She stood so straight and tall, you’d think either she didn’t realize how strange she looked, or she was proud of it
The name I tagged her with from the beginning. I must have asked her real name during that first conversation, but it slipped my mind and, well, this one just stuck.
I met her at tenth-grade orientation.
Just seeing these words gives me a stomachache. Orientation wasn’t half as bad as I’d expected it to be. It was doubly, maybe triply as bad.
Ninth grade starts with a whole bunch of insecure eighth graders trying to prove themselves. Tenth grade starts with a whole bunch of insecure ninth graders trying to recreate themselves. The last thing you risk is being caught schmoozing with the New Kid. Unless New Kid shows up with a million friends from camp who gaggle around her like a flock of geese. Like the other new girl in tenth grade, and very unlike yours truly.
I found a seat in the auditorium that looked safe enough — not too close up to look nerdy, not too far back to look like the social outcast I felt like — and smiled at nobody while I prayed silently for the speeches to start.
I hoped I could get away with the polite-smile thing when the principal announced a 20-minute intermission for refreshments. Swallowing hard, I surrendered to the crowd’s powerful tide and somehow ended up in the second auditorium. The room was teeming with people. Hugs and high fives and laughter and friendship and… and… there I stood, alone. I wondered if it would have hurt me this much to smile if I hadn’t been hurting so much inside. I didn’t think things could get worse.
But they did.
I felt a pair of eyes on me even before I felt a tap on my shoulder. And when I turned around, there she stood.
Her frizzy hair was pulled into a braid that hung down her back like a horse’s tail. Little wisps stood out behind her ears and along the length of the braid, lending a haphazard finishing touch to the whole thing. And she stood so straight and tall, you’d think either she didn’t realize how strange she looked, or she was proud of it.
As far back as I can remember, it was always me and Perry. Perry was my best friend. My partner in crime and laughter. The one I got into trouble with, went to sleepaway camp with, had private jokes about everything with. Then, in the middle of eighth grade, Perry’s family moved. Just like that. Her father had lost his job and they needed to move somewhere where housing was cheaper. He found a new job in a faraway place I’d never heard of before. We lost touch so fast it was scary.
I entered high school feeling like I was missing a limb. I had friends to sit with in the lunchroom and make small talk with between classes, but nobody could read my mind like Perry and tell when I was feeling grumpy, excited, or a little blah. Ninth grade was lonely.
In the summer after ninth grade, my sister’s friend told her that her neighbor was switching to our school. My sister said I should be nice to her because everyone knows that girls who switch to my school in tenth grade are in for a social doomsday. The cliques are so firmly established by then that breaking into one is harder than hacking into the FBI’s computer system.
I figured I had nothing to lose by being nice to her. I secretly hoped I’d gain a friend out of the whole deal. If I didn’t, at least I’d get a mitzvah.
She was easy to spot at orientation. Her smile was plastered on, but her eyes roved the room in silent terror. My sister had told me her name: Tova.
The next worst thing to being the New Kid is being the New Kid talking to Braid Girl. The thought planted itself in my head and stubbornly refused to budge. In my mind, I pictured the entire auditorium fall silent as everyone turned around slowly to gaze at the pair in the center of the room. New Kid and Braid Girl. And then the whispers would begin. I suppose she’s really unusual, just like Braid Girl…. Guess she’s the desperate type, hanging out with Braid Girl on her first day…. Think she’ll grow her hair to match her new friend?… I was starting to think she was cute, but I guess I was wrong….
I willed the voices to stop. It was fine; I would survive. No one was looking. All she had was a braid. A frizzy braid, okay, but a braid! Not a tail! But it looks like one….
“Hi,” she smiled. “Are you… are you Tova?”
I cleared my throat. “Y-yeah. Hi.”
“It’s so nice to meet you. I heard all about you from my sister!”
“Your sister?” That was weird. I didn’t know her sister. I didn’t even know her!
“Yeah, my sister heard about you from Kayla!” And this unusual girl launched into an enthusiastic report about the whole grand chain of events that led her to hear about me from her older sister who, it turned out, knew my neighbor, “…and she said that I had to make sure to meet you!” And she flashed me this grin that said, So now we’re best friends, right?
