“Were we wrong? Did we make the wrong decision after all? I can’t seem to remember when things started to take a turn for the worse. In the end it turned out like this. Still…” – Brandon Heat, Gungrave
I had two constants growing up. One, as you could guess, was isolation. I grew up surrounded by fundamentalists; you know the type, I’m sure. The ones who threw the phrase “love thy neighbor” around on a regular basis yet had a whole host of exceptions – liberals, gays, people who listened to metal. The ones who thought “God” was spelled “GOP.” The ones who married young and waited until marriage, only to end up marrying young because they didn’t wait until marriage. I ended up at a school run under these ideals – ironically enough, because of endless bullying at my previous school, under misguided assumptions that a more strict environment would be able to curtail that sort of thing, or that people who talked about being Christlike would be any less ruthless than your average viper.
This isn’t to say I never made friends. This is to say that those friends regularly ended up leaving. (My family, well-meaning enough, operates on an entirely different wavelength from mine.) Every year people were cycling in and out for various reasons, mostly relating to geography (schools professing Christianity aren’t exactly widespread unless you’re Catholic or living in the Bible Belt) or ideological differences (these types get very touchy about details of Biblical interpretation), and this was well before the era of Facebook or ubiquitous smartphones. Others, for that matter, just found it more fun to go along with what was happening around them. Needless to say, I got used to abandonment.
My other constant was Emma. As alone as I was, she was an exception, and she was exceptional. She was one of two other people who stuck around until graduation, and the one other that I could really consider a friend. (Yuki, on the other hand… I’ll get to her later.) We weren’t best friends by normal-person standards, but she was my best friend by default, more or less. Right down to the sunset hair, Emma was the Lily to my Severus (Snivellus?): an unfailing friend who never cared how much of a pariah I was. (For that matter, aside from authority figures she was the only person I ever witnessed telling someone to leave me alone.) She was the sort that, in eight years, never once treated me like I was screwed up, or wicked (by the standards we were used to), or just too strange to be around, even after seeing overwhelming proof for all of the above. Whatever happened, I always knew I at least had someone.
Until I didn’t.
I had enough tormentors (mostly male, for that matter) that I could never come up with a better explanation to someone was suddenly treating me like a human being, particularly when it was a girl. Often I’d find myself questioning if they were really just being friendly, and reacting in kind. Naturally, this meant that I almost always had some kind of crush, until a point when I decided I’d just try to shut out feeling and people entirely. Eventually, sometime during our junior year, Emma broke that. (In fairness, she was always a bit of an exception even when I was a lot more rabidly antisocial.) She raised this same question with a simple act – one that on its own shouldn’t have meant anything, but held some sort of value to me by virtue of the fact that she was the only one who bothered. I don’t even remember what it was, to tell you the truth. It could have been telling people to leave me the alone, or just acknowledging something simple like holding open a door. Whatever started it, I couldn’t help wondering if she saw me as something more. It probably also didn’t help I had been attracted to her since… well developing attraction to anyone, really. (It turns out, as I later realized, that I just have a pretty pronounced bias toward gingers.) The more I thought about it, the more I found myself picking out little things that she would do. Like joining me for dinner after we traveled to games. Or pestering me for a week for an invite to my birthday (initially just meant as an outing with some teammates). Or saying that it my being different wasn’t a bad thing. Before I realized it, I went from just noticing the kind of friend she was to falling for her over it. Naturally, this was terrifying; not only was I running the risk of another back being turned on me, but this time it was one of very few people I considered close. One day, though, I told her. Somehow the risk of what would happen next was less of an issue when she was involved, and besides, I was terrible at keeping my own secrets (from people I talked to at length). To my surprise (and mild disappointment), nothing happened – yet.
