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Girls’ Night Out

By Debbie Millman


Several weeks ago, I was invited to join some friends for a night out. The evening would begin at a biergarten and was sure to be a “girls’ night out” according to the friend who invited me.

Now, for those who know me well, you know that I am not much of a girl-about-town, and not especially keen on a “girls’ night out” – not to mention the fact that I don’t drink beer.

But still, I mustered the energy (and courage) to say yes and attend. I genuinely liked the woman who organized the outing, and I found out that one of the other invitees was a designer I deeply admire and hadn’t seen in some time.

When I go out, I often feel a pervasive sense of discomfort. Contrary to my outgoing nature, I really hate small talk. I don’t enjoy standing around, drink in hand, asking people silly little inconsequential questions about inconsequential minutia. I have a near pathological disdain for shooting the breeze and an even harder time endlessly chit-chatting about any and all of the following: the weather, baby showers, dieting, traffic, vacations, and any kind of sports team, sports event or sports nostalgia But I often find myself engaged in these types of conversations because this is what is polite and expected, and I don’t want to be rude or unsocial. . And I am also trying, (especially as I get older) to do things that I ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t. But deep down, even when it might seem otherwise, I have a hard time believing that I fit into most social situations. Despite decades of analysis, I often feel that my clothes are unkempt, my hair is too frizzy or too flat, or my ideas are half-baked or all wrong.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I made my journey into this girls’ night out, which became even more challenging when I found out en route that the designer I was eager to see wasn’t feeling well and was no longer joining us. I tapped out a text message to another friend.

“How can I go without her?” I pleaded.

To console me, he responded by questioning whether I really had to go.

Of course, I knew I did. Didn’t everyone?

This was the third cardinal rule of girlfriends. The first cardinal rule is, as everyone knows, you can’t go out with your friend’s ex — under any circumstance. The second is, you can’t break a date with a girlfriend for a boy. And finally, the third rule is this: you can’t cancel a night out with the girls at the last minute because the only person you feel comfortable with can no longer make it. So, of course I went anyway.

What is it, really, that connects people? Why do we feel safe and secure and loved by some people and judged or ostracized by others? Is it about common values? Is it about shared assumptions? I often think that people have invisible antennae that secretly start signaling when you meet someone with this mysterious mutuality. And then suddenly you find yourself amid a, “you know that they know that you know” mutuality. And that’s when the real fun begins. Those are the moments I live for.

But sometimes, mutuality takes time to form.

Many years ago, in my sophomore year of college, I was living in a dorm with a group of girls that seemed to be everything I wasn’t: light and breezy and happy and they all looked great in tight Jordache jeans and torn, ’80s rock n’ roll T-shirts. We were six Jewish girls living together in three bedrooms, a yellow kitchenette and a tiny one-shower bathroom. My roommate, Aileen, was a petite woman with cascading black curls, a thick Long Island accent, bad posture and a lukewarm demeanor. I tried to settle into a life there and decorated one side of my shared bedroom with Roger Dean’s Yes posters and a well-worn copy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photograph of Patti Smith, whose evident armpit hair confused the group of girls, at best. The first few weeks were fairly agonizing. Aileen tried to include me in their outings and antics, but I made myself scarce in the suite, and instead found myself spending time with a group of Grateful Dead-heads I had met in the college record store. When a room opened in a dilapidated, dingy house they were renting off campus, I jumped at the chance to move in. I joyfully told my suite mates I was leaving, and only Aileen seemed glum. I packed up my things, I took down my treasured Patti Smith photo and as I pulled my posters off the wall, Aileen started to cry. It had never occurred to me that she, too, might have felt like an outsider and my moving out only further cemented her already fragile center. I suddenly felt awful and promised I would come by to visit her and we would do something special.

Weeks went by and I got consumed with my new friends. We started a band and I found myself in a heady world I had only dreamed about. I felt included, understood and happy. At long last, I had found my people. At long last I felt part of a group. Every couple of days I would remind myself to go and visit Aileen, and then the days would come and go, and I’d put off visiting for another day.

Finally, we made a date for breakfast, and I grandiosely insisted on bringing fresh muffins and biscuits over to her and the suite. The morning of our meeting I accidentally overslept, and by the time I got to the bakery, it was threadbare. I picked out a few misshapen rolls, jumped on the bus and made my way over to the campus. By the time I got to the dorm, all but one girl was gone. When I asked for Aileen, the girl shook her head. “She had to go to class,” she said with the slightest sliver of contempt. “You’re too late.”

As I walked back to the bus, I berated myself for being late. And I hated myself for being utterly selfish. Thirty-five years later, I’m still ashamed of my behavior. How could I not know that I am hardly alone in feeling left out? And, that as someone who regularly feels like a misfit, it’s my responsibility to reach out to others who feel the same way? Despite my best efforts, I find I still forget that I live in a world where other people worry about fitting in and being comfortable and being liked, whether personally or professionally. But now, when I’m feeling particularly insecure or uncertain, I try to reach out to someone else who might feel that way, too, and try to alleviate that feeling for the both of us.

This post was created in collaboration with National Car Rental, which provides a premium, expedited car rental experience to road warriors around the world. All opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of National Car Rental.

All proceeds for this work are being donated to the Design Matters Institute, which funds scholarships for students at the School of Visual Arts.

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