I’m a mild person. People describe me as cold and apathetic, which I never deny because I confess, I agree. I don’t feel particular about my friends except for a select few. I don’t cry at movies or books. I’m not very opinionated. Sure, I’m loud and I talk, but I don’t go out to parties or dinners because a couple of good friends and a board game is sufficient. I’m introverted, neutral, indifferent for the most part.
Maybe that’s why it always shocks me when I do feel a lot. The rush of an emotion, like the highest crest of a roller coaster. The slightest moment of weightlessness, of acknowledgement, makes all my guts rush to my mouth before all the weight knocks into my stomach like a sledgehammer. Then there’s the downhill; I grip the handlebars and watch myself helplessly being swept away, completely at the mercy of my sentiments.
Things like roller coasters, loud music and irrational parties are the types of thrills that can squeeze your stomach. But people are the ones that can truly seize your heart. For me, there was one person. Even if I wished upon every star, she is a person I could never forget.
Before the pandemic, I was very different. Childish, brash, but everything a 12 year old is and should be. I attended a small private school, which is mountains apart from public school. Private education is like the ugly sweater your grandma gives you for Christmas: itchy and three sizes too small. The social circles and systems are like knitting done too tight, feeling more like a warped chokehold than an attentive warm hug. With only thirty kids in my grade, I could only pick to spend time with a handful of people, most of whom I’ve witnessed pee their pants in 2nd grade or draw distasteful body parts in art class (crudely and inaccurately). No matter how much I tugged at the sweater, it would snap back into place, rigid and strained, and I would trudge back to eat my soggy lunch with people I could barely talk to.
I had known her since I was admitted into the school. I never made an effort to talk to her since we were always in different groups (there were two groups of fifteen students that would share all their classes all year. It was great and horrible). Of course, that imprisoning sweater wove us together. By proxy, I knew her name, her tall stature, her light brown hair and doe-eyed face I considered to be among the prettiest in our grade.
By the time I reached middle school, I learned how to find comfort in the cramped sweater. I started branching out and becoming more at ease with the friends around me. But more importantly, I discovered my sparking passion for art and writing. I read incredibly toxic romance novels, cliché fantasy series and undeveloped science fiction books. I drew all over the margins of my lousy poetry that shall never see the light of day. Between my classes, I would attend ballet and Chinese folk dance practice and perform shows.
In 7th grade, I was placed in the same group as her. All it took was for us to be seated together in French class, for her to peek over her shoulder and exclaim in joy. She had read that book too!
Ever since that inevitable day, we shared our short stories and started writing projects together (including an alternate edition of Harry Potter. Ours is better). We choreographed dances to songs together, read books in the library together, argued over fictional characters together, watched YouTubers together, doodled together, laughed together, together, together, together. We were the same person, so much so that teachers would often confuse our names. Some people are stuck at the hip; we were stuck through the flesh and to the bone.
I’ve never felt this close to anyone, even after a short month of friendship. I looked up from my murder mystery novel and told her as such. She laughed, squeezing herself further into the crook behind the school shelves and confessed that she, too, felt that this… it was special.
Her room glowed the same way she did. Maybe it’s due to the haziness of the memory, but it was just so warm and bright. The walls were pink and striped with flowing, raspy curtains on thin windows that faced the setting sun. That day, her brown hair, a color much lighter than mine, was dappled with gilded patterns. She called my name—my name—and I snapped up to her without an ounce of hesitation.
That day, my breath hitched. She spoke, but it sounded nothing more than a musical hush. Something in my chest was fighting against my organs. It built in my ribs, like the rising chest of a songbird. It opened its beak and sang, yelled, screamed the truth so raucously and so fiercely that I could deny it no longer.
I love her.
My eyes shot to her face, to her long eyelashes and smile that I knew better than my own. “Did you even hear anything I said?” she asked, her voice so much like mine. My gaze flickered to her eyes, the doe eyes I had known since childhood.
I love her.
The songbird was tireless. My heart refused to stop racing. I watched her tuck hair behind her ear, revealing her pearl earring that swung with the moment. The pearl was a metronome, oscillating back and forth, counting down the seconds until this memory was over. I love her, I love her, I love her, the bird whistled. I could not yell over the truth.
Adults, at least the ones I’ve confided in, all believe that this is teenage love. The aggressive type of love that grips and rules the soul with an iron fist. But not this. Our friendship was a soft wind, a child’s hand brushing against amiable fields of cotton. I was drawn to her the same way water rolled down a hill. When I was with her, I was not useful or useless; I was not too much or not enough. I was myself, I was her, I was whole, and water gushed into my veins, ripping through the mud banks and pollutive doubt and right through my apathetic heart. Water held my hands, my lips, my eyes, and those tears—they weren’t salty. They were from seeing our entire future together, stinging from the brightness of it all.
Love—true love—isn’t an aggressive dictatorship of the heart. Love is a garden, a plethora of flowers, a myriad of various things. Love transcends all petals and ages and types of relationships; love is not reserved for couples or hyacinths. I was not interested in her romantically—when I thought of her, my imagination would stay in the realm of platonic affection. But that realm was the entire sky and earth, down to every dew drop on every stem and every blossom on every fruit tree. She was my best friend.
