The day I met Sage, her hair was a long auburn undercut. When we became friends, she had cat eyes drawn on, and her hair had turned black. She’d twisted it into a French braid and flowered it with tiny claw clips. When we’d grown to be best friends, she had her bangs bleached. Caramel was blended into her raven head.
The next week, I walked into her room; the walls were covered with pictures, the ceiling scattered with Asian lanterns, hanging voodoo dolls, and cords of rainbow lights. She sat at her mirror, her hair cropped to her head. A few days later I watched as she drowned it in turquoise dye.
On her eighteenth birthday, I held her hand as she got a tattoo of the plant that shares her name. Last Friday she strode out in a cherry red jacket, and her pixie hair was midnight again. She is a chameleon, but to me, she never changes.
Sage likes to play with her appearance. She expresses herself using hair dye, piercings, tattoos. She is a canvas, and, slathered with color, declares, “This is who I am.”
At one point, for me, she was that simple. I met Sage at our friend Isabelle’s School of Rock show in Baltimore. After I listened to the blonde fairy Isabelle play way too many Van Halen songs on bass – a colossal instrument compared to her tiny frame – I was introduced to Sage. I instantly thought she was cool; I liked her clothes and jewelry. She talked to me about art. I’m still trying to imagine where this story would have gone if that interaction had been our last. Sage could have stayed this static figure in my brain indefinitely. I’d have one memory as my evidence that she even existed. Her feathery reddish hair, an octopus ring, a septum piercing, a soft yellow hat, black boots, and a trivial discussion about the most beautiful art form – that is all she would have been to me.
Our friendship didn’t end there, but at the time I had no clue how little I knew about her. I see Sage now with different eyes. A stranger sees Sage as a girl with tattoos; he doesn’t see a smiling four-year-old who first glimpsed her passion watching the Nutcracker ballet. A stranger waits at a stoplight and looks over at the girl in a Black Flag T-shirt, hardcore punk blaring from her car stereo; he doesn’t see her turning in ribbon-laced shoes on stage with a Russian dance company. A stranger sees neon hair but doesn’t see the girl who feels the saddest fact is that “the world we live in has more flaws than anyone could fix.” A stranger couldn’t see the girl I know, a best friend, a person who made me realize that appearances say nothing; they are superficial shadows of all that someone is.
I’ve learned that you have to understand a person in order to love them. To strangers, I am only a character. I lack dimension. I am a doll, a puppet, not yet a real girl. They can ascribe qualities to me at will; they can manipulate my strings in their minds. They see only the surface and have no reason to believe their sentiments aren’t real.
When you see others for what they are, you discover how they hurt, how the world has been rough with them, how they think, whom they trust and love. You recognize that the image you initially constructed of them is not the truth. It was only an idea. Tragically often, you’ll find that your acquaintances’ true natures aren’t what you hoped for. Their formerly captivating façades are shattered, and you are disappointed. You feel lied to, but it’s only you who’s been the liar; you cannot genuinely love people for who you wish they were.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.