no, not really, but thanks. Out of respect for the bride and the moment and the space we all filled that day, one of love and lightness and laughing, I walked away while answering her last question, which included what to me sounded like a back-handed stab at the bride for having left this woman’s mother out of the festivities. I smiled at the bride and walked back to my table and my friends and those I love. Instead of saying what I wanted to say. Instead of saying what I would have said had the moment been different. Instead of defending myself, for that moment and all the ones before.
I sat down next to my boyfriend and told him that Sasha was in full effect. Sasha Beesh. What we call me when I am being, seriously or otherwise, a bitch. It is a pet name. But it is serious, too. I draw lines. When I need to, I will. And I will, if the situation is right and I think there is use in it, tell you why. And then I will think, sometimes say, that I am such a bitch. Wherein bitch is firm. Wherein bitch is rigid. Wherein bitch is honest.
Naming it that, naming myself a bitch is simultaneously a prayer to the sky that I do not react roughly unnecessarily and a slice through to the comic of life – look at me, bitching it up everywhere – don’t look at me, I’m just acting up over here. It is a way to hold it at arm’s length, this way I am, to stare at it and laugh at it until I know for sure, each time, if it was the right way to be.
It was but a few minutes in the almost seven hour event. But it is the kind of encounter that can leave me conflicted, that can take up brain space for hours, for days, until I decide how I feel about my own actions.
Instead, I let go of that moment and went on to have a fabulous time at the wedding. And this long-ago friend sat at the wedding party table throughout the night and was composed and dignified and reserved. While my friends and I were loud and rowdy and danced ridiculously and laughed so hard that my voice was hoarse by the end of the evening. We could not have had more different evenings, she and I, although I would guess that, my presence aside, she had a great time, too. In her way. Just as I did in mine.
What has stuck in my brain, what is getting turned around and around since that night last month, is the question of how I should have acted – by my standards, by anyone’s standards, by her standards – versus what really happened and how the gaps between those expectations define me. Moments like these, which happen not infrequently in my life, force me to look at myself and my ways of being and to try to walk the fine line of my own personal code, balance between my integrity and ethos and trying to still be polite in the ways that I define that word, while still minding that others define that word very differently than I do. I do not want to hurt people. I do not want to start fights. I do not want to make a big deal out of things that need not be enlarged. Mostly, I don’t want to be an asshole unless being an asshole is the only acceptable option.
If I feel that it is worth it, I will make a mountain out of what I feel is a sheet-covered mountain. I will call a spade a spade, to use another cliché. I will describe its outline and fill in that shape, mark it clearly as what it is, and then feel good about not having tiptoed around a delicate moment for the sake of propriety or decorum or civility.
If not, I will walk away. Let it go.
Sometimes, I will do the first and then decide later that I should have walked away.
And, you see, the details of why I won’t hug this woman or pretend to believe her joy at seeing me are as ridiculous and as serious as it gets. So my response to her greeting is both disproportionately gruff and entirely too kind. We reconnected more than a decade ago at an event I was hosting in grad school. Her husband was reading and I was shocked – and happy – to see her. I could tell, without knowing for sure at that time, that she had returned to the religion of her childhood – Mormonism. I introduced her to my girlfriend and assumed that I would never hear from her again. I wasn’t sure about that, but I would have been surprised to have her be positive about this aspect of my life. Still I was honest and knew that those who fall away need to – that secrecy is no way to handle these reunions in life.
Years and years later, she sought out being my friend on facebook. Ahhh, I thought, she is more open-minded than the majority of her Mormon cohorts. But she quietly and covertly unfriended me after enough time to realize who I was and what I stood for . . . I noticed when we both commented on the same thing and it gave me the tell-tale how-many-friends-in-common link below her name. And while it didn’t really matter, in the large scheme – I never figured we’d have a deep and meaningful relationship – it did stab. Why seek me out? Why make me think you knew me and still wanted in? Why do it so secretly? Why not just say, like a grown-up, that you found my views loud and offensive and judgmental and then I could say ok and we could be cordial in public because I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe and que sera sera. When I noticed online that she had unfriended me, we had a small group reunion coming up in a few weeks and I wondered how much awkwardness would be packed into that day and night if she did, in fact, show up.
She didn’t. And hasn’t. To anything until this wedding. Until she had to in order to be included in such an important day for such a close friend. And instead of standing tall and keeping her distance, she feigned excitement and emoted too much and then recoiled when I did what I felt was most honest in that moment – held back and stood firm.
