a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
In my sophomore year of high school, I was elected as the President of the Debate Club. I was already very popular by then: tall for my age, top of my class, proficient in off-beat languages like Hawaiian and Lemerig that I had learned on Duolingo over Christmas break, when my parents were fighting over who was having an affair and who would pay the bills and who would fix the washing machine.
Every Thursday, the club met for two hours after classes were dismissed. We’d all move up to the Freshmen’s Homeroom on the first floor, and after abusing the calculus teacher for a little while, we’d practice arguments and criticize the government’s lack of interest in climate change, transgender rights and such. It was on Thursdays that I saw Sora, besides the fleeting glimpses in the crowded corridors after assembly, or in the bathroom during lunch. She’d always sit in the front row, seats empty on either side of her. In faded jeans and dirty yellow sneakers that she wore without socks, and dark hair pulled back severely from her broad forehead, her presence was electric to me. I doubted I was the only one who felt this strange attraction that was at once vague and intimidating, because she was often spoken about, albeit behind her back. At least the debate club agreed on the fact that she was truly beautiful: her tall frame and fit body belonged on a runway. But people barely approached her; they didn’t stop to say hello or invite her to go shopping. Sora inspired a feeling of indescribable inferiority in everybody--she was formidable, and even acted superior sometimes. Like she didn’t know what she was doing with a bunch of “regular” teenagers. She was intelligent, of course, but she also appeared haughty, treating people around her with contempt, which was even more grating because it was so passive.
So, she’d sit on the steel chair on Thursdays, her thin wrists on the armrest, as people shuffled around her, talking and settling into their seats. When I called attendance, she always responded with a grunt, her eyes trained on my face like she was mapping an X-Ray.
“At least she acknowledges your presence, even for a second. We, on the other hand, are too shitty to have Ma’am’s precious attention,” one of my friends would say as we brought ice-cream while returning home. I felt flattered at those times, though I couldn’t explain why.
“She’s cracked up here, she is,” Jack told me that one time when Sora walked out of the room, claiming we were a bunch of “spineless, spoiled kids” who went out five times a week to eat pizza and then talked about the problem of poverty.
Jack was a rising senior. Sora was in his Spanish class. He said she was always brooding in class, treating people like “dogshit.” I said, yeah, she seems the arrogant type. At lunch, he managed to get a seat next to mine almost every day. I was very flattered by this: he was the school basketball team’s captain, tall and dark, and girls scribbled his names along with theirs on the back of notebooks and on the walls of bathroom stalls. He was always surrounded by a large group of cool kids, the type who chewed gum and rated girls’ figures. Jack never behaved with me that way, though; he always acted chivalrous. When one of his friends said, “You got a nice arse there, Janine,” he asked him to shut up before I could respond. Though I was annoyed that he was acting like my mouthpiece, I went along with it, simply because it wasn’t harmful.
“Aww, Jack. Did I touch a nerve there?” the guy joked. “Tell Janine you think she’s incredibly fit.” Jack’s neck was flushed and people at the table were wolf-whistling.
If you think I’m fit, I said, tracing the rim of my soda can, then I’m sure I’d be your dad’s type. I hear he’s got money, so it would be a win-win situation. The table burst into laughter then, and I placed my palm on Jack’s jean clad thigh.
We were sitting in the stands, watching the school basketball team practice. They were all dressed in black, sleeveless jerseys. I watched as Jack dribbled the orange ball across the court that was reflecting light from the fixtures overhead. He dodged opponents with ease, like he was born to do exactly that. Near the ring, he shot up gracefully on his toes and pushed the ball through the net. All of us cheered and half time was called.
I saw Jack jogging over to me. I pushed back a strand of her from my face and moistened my lips. He stopped before me, and I had the strange impression that we were acting out the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
I said hello. From my bag, I brought out a bottle of water and passed it to him.
“You’re the best,” he grinned, unscrewing the blue plastic cap. My friends giggled and I shot them a look, but I couldn’t keep the smile from my lips. He emptied the bottle in two gulps and one of the girls said it was very macho of him. He winked at her and then turned back to me. He was toying with the empty bottle. The nylon jersey was clinging very nicely to his sweaty chest, accentuating his lean torso. A feeling of elation was swelling inside me.
