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Who are you? Who am I?
Scarcely a look of acknowledgement penetrates your cold composure as our paths cross, yet still I find your eyes involuntarily locking with mine. Even under the stiffest of circumstances, the irony of our relationship never ceases to escape me. How cliché it is: straight out of a teenage comedy. Or perhaps, depending on your perspective, one of those ridiculous teen-tragedies that adults regard as fact, and adolescents regard as idiocy. Either way, here we are. In a few short years, we’ve made a full circle: strangers once, then best friends, only to become strangers yet again. In Physics, it would be said that no work had been put into our relationship, as the displacement is zero. However, as I look into your eyes, I know that is not true. I know that, like all the laughs, the tears, too, were worthwhile. Though our friendship has reached its end, the lessons I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life. You are the person who taught me to be myself, by molding me into everyone else.
I remember the first time we met, way back in Middle School. With four simple words, you snared me, like a starving fish to a delectable bit of bait: “You can sit here.” Unsure of myself, and in search of a friend, I clung desperately to any hope of comradeship, and naturally accepted the invitation to join you at lunch. The feeling of relief, being able to saunter into the lunchroom with someone at my side, with somewhere to go, is something I will never forget. It felt so good, so safe - thinking I would finally belong. Many days proceeded in this fashion, with you saving me a seat both in class, and at lunch, until naively, I came to call you my friend. I had no defense against your cunning, so innocent was I in my dealings with people, so quick to trust; I had no way of knowing I would be but a stepping stool in your staircase to popularity.
The first time I remember being conscious of my role, if not entirely, was around January. Having received a new dress over Christmas, I decided to take a risk, and replace my well-loved jeans and sweat-shirt for the first day back. I even matched the purple in the dress to a new pair of leggings, and left the house a princess. Upon seeing your face, I knew that this was not true. I was no princess, but a lowly maid, dressed in the household rags – and you were not impressed. Once again, it took only 4 little words echoing from your mouth to change the course of my life: “What are you wearing?!” Although nothing could be done about the wretched dress, we covered it up as best we could with a jacket. The leggings, of course, were banished to my locker, lest someone see them and discover the truth of my stature. And so the day went on, which merged into weeks, and months, and years… and as time went on, so did the lessons.
I had learned to play dress-up in the lives around me. Trying one uniform on for size, and discarding it when it got too small, or a stain was discovered; it didn’t matter who I tried on next, for anyone would work. We were factory-regulated, manufactured zombies. Our personalities had been wiped, erased by fake smiles and name brand clothing. By eighth grade, my acting was perfected, and my camouflage complete.
Despite the fact that we had become even “closer” than ever, and had many other “friends” in our group, I felt that something was missing: Something from inside of me. I asked
you, “Are you happy with who you are?” only to be met with silence, and then laughter. “What kind of question is that? Of course I am. Look how many friends we have. Imagine if we had to sit over there, at the unpopular table!” You cried, gesturing wildly in their direction, with a look of sour milk upon your face, before jumping back into action, spewing forth the latest gossip like steam from an overheated teapot. My involvement had never been much required in a conversation like this, as you are perfectly capable of fueling your own train, and actually prefer to do so, leaving me to my own thoughts. Glancing around, I became conscious of the many other groups surrounding us, taking special notice to those at the supposed “unpopular” table. Their table was filled with colors and diversity, unique clothes and exciting haircuts, laughter dancing through the air. I might as well have been observing alien life forms. Turning back, I saw my tablemates with newborn eyes – the conservative clothing in solid prints and pastel coloring; the slight variations to the same straightened hair and long side bangs, and the fervent gossip. Was this really me?
Over the next few days, I recall becoming increasingly confused, questioning everything I had once found comforting in my consistent life. I must be exaggerating; I thought to myself, I just see the differences, the borders, because that is what I want to see. These are my friends; surely they would accept me no matter what I wore? No matter how I talked? Despite you being my best friend, and our oath to tell each other everything, I couldn’t find it in me to discuss this with you. I was afraid you would laugh, or worse, de-friend me. However at this, I found myself in yet another dispute, for true friends should be able to talk about this, right? True friends can confide in each other without the fear of disregard, correct? So I put it to the ultimate test, and I arrived at school in the purple leggings.
The Inquisition started in the bathroom by the gym with pointed, and clearly dismayed, glances up and down. Then dismay turned to disappointment, and disappointment to disgust. You told me, “Good friends don’t let each other embarrass themselves, right? So, I would be doing you a favor if I told you that is the ugliest outfit I have ever seen... I mean, no offence or anything, but how embarrassing! Do you really want Mr. Cutie to see you looking like this?! Besides, I saw you talking to that loser girl the other day, and I don’t want you to get any ideas. There’s a reason that she doesn’t have any friends. It’s because all her clothes look like this.” She waited for me to say something. I suppose I should have been offended, but I wasn’t. I was hardly even surprised. That was when I recalled all those other little comments: Things about my hair not being straight enough, or my pants being just a smidge too short. Those little digs at my self esteem that used to keep me awake, in tears, which I now took as part of day to day life. Looking in the mirror, I realized I didn’t recognize myself, and I was ashamed at what I saw.
When you didn’t get a response, you took one more look at the accursed leggings, and left in a huff. As routine, it would be my duty to call you later and apologize. I doubt either of us was aware that this time would be different. This time, there would be no phone call from me. Instead, I went home to write, something I had always enjoyed doing, but had stopped around the time we became friends. I wrote until it was dark: poems and short stories, an avalanche of thoughts crashing into the paper in a heap. I wrote until I could write no more, frantic to find myself somewhere in the jumble.
I didn’t find what I was looking for right away. But as the weeks followed, and I still did not approach you, I began to see bits and pieces of the girl I had once hoped to become. A girl who respected herself and others; who had integrity, and the courage to be herself, even when the whole world thought she was crazy. A girl who could wear purple leggings with a smile on her face; a girl I was happy to call myself.
I don’t know what went through your mind that day in the bathroom, nor do I know how you felt in the weeks and months to follow. Yet you never attempted to befriend me again. I suppose you thought I was angry, or possibly you were, but either way, our friendship ended that day. From that point on, I would no longer allow myself to drift, a piece of wood in a wrathful river, directed by the currents of others. It was time to hold my own.
Finding my gaze reflected in your eyes, I snap back to the present. People continue to whirl past us in an explosion of color, a sea of diversity; oblivious to the history we strangers share. I may be flattering myself, but in the last few seconds of that gaze, I could almost believe you understood. Maybe, just maybe, I will play a part in your discovery of yourself, as you played a part in mine. Thanks again, stranger, for showing me who I am. I will be eternally grateful.