When I received the invitation to be a substitute player in the form of a cheery call from my sister-in-law, a twinge of post-angst nostalgia ground beneath my thirty-five-year-old bones. I was forced to cross a line no less important than a political or religious conviction, hanging out with my hometown's ex-cheerleaders. Still, I said yes, intrigued with the chance to observe my generation's version of something close to the American Dream.
I won't pretend to grasp why some girls want to be cheerleaders any more than I can understand why groups of women all over the country meet once a month to roll dice. And I hated to admit it, but I was nervous. As they say, I didn't want to throw away the "street cred" I had earned from years of calf-busting platform shoes and Morrissey concerts and too many bottles of black nail polish to count just to fit in - even for one night.
But a small part of me did want to belong. I longed to move beyond some arbitrary measure of coolness. And what if the ex-cheerleaders had figured everything out? What if they really were happy?
And I do understand the quest to fit in. We are social beings, pack animals. Even though I've always shunned cheerleaders, I too have searched for camaraderie, albeit in detention halls and underground magazines, coming close once or twice to meeting what J.D. Salinger calls a "landsman," or a like-minded soul - until my chosen one would utter something totally unforgivable, like how she wished she had Jennifer Anniston's hair.
The dice rolling began, which is basically the main action of Bunco - rolling dice. I smiled at my randomly picked partner, starting to realize that the game was no longer us vs. them, but us vs. ourselves. On the surface the Bunco women confirmed my assumptions: some taught Sunday school while others told of winter vacations to Cozumel. One bragged of her desire to create the perfect organic shower gel.
By round six, though the women were different from me, I recognized the quality I shared with the Bunco girls. That look behind our eyes. Past tallying points and different preferences in everything from politics to clothes, the look creeps up around the age of thirty and, though it hits those cheerleader types the hardest, I've succumbed to it, too. It's the look that shows the world how you understand life, on the whole, is really hard. As soon as you find the perfect boyfriend your mom gets cancer, or as soon as you get a raise your house burns down, or as soon as you dare to buzz around the fragrant blossoms of contentment, Christopher Reeve gets paralyzed. Then dies.
When I left the party that night without a door prize and without being invited back-the woman I filled in for was nearly over her postpartum depression after reading every book by Dr. Phil-I felt relief. That invisible barrier dividing "us" and "them" had given way a common weariness. They can try denying it with spa treatments and I can try denying it by spending ungodly sums of money on my handmade books, but the Bunco women, like me, were disappointed. Even the rally squad had succumbed to an existential crisis. Husbands who snow blow the driveway. Kids on the honor roll. Still we were promised a life more extraordinary. Whether we made that promise to ourselves by shouting "Spirit, Let's Cheer It!" while our fathers didn't care that our mothers didn't love them or we shunned teenage convention to decipher Mersault's disengaged emotion in The Stranger, we've bought into the hype so long we still don't know how to recover.