I had a friend in college who told me that statistically I didn’t exist. And maybe I don’t.
He said it because as an American I’m a bit of an anomaly. But the truth of his off-hand comment has lingered with me for years. Beyond the demographic categories I can’t escape, I’ve tried identities on for size—with varying degrees of accuracy.
But let me go back.
My childhood doesn’t fit me. The child I was is incongruent with how I see myself now. I know I lived through grade school, through college, through job after job after job. Through labels—grounds crew, barista, teaching assistant, cashier, first grader, freshman, senior, summa cum laude, employee of the month, girlfriend, single.
But was I any of those things? Was I an archivist? A graduate student? A partner? A mentor?
When you take on a label, you take on the weight and the burden of everyone before you who bore that identifier. You take on expectations, ranges of acceptable behavior, a shared identity sculpted by others.
“Oh, you’re only a freshman. You’ll change your mind.”
“You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“You’ll meet someone.”
Your life is a trajectory that other people put you on. But none of these identifiers, these markers, are me. It has never been me. These labels are masks I’ve worn temporarily.
I take them off when I’m alone.
Sometimes I sit very still. Not in meditation or contemplation, but to determine if there really is anything there, in that spot, taking up space.
Sometimes the masks never fully come off.
White, woman, American, middle class. I still try to remove them when I’m alone, but they are under my skin. Regardless of what I do, how I change, where I go, they have permeated down so deep that anything I do comes with institutional asterisks.
But what do these categories really mean except as a marker of how other people treat me?
I was always the “smart girl.” I didn’t know what that meant. What smart meant. I still don’t.
But I carry around that contradiction still, the unintentional trap those two words create, the recognition that there are ideas churning behind my eyes—smart—but the tacit acknowledgement that they’ll never be taken seriously—girl.
I’ve taught myself to silence my ideas, to behave in predictable patterns that other people can ignore, not for anyone else’s sake but for my own. There is only so much heartbreak a person can take, and being unheard is the one I know best.
As much as I write, I’ve never really liked words. Words are masks, too. Symbolic placeholders that give us an entry point into creating identities for other people to wear.
The word I heard over and over again in the construction of this thing I am was “weird.”
I’m not sure anyone can really be weird in a world of niche markets. But I was weird enough. Now I wear that label with more pride. Because in the split second it takes to voice it, it means that someone else, too, can see that I don’t fit neatly into the costume, behind the mask.
But weird isn’t an identity.
And when I’m alone and there’s no one to compare me to, then there’s no normal either.
Earnest people have sometimes tried to listen to my words. I can appreciate the gesture in the abstract, but they miss the disdain I have for words. These combinations of letters that don’t mean anything, but create so many problems in the world just the same.
It is the space between notes, the rests in the measure, that let us hear music.
Maybe I only really exist in silence.
But I still statistically do not exist at all except as an outlier, floating too far outside the line of best fit. There was wisdom in my friend’s sentiment, though he didn’t know how deep it sunk.
I’ve tried to explain my gender and romantic and sexual identity to other people, using other people’s words, taking on the burden of history those words carry, but these identities don’t fit over my skin either.
“Queer” doesn’t work, because there’s a community behind that word that doesn’t want or accept me. “Fluid” doesn’t work, because that implies more inclination than there is.
Apathetic, maybe. Detached, sure. But those are adjectives not identities, and when you use them people start to feel sorry for you.
“I’m not a joiner.”
“I like being alone.”
Is “loner” a gender or an orientation? Probably not anymore than “silence” is an identity.
When I’m alone, when I am silent, I don’t need a buffer of an identity. An identity is like a layer of glass that will distort me to anyone else looking in, no matter how smooth or how clear it is.
But that’s the secret, isn’t it?
The secret that we’re all afraid to admit is that there isn’t really anything behind the glass, under the mask. Maybe the lesson we were all taught about believing in ourselves wasn’t motivational but a metaphysical warning.
Believe in a self underneath it all.
Because if you don’t, then all you are is masks, identity markers, demographic categories, and there’s nothing to hold them up, to decide which one to wear.
If there are no selves, then this whole damn thing, this constructed, perpetuating reality falls apart.
Whatever this “I” is, it exists behind many ill-fitting masks. It looks through the cracks in the veneer that don’t line up, and it pieces a world together as best it can.
And when you look back at me, I am whomever it is you choose to see.