“Do it. You won’t.”
She took a puff. She coughed. They laughed.
She took another breath, trying hard to choke back the cough her lungs were begging her to let out. Her eyes were red and watery.
I left. I heard them laughing. I wanted no part of this. And she shouldn’t either. This wasn’t who we were. Ever since we started hanging out with these girls it’s been nothing but trouble. They have a reputation. A reputation all their own. A reputation I want no part of. A damn reputation I’m being lumped in to. Ever since her vacation this past summer, something has been entirely different about her. I can’t put my finger on it. And as her friend, I ask. But as her friend, I apparently don’t deserve an answer. I deserve being told, “I’m just going to pretend you didn’t ask that.”
I stood at my locker like I’ve done every morning since school started six weeks ago. It was Monday and the last time I saw Tori was Saturday night. I picked up my chemistry book and my matching notebook. I looked at my stupid stressed out reflection in the stupid tiny mirror she bought for me. I was never one to care about how I looked once I left my house in the morning, but now? Whenever I was in a twenty foot radius of my locker I was there fixing something about my appearance. I knew she had stolen the mirror. I tore it down and tossed it to the back of my locker. I closed the door and had a seat on the floor.
Not even twenty seconds later I saw her coming. In probably the shortest skirt I’ve ever seen. And she was with them. Luckily their lockers were nowhere near ours. So they parted before she reached me. As she stood next to me, I tried to peer up to say hi, but I was introduced to some things I didn’t care to see. I was frustrated and a little embarrassed, and by the looks of everyone else in the hall way, I’d say they were disgusted. I got off my ass and finally decided to say something.
“What’s up with your hair?”
I was so confused by her question. “Excuse me?”
“Why don’t you ever use that mirror I bought you? It wouldn’t hurt to check yourself out every once in a while.”
“You didn’t buy it. You stole it.” She looked at me like I had six heads. Actually, she looked me up and down and THEN looked at me like I had six heads.
“And did you fail to look in the mirror after you got dressed this morning?” She turned her attention back to her locker and kept fiddling with the lock she couldn’t open without my help.
“No, but it’s quite clear that’s what you failed to do this morning.” She glared at me.
“Are you kidding? I look hot.”
“Yeah. Nice pink undies, hot stuff.”
The bell rang and I left her standing there. I want to say she looked upset, but I can’t help but feel like she looked quite satisfied with herself, especially when a teacher sent her to the office because of her risqué attire.
I paid no attention in chemistry. My lab partner did all the work because every time I tried to help, I burnt myself. I burnt the shit out of my cookies in my home economics class. I decided to take the hint before I burned anything else- I was just burnt out. Lunch was my deciding moment. I saw Tori at the table with them. I had absolutely no desire to sit there. I rolled my eyes and walked myself to the vending machine. As I fumbled for a quarter I was bumped into the wall.
“Hey lady!” It was Sam.
“What the hell are you doing here?!” I practically tackled her to the floor. Sam was my best friend growing up in elementary school. We could very easily be independent of each other, but hanging out together was the greatest thing ever. Nothing was better. “I thought you were all moved out to Chicago with your sister, and you were never ever ever ever coming back?”
“Yeah well… about that. After being out there for a year I realized it just wasn’t me. I hated it. It’s nothing like I thought it would be, and I couldn’t see myself staying out there and actually being successful in life. My sister wasn’t the greatest role model either. I also realized the main reason I was out there was because she pressured me into it all. Long story short, I’m just glad my parents took me back. I’m glad I was able to coming back to this side of the gate before it closed up behind me and locked forever. But I’m starving! Let’s have a seat and catch up, shall we?”
I was more than happy to join her. She led me to a table where a bunch of other people were sitting. They were all our old friends from elementary school that I hadn’t spoken to in what felt like years. And it had been years. I felt so at home with these people. Nothing to be stressed about. No worrying myself over what they were getting into or what they were talking about. They weren’t telling me my hair looked funny or that my clothes didn’t look right. It was just too simple. And more than anything, I enjoyed myself and felt like myself. Everything was totally natural. I was talking and these people were laughing with me instead of at me. I was so used to sitting at the table while those girls talked about things I couldn’t and didn’t want to relate to. I had become accustomed to sitting in silence. Who knew I could have such an epiphany at lunch? It felt nice to breathe again. Then my eyes met hers, and I had to hold my breath.
Tori didn’t talk to me for the next two days. She was never at her locker the same time as me, and I didn’t see her at lunch. Or them for that matter. I didn’t miss them. But I did miss Tori a bit. But I couldn’t figure out why. I know it seems shallow to openly admit that I somewhat stopped caring about my friend, but it was true. Sam was as friendly as she always had been and she wasn’t doing things just to fit in with some group of girls. She was herself. I realized that’s who I lost for the past six weeks. Myself. For the first month and a half of school, my presence was being threatened by the person Tori wanted me to be. So after that first month and a half of school, I think I had finally managed to stabilize myself.
