Saturday, May 17, 2008

'Small Talk' - A child's story of social anxiety

Cindy loved parties and why wouldn’t she. She looked like Elizabeth Taylor from the film classic, National Velvet. Cindy was as cute as cute could be, petite with shoulder-length straight black hair and sparkling brown eyes. She had a wonderful little nose, complete with brown freckles that would soon fade with age, and a smile that would melt your heart if given the chance.

To me, Cindy was above average- she had an energy about her, a joie-de-vivre if you will, that was much more exciting than mine, and a keen sense of humor. I always thought that Cindy’s family was above average as well, perhaps more wealthy than the rest of us. After all, her family was the first on the block to get a colored television set, unheard of way back in the 1960’s. For all I knew, Cindy was the only person in the world who had a color TV. And she graciously invited her friends over to watch ‘The Flintstones’, in living color on Saturday mornings...a cartoon extravaganza. I never knew Fred’s toga was orange up until then.

Cindy had two older sisters, just like I did. We were all friends. The sisters were paired up according to age. Gayle, Cindy’s eldest, was matched up with my eldest sister Fernie. Karen, her middle sister was hooked up with my middle sister Elaine, and the leftovers, were Cindy and myself. Even though she and I were three years apart in age, we were the same height back then standing about 4’9”, pretty average for everyone that age. For me 4’9” felt like it was about the tallest I would ever get to be... that is, without standing on a chair. I did end up reaching a respectable 5’ even. Whoopee! Gosh, we had so many things in common. Our sisters...our height... Cindy was my best friend... that month.

Back then, I had a thick black head of hair that, for my mother’s sake, was conveniently styled in a pageboy cut. No fuss, no muss I guess. My eyes were large and almond shaped with a bronze hue and my eyelashes were so long that when I got close to a person, they could give butterfly kisses. These eyes became my signature piece. I wasn’t particularly thin nor was I fat. Just an average looking little tomboy, in an average family setting, living in an average middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Toronto. There was only one problem, one little quirk that set me outside the bounds of normalcy. I hated parties.

I must have been nine or ten years old when my buddy, comrade, and co-conspirator, Cindy, was having her 7th birthday party. When I say co-conspirator, I mean it. After all, we had our first cigarette together, we got our hands caught in the new electric garage door that was installed at my house, and we both got stuck in the laundry dryer after satisfying our curiosity as to which would be a better ride, the washer or the dryer. Just for the record…it was the dryer. The agitator can be a bitch.

It was decided, certainly not by me, that my father would accompany me to Cindy’s party, not that it was strange or odd for a parent to accompany their child to parties but most parents were there for the chaperone effect. Mine was there because my parents gave birth to a backward-socialized, fear-ridden daughter, who had a habit of becoming paralyzed at the mere thought of being amongst groups of unsolicited humans. Why was I like that? Where did this come from? What psychological traumatic event took place to form such an adverse social reaction? Who cares. It just was. That’s why life was so much easier playing by myself in the family garage, building multiple story Popsicle stick complexes that Frank Lloyd Wright would have salivated over. I actually had fantasies that Mr. Wright would call me up one day because he heard about this 10-year-old girl who would be a great contribution to the world of architecture and ask me to become his associate. I could just see it, painted neatly and precisely in Times font lettering on the distinguished plate glass door. WRIGHT, WRIGHT, & LUKOFSKY.

My father walked me or shall I say, dragged me unwillingly to Cindy’s birthday party, which was across the street and around the corner on Lois Avenue. We lived on Wenderly Drive, not three minutes away by tricycle. If one would look back retracing our steps, you would have seen a double rutted trail through the lawn left by my stubborn heels, which had been firmly planted in the ground.

We finally arrived at the dreaded destination and walked into Cindy’s house from the side door, as did everyone back then. You see, her parents rarely let anyone including their own family members use the front door. That was only used for special occasions like funerals. That may sound flippant, and I don’t mean it to, but the fact remains that the only time I got to walk through that front door was years later when Cindy’s mother died of spinal cancer at much too young an age, but isn’t it always too young for anyone to die before they are ready to. I remember quite vividly on that funeral day, walking through their front door with my sisters Elaine and Fernie by my side for the condolence visit, and thinking to myself, ’So this is what the foyer looks like’.

As I was saying, it was Cindy’s birthday party. We walked into her modestly styled little three-bedroom bungalow through the side door with my father trailing close behind me. We immediately but cautiously headed downstairs to the basement because that was where the party for Cindy was being held.

I was dressed in a ‘monkey suit’, which is a ‘party dress’ to most of the human population, complete with stiff and itchy crinoline, and well-worn school shoes on my feet. I didn’t have party shoes like my party-going sister Elaine, because my refusal to go to parties didn’t warrant purchasing such extravagant things, according to my mother.

My father, who was still right behind me, kept reassuring me that the party would be ‘loads and loads of fun’ and he would be with me at all times so not to worry. In my mind, my father stood six feet tall and had a body like Superman, the looks of Tyrone Power and a dashing tan like Cary Grant. If my Daddy said there was nothing to worry about then I wanted to believe him. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted to believe him, so we continued downstairs towards the basement.

The noise that came from the basement or recreation room as some liked to call it, was very intimidating. My heart started to pound, my stomach started to churn and my palms became sweaty. I could smell the food in the distance. (Sniff, sniff.) Not just any food. Cake. (Sniff, sniff.) Not just any cake but Angel Food cake with the multi-colored sparkles, (Sniff, sniff) and bowls of potato chips… the rippled kind. (Sniff, sniff), and party sandwiches, the ones with no crust and the olive in the center. I particularly loved the tuna ones and still do. (Sniff, sniff)... and those wonderful little vanilla ice cream cups. You know… the ones that came with it’s own little wooden spoons. You may have noticed... I have a very good sense of smell. And that’s when it really hit me. Right then. Boom. Reality set in. THIS WAS A PARTY and there was no turning back.

