I got hurt when I was twelve. Not the scraped-knee-holler-for-the-nurse-she's-bleeding type. It was the chest-clenching, stomach-flipping, hot-faced, look-over-your-shoulder-what-if-they're-gonna-throw-something, please-don't-be-talking-about-me, eye-stinging, wide-eyed, finger-quivering kind. It was the kind that sometimes sent me home choking back tears, left me lying awake in the dead of night, wondering if life was supposed to be this lonely. For three years it left me picking up the pieces of myself and still managing to miss a few. I got bullied.
I was four-foot ten inches tall, a walking definition of awkward under my baggy sweatshirt and cargo pants, trying to figure out how I was supposed to fit in. I envied them all. The laughing, beautiful girls who I never saw walking alone. I wanted to be pretty too. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to like myself. I somewhat regretted my answer to my dad's question posed to me at age four: "Smart, or pretty?" Without any scruples I cheerily replied, "Smart!"
Look where that got me, I used to think sourly. I had my writing, though. I wrote copiously, I read fan fictions, I had a small circle of friends, I was a special favorite of several teachers. I felt that even if I wasn't pretty or likable or interesting that at least I had a decent existence—I never went hungry, I had loving parents, I had sisters, I had an adorable kitten, I could play, "Tequila," on the clarinet without sheet music, I had a work ethic, I wrote well, and I was a loyal friend. At least I have these things, I used to think to myself. When I reminded myself of this, I was able to smile and mean it.
Then there were the days when I had to pack up to go to Dad's house in the city because my parents had separated two years earlier, the days when I looked in the mirror and saw my frizzy hair, the days when everyone seemed to loom over me, the days when I didn't like being looked at for too long, and the days when I tripped at least six times and received a good mocking from my peers; but I was okay, and I knew that.
My best friend within that school was a boy I'd known since first grade named Keith. He was just as awkward as me. He had problems, he wanted to fit in, and we both shared a lot of the same classes and a lot of the same opinions. We sat at a lunch table towards the back of the cafeteria alone together on a daily basis. We were sometimes forced to sit with people like us that Keith didn't like. I told him to deal with it.
Eventually, more of our friends joined us at our table. They were mainly Keith's friends, but I knew some of them, and I was happy to make new friends. Then one day it happened. I was moving to sit in my chair, and it was gone. My stomach lurched as I fell onto the ground on my backside. I was staring up at my table, stunned. Why was I on the ground? I could've sworn it was there—
For a moment, there was silence as I looked around, searching for the culprit, wondering, Who did this to me? Then I met Keith's eyes, and in his hand was my chair. A boy across the room stifled a laugh. Then he released it, and the entire cafeteria joined him. My face burned, my eyes stung with tears that I didn't want to fall, and I wanted the Earth to swallow me whole. I stood quickly.
"Keith, why'd you do that?" I yelled.
"Because," he grinned at me. He started to laugh too. In that he betrayed me. He had joined Them.
"It was just a joke," one of my other friends said between laughs. "C'mon, admit it. It was funny." No, it wasn't, I was screaming in my head. It's not funny! Stop laughing, stop laughing, stop laughing, please—but they didn't. They wouldn't. I slowly took my seat and tried not to make too big of a deal of it. It was just a joke, right?
Soon Keith wasn't hanging around with me anymore. He'd joined Them, laughing with Them, going from class to class with Them—the people I despised and envied, the people who didn't hesitate to conform to trivialities, the people that mocked me on a regular basis—and Keith joined Them.
"Keith, how are you?" I asked him one day.
"I'm great," he smiled. "Why?"
"Never mind," I smiled nervously.
Keith and I, being best friends and having the same schedules, sat together in every class. At first when he started pulling away, he would at least humor me with small talk. Then it changed.
"You know that nobody likes you, right? You're just a weirdo who runs around like a monster," he told me one day in science. I wanted to die.
"Don't pay attention to it," Dad told me while reading his newspaper. "Just walk away."