I smothered the urge to grimace with another — ouch — smile. “That’s so nice,” I managed.
Somehow, Braid Girl didn’t get the hint. She continued to regale me with small talk and friendly conversation until the bell rang for the second half of orientation. I didn’t see her for the rest of the day. And by the time the first day of school arrived, her existence had almost slipped my mind.
I should have known better.
I had been expecting a more enthusiastic response. I thought she would be grateful to anyone who took the time to talk to the New Kid at orientation. But hey, I wasn’t grading her on manners.
I didn’t see her again until the next morning during recess. I knew that in my school, recess is incredibly awkward for someone without friends. When the weather’s nice, everyone strolls the grounds or relaxes on the grass with their chevreh. No one hangs around inside.
I waited till my classroom emptied out, then I made my way to hers. Just as I had thought. She was sitting alone at her desk. I was secretly glad no one was around to see me talking to the New Kid on the first day of tenth grade.
If I had thought that real school would be better than orientation, I was wrong. At least at orientation you can kind of get swallowed up by the crowd. But real school, I quickly realized, is a different story. A school day is structured, which means that there is class time; but it means, too, that there is pre-class time, between-class time, recess time, and lunchtime. Lots of opportunities for socializing. Not a pretty picture for New Kid. At least Braid Girl wasn’t in my class.
I managed to survive pre-class time. I actually found my class to be quite sweet, even though they were obviously cliquey — I mean, you could count the amount of distinct circles of girls in that classroom, and breaking into one of them was no small task. But eventually one circle opened up for me. I even began to recognize a few faces from my neighborhood. Between-class time wasn’t hard; I figured out pretty fast that it could take a good four minutes to put finishing touches to my notes and insert new paper into the next section of my binder, which I noticed a lot of girls were doing.
But recess caught me by surprise. Twenty seconds after the bell rang, I looked up from clearing my desk and noticed that the entire classroom was empty. Not a soul around. My heart started pounding and my forehead got all sweaty. I was alone in the classroom. Alone. I didn’t even know my way around the school; I was left thoroughly alone without a way to find out where everyone had disappeared to. I was trapped.
I could just imagine myself parading around the hallways of the school, holding a banner that read, I am friendless! Come have pity on me! Someone? Anyone?
I had no choice but to sit at my desk and pretend to be busy. Any other alternative was too mortifying to contemplate.
I took out my apple, my pen, and my planner. Slowly, I penned a to-do list in perfect script: supplies to buy. Homework to do. Calls to make. In between writing I took small bites out of my apple. It was excruciatingly painful. I hoped I didn’t look too pathetic. Even better, I hoped no one would find me.
But someone did. You got it — it was Braid Girl. Same smile, same hairdo.
“Hi, Tova.” She grinned, marching toward me with the confidence of a trained soldier. “How you doing? You busy?”
Yes, simply overwhelmed. But I must get out of this classroom. “I’m good. Just finishing up some stuff.”
She lit up. “Great! Want to come for a walk outside?”
“Um — sure.”
Next thing I knew, it was New Kid and Braid Girl, the newest twosome on the block, strolling out into the hallway and through the big swinging doors into the big wide world. It was a gorgeous day — a picture-perfect first day of school. Girls were lounging on grassy patches everywhere, relishing the gentle breeze and sunshine. Pairs of friends strolled lazily around the campus, engrossed in conversation. It was such a pleasant scene that for a moment I forgot to be self-conscious.
Tova and I began to walk slowly around the building. At first, there was a kind of awkward silence between us. I racked my brains for something to say. When Perry was around, the two of us used to talk a lot about books. We would analyze the characters, hash them out, and sometimes even think up new stories together. I hadn’t done that since Perry had left.
The crisp blue sky and orangey fall leaves winked at me encouragingly. Finally, I plucked up the courage to ask, “Do you like to read?”
Wait. Wasn’t that, like, the most nerdy thing to do in your spare time in tenth grade? The truth was, though — even if I would never admit it — I loved reading. I didn’t read books, I devoured them. I ripped them apart and savored every delicious word, paragraph, chapter. And I wrote, too — anything from poems to short stories to nonsensical fantasies.
