While reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a sprawling novel that follows Harvard student Selin through her first year of college and her first romantic infatuation, I came across a description that made me laugh out loud in recognition. Selin goes clubbing, where she watches aggressive men attempt to dance with her more outgoing friend. Then, in the same nonchalant way she makes other sharp if socially inept observations throughout the novel, Selin notes:
Less frequently, one of the men would try to dance with me. I would nod in a businesslike manner and then turn away as if I had remembered something important I had to do. It went on and on, the dancing. I kept wondering why we had to do it, and for how much longer.
I was transported back to my own sporadic forays into clubbing as a teenager, how I filed into those smoky, dark places in sparkly shirts and black pants because I didn’t know any better. I thought this was what young people were supposed to do to have a good time, and that I had little choice but to pretend that I liked it, too. Sometimes I managed to have fun, but more often I found myself half-heartedly dancing in a circle with my friends while wondering when we could call it a night and go home.
That scene in The Idiot made me think about other times I recognized the awkwardness of my formative years in fiction. In Emma Cline’s The Girls, for example, Evie sums up the same brand of sheltered, clinging friendships I had when I was thirteen and fourteen:
I was fourteen but looked much younger. People like to say this to me. Connie swore I could pass for sixteen, but we told each other a lot of lies. We’d been friends all through junior high, Connie waiting for me outside classrooms as patient as a cow, all our energy subsumed into the theatrics of friendship . . . It pained me to imagine how our twosome appeared to others, marked as the kind of girls who belonged to each other. Those sexless fixtures of high schools.
“War Stories,” which appears in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, perfectly captures that sense of wanting to explain yourself with a full range of complexity but being unable to do so. In the story, the narrator is guilty of exposing her classmate’s bra, and now adults are demanding an explanation:
I wanted to tell them about how Anita had started the Girl Club after claiming that her father had sent her expensive bras from London edged with barely-there lace and soft ribbons and powdered with fairy dust, and how she made the rule that only girls with bras could be in the Girl Club and that if you weren’t in the Girl Club you couldn’t sit in the Girl Area and you had to play with the boys. Anita would confirm who was Girl by escorting each applicant behind the school to check if she was wearing the required undergarment. They’d emerge short minutes later, the Bra Princess followed by her newest lady-in-waiting. In the jostling to be Girl, with friends borrowing one another’s intimates and rejected applicants stewing in bitterness, no one had thought to check if Anita actually owned the bras she’d shown us in a catalog.
My mother’s raised brow asked, Well? And Mrs. Okechukwu frowned at me until my nuanced defense deteriorated into “I wanted to see her bra.”
Or when you show up somewhere and realize your clothes are all wrong, but there’s nothing you can do about it—as detailed in Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, during Ann’s first day of school in Beverly Hills:
My best dress from Wisconsin was navy blue wool, with a red belt, a little hot for this weather, but my mother said to wear it anyway. “They always remember what you wore your first day.” While she dabbed makeup on in the bathroom, I pulled up my first pair of navy blue nylons . . . When my mother finished her own hair, she braided mine and tied on a red ribbon.
“Are those kids going to school like that?” My mother peered over the steering wheel to get a better look. We were early, parked across the street. “They look like they’re going to the beach.”
They wore long, wide-bottom jeans, ragged at the ends from dragging on the ground, leather sandals and t-shirts. The girls’ hair fell down over their faces onto their arms and backs, thinning to points at the ends like vines, as if it had never been trimmed.
“I have to change,” I said. “I want to go back to the hotel.”
My mother shook her head slowly. “We don’t have time, Honey. I have to get going and, anyway, you’d be late. You don’t want to be late your first day. And I wouldn’t send you to school looking like that, I wouldn’t.”
Perhaps one of my favorite novels that depicts the agonizing awkwardness of adolescence is Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Lee attends an elite boarding school but forever feels stuck on the sidelines, assiduously observing and exploring her own thoughts while remaining invisible to everyone else:
. . . all I ever did was watch other students and feel curious about them and feel dazzled by their breeziness and wracked by the impossible gaping space between us, my horrible lack of ease, my inability to be casual.
I’ll wrap up this celebration of all things awkward with one more line from Prep, a line that perfectly encompasses the struggle of all introverted, ill-at-ease teenagers everywhere:
“I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.”