I winced, both at the conversation I could overhear and the odor of burning electronics in the Physics lab. I huddled quietly in the basement of the science structure on my undergraduate campus, waving my hands and blowing frantically at the poor circuit board to dispel the wispy trails of smoke that wafted upward.
"Crap, crap, crap," I muttered, glaring at my independent study workbook and wishing I was less of a 'guess and check' scientist. Feeling rather inadequate over my failure already, I cocked my head to listen as the president of our Physics Society spoke to the Department Chair.
"She just said she couldn't make it," the former told the latter. "No suggestions of another time. No plans for how she could be involved apart from the meetings. Just - no, but thanks. She doesn't fit in."
And I blinked back tears, feelings terribly hurt but knowing he was right. I didn't find Physics all that interesting, frankly, and if I couldn't follow step-by-step instructions within the detailed pages on the thick black table before me, how could I get excited about joining a group of boys who wanted to build robots and discuss advanced calculus? So while I wanted to be geeky and smart and belong, I did not. And the knowledge made me terribly sad.
Maybe it would happen later, I hoped as I returned to the cozy apartment with bright green carpet that I shared with 3 other young women.
"I think I caught the circuit board on fire," I told one roommate sadly and she put her shoulder against mine as we sat on the plaid couch and said that probably happened to a lot of people. And I was comforted by the gentle support, the uncompromising loyalty, the scoffing dismissal of the Silly Physics Society and it's president. And then it didn't hurt to breathe anymore. I had someone who loved me. Who wanted to spend time with me. Who thought I was special and smart and funny and worthwhile and...beautiful, somehow. Full of potential but also lovely the way I was. There was no need in that moment to grow my stem or spread my leaves or hope my petals were the proper color. I just rested my head on Anna's shoulder and soaked in the support like sunshine.
Conversely, I felt shrouded in darkness under a cloudless sky when I sat in the circle on the grass at the end of junior high. I had been the only one at leadership camp to indicate I'd rather spend time with family than friends. And I looked around at my fellow campers, all of us awkward and odd in various ways, and wondered what was so wrong with me. Why I didn't feel the same sense of unity with my peers and eschewed time with them for sharing conversations with Mom or reading books alone in my bedroom. There were no friends I trusted with secrets, having been crushed when people talked about me or judged my feelings or choices.
Better, I decided, to remain contained and a bit aloof. Less risky. And that trend held true as I finished 8th grade and moved to high school. I thought I found friends a couple times - felt this flutter of hope that someone knew and liked me - and was always proven wrong by giggles around corners or whispers in the back of the room.
It was likely a valuable, albeit painful, learning experience - predicting motives, reading facial expressions and body language, slowly understanding that unhappy people make others miserable, often inadvertently, and that a core of confidence and strength was necessary to withstand that and to find those people who could love me after I finished high school.
And find them I did, though the effort was more theirs than mine, as they nudged against barriers and coaxed me through conversations and tolerated my need for solitude. I still remember falling asleep in my dorm room and later in that 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment just across the street from campus, and feeling blessed that I had friends. Eventually, I thought, colleagues would follow the same trend. I would find people at work - it would just take me more time than it did others.
Sure enough, it happened in grad school. Through classmates and my research group, I had people I loved as friends and respected as intellectuals. And I took to them like a duck to water, trained by my college roommates to believe that the right people would love and take care of me.
Upon arrival in Montreal, I shuddered as I sat in the taxi next to a scientist at work. "I despise that man," I told him and he looked at me in surprise.
"I couldn't tell," he finally replied, referring to my friendly greeting and polite conversation as we waited in line for our car.
"I tried very hard," I commented. "But that was Pete." And he shook his head as I told him the story and said derogatory things about Pete's character, with which I agreed. "Horrible man," I noted in conclusion. And I learned - admittedly late - that while there are people you can trust and adore, it does not apply to every person in my career. And while I'm not completely bitter anymore, I do still retrain that instinctive distrust of certain people. Which is likely healthy, I suppose.
I'll admit I assumed the trend would hold for falling in love as well. That - eventually - someone would come along who thought my flaws were charming and saw beauty and potential and something wonderful. And so my heart flutters when I feel I might be close - when I might have found someone I think is amazing who returns my smiles or tangles his fingers with mine. But those splashes of color are, for me, delicate. The petals droop and wither, stems bend against the pressure of wind and rain and I remain alone.
But wiser, I offer when in need of comfort. With a solid family who calls to tell me Chienne takes naps with Smallest One and ran around my parents' yard chasing tennis balls and frisbees while I'm traveling through next week. Friends who send email even after I've neglected them for months, making my heart happy even as I acknowledge how much I miss them. Colleagues who, for the most part, are supportive and friendly and brilliant - even as I figure out which to trust and how to hold people at a respectable distance. And maybe love will happen. Later.