Thursday, February 27, 2014

Monumental Impression: A Short Story

I got my first writing rejection email today! Yay me! Of course it's not exactly heartwarming to be officially rejected, but I have to say I'm more encouraged by this correspondence than deflated. I am a beginner after all, this being my first attempt at a short story. When I started writing this it was a rambling, confusing page long essay that my writer friend Jessika Fleck so kindly helped me flesh out and make more clear. My writing partner Erin also worked hard for me and I ended up with something I'm proud of, all things considered.

So, I'm choosing to completely ignore the heavy hint from the magazine and sharing it. I worked really hard, and I believe in sharing both my strengths and weaknesses hoping it will encourage at least one other person to face fears along with me and take a stab at something out of their comfort zone.

The instructions for the contest were: "Write about a mistake you've made in your life. Everything must be true." Special thank you to Hannah for being cool with me sharing this story.

I wonder how many people spend too much time regretting things they said or did when they were young and naïve? I have spent a good chunk of my adult life replaying memories of past mistakes, wishing I could transform them into something else. The logical part of my brain knows this is not necessary. I know in order to be a participating member of decent human interaction, mistakes are vital. Without them we would learn nothing. If I never had to swallow my pride and say the words “I’m sorry”, I would be one dimensional and cold. In theory, I am grateful for my imperfection. In reality, I would do anything to bury it forever.
I entered my seventh grade year with more meat on my bones than most of my peers.  While not exactly overweight, I was hiding under layers of bulky clothing in an attempt to disguise the extra pounds that had accumulated onto the boyish frame I was born with. My eyebrows were dark and thick, forcing me to experience the losing end of ridicule from an early age.  Sporting a bad perm, I was experimenting with thick bangs in an effort to detract attention from my unkempt eyebrows.  Accompanying my physical shortcomings was my propensity to become embarrassed at the slightest hint of discomfort with no ability to hide my feelings. At that age I burned most of my energy trying to blend in or, better yet, disappear altogether.

Before leaving for my first day of junior high, I willed a piece of dry toast down my throat as I attempted to look natural for my mother. Successful in my efforts, I then climbed into the passenger side of our gargantuan family suburban, the only vehicle big enough to seat seven children.  She and I were quiet during the short car ride to school and exchanged a quick goodbye before I hopped out, stomach acid bubbling and stinging the back of my throat. I swallowed hard and walked towards the gauntlet.

I approached the building, pasty cheeks burning at the thought of having to say hello to anyone, taking in the crowd of seventh and eighth graders waiting outside. The hedgerow covering my forehead collected sweat that then dripped into my eyes.  Not even the barricade of eyebrows was enough to protect them from the stinging liquid.

We stood, herd-like, in the parking lot outside the cafeteria waiting for the bell to ring. Stomach acid still bubbling, I decided to look for old classmates from elementary school, hoping a friendly face might calm me down.   As I searched I felt intimidated by the ease in which all the other kids, even my fellow seventh graders, were chatting it up.  It was as if the whole school had taken turns hosting pool parties over the summer and forgotten to include me.  They all seemed to know one another and were laughing, complaining and making fun of people and the first day of school hadn’t even begun.  The sickness in my stomach was beginning to turn a dangerous corner into “outta my way I’m gonna hurl” territory when the bell mercifully rang.

We hurried along to our lockers and then our first classes. Stomach calming as I found my way to each of my classes on time, I found a tentative rhythm and began to believe I might survive if I could just manage to focus on the mechanics of the day, boxing out any thoughts of socializing. In the hallways between classes, I kept my eyes glued to my class schedule, avoiding eye contact. 

By the time math class rolled around at the end of the day, I was feeling more relaxed, having settled into my antisocial rhythm.  I slipped through the door and chose a seat in front of a girl who reminded me of myself two hours earlier. Grasping onto her pencil with both hands as if she were trying to break it in half, our eyes connected and I recognized her panic. I managed a lightning fast smile before burying my nose in my class schedule, wanting to be sure I was in the right place, although I already knew I was.

