| Teen Fiction |

On the Other Side

“Role models, my foot. This kid is obsessed, and somebody has to tell her to find friends her own age!”

 

Adina stepped off the auditorium stage, smiling to her partner, Chany, as they were engulfed in a sea of applause and cheering. Being head of G.O. was hard work, but it sure was rewarding.

“You guys were amazing!” Nechamah gushed as Adina and Chany took their places on the bench.

“Thanks!” Chany said. “You have no idea how nervous we were. The million hats we collected—”

The two partners burst into gales of laughter.

“I mean, how do you think we each got ten hats onto our heads?” Adina said between giggles. As she continued enlightening her classmates about the history of the hats on their heads, she noticed Tzippy, a ninth grader, staring at her again. Tzippy caught her eye and flashed her a toothy grin. Adina cringed. Tzippy was obsessed with Adina and, quite frankly, it was annoying.

“So, yeah, that’s why we were very relieved when our introduction passed without any mishaps.” Chany finished off their hat tale with a fluff of her hair. The girls around her were laughing, except, Adina noted, the same few girls who never did. They had semi-smiles on their faces, but those smiles were flimsy, wavering smiles, overshadowed by the heaviness and uncertainty in their eyes. Adina didn’t get those girls. A pang of guilt tugged at her heart for not trying to include them more. But why didn’t they ever join? Why did they always have to sit there with pitiful faces, like nagging guilty consciences, without making any attempt of their own to mingle? Was Adina responsible for their lack of effort? For their… laziness?

Tzippy, on the other hand, was holding her stomach in laughter. Had she really heard them all the way over at the ninth-grade table? Why wasn’t she paying attention to her own classmates? Adina twirled her head away, flinging her hair. Well, Tzippy wasn’t her problem either.

The 12th graders crowded the hallway, laughing as they tried to mimic Mrs. Kraus’s deep voice. Suddenly, Adina felt an arm edge its way in. She looked behind her. It was Tzippy. She quickly looked away. This was a nightmare.

Tzippy wasn’t daunted. “My sister told me she always sees you at the Assisted Living Home on Shabbos,” she said with a grin.

“That’s nice,” Adina replied absentmindedly, pretending to be absorbed in other conversation.

“Have you been going there for a while?” Tzippy continued.

Adina sighed. Tzippy was like a sticky thing that you couldn’t shake off.

“Um, I’m not sure,” Adina said with effort. “Maybe three years.” Why wasn’t Tzippy hanging out with her own grade?

“This kid is obsessed with you,” Chany said once Tzippy had finally left.

“Tell me about it!” Adina answered. “I can’t stand it!”

“Big deal,” Chany said. “It’s cute. Come on, don’t you remember how we used to look up to the 12th graders? Now we’re the role models!”

Adina rolled her eyes. “Role models, my foot. This kid is obsessed, and somebody has to tell her to find friends her own age!”

*****

Adina stared at the open envelope on the counter. “Mommy, what’s this?” she asked.

“It’s an invitation,” her mother responded, joining her at the counter.

“An invitation to what?” Adina asked cautiously.

“The special-needs program Tzvi is part of is making a shabbaton for families of kids with special-needs.”

No,” Adina said. “I’m not going!”

Adina’s mother sighed. “Lots of lovely girls from lovely families have siblings with special needs. This is nothing to be ashamed about. It’s about connecting with others in the same boat. Adina, you’re a mature girl and almost an adult. It’s time you stopped caring so much about your image.”

“Fine,” Adina said, her throat tight, tears threatening to spill over, but she pushed the envelope far away.

*****

The girls sat down for lunch, hungry after returning from a G.O. trip. Adina enjoyed her audience again as she recounted how she and Chany had put their plans into action. She was well aware that all eyes were on her. Here in school, she shone. Nobody knew about her life with a special-needs sibling, and that was the way she liked it. She didn’t see why it was necessary to spend time with other people in the same boat, as her mother had put it. It was a lot more pleasurable to be the center of attention where everybody enjoyed her stories.

Well, almost everybody. Adina watched her classmates who, as usual, kept to themselves. She felt another pang of guilt. But then again, was it her fault they chose to keep apart?

She threw a sideways glance at the ninth-grade table. Tzippy grinned at her.

*****

“Tell yourself it’ll be fine,” Adina’s mother said as they stepped off the bus, “and it will be.”

Adina stared at the colorful welcome sign in front of the hotel entrance. “I doubt it,” she said.

Once in the hotel lobby, enthusiastic and hugging women surrounded them on all four sides. Adina rolled her eyes. “Connecting with others in the same boat” was overrated.

Adina went up to her room to unpack, and then her mother asked her to come back downstairs where they were serving Erev Shabbos food. Adina self-consciously followed her mother into the main dining room. She hoped she wouldn’t meet anybody she knew. In either case, there were too many people for her to be noticed. Wherever she looked, there were faces. Faces and noise.

Adina had expected that families would sit together, but she realized that most girls around her age were off to one side of the room, conversing noisily. They appeared to know each other. Adina figured they had probably met at previous shabbatons, but since she had always refused to attend, their faces were entirely unfamiliar. She lifted her chin and looked away. She was fine without them.

