The end of the day arrives begrudgingly. She is taking her first opportunity to escape the walls that hold her in her place throughout the day: The student, the teenager, the academic, the nerd. Everyone has their own stereotype for her, based on her school or her age, race, grades, interests. All she has to do is keep quiet and live them out. As she opens the door from her school onto the bridge that safely delivers the prodigies over the West Side Highway, the stale air of the almost outside fills the space around her, and for a beautiful moment she pretends the world is clean.
The moment passes, as all moments do, and she lets go of her fantasy. She pulls her coat closer to her body, her warmest shield from the flood of students pushing past her small shoulders. She’s no different from them, no stronger, no bigger. She doesn’t stand a chance against their shouts and clumsy feet. A strand of her fluffy hair gets caught in someone’s umbrella, and she pulls it back to her neck. I hate rainy days. The bridge is soggy like a grumpy wet dog, and hot from the conglomeration of young bodies, despite the persistent winter wind.
With a turn of her head, she sees him to her right, leaning against the glass wall of the bridge. She thinks his red sweatshirt makes him look particularly pale, especially in contrast with his dark hair and gloomy eyes. He seems perpetually expressionless. Sophomore, she thinks, but immediately corrects herself. Junior. But she will always think of him as the Sophomore, the older one, the cool one. She will always carry her past with her. Somewhere, far back in her head, she is still the Freshman who tries too hard. She cringes at the memories.
Still, she cannot deny that a good portion of her Freshman year had been spent noticing him, idolizing him. She noticed that he rarely talked, and smiled even less. Does he even have emotions? But she knows he does, because she saw him smoking weed outside school to escape them. With any luck, he does not care about me. Embarrassment overcomes her for a moment, but then she reminds herself that her thoughts are kept safely locked away in her head.
She lets their eyes meet. Before he has time to pierce into her soul with his dead eyes, she jerks away. At the edge of her vision, she sees him turn back to his friends and mumble something nonchalantly. She realizes all he ever does is mumble and wonders if he is able to open his small mouth past a whisper. This is a world of the voiceless.
She turns her head away to the left and sees a flock of actual sophomores. They are everywhere. They push each other jokingly, laugh too loudly, glance around anxiously to make sure people are watching. A few of them look over at her and whisper to each other, smiling their false smiles. Her lip curls up, instinctive hate filling her face. No, I don’t care. They aren’t getting to me. I don’t care. She forces her lip back down, blinking away the urge to glare. She looks back up with innocent eyes.
One of the sophomores’ gazes lingers on her face and his smile slips, like the pencil that drops from your limp hand when you forget to keep your fingers wrapped around it. There was a time when he would have come over, calling out his pet name for her, arms open, grin on his face. There was a time when he knew her every secret, her every thought. Well, almost every thought. There was a time when he told her he would fly her to the moon, that he would take her anywhere. She is still somewhat unsure of what he meant, though it seemed so clear when he said it.
She doesn’t know what happened between them. That’s not true. Stop lying to yourself. She knows exactly what happened. She clearly remembers the day when she was walking down the school hallway as someone mentioned to her that he had a new girlfriend, that they were best friends, that they were so cute together. How naïve of her to have believed that he meant all he had said, every line, every cliché. In that spot on the bridge, four months earlier, she saw them together.
He had offered his customary grin. “Hey!” She just stood and watched his face fall when she did not reciprocate the greeting. She watched as he worked it out, looking to the girl at his side, then back at her pained eyes. She waited as he read her mind, his specialty. “Hi!” his girlfriend interjected, breaking the silence. Fool. She continued to watch as he hesitated, his face falling further. She hesitated too, but it only took her a moment to walk away.
Now he gives her a partial smile. She replies with a small tightening of her lips, unsure if she is smiling or grimacing. Let him decide. She can tell he knows it’s fake. She doesn’t want to be fake. She doesn’t want to fall into their trap. Suddenly it is easy to walk away again, by the Sophomore, giving another sideways glance. He doesn’t meet it this time. Then she passes the real sophomores. One of them calls out her name and waves, with a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. I wonder if any of them are happy. She returns a sad smile.
With eyes on her feet that step across the wood slats, she starts to make her way home. She pulls her coat closer around her neck, blocking out the cold. I’m not like them. She relaxes her facial muscles and takes a deep breath. Not like them. She closes her eyes, like a blink that forgot to end. It won’t always be this way.
Anne Duncan, Age 15, Grade 10, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key