People scatter across the lawn, some sitting at tables under canopies, others wandering from group to group, all of us just a little older and fatter than the last time we were together. Conversations are echoes of conversations we’ve had before at some wedding or funeral or anniversary party. Children are now gangly teenagers, one of whom has graduated high school. That woman’s braying laugh, an unappetizer at every occasion, carries across to where I sit. I have four more of these large scale occasions this summer.
I find a chair near my family and hunker down for the duration. Since going vegan, I am unable to stuff down my rising anxiety with fluffy whip cream salads or bars loaded with two kinds of chocolate and butter that leaves grease stains on napkins. There’s beer at this party and I remember fondly the early days when I could wander about similar functions in a fuzzy, friendly haze. But I am driving and I love the people who are my passengers. And there would be no end to the drinking once I started.
Several days this week, I bathed with strangers in my underwear, or as normals like to call it, swimming at the public pool. I do it so that my daughter is not me, that she has a chance at living a normal life. I see hints of me in her and it feels like fear and pride all at once. She meets her friends there and I hang about at the shaded edges of the pool, not completely ready to let go. The heat leaves me breathing shallow and unwilling to move.
The pool reminds me of growing up, the breastless days of trying desperately not to smack into people while swimming. It becomes a whole different experience when you need glasses. I swim over to a group of friends, bobbing there stupidly, once I realize that I didn’t know any of them. My actual friends fill out swimsuits in ways that always have one boy or another splashing them in a mating ritual. As the late-blooming sidekick, I get splashed as well and sometimes imagine it was intended for me.
The spinach in the garden went to seed this year while I wasn’t looking. The heat is starting to hit its stride and I hear the whispers of autumn in my ear. Just die already. July is too soon for those feelings. I know I must dig back in, water things, weed, try to look like a gardener who hasn’t gone to seed.
Soccer season has finally ended, except for the insistence that we have an end-of-season picnic. The last game was delayed, because our team’s home field was littered with fireworks and garbage. The other team refused to use the field. We spread out and groomed the field, picking up old sparklers and bits of glass. They played because a forfeit would mean they’d lose the #1 ranking in the league. We watch them unfold their players’ bench. Our kids squat on the ground, pretending to listen to the coach’s urgent whispers. You can hear a collective sigh from the parents. It’s going to be a long hour.
In the summer, I am rarely alone. It’s a dangerous time for me. My hostility and inner turmoil grow exponentially with each degree Fahrenheit. Eventually, I turn an accusatory eye towards myself. Why can’t I just relax? Why can’t I just agree? Why can’t I be okay wherever I’m at? I am, in so many ways, my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s granddaughter. But I’m a lightweight version.
My social anxiety is not the rising tension of just being there. My anxiety is that at some point I’m not going to want to try. That someone will attempt to hug me and I will shriek at them “get the f*** off me!”. I will be listening to someone’s tale about their cabin or their kid’s college plans and just simply walk away because I am bored. Social conventions, like manners, are needed. There’s too many of us not to be polite or show an interest in one another. I am not special. I do not get a pass because I find it all tedious. I just wish it wouldn’t get harder, but it has. I am sometimes afraid of myself.
After the twentieth well-meaning hug from one of my husband’s cousins, the I know you don’t like hugs but I’m going to hug you anyway ritual is starting to wear on me. I joke wryly, trying to push down my revulsion at the cocktail of perfumes now clinging to me. “You people never learn”. Jovial laughs all around. My husband said there will be an asterisk by my name in the family history.
I am getting weirder as each year passes. I would not know this except for the expressions on other people’s faces. For each step I take away from them, I step closer to my wild self. But my wild self is not a willing, kind creature. It’s a little bit mad. I know that I live in a world not well-suited for my version of quiet madness. Long periods of solitude marked by one-on-one conversation, connections that feel grounded in truth. I do not want to be fixed or transformed or cured. I just want to exist, like a surprising, unkempt garden you stumble upon. And when you come, we will talk, until you know it’s time to leave.
Take a hint, summer.