I am sitting pretzel-style on my best friend Michelle’s bed. She is opposite me, and an ocean of Chinese take-out separates us. She is rambling about how happy she is that we met, how scared she was that she would never make a friend when she transferred to our school sophomore year, how relieved she is to know that we are so close that she can tell me things she’s never told anyone else before, how crazy it is that we are now going to be seniors in high school tomorrow. I tell her that I think the same thing to myself all the time. I can feel my heart pound a tiny bit to let me know it is content, the way your phone sounds ten times louder when you finally get that call of good news you’ve been waiting on. I thank her for letting me stay over, because usually this is the part of the night when the panic sets in. She tells me maybe this school year will be better. I don’t know what to say. They say feelings come and go like the weather, but it seems like it’s been cloudy for three years now.
I am thinking about how atypical our school is, and how it has bonded the two of us. All of the students have to pay tuition to attend, and the majority of them actually live on campus (although we don’t). Financially, we differ from them too
(Unlike the boy in my English class, we don’t have private planes coming to pick us up for the weekend after the school day is over). Even though we live in Connecticut, where our school is, a lot of the other students come from all over the world. It is a college with training wheels that neither of us has ever called our home away from home.
I snap out of my haze when my phone buzzes. My mom texts me, You OK? I type back, Yes, it’s all good J and I mean it.The next morning Michelle and I are driving to school. I am honestly wondering if we will even make it there, because she is going 65 on a residential road. I suggest we slow down, but she just laughs in a way that makes me think she is actually proud of being a terrible driver. It doesn’t surprise me, because she has always been wired backwards as long as I’ve known her, and she has always sort of bragged about things that you wouldn’t normally take pride in (she just didn’t do the homework, she isn’t afraid to be honest even if it hurts your feelings, she is so bad at responding to people’s texts… you get the picture). Right now she is taking her work on brutal honesty out into the field.
“I don’t know why you’re even still friends with Kelly. She only talks to you when she wants to vent about something because she knows you’ll care. No offense but you sometimes care too much, you know?”
I tell her that it is not news to me that Kelly and I don’t have the most balanced friendship.
“I mean, I’m not going to stop being friends with her just because she always wants to talk about her life and not mine. I know everyone says ‘friendship is a two-way street’ but one-way streets exist in the world too, so they must be necessary for something. Besides, you don’t stop watering the plants around your house just because they don’t do anything for you in return. That wouldn’t make any sense.”
She pulls the car into a parking space, crooked, as I try to convince myself that I mean what I’ve just said. I watch her turn the key in the ignition and, as the engine coughs its way to sleep, I tell her that I am sure someday I will learn how to pull the plug on relationships. In the moment, neither of us thinks anything of this comment.
* * *
A few months later we are at her house getting ready for a school dance. I am dreading it, because I never go to these dances. Crowds make me anxious, especially when they are made up of people I don’t feel comfortable around. Michelle is aware of this, but she always begs me to come with her anyway, and this time I wave the white flag because she reminds me that we haven’t had a chance to hang out since the start of school. Right now I am brushing my eyelashes with a mascara wand while she tells me that she’s glad I am going to sleep at her house tonight because it will give us a chance to reconnect. I turn to face her instead of the mirror. I say that we could do this on any other Friday night, and if we’re being honest, I don’t actually need to attend a dance to do so. She walks away, and I follow her to the car, reminded of the way my dog used to try to drag me into our neighbor’s yards when he was a puppy and I took him for walks. He would pretend that he couldn’t hear me tell him no, but eventually one day he realized that I wasn’t ever going to follow him and now he never tries anymore. I contemplate going home, but by now I am already buckled into her car. She pulls out of her driveway, and I can feel pieces of my heart flake off like an eroding rock as I realize that I have, even for a split second, thought it necessary to train my best friend like a pet.
She enters the dance ahead of me, spots a group of our other friends, and speeds over to them like it is a race and they are the finish line. The room is entirely black with the exception of flashing strobe lights. I look down at my hands; they disappear; they illuminate again; they fade away. Electronic music is being played so loud that it makes the floor shake, and I find myself speaking my thoughts out loud in the hopes that I will be able to hear them better. Everyone is swarming around me like bees, occasionally knocking into me. They turn to me and I can see their lips moving, but the words aren’t registering with my brain so I just blink back at them.
