“Can I wear this to the opera?” I lifted up my arms and looked down at my own body, dressed in black leggings and a plaid shirt underneath a green sweater. My co-worker, who goes to the opera frequently with her husband, nodded slowly before we both broke out into laughter. The answer was not really.
A few weeks ago, a staff member for the mentoring program I volunteer sent an email offering discounted tickets for mentors to take their mentees to a show in mid-December. I scanned the email and assumed, based on the season, it was some kind of Christmas play, so I signed my mentee and I up to go. The day of the show, though, I read the description more carefully and realized that it wasn’t a play and it was not holiday themed. Rather, it was an opera at the prestigious Lyric Opera House. I was in a hurry to get to work that morning, but I contemplated throwing a dress in my bag and ultimately decided against knowing my mentee would be coming from schools and likely wearing jeans.
I didn’t give my dress much thought until the end of the day, when making conversation with my co-worker. I had never been to the opera or the Lyric before, and now I had a small worry that would be undressed and out of place.
When we arrived to the theater, a large man in a top coat and cape ushering us in from the cold, we both immediately noticed the dress of those around us. Men wearing suit jackets, leather shoes, and large gold and silver watches. Women were doned in sequined slim fitting dresses and large silk skirts. At one point, a woman in a fur coat rushed past me, and I could feel the straps of my cheap backpack (which had a small stain of dill cucumber sauce from my lunch) get tighter. There were other patrons in more casual dress, but not as many as those who put in the extra effort to look different for the show than they did, say, for biology class. As we moved through the lobby, I felt eyes on my stocking cap and backpack. We most certainly stood out.
Taking our seats was a relief from the awkwardness. As we waited for the show to begin, I ruminated on how I did not belong there. I did not have the wealth or refined tastes for a woman who goes to the opera. I do not know the difference between Bellini and Puccini. And, I do not own a gown. I was faking it by being in this beautiful opera house, and not well.
Recently, E and I’ve experienced some setbacks that have changed our finances, and every day I am accosted by the things I can’t have because we can’t afford it. A membership at a nice gym, tickets to a live taping of one of our favorite podcasts, a dog trainer to help Annie with some of her separation anxieties. The other opera attenders were more representations of things I am not allowed because of money. I assumed they all had nice condos in Lincoln Park and took yearly vacations to somewhere tropical. They didn’t have to worry about shopping between the cheap and more expensive grocery story. They could go out to eat before the opera and not give it another thought. These people were not me.
The opera started and immediately I was enamored with the story, the flowing vocals and dream-like instrumentals. The music hung in the air like a thick fog, and I sat on the edge of my seat for most of the first act.
At intermission, I got up to use the restroom and was again self-conscious about my clothes. I watched women with designer blouses and skirts wash their hands, assuming they were judging me (even though I am not sure if they noticed me). That voice—the one screaming “You don’t belong here”—started up again, but this time I challenged it. Where was this idea coming from? Who says that I belong or do not belong at this opera? No one has pulled me assigned and said, “Miss, your leggings are atrocious, and you need to leave.”
No, I am telling myself I don’t belong and the interesting part is that I also get to tell myself that I do belong. I get to say that I belong not just at the opera but also on stage with those other remarkable storytellers or in my writing group or that party with fascinating people. I am the one who decides that I belong, not anyone else, and I am really tired of not belonging in nearly every place I go.
So, that was that. I belonged. I washed my hands, returned to my seat, and loved every minute of the rest of the show. Thoughts of feeling out of place did not plague me for the rest of the night.