Recently I watched part of a documentary about the life of P.L. Travers, and one of the things that came out was that she lied about her life all the time, starting in childhood. Instantly, my mind leapt back to a very strange time in my own life, and to my friend Karen.
A long time ago in a state far away, my family was on “furlough” from our life in Africa. One year stretched into two, for reasons which are unimportant to this story. For the second of those years, at the age of twelve, I attended a private Christian school run by our church, and both of my parents also taught there. My dad was my homeroom and science teacher and my mom was my English teacher, a situation I do not recommend.
If I had felt excluded the previous year at a local elementary school, I felt much more so here in seventh grade. Most of the kids were from families that attended the church, and almost all were white and upper middle class. They had nowhere in their compartmentalized lives to place a girl who had come from Africa and who didn’t even know any of the popular songs they all listened to on the radio. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford to participate in virtually anything they did for entertainment.
It was a lonely, lonely time. Eventually, I was befriended by two girls in my class, both of whom were to some degree outcasts themselves. One was named Terry, and she deserves an essay of her own someday. The other girl was Karen. (That is not her real name—I chose it because it was a very popular name at the time.)
Karen latched on to me and became my constant companion at school. Despite being a little chubby, she seemed very glamorous to me because she wore makeup. In seventh grade! Unlike my shabby hand-me-downs, she wore fashionable clothes and shoes and was always quick to point out the trendy brand names—not realizing I was too clueless to be impressed.
As we became better acquainted, she began telling me about her home life. She lived in a huge house with a huge yard. She had a super-expensive imported English bicycle to ride when she wanted. She had been allowed to furnish and decorate her own bedroom with anything she wanted and furthermore, she got her own private Christmas tree every year for which she could pick out all new lights and ornaments. (That one blew my little MK mind.) She could have snacks whenever she wanted from the gigantic barrel of snacks in the kitchen. (I was sure this one was exaggerated. I pictured a largish cookie jar.)
Eventually, her birthday loomed on the horizon and I received an invitation to the party. I had already been hearing about it for weeks. We were going to go roller skating, then to a fancy restaurant for lunch, and then to a movie. I was very excited because I was finally going to see her family’s mansion!
On the appointed day, my mother drove me over there. It turned out to be a rather ramshackle house that Karen, her single mom and her younger siblings shared with her grandparents. Although the yard was indeed spacious, everything was dingy and rundown—not at all what I expected. If any grass grew there, it was by accident. Karen led me to the magical bedroom which was . . . very ordinary and well worn. Here and there I saw little elements which had been wildly exaggerated in Karen’s descriptions.
I asked about the fancy imported bicycle. It was “locked in the shed” and she wasn’t allowed to get it out because they were afraid it would be stolen. The one thing that was absolutely true was the gigantic barrel of snacks in the kitchen—a waist-high receptacle overflowing with junk food. That utterly stunned me. Food was tightly controlled at our house because there just wasn’t much of a food budget.
Eventually a couple of other girls arrived and Karen’s mom drove us to the skating rink. She left us in the car while she went in to “check on our reservation.” After several minutes she returned, saying the skating rink was inexplicably “closed” that morning. The same thing happened at the restaurant. Karen was furious, and her mom produced a pretty good imitation of anger too. (My guess is her true emotion was shame.) In an effort to appease Karen, her mother bought us some cheap burgers at McDonalds and we went back to the house to watch something on TV, because of course the movie theater was “closed” too. It was an incredibly depressing day, despite the fast food (a rare treat for me) and the birthday cake.
When I reported on the days’ events to my mother, she gently explained to me that Karen’s family were a charity case at the school. The kids were permitted to attend in exchange for some office work that their mother did. The family was on welfare—a concept I’d been sheltered from before then, despite our own ongoing poverty.
Karen and I remained friends, but I saw her through very different eyes now. Her constant bragging about her nonexistent luxuries and privileges made me sad. I never contradicted her, though she MUST have known that I knew she was making it up. Somehow, it was very important for her to keep up the pretense, and I saw no reason to take that away from her.
I have no idea what happened to Karen. After I returned to Africa at the end of that school year, I never heard from her again. I hope she found happiness—and contentment.