And what bothers me most is multi-faceted, of course. Initially, I was and am insulted that she dumped me. Not out of some personal pride, really. I was and am most offended by the fact that I find her religion an affront to my very being. I am offended (and hurt) by the money and rhetoric her church spends on attempting to negate the lives of people like me and people I love. Over and over and over.
And yet I could have stayed friends in that virtual way of these times. I could have, would have, been polite and respectful of her beliefs. I can not, though, – and did not – keep my mouth shut in my own little pocket of the internet universe. And that, apparently, is what she would have preferred. It is my virtual ramblings that sent her to the unfriend button, that made her tell a friend that I was judging her and trying to tell her what to think, that made her disappear instead of glossing over my words and standing firm in her own beliefs at the same time. It was her inability to hold that we can occupy space on opposite sides of the spectrum and still be friendly, if not friends.
The difference, though, between us lies exactly in that action and the encounter at the wedding. Where she shunned the confrontation of being honest and then acted against the honesty of just steering clear of me – where those things happen, where fake emotion replaces the truth of the matter is where I can not abide. I detest phoney – phoney smiles, phoney friendships, phoney greetings. Be real. Even if that might, to an onlooker, seem rude. I prefer to know exactly where I stand with you. And I will give you that same respect in return. Don’t give me that honesty and I will still react honestly. It’s how I know how to be. It’s the only way I will feel ok with myself later. Even if I wonder, in the moment, if I am being harsh. If I am being a bitch.
The chord that strikes in these kinds of social tangos is a deep one for me. I struggled, long and painfully, to fully rid myself of the shame and guilt and embarrassment of living a life that makes people unfriend you, that makes people leer at you in public, that makes people say they have nothing against you but a portion of their paycheck goes to proving otherwise. Landing outside of that ingrained shame means I have no patience for, no play with, no space in my life for people who do not have at least the decency to be real with me. Having fought that battle with myself, I am virtually incapable of playing along with some social song and dance in the name of ‘politeness’ when I know you’d rip the rug out from under me if you could – and, more than likely, you are trying to with every tithing and every political donation.
I can only suppose that, for her, feigning joy at seeing me felt right. It felt like the socially acceptable way to behave in the situation. That it felt like respect for the moment, for the bride, maybe even for me, as she sees me. I would suppose that there is a canyon between how she sees that moment play and the way I do.
I would guess that the biggest difference is this: my arms at my side was the most respectful thing I could do for her in that moment. Honesty is the kindest thing, for me, in moments like that. For her, even. Respect for her beliefs and freeing her from the fake smiles and inevitable questions that lead to answers she doesn’t care about and doesn’t want to hear. Where she probably sees my action as rude, I see it as kind, to us both.
To be fake would be an affront to my own beliefs, too. I would feel I was selling out the ethics and morals I stand for if I play kissy-face-greeting with someone who sees me as less than a full person. I would be saying: Sure, hate me, hate people I love, fight against our very being and I will still hold to decorum and embrace you as though there is anything real in this moment. As if when we part, you will not still wage war against me and those I love.
Bitchy? I guess so.
Polite? Not by most people’s standards.
But today, still, I feel ok with it. I wish I hadn’t been forced into opting out of that hug, into doing that with the bride between us. And I don’t hate her. I truly don’t. I have a lot of feelings about how isolating it is to move outside of the lines of religions like Mormonism, especially if you were raised in it. But understanding it, feeling for people whose whole lives rests within specific codes of conduct, knowing the loneliness of people who leave such religions behind – none of that changes what is right, for me.
I make up my own standard of conduct. In a way, I make it up as I go along. But it is guided by a deep and abiding sense of what is right – outside of religion and commandments and holy creeds – what is right and true, as a human, as someone who believes in the sanctity of each person’s right to be and be respected. Dear Abby and Emily Post have no sway with me. I am incapable, really, of rote social grace. My code is constantly assessed and evaluated, but I will do what I must to be true, to myself. To say what needs to be said and to swallow what does not.
To say, without saying (if the time is wrong to speak), that I won’t play along.
To say, when it needs to be said: I know what you think. And not only do I not agree. I am offended – as a human, as a one-time long-ago friend, as an adult you tricked into believing you felt different – and so I will not hug you. I will not kiss your cheek and make small talk. I will hold firm. And then walk away. Out of a sense of propriety. Out of my own code of civility. To be honest. With you. But mostly, with myself.