Adina plopped some food into her plate. She stole a quick glance at the crowd of girls and returned to her dish. Her eyes jumped back up. That was Tzippy’s face in the crowd. There was no mistaking it. Adina closed her eyes. This was getting worse by the minute. No wonder Tzippy was so obsessed with her. She must know Adina had a sibling with special needs and felt a special connection to her. Adina inched even further away from the crowd. It was important that Tzippy didn’t notice her.

Friday night was harder. Adina couldn’t avoid the group of girls, because whoever had created the program had scheduled a shiur for married women in the main conference room. The girls were directed to hang around in the smaller lounges. As Adina’s room was on the eighth floor, she wasn’t in the mood of climbing back up the stairs to her room to stay hidden. Instead, she sat down on a corner couch in one of the lounges filled with girls. At least Tzippy wasn’t in this room.

Adina listened to the girls’ chitchat. They weren’t so bad, and many of them were actually quite witty. Adina figured that since she was stuck there anyway, she may as well join in the conversation, instead of sulking miserably to herself.

She wanted to say something, but that was the problem. These girls didn’t know her, and she had already made her first impression when she arrived at the hotel — standoffish and snobby. It was hard to change her presentation once she had already established one. She suddenly felt too shy to speak up.

“After all my work, I felt like I wasted so much time,” a tall girl with a long, blond side-pony was saying.

“It’s so annoying when your plans fall apart like that,” said a girl wearing a black top with shiny sequins.

“Oh, yeah, that happened to me once,” Adina willed herself to say. Her voice sounded weak to her own ears.

Only Black Sequins seemed to have heard her. She nodded sympathetically at her and turned back to the conversation. Nobody had realized that Adina’s statement was intended to be a lead-in to a story! She tried to say more, but the words seemed to cling to her throat. It really was hard to shift roles when everybody around her had already established their basic impression of her.

Finally, it was time for the meal. Adina wanted to sit near her mother, but the organizers had made it arranged for the girls to eat in a separate ballroom, as neither of the rooms were big enough for all the guests.

Adina’s heart pounded as she entered the ballroom. She had no idea where she’d sit. She looked around desperately. And suddenly she spotted Tzippy’s grin.

Absolutely not. There was no way she was going to sit next to Tzippy. She couldn’t stand her grating voice. Adina turned around and slipped into the closest empty seat she saw.

The table filled quickly. Adina realized that again, she was sitting at the very edge. Conversation flowed all around her in the room, and she was like the black hole in the center of it all. She attempted to raise her voice here and there, but again her voice got caught in her throat. It seemed almost impossible to speak up. And even if she did feel comfortable speaking up, she certainly didn’t feel comfortable yelling across the table, which would be the only effective way for her to be heard anyway, since she sat at the very end of it.

Suddenly, she noticed Black Sequins casting a pitiful glance in her direction. Their gazes met, and Black Sequins quickly looked away. A painful realization dawned on Adina. Was she coming across the way some of her classmates did, the ones who pretty much kept to themselves? Adina had a bitter taste in her mouth, and it wasn’t the radish she had eaten at the meal. She glanced back at Black Sequins. If she had noticed that Adina was lonely, why didn’t she try to make conversation with her? Why hadn’t she even asked what her name was?

As she lay in bed a few hours later, Adina couldn’t fall asleep. Was that how some of her classmates always felt? What a painful existence! Her heart went out to them. To have to go through such treatment every day would be torture. It was so painful not to be acknowledged by anyone. Why hadn’t she ever made more of an effort to include those girls? Was she really so uncaring? Adina felt tears trickle down her cheeks. She was so ashamed.

Adina turned to the other side of her pillow. She wasn’t in control of who would include her, but she certainly was in control of whom she would include.

When Adina walked into the ballroom the next morning, she searched the tables for Tzippy’s face. When she spotted her, she immediately edged her way over. “Can I sit here?” she asked, motioning to the empty chair next to Tzippy. Tzippy’s mouth dropped open.

Tzippy did most of the talking. She sure had a lot to say. When Adina’s mind wasn’t wandering off, she found herself smiling at Tzippy’s quips. She remembered how miserable she had felt during last night’s meal, and she was grateful for the improvement.

*****

Adina walked out to the school yard, a pile of notes in her hand. Everything looked the same. With Chany at her right and Elisheva, class president, at her left, Adina knew she was still Miss Popular. Everything was the same, but it didn’t feel the same. She watched her classmate Leah reading her notes quietly on a bench. “Just a sec,” she told Chany and Elisheva.

Adina strode over to the bench. “What are you up to?” she asked Leah. “We’re also about to review now. Can we join?”

Leah nodded. “Sure.” She moved to the side of the bench, and Adina motioned for Chany and Elisheva to join.

Just then, Tzippy passed, holding a ball in her arm.

“Hi, Tzippy,” Adina said.

“Oh, hi, Adina.” Tzippy waved and skipped away with the ball in her hand, throwing it to her friend.

Adina gaped at her. That was it? “Hi, Tzippy,” and off she went? Without giving Adina as much as a second glance? Adina watched Tzippy play ball. Tzippy didn’t turn around to stare at her even once. It seemed that she had finally gotten enough attention from her. Adina was relieved, but she also felt a slight sense of loss. After all, it was nice to be noticed like that.

Adina shook herself slightly and turned back to Leah’s notes. It was nice to be noticed, and everybody deserved the same.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 775)

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