“Come to the dance with me?” he said. I could tell he was trying to act nervous; he knew I wouldn’t deny going to the dance with him. It was open to juniors and seniors, and sophomores were allowed only through invitation.
I said yeah, I’d go, why not, yes.
The rest of the team was already assembled in the court, calling him back. He looked over his shoulder, turned back to me, ran his fingers through his sweaty blonde hair and said, “See you around then.” He tossed the plastic bottle to the floor and jogged away. The other girls looked impressed, but also a little envious.
“Fucking ignorant lad,” someone said. I turned my head to look. Sora was sitting two rows above me, wearing the same dirty yellow sneakers. We held eye-contact for a moment, and then I smiled at her. She nodded back and it wasn’t even arrogant. She got up and climbed down the stands. She picked up the discarded bottle and walked away without looking back. I saw her drop it into a blue bin that came up to her flared hips.
We drove to the dance in Jack's truck. He was wearing his father's tuxedo which had a very wide lapel. I was wearing a blue slip dress and in the rear-view mirror, my powdered skin looked dry and flaky. I asked if I could turn on the music, and he said, "Go ahead, do that." I tuned into the FM to a famous pop channel, and over the music, I could sense Jack was getting ready to take my hand over the gear stick.
They were holding the dance in the gymnasium, and they'd hung chipped disco lights and old plastic streamers from the balcony where seniors usually sat when watching a game. We met his friends at the drinks table, and then we went to the middle of the dance floor. A Kanye West song was playing, and I bobbed my head to the beat of the music. By the fourth song, my vest was drenched in sweat, and I didn’t want to stop. Jack had loosened the knot of his tie, and I watched as beads of sweat streamed from the side of his ears to disappear inside his shirt. He looked so handsome then, it was overwhelming. He was saying something and patted my ear to say I couldn’t hear him. He leaned over and yelled, “I’m going to walk to the loo, now.” I nodded okay. “D’you want me to get you something on the way back?” I shook my head no.
A while after, we were standing by the drinks table again, sipping tang from plastic cups. We were both looking toward the dance floor, which was more crowded than ever. A rap song was playing, and the back of my eyes were throbbing to its beat.
“You wanna get outta here?” he asked me, yelling in my ear again. I said I’d like that. We drowned the orange drink in a gulp, and I fit his cup into mine before throwing both into the bin. We walked out of the gym, into the corridors, then to the grounds. It was cold outside, and a light rain was falling. Jack said we could get into his car, he’d turn on the heater. We walked across the ground; the grass looked ethereal in the scant moonlight as we trampled it beneath our shoes. We walked down the steps, and the parking lot was indeed warm.
Inside the car, I knew what was going to happen. The interior smelled of gasoline and weed. He slid in, shutting the door. This close, I could smell alcohol on his breath. When had he snuck off to get drunk? A certain sense of dislike was unfolding itself inside me; in the yellow light Jack Brady’s lips were too full, his blonde hair too wild, the smell of his sweat too bitter. I’d never considered myself to be a passive individual, but in that small space that I was sharing with him, I felt strangely passive.
I heard myself asking if he would kiss me. He said, “What d’you think?” and then he touched the tip of his tongue to the pulsing artery on the side of my neck and dragged it slowly to the back of my left ear. I was making some kind of sound that was originating from somewhere beyond me. It seemed to encourage him, and his broad palm found the slit in my dress. I wasn't enjoying it one bit, but I let him continue because I thought that when I'd replay this kiss tomorrow, or the next week, or after three months, the pit of my belly would feel jittery, my heart would swell with happy remembrance, and I would realise I was in love.
None of that was happening now, though. I felt like I was being contaminated, and if we didn’t stop, I’d be sick all over him on the brown leather seat of the car. Jack’s fingers were stroking me through my underwear, and I said, stop, Jack, stop, stop, stop.
“Aren’t you enjoying this, baby?” he slurred. I said I was not, no. He was sucking on my chin, and I thought I’d never look at myself in the mirror again if I let him kiss my mouth. I wrenched myself away from him, and when he reached forward, I spat on his face. I stepped out of the car, before he and I both were struck by the enormity of what I’d done.
