I never wanted to be your friend. During lunch hour in the schoolyard, I would notice you following me from a distance, waiting for a break in the circle I had formed with Ashley, Audrina, and Kirsten. Eventually you would stand just next to me, and we let you in kindly enough, shifting our conversation from girlhood gossip to the small-talk of sixth grade: Mr. B's homework, the opacity of pre-algebra, the agony of mandatory orange gym shirts. I knew, proper little Christian that I was, that I must be nice to you, talk to you, but in the evenings I would complain to my mother, "We can't talk about anything important while she's there! You can't just make someone be your friend!" I was more than content with a very small number of people I deemed worthy of friendship. I still ranked these friends, with all the seriousness of childhood, into degrees and ranks. Only the year before, Elissa and I had, after two years of being "second-best friends," promoted one another to the status of "best friend." By sidling up to me day after day, you violated my rigid laws of affection and loyalty.
But Elissa was in China with her family that year, and I might have cast aside my petty rules if I had liked you. But I didn't like you. I didn't like you because you made me sad.
I was odd and awkward in my own ways at 12 years old, but I was clever enough and pretty enough to be liked in spite of my eccentricity. You wore sweat pants to school each day, you smelled strange, and your conversation moved in timid, fluttering circles. I remember you telling me again and again about your brother, and how you were going to give him new pajama pants for Christmas because he always had holes in the seat of his. Your brother, I knew, was nearly 20, and for some reason the state of his pajamas struck me as a sign of sickness or dysfunction. I worried about your home--a home where no one was making sure people dressed properly, or washed regularly or taught you about things like bras and deodorant and schoolwork.
I remember a day when, in our English class, we picked texts for our book reports. I knew you loved the Little House on the Prairie, but someone claimed that book before you could. When it was your turn to choose, you sat blankly, biting your lip. I felt sick and cried for you as I walked home, but I never told you how sorry I was.
Your isolation hurt me, but I always kept a distance, never allowing kindness to grow into something that would connect me to your slattern life. Instead, I channeled my anxiety into trying to fix you. What you needed, my friends and I decided, was Help. When you would join our circle, we would begin discussing, for example, how many times a week we washed our hair--never asking you directly, but hoping that you might think, "Ah! So one must wash the hair! How foolish of me to neglect this!"
When these subtle methods proved ineffectual, I addressed the problem more directly. I wrote you a note, as kindly (I thought) as possible, detailing a few of things you could to improve yourself.
The anger of your response shocked me. You wrote a note on grubby paper and addressed me throughout as "MISS BEAR," as though capital letters and formal language could assert your insulted dignity. You told me to mind my own business and to leave you alone.
I was wickedly relieved. I felt I had done my duty and, based on your response, I guessed that I would no longer have to make room for you in time, attention, or conversation.
This relief did not last long, and that was my own fault. Around seventh grade, I began praying that God would teach me what love meant. I felt myself growing sarcastic and self-satisfied; I began to worry that I "had not love," and I was right. God answered this prayer, as he often answers dangerous prayers, with tears. Soon my prim desire to improve those less fortunate gave way to something far more frightening and beautiful.
Unfortunately, by the time this transformation moved from my heart to my hands--about the time I entered high school-- you had vanished. Did you move? Drop out? Not even Facebook can tell me.
For years I have carried your face in my mind--your school picture from that sixth-grade year. You were wearing a new sweatshirt, one with the Lion King on the front, and you were smiling--a strange, confident smile I never saw on your everyday face.
Every autumn, when I remember Indiana and grade school, that image moves slowly forward, just as timidly and hopefully as you once walked up to me. And whenever it does, I say, "I am so sorry."
I am so sorry, M.V., for seeing you as a project instead of a person. I am sorry for offering superficial kindness instead of love. I am sorry for avoiding you at lunch, for never trusting you with one of my silly schoolgirl secrets. I am sorry for never asking why you loved Little House on the Prairie, for not inviting you to come to my house after school.
I am so sorry. Will you please forgive me?