In technology I'd chosen him and my friend Jerry to be my partners. We had to build a mechanism that would include the parts of a machine to deliver a marble from top to bottom with human interference only occurring once. Jerry, Keith and I had a great amount of difficulty with this task. I was the typist, Keith was in charge of the hot glue gun, and Jerry put the pieces of cardboard together.
"Damn, it fell again!" I would exclaim upon its numerous collapses.
"Well, maybe if you weren't in this group, it wouldn't," Keith replied once. I shut my mouth instantaneously. It was a December day when I curved the slide for the marble at an angle that it didn't fall.
"I got it!" I yelled, grinning.
"Great. Now you've been promoted from useless moron to village idiot," Keith deadpanned.
"If I'm a village idiot, then you're the dunce," I snapped.
"Hey, Keith, she's working too. She gets the questions done every day and helps with the building. Calm down," said Jerry.
"You try calming down when you have to put up with this every day." He gestured to me. Another knife plunged into my back.
In early December, Keith left me to the dogs. I sat at a table alone at lunch every day, nervously writing a new book. I felt the heat of stares scorching my face and my back and my neck. I hated the cafeteria. There was a table of girls nearby, laughing, and that was when I decided that I hated Them. I threw my backpack strap over my shoulder, wincing at the weight of it. I lugged it outside the cafeteria, staring up at the lightbulbs, counting them. What if all of this wasn't real? Then something hit me in the shoulder and clattered to the ground. All the chatter in the hallway silenced. I turned slowly.
A chocolate milk box was laying in a puddle of chocolate milk. The stuff was splattered all across the hallway, on the lockers, the floor, the walls; and it was dripping from my hair. Face burning, I fled from the scene into the girls' locker room, where I threw down my backpack, washed my hoodie and my hair, wringing the chocolate milk out and hoping that no one noticed how damp my sweater was. I hoisted my backpack up and emerged from the locker room, pretending not to exist. So Keith had allies now.
The next day I entered the cafeteria, I realized that in only two weeks it would be Christmas break. I was crossing my fingers, hoping that no other incidents occurred, that maybe I'd catch a break from Them as a sort of Christmas decency. Then I saw Keith sitting at my table. I froze. I approached it slowly, sitting there. If I just pretend he's not there, he'll go away, I reasoned. I took out a book and began to read.
"You know, you're pretty stupid," he told me. I was certainly stupid enough to reply.
"So, how else would you describe yourself these days?" I looked up from my book. I decided that I'd be honest.
"I'm a coward, I'm weak, I'm worthless, I'm useless, I'm scum, I don't deserve to live, and I'm ugly." He nodded along with each and every word as if I'd finally learned my lesson.
"Good." He walked away. I was reminded of a story my Dad told me once.
"Our old cats were named Gabby and Rowan. The two of them were a pair of hunting cats. They used to rip chipmunks and birds apart and they'd put the remains on the driveway. It was almost like a really morbid art display that they liked to deal us. I remember this one time, they had a rabbit between them. It was shrieking, shaking. They were circling it, and me and your Mom knew that they were gonna pounce soon. So we got in the middle of it and got the rabbit out of there." It then struck me that no one was intervening for this rabbit.
I walked the halls of my middle school watching a friend of mine, Randy, get beaten up on a daily basis. I wanted to help Randy, to call out the attacker, but I was too scared. I was a coward. I didn't know if I could take being tormented by even more people.
A group of girls sat by me in the auditorium one day as I was writing. Their leader, a blond girl, asked me,
"What're you writing?"
"A book," I replied. I couldn't really hate Them when they were talking to me.
"What's it about?" My heart jumped, and for the first time in weeks, there was a little spark of happiness in school.
