The Journey to Friendship

A memoir

By Gabrielle Plainte

Seventh-grade was going to be a good year, I kept telling myself. Better than last year, when I really had no group of friends to hang out with. I had a couple of friends that I spent time with, Diane and Jade, but I seldom spent time with them in school.

Diane’s friends tolerated me at best, and I had an inkling that a few of them didn’t like me. Jade and her friends were always popular, always had boyfriends and crushes, and were always doing fun activities after school together. I yearned to be a part of that; Jade’s girl friends thought I was invisible, and her guy friends thought I was a joke.

This year, though, that was going to change; I was going to find a group of friends, where everyone wanted to be around me, and we would all be best friends. It would be the experience I saw everyone else have and read about in novels. Even if I had only one best friend, one real friend, I could finally be happy.

This year there was a new girl in school, Maya. She had pretty dark brown hair and eyes, that reminded me of Jade. This was Maya’s first day here, so she couldn’t have possibly heard anything about me yet. I hadn’t seen her talk to many people and decided to take the opportunity to talk to her.

I often talked to the new kids, hoping to befriend them before anyone else had the chance to spoil it for me. Once they got know more of my classmates, they stopped talking to me altogether. Their cold stares told me what their words didn’t; I wasn’t friendship material.

One time, I even analyzed which group in school that I would most likely be accepted in. I wrote down each of the cliques of girls in my grade, underlining those I thought liked me and circling those I thought didn’t. It was impossible to find one group in my entire grade that didn’t have someone who made it clear that I was an outsider.

I managed to gather up the courage to introduced myself to Maya at lunch. I asked her if she wanted to sit with me, after choking a few times on my words. Shit, I hope she doesn’t think I’m weird already. My heart pounded audibly in my ears while I wait a few seconds for her to reply. She didn’t meet my eyes while she pondered the idea; instead, she chose to stare off into the crowded lunchroom.

Finally, I thought Maya had said yes, but I doubted I heard her above all the noise in the cafeteria. Maya followed me to the long lunch line to wait for our food, confirming that she had indeed agreed to sit with me.

“Where did you move from?” I asked her while standing in line. Today, it seemed to be moving at an exceptionally slow pace. My voice was barely louder than a whisper and I couldn’t hear it over my racing heart.

“I’m from Worcester,” Maya replied. I had a vague idea of where that was; a city that wasn’t as far as Boston but didn’t have as many skyscrapers. My father had taken me on a drive through Worcester one time. Dad had been yelling about my mother’s, as well as my own, spending habits creating additional debt.

“We’re poor then,” I yelled back.

I didn’t believe that; I just hoped my comment would shut him up. Dad stopped for a second, staring at me with an expression of shock and anger, his teeth pulled back into the mockery of a smile. I stood there, waiting for a reaction, unmoving.

“We’re not poor,” Dad said, his voice finally quiet. “I’m going to show you what being poor is like.” Dad got in the car and drove through areas where I saw small brick apartments, triple-deckers with peeling paint, abandoned buildings, and children playing in parking lots.

My father informed me that this paled in comparison to New York City, where I could be shot for just driving in the wrong part of town. Dad’s family had grown up without a lot of money and he had lived in Worcester during his middle school years, therefore, I took his opinion as an expert.

This drive was a stark contrast from the drives Dad took me on to gawk at the mansions in Worcester; houses so large they resembled the mansions I dreamed of living in. He would

promise me someday I would live in a house like that.

Maya asked me where I wanted to sit after we got our food. I suggested a single table, with two chairs, stating that the other tables looked full. The tables were attached to the wall, and most of them were empty, save for one boy sitting by himself. I wasn’t sure what table would permit me to sit there. I didn’t want to sit with anyone that would give Maya a bad impression when she inevitably talked to other students.

“That’s fine,” Maya agreed. “Everyone else I’ve talked to seems kind of annoying anyways.” I felt an immediate kinship to her; one day here and she could see what kind of people these kids were.

We sat at the table and ate the square pizza that tasted like cardboard with melted cheese. Neither of us ate much of it, and after that, Maya started bringing lunch to school. Maya asked me if I had any siblings, seeming genuinely curious. The conversation had hit a lull, but unlike other people she seemed interested in keeping it going. Usually, it was left for me to break the awkward silence. I always said something stupid and the person I was talking to wouldn’t respond.

