Bubble skirts loom above and around me, malevolent jellyfish. I catch a glimpse of a pair of lace leggings and find my breath rasping in jagged spurts. Get out of here. Leave. Run. This is a bad idea. You couldn’t pull it off then. Caught in the headlights of day-glo bangles and beads, my feet feel glued to the linoleum. “Can I help you find something, ma’am?”
Trapped. “Um…I’m trying to find something. There’s a… some friends are having an 80’s party and…” Advice from every fashion magazine leaps in bold print into my mind, “if you can remember a trend, you’re too old to wear it again.” I dodge the eyes of the twenty year old stick figure standing before me. I really don’t want to see the pity or the condescension. I’m pretty certain that the 30 pounds I’ve so proudly shed over the last 6 months have reattached themselves to my hips. New wrinkles crawl around my eyes as I stand there. “Forever 21,” reads the sign above the store -- 21, not 39. Once again, I’m in the wrong place.
Familiar ground – I had hoped to leave that feeling buried with my bad perm, coke-bottle glasses, braces, and turquoise beret. You see, I was a nerd. I will submit that it is a far worse thing to have been a female nerd. As history has shown, once male nerds and geeks climbed the evolutionary ladder from the lockers into which they had been stuffed, they proceeded to inherit the earth. The triumph of the male geek is almost a tenet of faith for Gen Xers. Female nerds, though, that’s another story. No one made movies about us. You may not have even noticed us. In fact, invisibility was our only defense.
Think back: remember the endless rows of desks, the smell of chalk dust and bad aftershave, the drone of that one fly bashing itself against the window. Now, chances are, while you were slipping a note to your friend about the party Friday night, there was probably one girl whose eyes were on the board, whose hand was actually moving across her binder. Look carefully, see her? There’s no pocket protector or plaid shirt to identify her. She looks like you did – almost. She may have had glasses for a while, but probably got contacts at some point. She wore the excitement of those new contacts for a day or two until she realized that no one noticed. She dressed preppy, but the collars of her polo shirts never flipped quite right. Her hair never reached the proper heights, and forget the blue eyeshadow; her mother wouldn’t have let her out of the house in it. But you wouldn’t have noticed the eyeshadow or lack thereof. Her face spent most of its time behind a book.
These days you wouldn’t know the girl nerd from any other 30-something mom. She may be dowdy, fashionable, sporty, who knows. Somewhere along the line, she found her own look. But, I can guarantee you that a well-timed Cindi Lauper song will still cause her intestines to twist into Rubik’s snakes, and her hands to grab for a book to hide behind. Yet, time yields a wider view. She now sees what we all failed to realize at the time, that we all hid behind something. Adolescence provides a place for metamorphosis; we all find our own chrysalis: geek, cheerleader, jock, pick-a-label-any-label, and we crawl inside. Hopefully, we emerge into a shared humanity from which we can show our children the view from the other side of the dance floor.
I manage to grab a few garments, duck into the dressing room and convince myself that I am anthropologist, a historian studying a distant culture and time. As I swipe my credit card, the clerk says, “Sounds like the party will be fun. You can feel young again.” Ouch.
There is, however, something that clerk couldn’t have known. I don’t want my own youth back. Age gives us other opportunities, and sometimes it gives us the chance to check out someone else’s cocoon.
So, tonight, I’ll be the girl in the bubble skirt with the lace leggings and bright pink headband dragging the popular guy onto the dance floor. It shouldn’t be too hard. See, there’s one more thing – remember that cute football player, the one with the flattop that you liked to run your fingers through? Yeah. Him. He married me.