"When I was at the pool yesterday, it felt so terrible because QB was really rude to me and her friends snubbed me, too," she told me. "I didn't have anyone to talk to. Would you please let me know the next time you go to the recreational pool so I can go with you?"
I suddenly realized that my own uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for hanging out at our recreational pool this summer has been due, at least in part, to my wish to avoid a clique of aging mean girls -- who undoubtedly honed their considerable skills in junior high and who now hold court on the steps of the pool, throwing appraising glances and occasional comments to those daring to enter their domain.
I happen to know that QB -- Queen Bea -- has particular antipathy for this attractive young woman. She has often treated her rudely -- on land and in the water. "She's the same age as my oldest daughter," Bea told me some time ago. "She doesn't belong. Or, at least, I don't want to know her."
I told Bea that I found Holly well worth knowing, a wonderful friend. So what if someone is twenty years younger? So what if someone is the same age as one's child? Bea had no answer. She simply sighed at my obtuseness and walked away.
I've long suspected that this younger woman's attractiveness, professional success and marriage to another highly successful, still-working professional stirs up a storm of jealousy in some of these mean girls, making her an easy target.
It still surprises me, though, when I see such cliquishness, exclusion and mean behavior among people our age.
This mean behavior isn't exclusive to women, of course. There are mean guys around here, too. In fact, the meanest guy in town moved away shortly after being banned from our community center for 90 days after getting into a physical fight in the front lobby with a woman, a neighbor he disliked, mostly just because she was there. Many of us bid him a heartfelt "Good riddance!" when he packed up his belongings and headed for a Florida trailer park.
But there are gender differences. Mean guys seem to be more directly aggressive, a more obvious threat. Mean girls are more covert, more passive aggressive, more dangerous. As they probably did decades ago in junior high, the mean girls often manage to outdo male bullies by far in terms of long-term pain inflicted on others.
One would think that the challenges, disappointments, losses and insights that come with time would mellow these folks out and modify their mean-spiritedness.
Some people are simply mean girls forever, stunted by -- what? Insecurities? Defensiveness? Habit? Unwillingness to change? Rogue evil genes? Personality disorders? Just plain meanness that won't quit?
What does one do in the presence of an aging mean girl?
Confrontation is a possibility, but this is, too often, met with well-honed hostility or aggravating deflection. When a neighbor recently confronted Bea with a reasonable comment on her outrageous behavior, Mean Girl whirled on her with a puzzling barrage of accusations, including the command to "Stop dumping your problems on me! Whatever you're feeling is YOUR problem, not mine!" And she stormed off, leaving my neighbor momentarily stunned and speechless.
Doubling up for comfort and for safety, as Holly requested, is certainly a possibility. It does feel better to have a friend by one's side -- kind of like having someone to eat lunch with in the junior high cafeteria -- as a buffer between oneself and rejection that the mean girls dish out so well. But it saddens me to think that we have to pair up to stave off the sting of rude comments, obvious snubbing and messages that one doesn't belong at this stage of our lives.
My latest inclination -- knowing that some mean girls are forever and unchangeable and without insight or caring and that one can't always have a companion at one's side -- is to simply ignore them much of the time. My strategy is simple. I remove my hearing aids before I head for the pool, may smile in the direction of the crowd sunning themselves on the steps and then just immerse myself in the water and float away. I muse about how I don't care what they think about me, while realizing that they're not thinking about me at all, but about themselves and holding the power they feel in judging and excluding others.
And I feel a little sad for them: that they have no idea how others see them, that they are behaving in a way that keeps others, perhaps has always kept others, at arm's length, that they seem so unable or unwilling to change. What must it be like to inflict pain on others on a daily basis? What is the payoff at this point -- when we're all aging and dealing with the losses and fears and challenges that we all face at this time of life?
I think back to the rare times in my life when I've been deliberately, stubbornly unkind -- and remember the awful feeling, the aching in my throat and in my heart when I knew I was being a brat, when I could see the consequences of my words reflected in the tears of another.
And I wonder if our resident mean girls ever feel such twinges of conscience or regret or if they feel an adrenaline surge when they see hurt in the eyes of another?
And I told Holly that I'd love to join her at the pool.