When I was younger, I wanted to be a ballerina, a few years later it was an architect, then a mythologist (which my cousin kept trying to explain wasn’t a real thing), then a museum curator, then finally a “who’s hiring?” I never consciously chose “pariah”. I guess I never dared to hope that I’d be that interesting. Yet, here I am.
If you asked my friends to describe me they’d supply a list of rather bland adjectives you wouldn’t typically ascribe to your average suburban pariah. Clearly I’m a rarer breed. I’m an introvert, I’m shy, I’m reserved, and I’m measured. While I’m not particularly bright or clever, I am occasionally and quite unintentionally amusing. My friends haven’t caught on that most of my humor comes from blunders of speech, but I do admit that when they laugh I try to pass it off as intentional. I meant to say that! Aren’t I funny? (If they have caught on, they go ahead and let me enjoy the moment. They’re great like that.)
My routine is stay in the house, stay in the house, stay in the house, go to work, come back inside the house, move to the computer room, go to the backyard, and get back inside. I’ve become more agoraphobic since my neighbor’s (unleashed) dog charged us snarling, snapping and baring its teeth several times (with no apology), since she threatened to call the cops while I was sitting in the backyard and Sam was baying at the emergency vehicle sirens (she later apologized and said it was insomnia – the apology was timely – 5 years later), since she tore up part of our fence without warning to repair it and then left the old pickets and garbage behind in our yard, since she tore up the vines we had growing up the fence (they dared to grow down its back side, so she promptly chopped them up and threw all of it over the fence without a word) and since she joined the Human Chihuahua (HC) as HC ranted about how we should go to jail for the abhorrent lifestyle my husband and I lead – the one that the neighbors all disapproved of, and that you can read about here: That’s A Wrap: The Austin 48 Hour Film Project.
Needless to say, going outside typically gives me a mild anxiety attack. The real kind. I cannot walk our dog. I cannot walk to the mailbox. I can barely water the lawn and landscaping is out of the question. All of those activities expose me to the front of the house for far too long of a period and if I am going to do any of that it involves a long pep talk about “you live here, too – go get ‘em, champ!”
So, about three weeks ago a shabby little sign-up sheet appeared on my door with the word “YUM!” glued all over it. The invitation was for what amounted to a block party and promised burgers, sausage wraps, hot dogs, etc. I was surprised to see it on my door. We’re the neighborhood pariahs. We’re the ones the “neighborhood disapproves of”. I looked at it, my stomach started rolling and I decided we had to go. We had to show them that they couldn’t force us (or me) to stay in the house. Unfortunately, Jay had to work and there was no way I’d go by myself. I immediately posted a note on Facebook begging for a date. Thankfully, my good friend Jennifer agreed. (I will forever love Jennifer for this.)
The day of the event, this past Saturday, I had another anxiety attack. My blood pressure skyrocketed. I started combing the pantry for anything that might act as a depressant, something to undo the caffeine from earlier in the day, and stumbled on the wine we use for cooking – cheesy little screw top/plastic bottles. Blech! (I’m not a big drinker and wine from a plastic bottle is well, wine from a plastic bottle.)
Jennifer and I wandered over at the appropriate time and there was Bill, the good neighbor. He walked up to me and said, “I’m so glad you came. I didn’t think they were going to invite you. If they hadn’t, I was going to come and get you.” I like Bill because he sees this stuff going on and he thinks it’s awful and ridiculous, too. I told him, “I had to come, even though I don’t want to be here so I can show them who I am.” Then I asked him to point out the woman who insulted me on my porch so Jennifer could see who she was. The story about HC is legend among my friends and there’s even a song inspired by the event that most of my friends know and sing. (This is what happens when you stomp on my porch unaware that some of Austin’s top improvisers are inside and you’re actually screaming at one of them in the form of our writer for that shoot.) I put on my biggest smile and went and forced people to see me, to talk to me, and to be polite to me. I reminded myself that the people who gossiped about me made up approximately 1/10th of the households that were invited – approximately 10%. They made up 1/4th of our actual cul-de-sac which meant 3/4th were undecided about who I was in the cul-de-sac and 9/10th of the entire two blocks. Math helps with anxiety.
The organizer (the one with the aggressive dog and the lead gossiper) walked up and said something like, “Beth, I’m so glad you made it. Everyone here has been wanting to meet you.” She’s mentioned that kind of thing to me in the past, “you know, people have been wondering about you all since they never see you.” Personally, I’ve always prized people who minded their own business and were generally not a nuisance, but here that’s a problem. Jennifer said, “wow, they really do talk about you, don’t they?” Yep.
The hardest part, aside from eating their food (breaking bread with them), was when I heard HC speaking to a neighbor and that neighbor responded, “she’s right over here, do you want to meet her?” knowing that “she” referred to me. I looked up, smiled brightly, extended my hand and chatted away. I asked her about herself and her family. I carried on. I joked. And inside I choked down a world of anger. Being polite to a person who implied Jay and I lead a deviant lifestyle, one that involves the exploitation of children was hard. Laughing with a woman who threatened to call the police and suggested not only what I do in my house is illegal, it’s abhorrent, was stomach churning. Yet, there I was. Throughout the whole event, Jennifer and I would refer to the song and sing the chorus a bit. It helped push down the hard feelings by adding levity.
I stayed for a little over an hour and a half. My friend Topping had given me goals. “You can leave in 40 minutes if you’ve gone around and mingled with everyone. After 40 minutes, if you find you’re hunkering in a corner, you have to stay an extra amount of time until you feel comfortable. You can leave after an hour and a half.” (That was the gist of it, if not exact.) I mingled, I retreated, I mingled some more. I chatted up neighbors I’d been wanting to meet who were as lovely as I expected. I shook the hands with the gossipers and I laughed with them. As I left I stopped by and said goodbye to most everyone who was still there from my cul-de-sac. I thanked the organizers for inviting me, telling them the event was just perfect. Then I finally stopped Bill as he was exiting and thanked him for just being awesome; he blushed, waved and headed home with his family. (Bill & Becky still win as the best neighbors, although now I think I may have added one or two additional allies.)
Overall a success thanks to Topping (for writing that song and for pre-party advice) and especially thanks to Jennifer for being so gracious as to stand by me on an extremely hard day. (I owe you big time. I don’t think you will ever know how much your being there meant.)
Who knows, I may try to go outside in the front, we’ll see. I’m still working through a phobia, so there may not be huge changes – just baby steps.