A friend of the child I babysit recently accosted me. “I’ve heard all about you,” she said knowingly.
“I heard you’re really nice.”
I very nearly scoffed. I knew the kid was kissing my ass. If there’s anything I feel certain of, it’s that.
I am not nice.
Another dialogue still rings vividly in my mind. It was in elementary school, I think. Either my mother or my father picked me up from school and I complained that a boy had said I was mean. I was furious. I looked at my parent with pleading eyes.
“I’m nice, aren’t I?”
“Do you think you’re nice?”
The other parent confirmed once we’d arrived home. “Of the list of adjectives I’d think to describe you, Lil, nice wouldn’t be one of them.” “Not in the top ten!” said the first. My family found this dreadfully amusing. After the conversation faded, I went to my bedroom and cried.
When I was a child, my mother ingrained several strange verses in her children's heads, but one in particular stands out. Never be the cause of someone else’s pain. There were few things we got in trouble for — but being mean was always one of them. Cruelty was unacceptable.
My mother’s phrase resounded, but only in the evenings. Following my bad behavior, I’d stay up late, repeating the words in my head. I would think over what I had done and what an awful person I was until I began crying — which I viewed as penance. The guilt, though unadulterated in the evenings, never struck at the opportune moments. How could I change?
I was a mean little kid, and the unrefined characteristic remained.
In high school, a close friend had sex with the boy she had been dating for some time but failed to tell me the big news. When I finally heard from a mutual friend, I felt deeply betrayed. I cornered her during art class in a closet holding our canvases.
“How could you not tell me?”
“Lily, please don’t tell anyone.” She begged.
She had never looked so small, and I had never acted so petty.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I responded coldly. “I don’t owe you anything.”
Who was this person, this bully, this contrite teen with no end to her depravity?
She was I and I was she. I might feel guilty for a night but the mirror never held up.
I am surrounded by nice people. My sister has always been nice. Exceptionally nice. My mother is nice. My father, too. My brothers, sisters-in-law, best friends, childhood companions, housemates and all.
I am the only one.
Selfish and short-tempered and small. Small in my treatment of others. With expectations so high no one could possibly reach them and the harshest response when they disappoint, as they inevitably do.
When I studied abroad in Prague, the big thing — beer — I detested. I became a wine person. Not that I liked wine, because I didn’t, but because it was preferable to beer and just as cheap. $4 a bottle. It would stain your teeth red and chap your lips to hell, but it worked. Early in the semester my friends and I realized the effects of my drinking wine, or rather, guzzling a lot of cheap wine straight from the bottle.
“What happened last night?” I asked, at the breakfast following an evening out.
The two boys I was sitting with, my best friends in Prague and possibly the best friends ever, locked glances quickly. One looked at his plate. The other faced me nervously, as though trying to stifle a laugh.
“You really don’t remember?”
Vaguely. I remembered being funny. The life of the party, chatting with our peers from the film school. Wrong, they informed me. On the contrary I had become...
“Mean! You were so mean, Lily. I think you might have made her cry.”
They said it, laughing. My wino sense of humor was sharp, witty — and biting. The freedom I felt, drunk, allowed me to comfortably intimidate and defile the people around me.
When they told me how I had behaved — I cringed.
That isn’t me, I thought. I would never intentionally hurt someone. I can be nice. But I sure did recognize her behavior.
Her? Me. The girl who thinks it is funny to make people cry. The girl whose sense of humor is to bring someone down to her level. Who uses someone’s sexual behavior against them. Who extinguishes friendships by snapping insults and getting the last laugh. The girl, now woman, who’s terrific at one-liners and terrible at relationships.
My father reprimanded me sharply, just once. I forget, now, what had happened, but it hardly seems necessary to remember.
“I don’t care that you’re pretty, or you’re smart, or you’re funny, Lily,” he said. “If you aren’t nice, it doesn’t matter.”
And it doesn’t.
Lily Sloss is a 23 year old writer. She loves dancing, Michael, and her new home in Brooklyn. She's currently working as a literary assistant and life coach (nanny) for two wonderful little women.