Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Confessions of a Chameleon

"I have tickets to the symphony. Would you like to go?" she asked me after our first lunch together.

We were standing on the sidewalk outside of a tearoom and I couldn't think of what to say, because I really didn't want to go. I like symphony music, but not watching it performed. So I lied and said, "I'd love to."

"This is great," she said, "because my husband doesn't like to go and neither do many of my girlfriends, and I always get tickets for the season--and now I have a friend who can go with me."

"Oh…great," I said, thinking, What on earth have I done?

What I had done is precisely what I had promised myself I would not do anymore: change my own colors to match those of others.

Somewhere in my mid 40s, I had finally mustered the courage to start showing the real me. Now I did things like going to lunch with a girlfriend without a stitch of makeup on and fessing up to my secret wishes and fears and shortcomings.

If you knew me before, you would understand what a feat this has been, because presenting a smudge-free image was fundamental to me.

And lately, things had been going well enough that being the genuine me seemed almost easy.

But it's funny how anything is easy when there is nothing to lose and no pain involved. Toss a shiny new person into the picture--and suddenly a new friendship was at risk--and I reached for a pretense like an addict for a fix.

It isn't her real name, but I'll call her Katherine, and I had recently met her at a benefit luncheon. She was friendly, elegant and cultured, but what had really impressed me was how thoughtful and empathetic she seemed. Yet still I was afraid to be truthful with her.

A week or so later, as I sat through the performance, I hoped that in the future she would find someone else to go to the symphony with her, and that we could stick to lunches and dinners together.

But as is often the case when life attempts to teach me a lesson--and that lesson keeps repeating until I learn it--Katherine called a month later and again asked me to the symphony.

And again I said yes.

That night, I couldn't stop thinking about what I had done. I was nearly 50 and yet I still didn't have the fiber to tell the truth about myself. But if I didn't let go of this need to leap behind a mask every time I got scared, I would never be fully happy, because I would never be fully me.

I knew I had to tell Katherine the truth, and maybe in person would have been better, but all I could manage was the telephone. So I scribbled down a list of everything I wanted to say. Before our friendship went any further, I needed to be totally frank.

I needed her to know that, as culturally uncouth as it maybe was, I didn't like going to the symphony, ballet, theater, opera or art gallery openings. It wasn't that I had anything against these things; I just wasn't interested in attending them.

So I held my breath, dialed her number and when she answered the phone I told her.

And then Katherine did what I didn't expect: She laughed. She said she was glad I told her the truth, because a friend of hers who loved the symphony had come into town, but Katherine wasn't able to invite her because I had already agreed to go. Now Katherine could take her friend, so everyone would be happy.

About a year or so after that, when Katherine and I were at lunch one day, she said she wanted to order cake for dessert, but only if I would eat half. And although I didn't want any cake--not even a bite--and I started to tell her that, I didn't after all. I was too afraid again.

I confessed this to her recently. It was almost more difficult than it was before, and more humbling, knowing that I am still so afraid to be myself with her. But at least I told her, and that's progress.

I suppose being me will take some time.

QUESTION: Are you fully honest with your friends about who you are and what you do and do not enjoy?

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