I was five and not good at making friends yet. (And yes "yet" is optimistically overselling my later developed abilities.) My parents occasionally set me up on playdates, but I didn't pick those toddlers on any okcupid menu, so I lacked desire or drive to bond with these playdates. I had a brother and I had books, and that was good enough to fulfill my needs.
When I first started going to school I was instantly impressed and intimidated by how the other children made friends. Recess was terrifying to a five year old who had no idea how to interact with other five year olds. I followed other children quietly around the playground, watching them show affection like I was some kind of pigtailed voyeuristic Jack the Ripper.
Once a recess teacher (adult with whistle around neck) approached me, while I stood by some swings, staring at a few other little girls.
"Barb," said the adult. (I hate being called Barb.) "Why don't you go play with those girls?"
"I don't know them," I said. I didn't understand how these children knew each other well enough to play together. Were they all siblings? Had my parents unknowingly sent me to a cultish polygamous school? Were we going to sacrifice a goat later? I liked goats!
"That's okay," said the adult. "You can go play."
"But I have yet to be properly introduced," I said clearly, looking up at her.
She narrowed her eyebrows, squinting at me.
My friend and funny local comedian Sean Connery (yep, real name) has a joke: "If you've ever had your IQ tested, you were a weird little awkward kid." (SIC)
The adult leaned down and said, "Go introduce yourself then."
I followed the little girls as they ran across the playground, with me creeping a safe distance behind. They went into a small playhouse underneath a jungle gym. I remember thinking, "Perfect, only one way in and out! They're mine!" You know, like a fucking psychopath.
I entered the pink door to the playhouse. The two stranger children were sitting on the ground. I stood in the threshold staring at them. I grinned at them, proud of myself. I had done it! I had mustered up the courage to approach strangers!
"What?" said one of them.
"What are you doing?" said the other.
I realized I had no idea what to say. I was for the first time in my life (certainly not the last) overcome with a terror that I would say the wrong thing and make someone upset. I was such a sensitive kid that I could cry when people gave me certain types of attention, and I expected that others might have the same countenance I worried that by saying the wrong thing I might trigger that reaction. I continued to stand there, in the shadow of the plastic pink wall, the sun at my back, willing myself to think of something to say, maybe something to explain my behavior, maybe something to make them fall in love with me.
"Do you want something?" said the first little girl.
"Go away," said the second.
At this point that seemed like the best idea. But I still wanted to impress them, perhaps cement a respect or admiration for me in their mindset. I decided the best way to do this was to showcase my impeccable acrobatic skills and cartwheel out of there. Surely I was the only 5 year old lithe and aerobic enough to attempt something so dangerous as a cartwheel. They had probably never even seen a perfect cartwheel before, except on the Olympics.
I raised my arms, extended my front leg, pointed my toe and tumbled out the door, hitting my ankle hard and the doorway, crumpling to the ground in pain and anguish. My face turned bright red and I started crying and ran away before they could see me. I hid behind a tree for the rest of recess and made plans to spend this awful twenty minutes twice a day in the sanctuary of the library.
I have several friends now that I love very deeply, but I still struggle with my words around them. I still turn bright red when I'm trying to express myself. I constantly say the wrong thing and worry for days afterward that I've offended someone. I spend most of my evenings sitting near a group of cool comedians at a bar, desperate to join their huddle, but not knowing how to break into the conversation. Sometimes I will attempt to, I'll muster up the undeniable courage and audacity to attempt to connect with someone, but I'll say the wrong thing, and someone will either make fun of me, or just shut me out.
The cartwheels don't always work.