Our teacher entered the room and started what I now recognized as the standard welcome spiel and passed around some handouts. In the gentle murmur accompanying the distribution of papers, I made more eye contact with the girl behind me, throwing in the occasional smile. By the end of class, as we stuffed our new textbooks into our backpacks I felt confident enough to spark conversation. Before I could change my mind and without looking up from the pressing work of zipping my backpack, I blurted out the only thing I could think of, “Ugh, I hate math” although I didn’t really hate math. I heard the quivering in my voice and started blushing. I wanted to take it back. The panic from that morning told me I should have quit while I was ahead and left the socializing for another day. Before the sweat on my forehead had a chance to collect, I was comforted by the matching tone in her response, “Me too.  I hope she doesn’t give us homework right away.” We stood up at the same time, introducing ourselves as we hoisted, with great effort, our backpacks onto our shoulders and headed out the classroom door together to find our lockers.
Getting to know Hannah was effortless. After that day our friendship blossomed into one of the closest I’ve had in my life, even into adulthood.  We had so much in common at times I felt we were the same girl in different bodies.  We made each other laugh so hard our bellies hurt every time we got together.  We shared a love of music and had regular dance parties in our living rooms to Billy Joel.  We cried over the same corny movies and were in complete agreement that every human being on earth should be required to get a dose of “Dirty Dancing” every other month at the very least.  We stayed up late during sleepovers, talking about our latest crushes and made up elaborate stories about what our first kisses would be like and who they would be with.  We made time capsules and buried them in spots around Hannah’s house, knowing full well we weren’t burying them deep enough to actually allow them to stay put very long. 

One evening at Hannah’s house, we were watching a movie neither of us had seen before.  I don’t remember anything about the movie other than a scene where two women were exiting a bedroom wearing bathrobes, surprised by an unexpected visitor.  It was clear the characters had been naked together in the bedroom and I was mortified. At that age, the thought of kissing anyone at all was scandalous.  Always one to lock the bathroom door while showering, for fear of being walked in on by anyone including my own mother, the idea of being naked with someone was too much for my shy, preteen imagination to bear.  Add to this a totally new concept of two women…well, I could barely keep my skeleton from jumping right out of my skin.

Trying to remain calm, I resisted the urge to run for cover by gripping the armrests of the oversized chair I was sitting in, determined to keep my body movement to a mere squirm in my seat.  Hannah and I tended to defer to humor whenever we were uncomfortable. So, assuming she also wanted to shrivel up and die of mortification, I said in an exaggerated, obnoxious, “trying too hard to be funny”  tone, “EEWWWWWW!!!”  I had been expecting Hannah to join in and help me overcome my panic as she always did, but she stayed quiet.  I managed to steel my way through the heart palpitations and was relieved to realize she hadn’t noticed my sweaty, red face as the moment passed.  We finished the movie in awkward silence.  I was more consumed with my discomfort over the actual movie to wonder why Hannah hadn’t matched my reaction so I left her house that evening without discussing it. 

A few weeks later during a sleepover at my house, we sat together in my darkened room defying sleep and sharing secrets.  We were trading confessions about personal fears, embarrassing stories, and crushes when Hannah said, “Remember when we were watching that movie a while ago and you were grossed out by those women? I’m sorry, but that was…well, I guess it disappointed me. You know, you don’t really know anything about any of that and I think it’s kinda rude to judge.”

I stammered, stalling for time as I considered my response.  I knew I had let her down for the first time in our friendship and wanted to take shelter in the nearest cave.  She was finally seeing the “real me”. The imperfect, immature, disappointing side of me she probably thought didn’t exist. Instead of retreating and changing the subject though, I decided to trust our friendship. I swallowed my embarrassment and managed to ask her to tell me more. I vowed to open my eyes to the world.  I wanted to do this for the sake of our friendship, but also because I knew she was right.