“I have an older sister,” I replied, and the thought of her left an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. “I have a niece too.” I added, wanting to seem interesting to Maya.

I didn’t know my sister. To me she was myth; someone I imagined I would know one day share all my secrets to and she would tell me how to be popular in school. My sister was a mother, and unlike mine she would have all the answers and tons of friends. I secretly willed her to show up and take me too; I was independent, and she wouldn’t need to take care of me like an infant. “How about you?”

“I have three older sisters,” Maya said, answering my question. “We are close. One of my sisters is only one grade ahead. She’s my best friend.” I was immediately jealous. I always wanted a large family, siblings to protect each other and pass the never-ending hours of childhood together.

“Lucky,” I exclaimed. “My sister and I aren’t close. She’s thirteen years older than me.” I spoke quickly, making sure to give an excuse for the reason my sister and I weren’t close. What person in their twenties would want to hang out with a thirteen-year-old? However, Jade always said she had college friends from the cheerleader camp she went to in the summer with her other friends. I tried out for cheerleading after Jade encouraged me to do it as a way to spend time together, but I was too clumsy to make the team.

After my outburst, Maya steered the conversation in a different direction. Perhaps she sensed I didn’t want to talk about my sister. The last time I saw my sister was third grade, when my Dad heard through email that Stella had a child, Faye. My parents and I drove to Southbridge to visit her. She lived in an apartment with dark wood walls and spent most of the time talking to my parents. I can’t recall the subject of their conversation, but I did enjoy holding my infant niece. She was chubby and bald, but one of the cutest babies that I had ever laid eyes on.

The lunch I spent with Maya was the start of the new best friendship I had been hoping for. We did everything together; we carved pumpkins for Halloween, saw all the latest movies, and had sleepovers every weekend. Every day, Maya and I ate lunch together, segregated from my mean classmates and false friends. We bought matching best friend necklaces and took pictures together that had “best friends” written in pink lettering across the top.

It was exactly what I had pictured, my best friend and I against the world. I was so busy with Maya I barely had time to see Jade. She would call to make plans and I would say I was busy; I was the busy one for once, not just out with family. I liked to think that the distance made her jealous of my new friendship with Maya.

One night, in mid-October, Jade and I managed to find time in our busy schedules to get together. We lay in my pink room, a color that I chosen when I was still a child. This really isn’t me now, I thought to myself as Jade talked in the darkness. We were talking until we fell asleep, as we usually did on sleepovers. I loved this part of when Jade slept over; sharing secrets in the night that would never see the light of day.

“You’ve been hanging out with that new girl a lot,” Jade remarked, finally confronting the issue that had been making the whole night awkward. “Darla, right?”

“Maya,” I corrected. “She’s wicked nice and actually likes to hang out with me in school. It’s great.” I responded with a false happiness in my voice. Maybe Jade would take the hint and she would tell me why she doesn’t treat me like her other friends.

“Well, you should talk to her,” Jade said quickly, the irritation evident in her tone. “I’m not sure she likes you very much.” Before I could ask why, Jade went on. “I heard her say you were annoying to someone.” Jade’s voice lingered on annoying the way a teacher went over an important vocabulary word in class.

“That girl was probably just talking shit,” I defended; it wouldn’t have been the first time someone talked shit about me. “Maya just slept over last night.” She wouldn’t have slept over if she thought I was annoying. Jade was just envious of my friendship with Maya.

Jade was silent after that, her faced scrunching up as if the room suddenly smelled horrible. The silence was uncomfortable, and I escaped to get a glass of water.

Dad was at the dining room table, headphones in ears, and Mom was asleep, so no one noticed me sneak into the kitchen. I stood there for a few minutes, in the stillness of my house at night, staring out of the window into the blackness.

I suddenly wished Jade wasn’t here and I was alone, with the comfort of my fantasy novels. It would have much better if God had made me a magical heroine in another world; I am more suited for that than I am being trapped in middle school.

“Do you want to practice?” Jade asked me when I returned to my room. “I’m going on a date this weekend.” The coldness from earlier was gone, and she spoke warmly.

