We were learning about outer space, and our teacher brought in a chart that told us what we would weigh on all the different planets. We were so excited to find out how crazy heavy we’d be on Jupiter and how crazy light we’d be on Pluto. My weight wasn’t listed. It became clear that I didn’t make the cut because there was no calculation for what I would weigh on Pluto. I would weigh nothing. Less than nothing. I would drift into space.
Oh man. I wasn’t just the smallest one in the class; I was a freak. There was no metric for how deformed I was. It was one thing to be the Chihuahua in a group of Labradors; it was quite another to be the hamster.
That night I cried to my mother, who assured me that she had been small at my age, too.
Wow, that really doesn’t help me right now, Mom. When I calmed down, I saw her point. She’d turned out fine. She wasn’t living in a special community for the physically repulsive, so I decided I could go back to school the next day.
Even adults thought I was younger than I was. This made me extra sensitive, and though they may have meant well, I became one of those little kids who didn’t enjoy grown-ups fucking with me.
One summer, a Russian wrestling team came through my hometown. My dad had been a wrestler in college, and I believe he was a bit starstruck. He took me to watch their first match, and after letting me play “imagination” under the bleachers for a few hours, he pushed me at the imposing coach, an absolute caricature of a man.
The coach eyed me and asked, “Vhat’s your name, little guirl?”
Foreigners, I stewed.
“No.” I spoke more slowly this time. “Anna.”
Oh, this motherfucker thinks this is cute, I realized. He thinks we’re playing a little game.
“It’s ANNA,” I said, and I put on my most fearsome face.
“Aw, Anya.” He reached down and ruffled my hair.
I snapped my head around to face my dad. Are you going to let him get away with this? This is the name of your beloved mother—may she rest in peace—which means that this man, this Russki, is making a mockery of your flesh and blood twofold!
He noticed that I was on the verge of a tantrum and picked me up. “I think she’s a little tired.” Oh, is that right? And so I saw. I was going to have to fight and claw to be taken seriously in this life. And probably never quite succeed. I still try to be serious, but apathy has become a part of me now in a way that my six-year-old self couldn’t have foreseen. I’ve never been able to muster the righteous indignation of my elementary school years.
Back at school, I tried to embrace the smallest things in every category. Favorite instrument in the orchestra? The piccolo. Favorite mammal? The shrew. Favorite country? Monaco. And my favorite planet? Pluto. (Screw you, Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
Always being the smallest also gave me a specific role in life; it gave me an identity. Lining up by height? Excuse me while I give you a starting point. Gymnastics day in gym class? I’ll prepare myself to be thrown.
On one “family cleaning” day, my dad bought an extendable duster to clean under low tables, and I lost my mind because I thought I no longer had a purpose in the family. He threw away the duster and went back to letting me do a mediocre job crawling under the furniture.
First grade led to other discoveries, too. I was small, I was loud, I had ratty hair, but I suspected something deeper was wrong. One day, I tried to articulate this suspicion to my mother.
“It’s like, it’s like I have a different heart. The other girls have one kind of heart, and I have a different kind.”
My mom was understandably confused. “Are you saying they’re mean?”
“No . . . I don’t know.”
Saying other kids were mean felt like I was saying I was more kind, which definitely wasn’t it—more anxious maybe, more sensitive. I guess all I was feeling was that I was different.
Sometimes I’ll be at work or a party and get that same feeling. I am not like these people. I don’t know what I’m doing here. And it comforts me to know that I felt that way as a child, too. Maybe that should make me feel worse, but it makes me calm and resolved. I’ve been prepared to be an outsider most of my life.
I Remember Every Slight: You’ve Been Warned