"Well, it's about a girl named Navia who lives in another world. She's part of an illegal organization called Kaiteké—" I stopped. They were laughing. Then, afterwards, the blond asked me,
"What would you do if you got asked out?" I flared up in anger. She was one of Them. I hated Them. They hurt me, they hurt me, they hurt me—
"I'd punch the person," I said. Because it'd be a joke, a dare, like that time when Mike sat with me because his friends bet that I wouldn't let him sit at my table but I did because I found someone who also liked Naruto and didn't treat me like a freak and I needed to talk to someone—I hated Them.
In the cafeteria, I was writing when I heard the blond at the other table say to her friends,
"And I asked her what she'd do if she got asked out, and she said that she'd punch the person!" The entire table gawked, then started laughing as if she'd told the funniest joke in the world. My pencil snapped in my hand. I was a coward.
The next Friday was the day before holiday break. My then best friend Katie had just moved into my lunch period and was also friends with Keith. She said to Keith and me,
"Look. Why don't we just have a day of neutrality? You don't have to be friends. Just be civil. We'll all sit at a table together." I wanted to punch her, but because she was my best friend, I sucked it up and sat there at the same table as him. She started asking us about our plans for break, and I started blabbering about my family problems. Keith listened the entire time, and so did Katie.
The day we got back from Christmas break, while we waited to enter Mt. Hebron, Katie shouted,
"Her dad is such a polygamist!" I froze.
"Katie," I murmured, "why'd you say that? That's not even true—He just has a girlfriend, that's all—"
"Might as well be the same thing," she shrugged.
"But it's not. Don't talk about him that way," I said. "Please."
Then I started hearing the rumors when I was inside the school—
"She's desperate for attention. So desperate that she spilled her whole sob story to Keith—"
"She's so weird—"
I was surrounded by it and I had nowhere to go. I isolated myself at the back of the classroom, but I could still hear the whispers.
The people I used to consider friends abandoned me, left me to Keith's biting criticisms and mockeries. They watched it happen. Maybe they weren't watching that closely. Maybe they didn't even notice, maybe they didn't even care. I got hurt.
I was walking home that day when I realized that maybe I was better off dead. I had no real value, I was plain, I was a frightened rabbit when I used to be a smiling girl. Look at me, every day walking away, I thought. I stopped in the middle of an intersection. Maybe…what if I got hit by a car? A car stopped at the last minute in front of me, and honked at me. I walked away. I was afraid of death. I was a coward.
There was only one instance when someone caught on, when someone stepped in on behalf of the rabbit. His name was Eric.
We were in Spanish, and we had to create a picture book. The groups were assigned by table, so of course I was in a group with Keith. Eric was also in our group, and he put me in charge of half of the drawing. Keith got the other half. We were all to do coloring and writing detail.
"Your pictures are all so doom and gloom," Keith joked. "Life really hates you, doesn't it?"
"Keith, stop it," said Eric. Eric put down his pencil and looked Keith right in the face. "Can't you see that she's hurting?" I went stock still. In a year when I struggled to even meet people's eyes, I managed to meet his. I wanted to cry. Someone cared.
"I didn't know a thing could feel," retorted Keith.
"I'm not a thing," I said quietly.
"Last I checked, things do nothing, say nothing, and are nothing. You fit the description pretty well," he countered.
"She's not a thing. Quit being a jerk," said Eric. "It's disgusting to watch." When I went home that day, I cried of relief—so I really was worth something. I existed for a reason. It was okay. Someone cared. Someone cared about me other than my parents and to me, on that day, it made all the difference. I sobbed for at least three hours that day, just because I was so happy that I meant something to someone, that a human being had finally stepped in to save the rabbit.
Keith got bored of bullying me sometime in spring. I was beneath his notice once he finally achieved the level of popularity he wanted. I knew that They were going to cast him back into my lot, but I kept my mouth shut. Karma had a way with people, I decided. Even with me. I just wanted to know: What did I do wrong? I was a coward, I thought. That's what I did wrong. By the end of that year, I didn't know how to talk to another person while meeting their eyes, without mentioning a manga or explosions, or going red in the face. I forgave Keith three years later, but I never forgave the people who watched.