Essay: Outlier

Would saying yes have made any difference?


Photo collage by Spirala

This is the third in our series of essay contest winners.


After being cast as lead ingénue in a few high school plays, I was demoted during my junior year to the role of the mayor in The Teahouse of the August Moon. This play, with its unapologetic stereotyping of Japanese villagers on U.S.-occupied Okinawa, has understandably dropped out of favor with drama departments. Thinking about my role in it, I am stunned and appalled by how fully I participated in my generation and my community’s obliviousness regarding race; how entitled we all felt to present fabricated, distorted versions of nondominant groups. But the play was a big hit in the late 1960s and I blithely accepted the challenges of my assigned role, adopting a kind of pidgin English I blush to recall and transforming my blonde hair into something less overtly Caucasian. The closest I came to black was an uncommitted milky cocoa. But a broad straw hat and lots of pancake makeup, along with the audience’s generous readiness to suspend disbelief (our families, after all), made it work.

The role of Sakini, the villager who translates language and customs for the bewildered young Captain Fisby, was played by my classmate, Larry S. He had to rely very little on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief since, along with being a brilliant actor, he looked the part. Larry’s Italian background left him with skin, hair, and eye coloring that suited the role of Sakini. And, I discovered during one dress rehearsal as I hovered in the wings, that that suited me. Bare-chested, a sarong over the lower half of his lithe body, Larry squatted center stage. His tawny skin and glossy  black hair glowed under the lights and his dark eyes, when he turned in my direction, beamed intense and bright  under striking arched brows. He was quite beautiful. And  he was smart, interesting, nice, unassuming without being  shy. And he asked me out.  And I said no. “No” was a surprising answer for a girl who,  in her high school years, was not exactly swatting away unwelcome invitations like so many pesky gnats.

My social status was at best dubious, fluid in the least positive sense of the word. I did not have enough of the requisite qualities associated with either side of the cool boundary to land me safely on one or the other shore for very long. Sometimes I was “in,” which always bewildered me, and sometimes I was “out,” which never bewildered me. Without being strikingly original or socially inept enough to be a true misfit (a recognizable category in itself), I never fit for more than short periods into any typical high school group. I was smart, but too unambitious and lazy to do well. I was a nice kid, but constitutionally incapable of finding goodness appealing. I broke the rules sometimes, mostly through obliviousness, but I was no rebel; I had by sheer accident the right look for the time—long straight hair and a vaguely hippyish assortment of outfits—but was clueless regarding the fads and fashions of the day. Despite constantly falling between all stools on the social platform, I would be inexplicably and surprisingly taken up for a brief spell by a key player in the popular crowd and then as inexplicably, but unsurprisingly, dropped.

And yet, ignorant as I was regarding the whys and wherefores of fluctuations in my own social status, I was profoundly attuned, as most teens are, to who lay on either side of the critical boundary between in and out, between cool and uncool. And Larry S. was also an outlier of sorts, too careless about pleasing others and going along with the crowd to be acceptable as the leading man of anyone who counted. He was definitely on the wrong side. So I said no. What an idiot.

Exploring what we would have done differently if only we had realized this or that is a habit we all indulge in. Taking a long look back, we perhaps see our lives as a ragged road littered with poor choices, bad decisions. But, in as many cases as not, those “wrong” turns led us in interesting directions. Detours and sidetracks enrich as well as delay, or perhaps enrich, by delaying us in our progression toward a place we end up feeling comfortable with, at home  in. To a spot that feels right.  Maybe, in fact, exactly the spot we might well have hoped to end  up in even as we turned right when we should have turned left, said “no” when we should have said “yes.”

But still . . . I wish the 15- or 16-year-old I was had given a different answer that day when Larry asked me out. It might not have ended up being the romance of the century or even a great friendship, but it would have been fun, and fun was something I could have used more of in those rather dreary high school years. We would have gone out for pizza. We would have taken long walks, plowing through piles of leaves in autumn and shoving each other into snow banks in winter. We would have watched movies together and argued over their merits. We would have engaged in lively, witty conversations about our reading, our acting, our fellow students, our families and then moved on to confide our fears, our longings, our dreams. After some weeks of dating, we would have attended the junior prom together, he handsome in his tuxedo, me pretty in a pale blue dress with white pique overlay. We would have kissed and then learned together the pleasures of our young bodies. We would, in short, have enjoyed each other, perhaps only for one year, perhaps only for one semester. Yes, I should have said, anticipating the braver, surer girl I was to become, a girl who would remember Larry later on and realize that she liked people who went their own way, who stood not above or below but a little apart from the group. A girl who would, perhaps because of that memory, make the right choice when it really counted.

Yes, Larry, she would say. I will go out with you. Let the games begin.


Maureen Ellen O’Leary’s work has appeared in numerous national and local publications (including The Monthly). She lives in Oakland and is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College. Visit her website for more of her work and more about her:

This essay appears in the January edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Jan. 26, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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