I was climbing up the stairs of the parking lot, dragging my heels noisily on the tile steps when I felt him grab my breast. He twisted it painfully, brutally, inhumanly and I shrieked. The pain that shot through the left side of my torso was so acute I felt I’d die if I didn’t move. But I didn’t want to die. I kicked behind me and ran up the steps.
Someone was smoking near the bleachers. I vaguely remembered falling into their arms, burrowing my head into their soft chest. Over the ringing in my ears, I chanted, it hurts, I’m hurting, I’m hurting, I’m hurting.
Jack and I didn’t see each other for the rest of the school year. I’d catch a glimpse of him and turn away, like looking at him would make me burn. I didn’t tell anyone at home, Mum and Dad were discussing divorce by then. I continued to see Sora on Thursdays, but I never let myself appreciate the delicate line of her neck or her beautiful profile. I felt dirty. There were times when I’d catch her watching me, always like she was trying to figure out something.
In the last week before summer break, I happened to walk in on Jack making out with a brunette in his year, in the Chemistry Lab. I ran up to the second-floor bathroom and locked myself into a cubicle. I was breathing deeply through my nose to calm my nerves, something I’d learned from an online article on preventing anxiety attacks. I closed my eyes and willed myself to concentrate on the red of the veins behind my eyelids. The tips of my fingers were very cold, and I touched them to my temple. I had a strange urge to pinch my chin until it bled. I tore some paper from the roll and stuffed it into my mouth, instead.
I heard the sound of flush from the other cubicle, and I also heard the distant ring of the electric bell. I removed the paper from my mouth and binned it. The wet mush sat obediently with the discarded sanitary pads and used tampons.
When I stepped out, Sora was washing her hands in the sink. Our eyes met in the mirror, and I looked down instinctively. I concentrated on cleaning my fingers; I was rubbing them with soap one at a time.
“Hey,” she said. I said, hello.
“You look pale, you okay?”
I said it was fine, just period pain. She stood there looking at me and then asked if I wanted to get ice-cream after school. I looked up, surprised. It looked like she was regretting the offer. Before she could retract the invitation, I said yes, I’d love that.
I think you left your notebook on my kitchen table today. The one with the brown plastic cover. Would you hate me if I said that I took a peek inside? I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, but it was so nice to have something of yours. Usually, when you come over, you’re so careful about everything, that by the time you leave, when I’m lying on bed, I doubt if this thing between you and me, whatever this is, is even real.
So, I think my very fuzzy brain—fuzzy because of you, might I say—just went into an overdrive when it acknowledged that you, in fact, are very much real. I didn’t read much of your notebook, three-four pages at the most, and WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME YOU WRITE SONNETS?!!!
We’ve spent so much time together in the past one and a half months, and I really feel stupid now. I mean, what warranted this sneaky behaviour? Surely you weren’t thinking that I’d laugh, did you?
You know I adore you, and you know I think you’re a beam of pure genius. I was wondering, was I ever the muse of one of your sonnets?
oh yeah, i checked and the brown notebook is actually missing. WOW, okay, so you read it, no big deal; it isn’t like it contains the code to hacking NASA’s system lol
why on earth would this thing between us not be real? you don’t believe all that trash they teach you at catechism, d’you? come to think of it, I don’t understand why you waste two hours every Sunday in church anyway. i don’t go to church, but i'm still living a healthy life, aren’t i? it’s not like i’m suffering from a fatal disease just because i go around kissing you…..
hmm, have I never really told you that i write? i’m sorry if it came as a surprise but i thought it was obvious that i write when i told you i’d study creative writing at Yale.
I swear I wasn’t being sneaky, but I understand it’s hard to believe, so as compensation, I give you my permission to go ahead and read the other sonnets too. I don't guarantee any poetic finesse, however...
As for your question, I'd much rather answer it when I meet you at the beach today. i don’t want to miss out on your iconic reaction (did i already give you the answer, here?)
You’ve been gone just for a week, and I miss you already! How’s New Haven? Why haven’t you emailed me yet?
Mum finally got Dad to sign the divorce papers, and he’s moved out. Mum is seeing another guy now, and I heard them /making out in the kitchen the other day, and do I really need to tell you how I feel about it?