I said yes before I lost my nerve, and Jade kissed me, the way she had so many other times before. Her lips were soft and warm, the way I remembered. “Practicing” was something Jade I did to prepare ourselves for when we would have boyfriends, she would say. The first time she asked me, I was uncertain, but I didn’t want to upset her. Jade told me that’s what she and her other popular friends would do at sleepovers; I wanted to be like them, so I did as she asked. It wasn’t so bad after a while. This night, like many other nights, I let Jade kiss and touch me the way she wanted to.

“Do you think we’re gay?” Jade asked me later while I stared at the plastic stars on my ceiling.

“No, we’re not,” I said quickly. Practicing wasn’t real; that’s why it was practice. “We could possibly be bi, but you could still date guys.” I knew one bisexual girl from school, Raven, my friend Diane’s friend. We were never close, but we talked sometimes in gym class. She was normal; maybe being bisexual wouldn’t change me into someone else. I could never tell my parents though; I didn’t want to hear them yell.

Jade never replied.

I discovered a few weeks later that Jade was right about Maya. When the bell rang at the end of the day, one of Jade’s friends told me Maya had cut the “best” part off of the best friends pictures of us. We took them at the movies one day in the photobooth and kept a copy of them in our lockers.

I went to Maya’s locker to confront her about cutting the pictures. My heart began racing and my palms began to sweat. Not this again. What did I do now? Was she mad at me? A million thoughts went through my head as I attempted to discern the reason for her actions. Maya was still holding a pair of red scissors in her hands when I found her. The photo strip hung at an awkward angle in her locker, and she had cut the top half of “friends” off along with the “best.”

“Why are you doing this?” I half yelled, half cried. A few students turned to look at me. At this point I was shaking, and I didn’t care if anyone was staring. I needed to know what I had done wrong.

“I thought I talked to you about this,” Maya responded calmly, referring to a conversation we had the other day. Maya had said she wanted to sit with other people at lunch a few days a week. I figured she just wanted to make other friends; that was something I wanted too.

“I want some space,” Maya continued, looking away from me. “I think it’s weird you don’t want to sit with anyone else at lunch, and you never want to invite anyone else when we hang out.” She paused for a second, taking a deep breath. “You’re kind of clingy; and it’s annoying. I think we should be friends and not best friends.”

I stood there unmoving, anger preventing me from speaking. Eternity passed before I was able to mutter “fuck this” and walk away. I ran to the bathroom, my eyes blurring with the stupid tears I struggled to contain. Everyone was leaving school, staring at my puffy red face as I ran by.

I ran into the girl’s bathroom and stood on the toilet, so I couldn’t be found. I wanted to be alone and keep this embarrassment to myself. I heard the door open and a teacher came into the bathroom. I forced myself to be silent, struggling not to fall off the toilet and alert the teacher to my presence. A few moments later, the teacher walked out.

“Did you find her?” I heard a male voice say from on the other side of the bathroom door.

“No, I didn’t see her,” the teacher responded. I could picture the teacher shaking her head at me.

“She sure cries in school a lot,” the male voice pointed out. He sounded almost exasperated with me. The part of me that secretly hoped the teacher found me, the desire for a chance to confide in someone, left. I was suddenly relieved neither of them had discovered my cheap hiding spot. They walked away before I could eavesdrop on any more of their conversation.

The following day I begged my parents to stay home from school. I couldn’t face the stares and whispers from my classmates. I didn’t want to sit alone at lunch or beg Jade to let me sit with her and her other friends. Jade and I had barely spoken since our last sleepover. I confided in Mom and Dad that I had a fight with Maya, but I refused to tell them why.

Mom would only say that she knew Maya was bad news to begin with, as she disapproved of our friendship from the start. She considered Maya to be trouble and had made it clear that I shouldn’t have trusted her to begin with.

Dad was busy with work or whatever he did on the computer and told me we could talk about it tomorrow. In the end though, Dad let me stay home from school and Mom stayed home herself. Mom decided to take me to the mall, knowing with her maternal instincts shopping would improve my sullen mood.

“All your friends at school will be envious of your new purse,” Mom said to me, as she bought me my first Coach bag. Perhaps if one of my classmates complimented me on my purse it could help me start a conversation with them. “Just don’t tell your father I bought this.” That was typical statement of hers if she spent over a hundred dollars on me in one day. When there was a dance, I had to sneak the new outfit into my room and hide it in my closet to prevent Dad from finding it.

