The In-Between

Being in the in-between reminds me of standing at the entrance of a house where you’ve sorta been invited over but you don’t really feel welcome. After all, you’ve never met anyone there and you just can’t stand small talk. To make matters worse, it’s raining really, really hard outside and you have nowhere to go, although you are tempted to grab the newspaper on the front steps and put it over your head while you run to find cover somewhere less bright and demanding.

But you don’t want to get wet, because you hate the sensation of soggy socks that make your entire body feel damp and sticky for hours. Days, even. And yet…and yet…and yet…your friend invited you to this stupid party, and you stupidly said yes, and it’s patently clear as you gaze through the bay windows at the throngs of beautiful people gathered, laughing and talking and appearing to be raptly enmeshed in one another, that they are old friends. Thick as thieves. And there’s no room for you.

You wish it were different. You wish you could be one of those completely un-self-conscious people who just breezes into a room with a singular perfume and announces their presence. Perhaps with a bold look or an off-color remark that makes people either bristle or guffaw. You wish you could bring yourself into a space like THAT. But you’re wispy and subtle, neither here nor there. Neither East nor West. Some strange amalgamation. Some watercolor shade that’s been muddied by association one too many times.

So you sit and stare and wait, hoping that someone will notice you and invite you in. You still think, after all these years, that it’s strange to walk into people’s houses without being invited in. (Maybe that’s why you’ve always loved vampires—they’re polite.) Just as it’s strange that American people tend to wear their shoes indoors instead of leaving them arranged in neat lines atop shelves outside their homes. Shoes are dirty. They pick up the shit and detritus of every place you’ve ever been. But isn’t that kind of like people? We’re always in-between, always in the process of transitioning out of this or that, or becoming something else, always trafficking in the business of being busy, accumulating personas and heartbreaks and estimable life experiences. But never really getting to the being itself.

Once I was a shy teenager pushing my coke-bottle glasses up the bridge of my nose, feeling so fucking awkward because I had no idea who I was or where I belonged. And nobody could tell me, either. Their definitions and assumptions always fell wide of the mark. And now I’m an adult who has presumably cobbled together a few shreds of self-esteem to create a respectable garment of self-possession…and I still have no idea where I belong.

I’ve always been secretly comfortable in the margins. On the outside looking in. It’s easier to not fully belong to anything, or anyone. To not stamp oneself with the imprimatur of a righteous conviction or a wholehearted yes or a traceable surname. Only…to be held gingerly in a web of nationalities, languages, belief systems.

I don’t walk past that threshold because I know who I am, after all. And I know that I belong right here, in that place of the perpetual question mark. In that place where I get to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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