[Content warning: depression, disordered eating.]
She didn’t like paint. She didn’t like how the colored pigments stuck to her skin and dried on her ripped jeans in sticky hard lumps. It’s like another layer of skin, she would say to me and I would agree cringing at the thought. The last thing I needed was another shell suffocating me.
Perhaps it was our mutual hatred for colored resin that brought us together, or maybe the fact that both of us needed a partner to navigate the stormy waters of freshman year. Whichever it was, it didn’t matter. What mattered was she was like me.
She had a ponytail like me, talked softly like me, and had the same look in her eyes I had seen in the mirror far too many times.
The day she spilled a bottle of pink lemonade over the art table should have been the first warning sign. I remember how she burst into tears and apologized profusely to our teacher who stood flabbergasted and not quite believing that a student was bawling hysterically over a cup of lemonade.
I later found her in the girls bathroom with sticky pink hands and red eyes. She mumbled about how hopeless and stupid she was and how she deserved to be punished. But lemonade had nothing to do with it, and I should have known.
She was too much like me.
On Halloween night she refused to eat. She refused to touch the glossy caramel apples I had made or the chocolate bars wrapped in red crinkly foil. I’ll get fat, she had said and gave me a thin sickly smile that scared me more than ghosts or bloodthirsty vampires.
She made me promise I wouldn’t tell. She made me promise that I wouldn’t speak of the half-digested carrots floating in the girls toilet or her tirade rants about hating herself and her life. It was disgusting, not the floating carrots, but the fact that I never told anyone.
And there were days when she cried and cried, leaving salty tears and clear sticky snot all over my woolen sweater. She cried because she didn’t know why she was sad, and she didn’t know why she woke up each day to the same world that beat her down. But instead of comforting her I gave a cracked lollipop and told her to cheer up.
I should have known that cracked lollipops could not fix the hatred inside her. The hatred she had for herself that fed off the addicting taste of pain and misery. The same hatred I had once felt.
The year passed and we grew apart. The stormy waters of high school grew larger, and both of us were torn away, each in separate boats headed in different directions. We could no longer hold onto each other for support and were carried away by the thundering waves. I still saw her in the hallway each day, wearing baggy clothing and makeup covering all her imperfections. She smiled at me each day, and it was like looking into a mirror, a broken one.
One day she wasn’t there, and she wasn’t there for seven long days, but the worst part was that I didn’t even know. I found out through hushed whispers and cupped hands that she was at the nearby hospital. Broken bone, fistfight, car accident, they had murmured but I knew better. She was just like me.
The next time I saw her was through a window in the door of the counselor’s office. She was holding her mother’s hand and sobbing hysterically. Her hair was down as she mumbled something to a woman holding a clipboard while asking her questions that I should have asked long ago. When she walked out of the office I had reached out to her, asked if she was alright. The torrent of high schoolers had drowned out her response, pushing her away in swarms of foamy waves, but it didn’t matter, I already knew the answer.
In reality, I was selfish and afraid. In my fear, I had flushed away the carrots and thrown away the tear-stained sweater. I was afraid if I told someone, I would lose a friend. So I covered her cries with yet another coat of paint, in efforts to hide the truth and keep a friend. But in the end, it didn’t matter, I lost her anyway.
My mother told me it wasn’t my fault. That these people couldn’t be helped and I couldn’t have done anything. She didn’t know about the floating carrots, the spilled lemonade, and the dried paint on her jeans. But I did.
I knew she hated paint because it hid the paper underneath, hiding the plain white truth. She hated paint because it reminded her of layers, the thick layers that she built around herself every day and how it choked the happiness out of her. I wish I had broken through those sickly colored layers and rescued the girl underneath. I wish I did, but I didn’t.