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I never looked you in the eye. I simply couldn’t, though I tried. Your harsh words and loud judgements formed an impermeable barrier between us. Every time I turned your way, an insult would forcefully divert my gaze.
“What is she doing here?” Your contempt-laced words bound my feet and guided them into taking a detour to my next class, which you just had to be in, of course. I wasn’t sure whether having the same schedule as you was a gift or a curse anymore, but I knew I had been ecstatic about it at the beginning.
In some ways, I still liked you enough to be glad for your attention. In others, I wished you would stop.
“God, what’s with her? Sucking up to the teacher, thinking she’s so much better than everyone else.”
I dropped my hand when I heard you whisper that to a friend from beside me.
“Yes? What is it?” Mr. Nately asked.
I hesitated. “Nothing, sir.”
He sighed in exasperation and you giggled when he turned his back. I fixed my gaze on the corner of my notebook, struggling to swallow the hurt.
Your friend sneered in answer, “Look at that. She just failed to get into a math teacher’s pants.”
I abused the thin lead of my mechanical pencil to distract myself and dissuade my wet eyes from crying. How I wished ostrich philosophy worked! If I can’t see you, then you can’t see me, I chanted in my head. If I can’t see you, then you can’t see me. Except I could see you clearly snickering in my mind.
You gave me the funniest look as I walked past you and out the door. I gripped my bag tighter, unable to forget how we used to be friends at some point. There was a good side to you. Did I not deserve to see it?
The whispers resumed before I was even out of earshot.
“Thinks she’s all that, the slut.”
“Seriously, all she cares about are looks and popularity.”
Your voice again: “I bet it’s all for Justin. Who else could she be trying so hard for?”
Justin didn’t mean a thing to me. But how could I say that with your friends boring holes into the back of my tormented mind with their judgemental stares? No, I never looked you in the eye. I would’ve surely fallen apart.
I couldn’t help but notice how you never referred to me by name, although I would whisper yours to myself all the time. I did have one, you know, and I wanted so much to hear you say it. Words always sound different pronounced by different people, and I wished for you to acknowledge me, tell me I mattered. I was also curious to see just how you would do it. Through a whisper, a shout? Casually, nervously, or harshly?
But no. I was nameless, just someone to glare at. Just someone to pour hatred towards. Why did you loathe me so? What did I ever do to you? You didn’t even know me, though you seemed so sure you did.
It really was an accident when I tripped you, but I couldn’t defend myself against your onslaught of words.
The worst part of getting screamed at was that you sounded like you really were the one wronged, and I the one at fault. I didn’t even have anger to dispel the guilt with. I couldn’t get angry at you, and my inability to do so frustrated me to no end. Do you know what I mean? When even the accused is somehow convinced of their own guilt, he or she has no chance of winning the trial.
My cowardly little feet betrayed me again, and I strode as quickly as I could without breaking into a run in the opposite direction, textbooks clutched to my tight chest.
I trudged home, the fresh snow making its way into my books, the sharp wind whipping my face, slicing my composure into thin ribbons that fell from my eyes. So unfair, I wanted to scream. What was I doing wrong? How could you say those things? I wasn’t who you thought I was. I wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t want to be like that. I couldn’t possibly be, could I?
That night, I shed the rest of my tears. Then I confronted myself in the mirror for the first time in months and shed my tainted skin. Turns out you were almost right about me. The eyes that stared back at me really were those of the person you would describe behind my back. But they weren’t mine. I was fake, a pretender. It wasn’t an easy thing to realize. I mumbled an apology, watching the lips of a person I didn’t recognize move with mine. She was as sorry as I was, so I dropped my mask, and let her became me. Slowly, not without difficulty, I peeled away the liar I had unknowingly become. The first breath of fresh air I took afterwards was worth all the effort and soul-searching.
I worried my parents with my absence on Christmas Eve, but they didn’t intervene. They never do. Deep in metamorphosis, I could not be interrupted or pulled from my cocoon. I don’t believe caterpillars ever think of themselves as ugly. They’ve always been butterflies on the inside. It just takes them a while to show their true selves to everyone else. Still, I was surprised with my wings and the new bright tint the world took that came with self-assurance.
It was a new year when next I saw you, and the classroom was filled with the excited overlapping chatter of friends updating each other on two weeks of events. Come to terms with myself, I walked in another person, with my head held high. A real person. You did not disappoint. You had your arms slung around Justin’s neck when I entered, but your lips parted and you detangled yourself as soon as you saw me.
“Who is she?”
I smiled and spun to face you without hesitation. My grin widened when I saw your uncertain expression. “I’m someone else. You don’t know me yet, but you will.” You had the prettiest eyes. “Trust me, you will.”
And this time, you would get it right.