A Profile of Margaret : “I’m Not Really a Mess”

I walked through the wide-open side door and climbed the steps to the upstairs half of a slightly scrummy duplex in one of Cleveland’s west side suburbs. It was the end of May, and my sister-in-law, Margaret, was turning twenty-two.

Margaret greeted me and ushered me through the kitchen into the rest of the house, which was lit only by strands of colored LED lights tacked to the walls. In the living room, her friend Rachel had taken charge of the aux cord and speaker. “Margaret requested this!” she yelled, as the song “Birthday Bitch” blared on full volume. It was only nine p.m. and someone ran into the room saying a dog-walking neighbor had threatened to call the cops.

. . .

          The first time I met Margaret, it was 2013, and I was dating her older brother. She wore an oversized t-shirt and running shorts, and her blonde hair was barely contained in a topknot on her head. She swung through the threshold between the kitchen and the rest of the house, danced close to my face and sang the Kesha lyrics, “Hot and dangerous. If you’re one of us, then roll with us.”

Now it’s 2020, a few days since her birthday, and she walks onto my back patio looking coolly put-together in denim short-shorts, a simple tee, and flip-flops. Her silky-straight blonde hair is held back by a pair of large, dark sunglasses perched atop her head. Her finger- and toenails are painted a matching shade of sunset pink.
“The wait at Barrio was like an hour.” She settles into a patio chair with her purse in her lap and crosses her long legs as she sets a bottle of water down beside her.  “But I mean, it was good, so.”

Barrio, a taco bar and restaurant chain local to Cleveland, is to Margaret what a lighthouse is to a ship out at sea. Once, I lost her in a club and found her standing stock-still in a crowd of swarming bodies and swirling lights, squinting one-eyed at her phone, typing into the search: Barrio near me.

Most of Margaret’s stories that end with Barrio also have a beginning and middle part that involves her two closest friends, Rachel and Bridget. Rachel is tan, dark-haired, and has the pouty lips of an Instagram model. Bridget is cherubic with her round face and pale complexion, and she’s known Margaret since childhood. When she and Margaret went to different high schools, it was Bridget who found Rachel and brought her into the fold. Now the trio is inseparable.

“Last weekend was literally the worst night,” Margaret says. The three of them went to Barley House, a club on West 6th Street in downtown Cleveland. “Bridget was a mess, like, blacked out. So me and Rachel were like, this is embarrassing. Plus she’s wearing, like, no clothes. Literally her shirt was coming off at Barley. Then we’re out on the street corner downtown at 3 a.m. calling her mom for a ride.” She shakes her head. “Literally a terrible night.”

If I betray any reaction, even as slight as raised eyebrows, Margaret grins, tilts her head back and lets out a ripple of throaty laughter. She shares these anecdotes freely. Still, there’s a lack, or perhaps a curation, of details. Much like Barrio’s tacos, her stories have spice, but it seems she’s careful not to add too much kick.

. . .

At the party, more friends of Margaret’s showed up. One stepped out of an Uber, bearing two trays of jell-o shorts. Some made a long drive up to Cleveland from other parts of Ohio. Though Margaret attended the Roman Catholic Walsh University in North Canton, she seems to have friends dotting the map of college towns: Kent State, Bowling Green, Ohio State University. She also has connections all over Cleveland; in pre-pandemic times, she led the way into bars, hugging bouncers and high-fiving busboys.

But of course, the Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot of her springtime plans. I ask her what it was like to graduate while the state was on lockdown.

“My friends were so mad,” she says. “But I didn’t really care. I mean, everyone had to cancel stuff. Like some people lost their weddings. So I just put it in perspective, like, graduation isn’t as bad as what some people had to cancel.”

The birthday party was not cancelled; Ohio had just begun to open up some bars and restaurants with strict social distancing, but the house quickly filled with guests. No one seemed worried about the pandemic. One boy told me that he’d had the virus, but it only lasted a week. “If you can get through the first two days, like, you think you’re gonna die, but if you can convince yourself to get through those two days, then you’re fine,” he explained.

Some of the other party guests were Margaret’s cousins, whom she also counts as close friends—especially Greta, a doe-eye blonde with a distinctive, hiccupping laugh. “Greta’s only a couple months younger than me,” Margaret says when I ask how they became so close. “And we have kind of the same personality, I guess. It just makes sense that we’d be best friends.”

In any friendship, Margaret says, “You have to both be forgiving if you want it to last, for sure. And definitely upfront with each other.” Although she says she and Greta have gotten into shouting arguments many times, they “always get over it five seconds later”.
“Whenever my friends are fighting, I’m always, like, the middle person,” Margaret adds. “I get along with everyone. I don’t do shit to piss people off. Well”—she laughs—“debatable.”

. . .

“Do you think I’ll have to delete my Twitter?” She’s been applying for jobs as a teacher; she’s certified in math and social studies for grades four through nine. She’s not as concerned about getting a job this first year, although she says she would like to. Her plan is to work as a lifeguard over the summer and as a substitute teacher come fall should she be unable to secure a regular teaching position. She also says she’s only applied for a few so far. “Just the ones that want my cover letter and resume. The ones that want you to fill out a whole new application online will say, like, ‘Set aside thirty to sixty minutes’, and I’m like, no, I have stuff going on.”