I was confronted before I could figure out what to do with the Tori situation. Thursday, when the last period bell rang and I went to my locker, I found a note taped to the door. I unfolded it to find hot pink highlighter screaming at me:
Stop avoiding me!!!
Meet me on the playground by the track when class gets out!!
I wasn’t looking forward to going, but at least she was reaching out to me. When I got to the playground no one was there but Tori. I was a little nervous she was going to sick her posse on me, in all honesty.
“So why you been ignoring me, bitch?” I did a one eighty and started to leave.
“No no no I’m just kidding come back!” She spewed it all like one word. She caught up to me and grabbed my arm, pulling me so I was looking at her.
“Seriously, what’s been going on lately?”
“I don’t know why you’re asking me.”
“You’ve been avoiding me…”
“Not particularly. You’re the one smoking stuff, stealing stuff, hanging out with girls who hardly give a shit about you, dressing like you’re begging some guy to tear your clothes off, and then making me feel like the tiniest person in the world. In two sentences, you robbed me entirely of my self esteem. And you ask me to explain what’s been going on lately?” She looked down at her feet and slid some sand around. Silence. “Well if you don’t plan on answering me, I have a question for you. What in the name of God happened to you over the summer that you’ve transformed into this person I don’t even recognize? And don’t you dare try to pretend that I didn’t ask this question.” She looked at me like I had just asked her to kill herself. “I won’t pretend that you didn’t ask. But I’m not going to tell you. I am so ashamed over what happened that I can’t even bear to tell my best friend.” She looked down at her feet again, her shoes digging holes in the sand.
“Well I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”
“I’m beyond help anyway. I did the few things that were the gateway to the path of destruction. I’m screwed. Screwed for life. I crossed that line. That gate is locked. I can’t come back from this.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, obviously, but it’s never too late. We’re so young! What the hell could you have possibly done that there’s no coming back from it? I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either.” She said it so quietly that I almost missed it.
The next day at school, she seemed different. She was dressed in jeans and a gray striped shirt that hung off one shoulder. She smiled at me and said hi. It was the familiar smile and hi I was used to. She sat with me and Sam at lunch too. At the end of the day, Sam told me everyone was going to the football game that night, so I decided to put off my homework and go out for once. It had been awhile since I had willingly gone out to do something I was actually interested in.
I was sitting with everyone just watching the game and eating my fries when I got a text from Tori. She told me to meet her in the dugout of the baseball practice field. I told Sam I’d be back in a few, and got up to meet her, wondering what it was that it required me to meet in a dugout. I was halfway across the baseball field when I saw them sitting in the dugout lighting up. I slowed my pace and stared. I realized that they were burning books. Tori came up behind me. She didn’t smell pretty. Her breath was heavy when she spoke.
“Hey giiiiirl. Glad you could make it.” She took my arm and tried to guide me towards the dugout. I pulled away. “What the hell are you doing? Did you not catch anything I said to you yesterday?” I tried to keep my voice down to avoid getting the attention of them. She gave me that look like I had six heads again. “Did you not catch anything I said yesterday? It’s too late for me and this is where I’m going in life. End of story. You can either join me or leave me.”
“When the hell did that become an option? Is this what you’ve been thinking the entire time? Since you’re screwed for life you’re trying to take me with you? What the hell kind of crap is that? Who the hell are you? I know I’m your friend, but if you think you screwed up hard enough in life that you’re screwed forever and ever and ever, the very least you can do is leave me out of it. You may have gone over that side of the gate, but I’m still on this side. In fact, I’m going through an entirely different gate. This gate is full of happiness and realization that there’s good in life and when you make one mistake, it’s not the end of the world. I hope you figure that out someday.”
I didn’t talk to Tori for that rest of that school year. I congratulated her on our graduation day, but we both knew she had barely succeeded at that. I had gone off to college, and I had no idea what had become of her until I bumped into her on the streets of our hometown one weekend. I had envisioned her as being in rehab, or in jail for something. I had even checked the obituaries every now and then to see if her world really did come to an end. I just couldn’t help but imagine the worst had happened to hear with the way she was talking. But when I saw her that day, she looked good. Not the greatest, but she looked good. She had a small child clinging to her leg, too shy to stand out in the open. I asked the general question that most people don’t care what the answer is when they ask it, but we both knew it was important at this moment.
“How are you?”
“I’m actually doing really well. This is my daughter, Hope. She’s three, and extremely shy.” I was relieved to see a wedding band on her hand. “So you’re married?”
“Yes! So I have this small little family. Unfortunately money is a little tight, but we’re getting by. Just taking it day by day.”
“Well I’m glad to hear you’re happy and doing well. So I take it you managed to back up through that gateway you got stuck in before?” A small smiled appeared on both of our faces, but I could tell I brought up a sensitive subject for her.
“Not quite. You were right about it never being too late. It took me a bit longer to realize that than it should have. I went down that path of life and it locked me in good and hard for a while. But I managed to find the back door.”