This time I wasn’t successful at hiding my new purse from my Dad. I left the bag in the kitchen, and Dad found the receipt. Dad was quickly angered upon his discovery how much money Mom had spent that day.

They started their age-old fight about the finances, yelling loud enough to scare both Dragon and Forest, our two cats, downstairs. Normally, Forest was the one that was always afraid, but today Dragon ran from the noise. I followed suit and spent the rest of my night in my room, surrounded by the comfort of my headphones and the current novel I was reading. Dad and I never have an opportunity to speak about what happened with Maya, but by then I had forgotten all about it.

The two-day hiatus I took from school gave me the perspective I needed. I dreaded the alternative of sitting alone during lunch, which allowed me to overcome my fear and ask a girl from my homeroom to sit with me. By sitting with Elsie, I was able to get to know her friends, Ginger, Jasmine, and Linda. The five of us quickly became inseparable, and I finally I had the clique of friends I had daydreamed about.

It was perfection; we were the ideal characters in a Disney Channel movie. We shared our secrets, had sleepovers every weekend, exchanged presents on Christmas, went to dances together, and attended everyone’s birthday parties. It was the perfect illusion, and eventually I had to see the ugly reality. My friends began excluding me and hiding their plans from me. I was never explicitly told of their transgressions, but by then I recognized the signs.

In an attempt at petty revenge, I insulted two of them behind their back. A few hours later all four of my friends knew what I had said, and finally found a justifiable excuse to stop speaking to me altogether. I tried apologizing, in the form of a letter, but not one of them could absolve me of my sins.

When my fourteenth birthday came that June, I realized how much I was dreading the start of eighth grade in the fall. I was alone, and I had exhausted all my options for friends. I couldn’t bear hearing their taunting laughter in the halls, or facing their cold stares on my back, alone. I couldn’t sit alone in the cafeteria, watching everyone else smile and laugh at jokes that I never found funny. I couldn’t hear the cruel remarks from classmates I was once friends with, once confided in.

I needed to escape, to be free from it all. An idea began forming in my mind, a plan that would make each day bearable, maybe even enjoyable.

“Dad, can I talk to you about something?” I asked, one abnormally hot day in late June. My voice was low, and I was unsure if my father even heard me. I needed this to go well, even

my tone needed to perfect.

Dad looked up from his computer, meeting my eyes. He studied my face before replying, “What is it, honey?”

“I can’t go back to that school, Dad,” I answered, my voice breaking in the middle. Tears stung my eyes, and I held them back, keeping the promise I had to myself earlier; I would keep my composure. Dad waited patiently for me continue. “I was thinking, maybe, you could homeschool me this year.” The words rushed out before I lost my courage. “You can set the times you show houses, so maybe-” I trailed off.

Dad waited an eternity before he responded to me. He stared at his laptop screen, as if that held the answers to what he was thinking. I stood there without speaking, waiting for the reply I hoped he would give. The steady drum of my heartbeat was the only sound in the room.

Part of me thought Dad would say yes; I been talking to him about my problems at school for the past few weeks. He had been the one to suggest that I write the letters to my former group of friends, after talking about it for a few hours. Dad was sympathetic to my plight, and there was a chance he would say yes. But I was as fearful for his reply as I was hopeful. Dad worked as a realtor, and I wasn’t certain he would have the time to homeschool me, even if he could make his own schedule.

“I can homeschool you,” Dad finally said. “We will have to figure some things out, but I can do it.” I could not maintain my composure any longer, and the tears I was holding back blurred my vision. Dad stood up and gave me a hug, and through my tears of sadness and relief, one thought went through my mind. I am finally free.

My flash of intuition turned out to be right, I truly was free. After my one-year break of homeschooling, I returned to public school, this time to attend the regional high school. The high school was larger than the middle school, made up of students from five towns. The kids I had known were only a fraction of those students, one-fifth of the five hundred students in my grade. I was able to attend a school where most of the students didn’t know my name and start over; in a way we all did.

I made lasting friendships, with others that had similar experiences I did. We were not a group of a few, we were many. I found friends not only to pass time with, but to confide in and learn from. An argument wasn’t equivalent to the termination of a friendship. The life lessons learned in middle school became obsolete; I was liberated. My long and arduous journey to friendship was finally over.

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