02/25/2017

Confessions of a former bully

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K was not anybody’s friend. This was an understood truth, highlighted, tacked, and pasted firmly among all the other great commandments of the 7th grade. It was emblazoned at the middle of the list — a few rows down the pink Motorola Razr everybody had to own, a couple of items above the indomitable Jansport, the prized trade-in after one gave up her roller bag. K was not anybody’s friend because she had neither. She was also too tall, a bit smelly, a little too eager to please everybody with unfunny jokes. “She has like, five shirts,” I once said. The entire class laughed. K was not funny. But we were. My friends and I made sure everybody knew it.

And everybody did, because we were the girls who ate at the bleachers, chatted with boys on YM (Yahoo! Messenger), made snide remarks at the annoying substitute teacher and still managed to get decent marks on our report cards. We weren’t at the top of the class; we were better than that. We were cute, we were clever, and we were cool. And when you’re thirteen years old with a world the size of a gated, all-girls school — that was pretty much all you needed to be.

“We weren’t at the top of the class; we were better than that. We were cute, we were clever, and we were cool. And when you’re thirteen years old with a world the size of a gated, all-girls school — that was pretty much all you needed to be.”

K kept a diary. My friends and I found it one afternoon after lunchtime. The Lisa Frank journal, with a bright cartoon leopard at the front cover, was sandwiched in between her algebra textbook and grammar workbook. We snatched it, along with her other things. My friends juggled her pencil case and notebooks — a diversion we had proudly schemed — while I read her entries out loud. She wrote about all kinds of things: a twin separated at birth, a brush with death during a bus accident, a former boyfriend. “Why do you make up stories?” I said, slamming the journal shut. She pleaded at the audience I had gathered during my performance of mockery. Everything was true, she said.

We spent four more years lining up at every flag ceremony, walking the same hallway, taking the same quizzes and tests. Some years, we weren’t classmates; other years, she sat a desk or two behind me. I would make the occasional side comment, give that bump in the hallway, sneak that iconic eye-roll just to make people laugh. But in time, new distractions had surfaced: prom, college entrance exams, who-said-this-about-who-did-that. The fun and games had muted. When I received my acceptance letter from the university of my dreams, K became nothing more than background noise.

K and I did not speak after graduation, and when we parted ways during college we made no contact. Everything, after all, had changed. My friends and I had gone off to different schools, I moved into a condo, and I decided to take up creative writing — and this all happened only in my first year of college. I made friends, visited different cities, fell in love, got my heart broken, got into fights, wrote stories, lost a friend or two, took a summer semester abroad, wrote more stories, took an internship, wrote my first collection, fell in love, stayed in love, won an award for that first collection. And as I sat in the big auditorium with my name flashed on the screen, it dawned onto me that I had devoted all these years to telling stories. “Why do you make up stories?” I asked myself.

“When you’re in your twenties, you concede that a human heart is built way too small to contain the life that awaits it. It’s got to grow up a little. It’s got to be cracked, opened up, breathed through, lived in a little.”

A few months after I finished college, I drove past my high school. It looked the same as I had left it — but not quite. The old soccer goal still leaned against the back wall of the elementary building, the flowerpots were still neatly lined up behind the green gate, young girls chased grasshoppers in the field. The bleachers, our former place of reign, looked slightly slightly crooked, slightly faded, slightly smaller than before. I suddenly remembered K, clutching the diary that I had thrust into her hands. What about her stories? Were they real? Did it have to matter, for them to be true?

I don’t know what K is up to now. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m up to either. I think about this as I sit at my desk in the office, the clock ticking the hours away. When you’re in your twenties, you concede that a human heart is built way too small to contain the life that awaits it. It’s got to grow up a little. It’s got to be cracked, opened up, breathed through, lived in a little.

And I wish I knew this when I was thirteen, when I held in my palm the kind of certainty and confidence that left no room for vulnerability — much less a diary that may have told truer stories than mine.

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