This Song Will Save Your Life
To Katherine Deutch Tatlock: steadfast friend, brilliant artist, and world’s best godmother
We go down to the indie disco every Thursday night.
Dance to our favorite indie hits until the morning light.
You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs? Do you change your clothes, your hair, your face? Go on, then. Do it. Pierce your ears, trim your bangs, buy a new purse. They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still too smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still, always, wrong. Change all you want; you can’t change that.
I know because I tried.
I was born to be unpopular. There was no other way it could have gone. If there were just one place where it first fell apart, I could dream of going back in time and finding myself and saying, “Listen, ten-year-old Elise, just don’t wear that oversize bright red sweater with the tufts of yarn sticking out of it like pom-poms. I know it is your favorite, because it looks so special, but don’t do it. Don’t be special.”
That’s what I would say to my younger self if I could pinpoint the moment when I went astray. But there was no one moment. I was always astray.
I’ve gone to school with the same kids since kindergarten. And they knew what I was long before I did. I was uncool by fourth grade. How is it even possible to be an uncool fourth grader? Didn’t we all just string together friendship bracelets and daydream about horses and pretend to solve mysteries back then?
But somehow, even in fourth grade, they knew. A new girl moved to our town that year, from Michigan. She and I used to sit outside together during recess while the other girls played don’t-touch-the-ground tag, and we’d talk about the witches’ coven I wanted to form, because I’d read a chapter book about a witches’ coven and my dad had given me some incense that I thought we could use. And then one day on the playground, Lizzie Reardon came over and casually said to my new friend, “Don’t spend too much time with Elise. She might rub off on you.” I was sitting right there. It wasn’t a secret. I was a social liability.
This was fourth grade.
We went to a middle school twice the size of our elementary school, and then we went to a high school twice the size of our middle school. But somehow all those new kids, every one of them, immediately found out about me. Somehow it was that obvious.
When I was little my mom used to schedule my playdates with different girls: Kelly, Raquel, Bernadette. Then in fifth grade, Kelly moved to Delaware, Raquel invited every girl except me to her roller-skating birthday party, and Bernadette sent me a note to let me know that she only hung out with me because her parents said she had to.
I used to hang out with the neighborhood boys, too, when I was a kid. We would build forts in the summer and snowmen in the winter. But around the time we went to middle school, everyone started thinking about dating, which meant that no boy would be caught dead playing in the snow with me anymore lest someone see us and think he had a crush on me. Because obviously, having a crush on Elise Dembowski would be just about the lamest thing an eleven-year-old boy could do.
So by the end of seventh grade, I had no one. Okay, I still had kids who I splashed around with at my mom’s summer lake house. I had my parents’ friends’ children, none of them quite my age, who would sometimes come over for family dinners. But I had no one who was really mine.
Last summer, after freshman year, I decided I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I just could not. It’s not like I wanted to be Lizzie Reardon, captain of the soccer team; or Emily Wallace, part-time teen model; or Brooke Feldstein, who could (and did) hook up with every guy in school. I didn’t need to be the most exciting, beautiful, beloved girl in the world. I just needed not to be me anymore.
You think it’s so easy to change yourself. It would be just like a movie makeover montage, pop music scoring the ugly girl’s transformation from bespectacled duckling to cheerleader swan. You think it’s so easy, but it was a whole summer’s worth of work. It was watching TV constantly, like I was doing homework, taking notes on who all these characters were, making charts of who came from which shows. It was reading gossip magazines and women’s magazines every week, testing myself when I was in the drugstore checkout line: “Who is that woman pictured on the cover of Marie Claire? Which reality TV show was she in?” It was hours of sunshine every day thrown away in favor of hunching over a computer, reading fashion blogs and celebrity blogs and perfume blogs. Did you even know that perfume Web sites exist? What is the point?
The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do was listen to the music. I tried, for nearly an hour. Then I gave up. It was bad. Not even interesting-bad, like the movies I went to see alone, taking note of which lines in a romantic comedy made the audience laugh. The popular music wasn’t interesting-bad, it was bad-bad. Auto-Tuned vocalists who couldn’t really sing; offensively simplistic instrumentation; grating melodies. Like they thought we were stupid.
I would have given almost anything to change myself, but I wouldn’t give in to that. I hated that music more than I hated having to be myself every day. So I just read about popular musicians online and made flash cards about them until I felt prepared to talk about them. But not to listen to them.
All summer I spent on this. Ten weeks, uninterrupted, except for the time I spent record shopping, and the weekend I spent trying to repair my dad’s computer, and a week that I had to spend at the lake house, where there is no TV or Internet. So, okay, I guess there were some interruptions, but still, you have to believe me when I tell you that the rest of the time I was working really hard on becoming cool.
This should have been a red flag, I realize in retrospect. Working really hard on anything is, by definition, not cool.
The week before school began, I went shopping. Not only did I go shopping, I went to the mall. I was ready. I knew what I was supposed to wear—I had read so many issues of Seventeen by that point, I could rattle off the five best mascara brands without even thinking about it.
So I knew what I was supposed to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t going to spend $150 on a pair of jeans. I wasn’t going to drop $300 on a purse. Come on, Kate Spade, you can’t fool me—it’s a bag. The Sierra Club regularly mails me bags for free. Or, okay, for a $25 donation, but really, that pays for saving forests, not for manufacturing tote bags, which I can’t imagine costs more than a dollar or two.
Both my parents gave me some money for back-to-school clothes, and I had some money saved up, but I resented spending it all on clothes that I didn’t really want. I mean, yes, I wanted to look like a cool person, but I didn’t want to become impoverished in the process.
It’s probably different for girls who have always been cool. Probably when they go shopping, they just have to fill in with a new pair of sneakers here or a new belt there. But I was inventing myself from scratch.
I went through every item in my closet. Which of these could I bring with me into my new life? Not the sweatpants, not the sweatshirts. These jeans, maybe, though the cuffs are wrong. This sweater, maybe, if it had a different neckline.
I thought all my clothes were fine. I liked them, even. They made a statement. The Indian sari that I had tailored into a summer dress. The Ramones shirt I got at a thrift store on Thayer Street, so threadbare that it just had to be an authentic relic of the seventies. The white boots with unicorns printed on them because, even though I’m fifteen, I still think the unicorn would be the world’s greatest animal.
But that is the problem with me. That, right there. Not just that I owned these clothes but that I liked them. That after ten weeks of learning what real people did, I still liked my wrong, wrong clothes.
So I threw my wrong, wrong clothes into garbage bags and tied them shut as tight as I could, as if my unicorn boots might try to stage an escape. I hid the bags in the attic of my mom’s house. Then I went on a shopping spree at Target for every knockoff Seventeen-style garment that I could find. Even then, the total wound up being way more than I had ever spent on clothes in any one of my thrift-store trips. It made me sick to look at the receipt.
But can you put a price on happiness? Really, if that’s what it costs to make you glad to be yourself, then isn’t it worth it?
On the first day of sophomore year, a Thursday, I sprang out of bed at six a.m. It takes time to make yourself look like a cool person. You can’t just roll out of bed looking cool, or at least I can’t.
So I got up. I washed and conditioned my hair. I shaved my legs, which is something I didn’t know you were supposed to do until an ill-fated all-class pool party at the end of eighth grade. I put on my first-day-of-school outfit, which I had tried on a zillion times already: loafers, fitted jeans, a T-shirt without any writing or patterns on it, a headband. Headbands are back, you know. I read it in a magazine.