Suddenly, the room shifts and I feel like I am looking at it upside down. I try to focus on my heartbeat instead, but it gets faster and faster like somebody is dribbling it like a basketball. I wish I could rip it out of my chest, hold it in my hands until it deflates, and put it back. I know I am shaking, my cheeks probably look like cherries, and no matter how many breaths I take, my lungs still feel empty. I squeeze my fingers in an attempt to bring myself back to the present moment. I manage to locate Michelle, and make my way over to her in what feels like a spiral motion. I tell her I am panicking, and I need to leave now, but she’s my ride. I trail off, waiting for her to offer to bring me home. She wouldn’t even have to stay with me, just drop me off and come back. I can tell on her face that she recognizes my hint. She squints her eyes.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine if you just get some air.” She turns back around. I yank off my shoes and run.
I sit on the curb in the parking lot for thirty minutes before my mom arrives to pick me up. I guess this is one of the prices I pay for not living on campus. I look down at the pavement, and I realize something that I wish I’d known a long time ago: when you are driving a car and the brakes give out, your only options are to crash it or keep going.
When I see my mom’s car pull up, I climb in and slam the door. I tell her we need to make a stop at Michelle’s house to pick up my things. Twenty minutes later I am emerging from her doorway, bags in tow. We pull out of her driveway and I don’t even think to look back in the rearview mirror at the place I did call my home away from home. A while later I am sitting on my bed, pretzel-style, and one thought runs through my head over and over again like a hamster on a wheel: I really hope the airbags are working.
* * *
A couple of days later, I tell Michelle that I need space. Fear gnaws at my insides like they are chew-toys but I say the words anyway, and I surprise myself when they come out easily. I think it is because they have been living in my throat for a while now, so they didn’t have to crawl very far to escape my mouth. When I arrive home after that, I see that she has blocked me on social media. I block her back, because I was the one in the driver’s seat during the crash, and I don’t want to give that up, because at the time I think that this is somehow better than being collateral damage. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting; everyone still gets hurt in some way.
Over the following months, she occasionally sends me very angry texts saying that she is hurt that I am ignoring her, and I am not the friend I should be. After a few heated exchanges, I tell her that I thought she understood what ‘space’ meant, but I am not shocked that someone whose own wires are backwards got the ones between us crossed. I tell her that our space needs to extend into forever, and we agree to go our separate ways. It takes me a long time to untie the knot in my stomach that occurs whenever I hear my phone buzz.
* * *
One Sunday afternoon, I am staring at the wilted plants in my bedroom, bored, when I get a text from my friend Kelly. She tells me that there is some drama with her boyfriend and she wants to talk about it. I tell her I am busy but I will call her as soon as I am free. I want to put my foot down, but only lightly, because I can’t help but be afraid that if I don’t slow down gradually, the brakes of this relationship will give out too.
* * *
On graduation day, I am standing outside by the tent where the ceremony took place, surrounded by the rest of my grade. I see Michelle standing a few feet away from me.
I decide that I want to write one more page of our story, in the hopes that it will read more like an ending. I walk over to her before I have a chance to change my mind. I tell her that I don’t want us to end on bad terms, because I do appreciate what our friendship did for me at the time. I explain that I still feel like I never belonged at this school, that part has never changed, but I didn’t notice it as much when we were friends. I tell her that I know this doesn’t change anything, and that’s okay, but I just wanted her to know that before I leave. A smile spreads across her face. She says that she is so glad to have her best friend back (she knew I would come around) and asks me if I want to go for a drive and talk more. I laugh to myself and tell her that this is why we can’t be friends: we are speaking two different languages, and neither of us is a translator.
* * *
In the fall, I am in the middle of my first semester of college. I am sitting pretzel-style on the bench at the end of my dorm’s hallway, and my friend is seated across from me. She has just gotten into a fight with her best friend from home. Now she is thanking me for listening to her vent. She tells me how weird it is that she normally doesn’t cry in front of anybody but can in front of me because she feels so comfortable, how scared she was that she wouldn’t make any friends this fall, how relieved she is to know that we are already so close that she can tell me things that she’s never told anybody else before. I remember the last time I heard these words and I wonder if people can reincarnate before they’ve even died. My friend is blinking at me while she waits for my response. After a minute, she laughs nervously, still sniffling, and tells me that I look like I’ve seen a ghost. I don’t want to tell her that maybe I have.