| Teen Fiction |

Just a Friend

I told Chayala about my huge fear of failing tests, Chayala started telling me about her social anxiety

As told to Devorah Grant

I’m a sensitive soul, both for good and for bad. I’m the kind of person who takes criticism seriously, but also the first person many people call when they’re in distress. And however much I hate to hear when people are having a hard time, most times, if I’m honest, I can help them in some way or other. Which is kind of where my story begins.

I’ve always been a good student, baruch Hashem, and in school, that counts for a lot. My notes are clear and accurate, and before tests, lots of girls ask me for copies and then study from my notes instead of theirs.

Chayala was one of those girls. She was a soft-spoken, quiet student who kind of just scraped by in school. She didn’t seem to have many friends, but she also didn’t seem to try and make any. Chayala often got left on the sidelines, and though I tried to include her, it never lasted long. However much I tried to engage her in conversation, after a few minutes, she was back on the outskirts, and she always struck me as being lonely. I saw her sitting alone and reading, or dreaming at recess, and it bothered me that nobody was doing anything for her.

Often, I thought about ways I could help Chayala, and at some point, I had the idea that maybe she would be happy studying for finals with me, so I went over to ask her. Chayala was sitting in the corner of the classroom, eating her salad with a dreamy look on her face, when I approached her.

“Chayala, hi!”

She started in surprise, and then quickly regained her composure.

“Hi, Adina!” She looked at me with a questioning glance.

Is it that unusual for someone to approach her? I wondered.

“Are you studying for math with anyone yet?” I asked her casually, although I knew what the answer was.

“Nah, I don’t usually study with anyone, it’s easier alone,” she responded, with a guardedness to her tone.

“Oh, okay, I get it! I just wanted to know if you want to study with me tonight, but if you like to study alone, I understand.”

I could see Chayala struggling within herself — should she admit she wanted to study together, or pretend she didn’t care? I was gratified when she told me she would be happy to join me, and we arranged a time to get together at my house later that evening.

Chayala rang my doorbell exactly on time. She was wearing an adorable purple sweater with furry puppies on the front. Unusual but cute! I thought. At first, our study session was a bit awkward. It was hard to get into a rhythm with someone I didn’t know so well, and it took time for Chayala to warm up. But after a while, things started to move and we covered some ground.

We stopped for a break and I brought up some popcorn, chatting about this and that. I’d never realized it, but Chayala had a great sense of humor, and she could do a pretty awesome imitation of our teachers. It was hard to tear ourselves away from our chat and return to Pythagoras’ theorem, and by the time we were done, it was late.

As we brushed the crumbs off our laps and stood up to make our way down the stairs, I asked Chayala if she would want to study with me another time. Again, that look of uncertain surprise crossed her face.

Then she softly said, “I would love to.”

I went to bed that night dreaming of furry puppies, Chayala’s smile, and changing the world.

In school, I chatted more with Chayala after that study session, and at home, our study sessions became more and more frequent. I went to Chayala’s house and admired her beautiful lilac bedroom, and she came to my house and enjoyed playing with my little sisters. As our friendship deepened, we shared more of ourselves, and after I told Chayala about my huge fear of failing tests, Chayala started telling me about her social anxiety.

At first, I commiserated and validated her, praising her, trying to boost her confidence. I figured that Chayala would start to be more comfortable with my friends if I told her how great she was, and didn’t think it was such a big deal. As the days wore on, Chayala started to confide in me more and more. She told me about how horrible it felt to be on the sidelines, how she felt invisible, stupid, unseen. And suddenly she was crying on my blue bedroom rug, and I was handing her tissues and comforting her.

We started speaking more on the phone and each day Chayala would update me on how her day was, how hard school was, how terrible she felt. I did all I could for her, and more. I brought Chayala into every conversation I had in school, annoying my friend Gabriella until she became exasperated.

“What’s with you, Adina?” she demanded hotly. “It’s always Chayala this, Chayala that, Chayala the other, when are you going to just chill?”

I knew she was right, but some part of me couldn’t admit it to Gabriella.

“She’s hurt and lonely,” I said loftily, “and I think you can make more of an effort.”

Gabriella stared at me in disbelief and then shrugged. I felt a pang in my stomach, but I quashed it. I was helping Chayala, that’s what counted.

My mother started to notice that something was up, too.

“It’s Chayala,” she mouthed at me, holding the cordless out at me, and giving me a do you really want to speak to her? face.

I took it. Chayala needed me.

That day had been a hard one for Chayala. She had no one to eat lunch with, and she was angry at me for not saving her a seat in the lunchroom. I told her I was sorry and would try to save her one the next day. She kept on talking, though. She told me I didn’t know how it felt to be like her — alone, sad, unfortunate. I agreed with her — I didn’t know, but I could try to understand, I said. And she kept talking.

We were on the phone for an hour and a half, and by the time I hung up, I was exhausted and depleted. I couldn’t stop thinking about Chayala, and the rest of my night was an uneasy one.

My mother looked at me with concern at breakfast the next morning, as I lethargically made my snacks, but I needed to run out. I’d talk to her later. But later, Chayala called again, and the next day it was the same. My days and my nights were all about Chayala, Chayala, Chayala. I worried about her and kept thinking how someone needed to help her. But I still thought that person was me. The worry made my appetite decrease, and my nights were increasingly disturbed.

But the final straw happened when on one particularly long evening, Chayala told me that she was going to run away from home because she hated her life and everyone in it. I spent the night wide awake with my heart racing, unsure if I should tell Ma, what to tell Ma, when to tell Ma.

I needn’t have worried because the next morning, Ma took one look at me and told me to stay in bed. She also asked me what was going on, but I didn’t want to talk. It was too hard to explain to my own mother, and she understood, but on one condition.

“Adina, you don’t have to tell me, but will you tell someone?”

I nodded. We spoke back and forth, trying to work out who would be a good option. In the end, I picked up the phone that night, and arranged to meet a friend of my mother’s, who is also a therapist. Mrs. Feldinger listened to my story, head cocked to one side, nodding and uh-hmming at different points.

And when I finished, she said this: “Adina, it’s great you want to help people, and I can see why people would talk to you. You’re mature, you’re sensitive, and you care very much. But Adina, do you know there’s something wrong with caring too much?”

I nodded, mutely. I did care too much. Far, far too much. But what could I do? Chayala needed me! Mrs. Feldinger read my mind.

“You know, sometimes, we think we just have to help someone. They worry or concern us, and we like to think we alone can save them. But really, it sounds like this friend of yours needs a lot more than a friend right now. Adina, she needs a therapist, and you, my dear, are not qualified!”

I felt defensive. I was helping Chayala, I was!

But Mrs. F. finished off with something I couldn’t deny. “And too often, when we help others, it’s really hurting ourselves.”

Oh, how right she was.

Five minutes later, I left the Feldinger house with a small yellow Post-it in my pocket. Three therapist names, three numbers, and one girl who was starting to realize that she was just a friend, after all.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 812)

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