Hannah and I remained close into the beginning of high school but started drifting apart as we made friends in different social circles.   One day in high school I ran into her in the girl’s bathroom.  I was startled to notice her looking distraught and tearful.  We hadn’t talked in a while, but I instantly wanted to reach out.  I asked her what was wrong and she said, in an unconvincing, dismissive tone, “It’s nothing, I’m fine.”  In the moment, I knew we had lost our connection.  I told myself she was going to be okay because she had new friends she could talk to and that it was probably no big deal.  My gut told me it was something more but it wasn’t my place to pry.  I wasn’t her best friend anymore.  We eventually went our separate ways for college.

While on summer break during my college years I was visiting with a mutual friend of mine and Hannah’s.  I learned Hannah was doing very well, having come out of the closet that year.  I had never consciously considered the fact Hannah might be gay but at the same time wasn’t shocked. If she had started putting the pieces together during high school, I imagined how terrifying that must have been.  We grew up in a small rural town and people who were “different” were routinely teased and treated as outcasts.  Chances are, the bathroom moment had nothing to do with her sexuality, but it set me wondering if I had contributed to any fear she may or may not have felt while coming to this life changing realization. 

I thought of my reaction to the movie and worried it was the only picture of me Hannah had in her memory.  I pictured her in junior high, starting to suspect her sexual orientation and seeking acceptance from her best friend.  My heart broke as I put myself in her shoes, seeing that door slam in her face for the first time. I’ve never been able to shake the worry, even though the logical part of my brain knows we grew apart because of common adolescent circumstances. Still, if I had reacted differently to that movie, could I have had a chance to keep her company during what must have been a lonely, difficult path? I had blown it.

Since that time, I’ve seen Hannah once or twice and we’ve kept tabs on each other on Facebook.  She is married to her partner and they just had a beautiful baby girl.  I’m so happy for her and wish I was more a part of her life especially now that we are both mothers.  I occasionally comment on her photos and she and I have had a few friendly exchanges but I’ve resisted the urge to try and push my way back into her life. 
As I started writing this piece, I sensed a hesitation so stubborn, it was keeping the memories and words from flowing as freely as I had imagined they would.  I know Hannah is one hundred percent out of the closet, but was worried about respecting her privacy all the same. I wanted to check in with her to let her know I planned to write about this experience and our friendship.  I felt I had already disappointed her once and never let myself live it down. I didn’t want to feed that flame anymore. 

Before I lost my nerve I messaged her, telling her about the contest and my intentions. In just a few short minutes, I got Hannah’s reply which included, “'I’m so sorry if this is disappointing, but I don't remember the time you're talking about.  Absolutely don't mind you telling the story.  I hope I was respectful in the moment, and I'll work on remembering it eventually.”  I laughed out loud as I felt the self-inflicted shame rise off my shoulders in a cloud of mist and disappear into the air.  I had spent at least fifteen years worrying; worrying something I said when I was young and naïve could have made this monumental impression on Hannah when all that time the monumental impression was exclusive to me.   My reaction to the movie was the younger me trying to fit in with my peers.  It’s not who I am and it never was.  Of course Hannah would know that.  I couldn’t believe I had been so hard on myself and that I hadn’t given Hannah any credit at all.  Instead of assuming she judged me for a childish mistake, why hadn’t I had more faith in the friendship I knew we shared at the time and in the logical, forgiving person I’d always known her to be?

I wonder how many people do this kind of thing.  This isn’t the first time I’ve apologized to an old friend for some past friction or wrongdoing, only to find out the other person has no recollection of it.  Regret and shame are rude like that.  They hang on well past the “lesson learned” phase.  No matter how much we tell ourselves we’ve made amends and owned up to our mistakes, our attempt to show negative self-talk the door is undermined because the minute you turn your back to reach for the knob, it slips away and sets up camp in the spare bedroom.  I won’t make the same mistake the next time I open that door.

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