I read that story you sent me, and honestly, I’m not surprised that the literary magazine wants to publish it. What surprises me, however, is that you asked for my permission.
I understand that the story is about me, and that the heroine is just a fictionalised version of me, so I don’t know what you mean when you say “what d’you think about it?”
Are you asking if I’m okay with you writing about what happened with Jack on the night of the dance in my sophomore year? If you are, then I’m not sure how I feel about it now—in my defense, it’s been seventeen months.
I was angry in the beginning, very angry. At Jack for what he did, and then also at myself for letting him. But in retrospect, there wasn’t anything that I could’ve done to avoid it. Was I interested in him? Yes. Did I know he’d try to take advantage of me? No. Obviously, things would’ve been different if I allowed him to continue—which was a possibility because I was actually attracted to him—but I didn’t and so here I am, having my girlfriend write a story about something that embarrasses me, even though the details are grainy, and I know I shouldn’t be bothered.
I never did tell you, or did I, that Jack sent me an email once he began his freshman year at NYU. He said he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to “lose control like that” and that he wasn’t the “pushy kinda guy.”
His sincerity was a little fishy, and I didn’t think he really cared about whether or not I accepted his apology, so I ended up not replying to the email. Now I wonder if I should have, because maybe he really meant it, I don’t know.
And please, please, please clarify this: the character in the story in whose arms the heroine ended up crying, was she you? oh lord, please don’t tell me I cried on you that night...
So, to answer your question, no, I do not object to being the inspiration of your story, and no I don’t mind you putting that incident with Jack in your story either.
Love love love, Janine x
Ps. I was re-reading the email and I realised 84% of it makes no sense. So classic me.
Sora and I continued to see each other until I was accepted to Stanford. We both mutually agreed on the fact that long distance would only sour the bond that we shared beyond the obvious romantic quotient. I drove up to New Haven before flying to California, and that day we loved each other through the better part of the afternoon.
When I was re-doing the button of my plaid shirt, both of us getting ready to drop into Dunkins’ Donut, she said, “You should’ve replied to the email.”
I was pushing the last button through the slit in the shirt, and said I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Jack Brady’s email,” she said. I looked up; she was smoking a joint. It had been months since I’d mentioned that email to her.
Oh, well, yeah, maybe I should’ve, I said.
She was looking outside the window, her back turned to me. Smoke, whitish gray, was rising from the corner of her mouth. I looked around her dorm room because I couldn’t see her eyes. There was a rusting tin can on her desk, and I knew she stored money in it. Above the desk, a handwritten list of all the magazines and literary journals where her stories had been published.
That thing you’re smoking, you could get addicted to it, I said after a little while. She was still looking out of the window.
“I already am,” she laughed.
Well, it could kill you, I argued.
“I’d like to see it try.” She turned to face me, then. We both laughed.
I was scrolling through Facebook at 2 a.m. in the stuffy California heat, when I saw a post. Someone from our high school had posted a picture of Sora, and written, “R.I.P sora u beautiful soul.” The picture had been re-posted a number of times and several people had commented on it, too. Some had reacted with the crying emoji.
I was well-settled at Stanford; I hadn’t seen Sora in months. I pulled up the last email I had received from her. It was four months ago. It was a short note, without preamble, saying she’d landed a paid internship with the Chicago Review and was going out with this guy who supplied free drugs and vodka every Friday night.
They were holding the funeral back home. I booked a flight, paying from the money I’d earned as a research assistant.
There were close to two hundred people at the funeral. I saw Sora’s mother in a black dress. When I offered my condolences, she asked me who I was.
Just someone she knew, we were in the same high school, I said.
“Oh dear, sweet Sora knew so many people, look how many have turned up.”
I looked over my shoulder, feeling sorry for her mother. No one knew her, only I knew her, we were lovers, I wanted to say.
Seems like it, I said.
“Another one of the lads from the high school is here, let me see, what was his name?”
I waited for her to remember, but in the end she couldn’t.
I’ll just go and look around, don’t worry, Ma’am, I said. She patted my shoulder joint gingerly.
Jack Brady and I saw each other across the room. He was dressed in a black suit, he smiled. I smiled back. He began to make his way across the room, a glass of wine in hand.
I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you, I thought.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.