I clamped my mouth shut. I felt flaming heat spread up from my neck to my cheeks to my ears. I had been speaking out loud.
Braid Girl chuckled heartily. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m exactly the same way. I thought you were the type. You look too smart to be all into, like, shopping and stuff. By the way, I cannot stand shopping.” She shot me a sideways look. “You like shopping?”
Well, I had already broken the never-admit-you-love-reading rule, so I might as well be honest. I shook my head. “Nah. Gives me a headache after a while. I let my mother do all that for me. She has great taste anyway.”
I looked up at her shyly. She grinned. “Good idea,” she said. And then we walked quietly, lost in thought, until the shrill sound of the bell cut through the air like a siren. “Better get inside quick,” Braid Girl said. “It’s practically a stampede after recess.”
“Oh gosh.” I laughed. Together we hurried toward the wide open doors and squeezed our way through the crowd. She made it to the tenth-grade hallway before I did, and she stood waiting for me outside my classroom door. I should have been bothered by the thought that people would think it hysterical that Braid Girl was waiting for New Kid, but actually, I wasn’t.
“Thanks for the walk,” she said. “I love walking, and it was such a gorgeous day out that I couldn’t just sit inside, you know?”
I nodded. “Yup. Uh — yeah, it was really nice.”
She winked. “See you,” she said, and was gone.
It was hard to concentrate during class. I had too much to think about to be able to process new information. I took notes mechanically, the words going directly from the teacher’s mouth into my pen and onto my paper without passing through my brain. What was it about this girl? She was so — so different. But was it a nerdy different, like a weird different? Or was it just… unconventional different? A little eccentricity in this stiflingly uniform environment, some color and confidence in this insecure place? There was something about her that was so real and down-to-earth. And I could tell, above all, that she really was eager to get to know me. She was unruffled by my Untouchable status as New Kid. That’s what being unconventional does to you. She dared to see past my “I’m okay” exterior, understood that I was so much more than a polite smile. She was interested in me — the real me.
I allowed myself a private smile.
You know what really made me laugh? When weeks into the school year Tova finally asked me my name! I was waiting and waiting for that to happen because it was becoming more obvious by the day that she had no clue what it was. But by then we were friendly enough that we could laugh it off. I didn’t take it personally.
I was Tova’s first friend that year. She made more after that, but we both knew that what we had was special.
Tenth grade turned out to be way, way better than ninth grade.
Twelfth-grade graduation was a flurry of emotions and hugs and laughter and tears. The ceremony was over, and everyone milled about, taking pictures, getting balloons. For a moment, I lost myself and stood, nearly motionless, watching the goings-on through a thin film of tears. I was surrounded by friends — a whole mass of uniformed girls, this time in caps and gowns, so different and yet so similar to the scene that had first introduced me to them. This time, I didn’t try to hide the emotions inside me. Today there was no polite smiling. There was real smiling, true, genuine smiling — and tear-filled eyes to smile through. And today, there was no loneliness. I was part of this, a beloved and crucial member of the crew that was about to set sail into the unknown horizon. It was so hard to let go and say goodbye.
I felt a pair of eyes on me even before I felt the tap on my shoulder. It was Braid Girl. Oh, of course I knew her name already. But in my mind, that’s how she would always stay. “You crying?” she asked me softly. I sniffed and nodded.
She took my hand. “Me too,” she whispered. “Wanna — wanna go for a walk? Around the building? One last time?” I squeezed her hand, hard. We pushed our way through the crowd, out into the hallway and through the big swinging doors.
We didn’t make it very far. Somewhere, a few steps into our walk, I stopped and grabbed her in a ferocious hug. I didn’t realize until I felt tears rolling down my cheeks that I was sobbing on her shoulder. Then I felt her shaking, and I realized she was sobbing, too.
I don’t know how long we stood there, the two of us, just gripping one another in one last embrace that lasted a long, long time. All I know is that when we finally let go, I instinctively stepped back to face her. I studied her, this Braid Girl of mine, an almost-young-woman now — just like I was myself. And everything I wanted to say, everything I wished I could say, flew from my mind, till all that was left were two precious words.
And together, we — New Kid and Braid Girl, all grown up — turned back toward those wide swinging doors to face the future.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 883)
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