Her phone dings and she picks it up to glance at the notification. The ringer is always on full volume, and for years she also had it set to flash a burst of white light not unlike a fire alarm. “But I’m not deaf, so,” she explains as to why she’s changed it.
Margaret sets her phone back down on the patio table. It dings again, but this time she ignores it. “I mean, my Twitter’s already on private. My friends like, beg me to make it public but I’m like, no. It’s mostly drunk tweets at this point.”

. . .

          At her party, Margaret leaned against the wall leaned against the wall near the empty hearth. Under her arm was an empty bottle of moscato, and in her hand was a slice of cake. “I figured you guys would be scared,” she said. “That’s why I almost told you not to come.”

For a long time, much of her social media was private, and other parts were hidden from family members such as myself. She says it’s not because she was worried the family would judge her. Sometimes, she says, she also goes through phases of deleting Instagram and Twitter, because they start to “feel very negative.” But she points out that she also follows many accounts of people who are “doing good in the world,” although she doesn’t specify exactly what that looks like, nor does she claim any of these people as her role models.

“I mean, I can make up an answer when I have to,” she says. “But I don’t even know who my biggest influences are. I look up to my grandma, I guess, because she’s a good person. But I literally don’t know.” She pauses, pondering, then lets out a sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, I wish I had someone to look up to.”

Margaret is the fourth of her six siblings, but she’s the oldest of the three girls. “I’m so responsible. I take care of so much shit. No, seriously,” she says, though I haven’t interrupted. “Like, the boys,” she says, referring to her three older brothers, “will probably tell you that I got away with a lot more shit. Okay. I mean, they paved the way for all the normal stuff. But for the girly stuff? Do you think my mom would let us wear crop tops if I didn’t pave the path? Even skinny jeans. I had to be the first one.”

She tells me how she and Greta taught themselves to do makeup—“I mean, shitty”—when they were younger. These days, her signature makeup look is minimalist, but with perfectly precise winged eyeliner.

“Thank God I’m not a tomboy,” she says. But she’s quick to point out that she’s not “too girly” to enjoy outdoor activities. Camping, hiking, skiing, swimming—“I like pretty much everything,” she says. She also works out regularly; in high school, she ran cross-country, but after struggling with and receiving treatment for an eating disorder, she’s more into yoga and boxing.

“I used to not worry about my health, but now my health is already messed up. I’m worried I’m gonna be a hunchback because now my bones are shitty.” She straightens her shoulders and lifts her chin. “I don’t like to live in fear,” she says. “I just take it one day at a time now. Learned that in therapy.” A sarcastic half-smile sneaks across her face.

. . .

          Sarcasm is one of Margaret’s trademarks. Sometimes she makes a comment and then pauses, purses her lips and smiles with her eyes closed as though posing for a picture. She’s funny and relatable with her honesty, but the lime-sour twist of sarcasm sometimes makes it hard to parse her meaning. At her parents’ house, before she left for her party, I watched her make a short speech on her birthday: “Thanks everyone for a good year. Thanks Mom and Dad for sending me to treatment and making me gain twenty-eight pounds.” When I and a few of her siblings clapped, she rolled her eyes at us. “I was being sarcastic.”

She’s good at performing, even by accident. In the spring of 2019, Margaret studied abroad in Italy; she lived in Rome and took weekend trips elsewhere. In Spain, she and her friends rented a large AirBnB. “It had two balconies,” she explains, “so from outside it looked like two different apartments. And me and my guy friend were on opposite balconies just drinking our vodka lemonades or whatever, and we didn’t know people were actually watching, but we started acting like we just met each other. So we were like ‘Oh, hi! Okay, I’ll come over!’ Later, we were in a bar and these other people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we saw you guys meet, so romantic!’” She rolls her eyes. “They were literally obsessed with us. We put on a show, I guess.”

Later, at the beach, she lost a gold hoop earring in the Mediterranean Sea. “All I did was this”—she flips her hair over one shoulder—“and it fell into the blue water.” She also shattered her phone while drinking in Venice, and reacted by running off. Her friends later found her sitting on a park bench, dazed. “I’m in a foreign country, and I just run away.” She shakes her head. “Apparently I’m way too confident.”

Yet Margaret also tells me that she had trouble deciding on a college. “I’m so indecisive,” she says. “I picked it like a week before school started. I always leave it to the last minute. Choosing my major was a wreck. Choosing anything was a wreck. I always think it’s gonna affect my life, like, if I do one thing different.”

I ask her how she decided to become a teacher.

“Oh,” she laughs. “I literally don’t know. No, I mean, I played teacher when I was a kid. Didn’t everyone want to be a teacher?”

When I reply that I didn’t, Margaret shrugs. “Well, I guess I also played dentist, so, who knows. But for a long time I wanted to be a teacher.”

And after telling me all of this, she’s quick to clarify: “I’m pretty put-together. It seems like I’m crazy, but I don’t do crazy shit like my friends. I did very well in school, I got a 3.96. I got all A’s. I might seem like I’m a mess, but I’m not really a mess.”

. . .

        In the middle of the party, Margaret led a crowd of friends out onto the lawn. She shook up a bottle of pink champagne and popped it, took a swig as the champagne gushed down the neck of the bottle. The group cheered. Most of them had this on video, already posted to Snapchat.

Margaret offered the bottle to each person, encouraging them to take a drink. “It’s for good luck! Don’t you want me to have good luck?”

Even in the age of coronavirus, no one could deny her that. They tipped their heads back and poured the liquid into their mouths without touching their lips to the bottle.

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