My first serious relationship: I was only there for 3 months before another store wooed me away with the promise of something more serious — and we got serious really fast. I was hired as the assistant events director, but before long I was writing the newsletter, creating the window displays, and redesigning web pages. My life became inseparable from the bookstore. When my shift was over I would stay for upwards of an hour just talking to my coworkers, I was always there on my day off, and outside of my roommate my entire social life was the bookstore.

Those were the golden years of my bookseller life. I eventually left to start grad school in Ireland, but a part of me always wonders if I should have stayed, if I didn’t realize how good I had it. Isn’t your first serious relationship always also the one that got away?

Oh, the beautiful smile of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people.

From “Debarking,” by Lorrie Moore; collected in Bark.

As I’ve learned from comparing notes with lots of women, the popular girls were in fact much more in touch with the reality of the female condition than I was. They knew exactly what they had to do for the rewards they wanted, while I did a lot of what feminist organizers call denying the awful truth. I was a bit schizy. Desperate to win the game but unwilling to learn it or even face my feelings about it, I couldn’t really play, except in fantasy; paradoxically, I was consumed by it much more thoroughly than the girls who played and played well. Knowing what they wanted and how to get it, they preserved their sense of self, however compromised, while I lost mine. Which is why they were not simply better game players but genuinely more likable than I. The ugly duckling myth is sentimental. It may soothe the memory of social rejection, but it falsifies the experience, evades its cruelty and uselessness. High school permanently damaged my self-esteem. I learned what it meant to be impotent; what it meant to be invisible. None of this improved my character, spurred my ambition, or gave me a deeper understanding of life. I know people who were popular in high school who later became serious intellectuals, radicals, artists, even journalists. I regret not being one of those people. To see my failure as morally or politically superior to their success would be to indulge in a version of the Laingian fallacy—that because a destructive society drives people crazy, there is something dishonorable about managing to stay sane.