I was too young and too naive to really appreciate the bond we shared and began to neglect it. We both grew up, despite the short time frame. I had given up dancing and she stopped writing. Her humor, her wit no longer matched mine, and it felt like what was once an effortless symphony suddenly plunged into a disharmonious, tone-deaf clash of instruments.
She failed to respond to my jokes the way she used to. I failed to see her disinterest. She began talking to our other classmates and I, in denial of the flowers falling apart in my hands, huddled in the library, rejected and alone.
See, she was not like me, with one person reigning supreme; she had a circle of friends. The year before, I might have been her golden bullet. Falling in love now felt like I had a loaded gun to the head. She could easily spin the loaded chamber and riddle me with rusted shots. My brain matter would blend right into her pink walls.
We started getting into arguments. She knew me better than anyone else, which she used to her advantage to bring up topics she knew would sting more than a slap across the face. At times, I had to walk away before I pummeled her, bitter, bitter tears gathering in my throat. We avoided each other after notably cruel fights, both of us so petty and resentful. I would take detours around the school hallways, dashing around stairs and using the bathroom the furthest away from her classes. But, from time to time, I would see her again, and I would fall head first into the vicious cycle. Bickering over this, detouring around that. Every time the cycle repeated, the bullet wound would tear open wider. I felt flayed open, infected with jealousy, hatred and venom; the septic gash hurt more than anything I had ever experienced before—more than stepping on glass or Legos, more than spilt coffee or getting stitches.
This is heartbreak, I once thought after an especially long night of crying. I got replaced and it’s my fault. I spent many days in this torturous purgatory, watching our garden, which was once blooming with our favorite flowers—purple orchids, yellow roses, blue bells and buttercups—shriveling and crumpling, collapsing onto itself. The flowers once held such strength, the stems robust under the weight of spry petals. But I stopped watering them long ago. The greenery and vibrancy of my entire world was sucked away, instead compensated with shallow and bleak grays. Is this what’s left of us?
I slept on wet pillows for months, thinking, reminiscing of our garden, daydreaming to forget the ruins of it in front of me. At that point, the gap between her and I was far too wide for me to be able to tell her that I loved her. My complacency soured our friendship like rotten fruit. It was too late. I had missed my window of time, as thin and as rattly as the ones in her room.
Instead, I let her go. I let the toxic potion batter in my chest like radioactive sludge that has nowhere to go except deep, deep underground. So I grabbed a shovel and buried it as far as I could, wiped away at my cheeks and marched on. When school went online, we didn’t speak to each other. I texted her twice, only asking polite homework questions. I was relieved that we were to attend different high schools.
Then I let the cadence of regular life distract me away. Freshman year was tough enough, then all of a sudden I had finals and summer camps and AP tests to worry about. Then it was summer and I traveled to a different country and by that point, I had found different friends, this time outside of the awful sweater. I had let her go and I had broken free. Our gray garden…it was an entire world away now.
Except it wasn’t. Sometimes, I wonder where she is. Is she happy? Has she made new friends? It doesn’t matter if I’m in the middle of a conversation or class, the question does she remember me the way I remember her? hits me like a freight train every now and then. When I recall all our memories on especially sentimental nights, that radioactive waste threatens to explode. Time can heal, but slower than most would expect.
Instead, time offers us retrospection. I had missed the most vital part about love. I had taken our relationship for granted. In my childish brain, I expected us to last against all odds. I expected us to remain tethered until we reached our deathbeds, completely overlooking the fact that nothing in life really is constant.
No, instead, I should have told her that I loved her. I should have spoken up. During those months of suffering, I should have spoken up. I should have communicated that things weren’t working. That I was hurt. Instead, I wallowed in self pity and hate, slowly cooking the potent toxin that shredded every last bit of our garden.
To this day, I can never bring myself to hate her. It would be easier if I could. Instead, I hope that in whatever she’s doing, she’s doing okay. After all, she has taught me many things. She taught me the rarity of love. She taught me the purity of love, the simplicity of love, the dangers of love.
She has taught me that love is not a feeling, but rather a commitment. It isn’t enough to love someone. You have to take care of that love, maintain it and tailor it like a bonsai tree. You have to wake up every morning not only to love them, but to choose them everyday, over and over again.
We don’t talk anymore because our bonsai rotted from the inside out. It rotted because I foolishly thought it could stand by itself. But I’ve learned, and now I run a full garden of lovely little plants I try my best to trim and water. I’ve found new favorite flowers, like little azaleas, fragile chrysanthemums, a red dahlia or a pink peony. I’ve learned, despite the part of me that will always belong to her, to move on.
I’ve found someone new and I find myself thinking about her less and less. This new person makes my heart swell, maybe bigger and brighter than she ever did. To this new person, I will try my best to not fail our flowers, with honesty, with conversation and with care. The flowers bring me so much hope, so much happiness, so much love that they will grow past my garden and mesh through my bones and heal the bullet wound. Its roots will embrace the radioactivity I had buried beneath the dirt, then sprout new leaves, waxy and bright. It’ll learn to grow petals, then new petals, maybe even more beautiful than the last. The flower will blossom, and maybe then, I will be as right as rain.