Mistakes Were Made
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
On sweating the small stuff.
By Sophia Cornell
Way back in February, when I thought strikingly little about my own mortality, I promised the editor of this fine magazine that I would give him an essay. My first attempt concerned my time tutoring the rich and the poor. I submitted it and promptly backed out. I was still friends with/employed by certain key characters in the essay, and though the chance that any of them would read about themselves in this very fine but criminally underread publication was vanishingly small, the danger of total mortification was still too great.
For my second try I wrote about my infatuation with a certain well-known author. It is so embarrassing that I cannot believe I ever considered letting it see daylight. (A real note from a professor: “This is an essay, Sophia, where you are decidedly not cool.”) A brave/insane version of myself dangled that one in front of the very patient editor’s nose, and then I awoke as if from a dream and cried cold feet and extricated myself once more. And now, with stockpiles of both time and editorial patience running perilously low, as stockpiles are wont to do these days, I have found my subject: embarrassment.
Like that time when I sprained my ankle at a high school basketball game. I wasn’t playing but watching, and I leaped from the bleacher in celebration and didn’t quite land back on it. I scooted myself to the edge of the crowded student section to elevate my ankle, and that should have been the end of it. A passing assistant principal happened to see me and raised the alarm and, long story short, I ended up being forced against my strenuous opposition into a wheelchair and wheeled by a medical evac squad past my school’s entire student section and also much of the town because, out in the wild west where I grew up, ordinary civilians come to the cross-town rivalry basketball game.
I remember a fairly harmless time-filler during high school. The game is called “Hey, Dad.” You drive around town in search of men on sidewalks. Bonus points if they are with women. Bonus bonus points if they are with their kids. You shout “Hey, Dad!” out the window. Your car has slowed to maybe like 5 miles per hour. The man turns, uncomprehending. “Dad?” you shout. “Dad? Hey, Dad, c’mon.” The man looks about. Is there someone else behind him? There is not. Your voice cracks, heartbroken that he does not recognize/acknowledge you. “Daaaaaadddd!” you wail into the night, and then whoever’s driving floors it, and it’s giggles all around. Except I found myself totally incapable of enjoying the game, much less yelling myself, and when someone else yelled, I slumped as low as possible in the seat, and repeated “Please, God, no” to myself, and did a quick pro-con on having friends like these versus no friends at all.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
This “Dad” game falls under the category of “being embarrassed because of the actions of others in which you are (un)fairly implicated.” But there exists a much more common category, which I’ll call “flying too close to the sun,” that I can blame on no one but my insufficiently shy self. Shyness is not the same thing as embarrassment—it’s probably more like the antidote—and no one would mistake me for being shy. I tend toward the masculine conviction that I’m charming and learned and have things worth saying. I feel downright enabled by those campaigns to get women to “take up space in the classroom,” for example. But as many men can tell you, this conviction can be taken too far.
It’s sophomore year in a writing seminar. “I really liked your piece,” I tell my classmate. “I liked the magical realism. Everything seems normal, and then this reindeer, this mythical beast, appears and no one’s fazed.” The class freezes. For a moment, no one speaks. “Sophia,” a kind voice says. “Reindeers are real.” Adorable, I think, winking at a trusty classroom ally, whose expression of horrified confusion I completely misread. I address the kind voice: “Do you…do you think Santa is real too?” The memory goes black there—some sort of neural self-preservation.
It could always be worse. One girl I used to know was emceeing a talent show and dropped her notes. Leaning over to collect them, she farted into the mic. Another friend left a smear of period blood on a first date’s white passenger seat. But these were accidents of fate, if I may, not instant karma for the overgrown self-regard of a fourth-wave feminist.
Maybe a month ago, when I was as yet unaware of the preciousness of every last human second we spend with the people we love, I returned to East Campus after a long day and got a can of gin and tonic from the fridge. I had just settled in on the couch when I got a text from a friend inviting me to dinner at John Jay with someone I’ll call B., who I’d been looking for an excuse to befriend. Like a donkey between haystacks, I looked from text invitation to G&T and back again. Finally, I placed the G&T upright in a coat pocket and walked to dinner. I produced the can at the table and poured it into a John Jay glass, making little jokes about “the sauce” and “can’t get through dinner without a drink” etc. Not two minutes later, B. mentioned something about her A.A. meeting. I spewed my contraband G&T all over her heroically sober face, excused myself, and spent a good while pacing by the toasters to work up the courage to return to the table.
I could, unfortunately, go on. One thing pandemics provide is ample time to reflect on moments of humiliation or error. The moments listed here have lost their sting and relevance—high school has faded and B. and I have become good friends. Anything rawer would, of course, have been too embarrassing. I used to think people stopped feeling embarrassed as they aged, but now I think many stop sweating the silly stuff because they accumulate darker sources of shame. My mistake in the first two essays was to prod at my own darkness, at shameful parts of myself that genuinely confuse me. But this is a pandemic, and the world is dark and confusing enough. This is no time to pick at psychic scars. The dark stuff can wait, or it can die, along with me, in the Javits Center, or on the sidewalk outside Mount Sinai, or on a fundamentalist’s cot in Central Park, looking up at the cherry blossoms.