I still have trouble pinning down exactly where things started to fall apart, but my best guess is here. By senior year I found myself gravitating to her more and more, as if something compelled me. From the moment I realized that she meant something to me, even after I’d claimed (to myself and others) I was over that, I was terrified of losing her, whatever level that happened to be on. After all, she was the only person that hadn’t eventually end up leaving. If I couldn’t even hold onto her, what then? (Of course, this is after the fact. At the time, I just didn’t want to relive my experience with Yuki.) Even then, I at least knew that when I had feelings for someone — let alone admitted to it — it tended to end badly. Unfortunately, by this time she had a boyfriend, whom we’ll call Todd. The more serious her relationship got with Todd, the more withdrawn they both became. (The irony of this happening to the girl who opened me back up to the idea of willful human contact is not lost on me.) Eventually, it seemed as if they had shut out everyone around them, immediate relatives excluded. They’d still speak to others if spoken to, but in public they were only seen really conversing with each other. By this time, I’d believed myself to be over her, and simply wishing we were still on more friendly terms, but I still found myself clinging to her as if I could feel my closest friend pulling away. Of course, the more I tried to tighten my grip, the more she seemed to slip through my fingertips.
After graduation, I left town for school. I tried to keep in touch, but the messages we used to exchange now flowed in one direction rather than two. One day, a summer or two after I first left, my worst fears were confirmed. I’d come back home for vacation and, falling back into old habits, gone to a church service at the same place where we’d met. I saw her. She saw me. When I greeted her like the old friend that she was, though, she walked by as if I weren’t there. It’s been six years since then, and we haven’t spoken since.
There’s an interesting aside to all of this as a recovering fundamentalist, for those of you who care about this sort of thing. Emma makes me think a lot about the kind of love that the faith I grew up in tells people to show to each other — even when they believe what you don’t, even when they do things you disagree with, and even if they want nothing to do with you — and I end up asking myself what exactly that looks like. What I can say is that the closest approximation I’ve found is a friend who never acted like there was something wrong with me, whom I could trust with just about anything, and who was there even when I didn’t want more human contact than was absolutely necessary. Presuming that this wish for things to change again even remotely approaches that, within that context I’d have to think that it’s like a terrible privilege. That “if,” though, always makes me wonder: do I actually care about her like that, or do I just want my friend back? Ultimately I’m not even sure I have an answer. The latter wouldn’t be selfless so much as it would be dependent, and fixated on loss, which (while definitely consistent with my thought processes) doesn’t live up to the fact that this girl demonstrated this idea of “love thy neighbor” more than anyone I’d met prior and possibly since. It’s an interesting, if broken, parallel for the idea behind Christianity as a whole, where instead of simply accepting the love that we think we deserve, we accept the love that we know we don’t. The strangest part of it all is that someone who’s basically cast me aside has me thinking about the nature of it more than any church ever has.
Perception changes with time. I guess that’s pretty natural when you have six years to break down every detail of where things might have gone wrong. In the moment, it felt as though she were just turning her back on me (and basically everyone else) over a guy. On some level I suppose that felt like a sort of betrayal. But if I’m being honest with myself, I’d clung tighter and tighter over the course of several months, all because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. I could point to either as a cause but ultimately I’ll never which one actually was, or if it was some mixture of both. To a certain extent, I don’t even care anymore. I used to; the feeling of a known unknown still tends to be maddening to me. I just wish things had ended differently. Despite that, the fact that feelings change doesn’t necessarily mean that they ever diminish. In no way do I dream of white picket fences these days, with her or anyone else (never cared for the things anyway), but that sense of loss is something I’ve never managed to get rid of, and the kind of friend she was is something that will never stop having meaning. There’s some part of that which never truly goes away, and even after all this time, I still can’t tell if that’s because of what she meant to me, or just another sign that I have a problem. Once again, it could very well be both, and for all I know I may end up spending another six years sorting out whether I’m a prisoner to that bond or simply a willing servant.
I still dream about her sometimes. Or, at least, I dream of an Emma that might have been — a girl with her face who smiles and talks to me as if nothing had changed. Not a lover, but simply the friend that I lost — the friend that I’ll always grieve over losing. And it feels so out of place that I even find myself asking her what the hell happened to the long silence that exists in waking life. Yet, however little sense it makes, somewhere in the back of my mind a delusion masquerading as hope plays these scenarios in my sleep. Every time it does, it makes me I regret waking up.
“I know I’m a monster. But you treat me like a man, and it…” – Spike, Buffy