I remember taking each step as if it was my last, as if I was headed towards the lynch man’s noose. I got to the last stair and was overcome by the sight of all those little creatures running around in circles, laughing, squealing, and chattering, dressed in their monkey suits and shiny black patent party shoes with their parents dutifully by their sides. After all, it was the thing to do then, to escort children to parties.

When I entered the large recreation room, I was amazed at how this usually dull, mildew-smelling space could be transformed into something quite different. In fact, it was unrecognizable. This surely was not the same room that Cindy and I were sent down to play in every Saturday afternoon, where we would frolic, make noise and plan our next juvenile criminal act without the fear of reprimand. This basement was now appropriately decorated with a colorful array of red, white, blue and yellow balloons, strategically placed to induce joy and celebration wherever one would look. Let me tell ya, it didn’t fool me for a second.

I walked with dread into this party room and all of the people or should I say parents and children alike, turned towards me and responded to my arrival as if I was royalty. You could cut the tension with a knife.
“ Look who’s here? I can’t believe it... it’s the girl who never goes to parties... Well, it’s about time stranger... Welcome Marla... You’ll have a great time... You’re gonna have so much fun, fun, fun.”

I was quickly whisked off against my will and shown to the elaborately designed birthday cake, party sandwiches and the latest games that Mattel had to offer. Too bad I had lost my appetite because I LOVED party sandwiches and they're so expensive to buy. When I kept hearing those adults, guaranteeing my enjoyment with their 'fun fun fun' mantra, I said to myself, ‘Yeah right. You think this is fun? Well this ain’t for me folks. I’m busting out of here as soon as I can, or at least as soon as my Daddy lets me.’ So I turned and looked up, up, up, way up to my father's face for comfort while these claustrophobic feelings started to engulf me, but oddly I couldn’t find him. I was horrified. Where was he? Suddenly I heard an abrupt sound and my eyes quickly shifted towards it, to the image of the back of my father’s black haired head and the soles of his shoes leaving the doorway of the side door of Cindy’s home while the metal screen door snapped shut behind him. Next thing I knew, someone started screaming. It wasn’t just anyone. It was me.
“ No Daddy, no! No! Where are you going? Don’t leave me here...”
All of the remaining parents started to stalk towards me like a crazed mob, like the Body Snatchers with their arms stretched out, a brainwashed glaze in their eyes and uttering a mindless chant--, “It’s o.k. Marla. Everything will be all right. Calm down Marla.”-- trying to distract me as if I was a simple-minded creature that could be so easily swayed by something else other than the terror that I felt at being left behind, with these strangers, these aliens, while watching my parent and my protector leave me behind... alone.

I screamed and shouted and kicked and shoved and confirmed to the onlookers that my reputation of being a very odd partygoer wasn’t too far from the truth. I ran towards the stairs to escape this intrusion of terror and suddenly felt all of these arms around me, holding me back, with their continuous chanting, “It’s o.k. Marla. We are going to have a ‘fun’ time, just relax.” What was this obsession about FUN? Now I was SURE they were the Body Snatchers. I pushed and pulled and got out of their grasp, ran up to the top of the stairs, flung open that screen door with all my might, and ran down the grassy knoll to Lois Avenue as fast as I could, shouting “ Wait Daddy, wait, wait, wait for me, don’t leave me here.”

Shockingly, I saw my family’s station wagon turning the corner from Lois onto Wenderly Drive with my father in the driver’s seat. I noticed the silhouettes of my mother and two sisters in the car as well. ‘Oh my God!’ I thought to myself. ‘Are they all in on this cruel deception? How could they be? Sure, my sisters just do what they are told but how could my mother do this to me? She has too much social pain herself. She would understand my torment. Her empathy would take over, wouldn’t it?’

The family station wagon drove off down Wenderly Drive and I chased that car while running down the middle of the street as fast as my little pudgy legs could take me --monkey suit and all. I probably would have made much better time if I were wearing my beloved blue jeans and P.F. Flyer running shoes with secret decoder. I chased that car and chased that car for what seemed like miles. I could see my mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror with a look of disbelief or shame, I don’t know which, realizing that her little tyke wasn’t at Cindy's party anymore and obviously wasn’t going to stop chasing their car, no matter what until...SCREEEEEEEECH!!!!!
There was a big screeching sound. The family station wagon slammed on its brakes with the red backlights ablaze.

Now that the car was at a dead stop, I finally caught up to it. The left rear door swung open and I breathlessly jumped into the backseat and slid over beside my sister Elaine for comfort. The car door slammed shut.
‘Free at last, free at last, thank god all mighty I’m free at last’ were my inner thoughts.
A pregnant pause ensued and the car drove off in continuation to its original destination which was unknown to me. Silence filled the space. My mother’s head began to move ever so slightly to and fro, left to right, while murmuring the following words under her breath as she does to this very day...“ Marla, Marla, Marla.”

I felt so safe and relieved to be in their car, away from those people, those strangers at the party. However, if I had my wish, I wished I had been left alone at home, without my family, with only my solitude, so I could fantasize and daydream in peace. My parents often felt uncomfortable leaving me alone in the house... too young I suppose for them. Not for me.

After that incident, I thought that I could never trust my father again. Of course those were just a child’s thoughts. As an adult, I do trust my father, but I have often wondered ‘how could he have done that to me?’ Maybe he thought it was the right thing to do, getting me acclimatized to parties and not being reliant on him. I suppose he didn’t know me very well back then. I think at times, he still doesn’t.

By Marla Lukofsky

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