Sometimes, in my dreams, I've forgotten to graduate and have to go back. Occasionally, I have to sit an exam for a class I never attended. Once in awhile I'm in a school play, and can't remember my lines.
Pretty basic stuff, really.
School dreams are usually about stress. They suck, but I expect you're used to them.
It was a dream about being Heathered.
That's how I like to describe what happened to me during my last year of high school. "I was Heathered," I say, laughing. I've never found a better way to explain the systematic destruction of my reputation and social life engineered by a small pack of girls who, once upon a time, I considered my closest friends.
In retrospect, I see how important our image was. We were so modern. So multicultural! So perfectly 1990s. Charoula was the prettiest (and the whitest -- not a coincidence, in my opinion). Sonia was the sweetest. Devyani was the richest (with mixed-race parents, like mine, but hers were famous and had much more panache). Lucy was the artsy-est. (I heard she ultimately became some sort of art therapist. When you get to the end of the story, I invite you judge whether or not this is ironic.)
I don't know what I was. Mixed race, I suppose, which was important in Canada at that particular moment. My mother is South Asian, hailing from Goa, India. My father is white. I filled a niche. The first time Lucy visited my home she commented, with some disappointment, on how "normal and Canadian" it was. She expected more "Indian stuff." I felt, at that moment, a slight shame. Though the decor certainly wasn't up to me, I had the sense that I was failing somehow. Failing to be "ethnic enough" and to fill the role they'd picked me for.
None of that matters, really. What matters is that I made two fundamental mistakes between 1996 and 1997. I got myself a boyfriend and, like an idiot, I fell in love.
Matt was older, already in university. And though he was friends with my friends, and for a time, we all hung out as a group, he wasn't around in the day to day. And slowly but surely, the day to day changed.
They were 17 and 18 and had, as people say, never been kissed. The dearth of romance in their lives was a regular topic of conversation. By contrast, I was 16 and in love with someone I thought I might actually marry. Ultimately, I think that's what this was about. "We just don't have much in common anymore," said Sonia, during one memorable lunch hour. It stung at the time, but I suppose she was right.
And then it got worse.
I became a "slut." There were whispers. A fringe-friend in a different grade said she'd heard something about me "hopping from guy to guy." It made no sense. I was in love! I was more than a year into my monogamous relationship! I've considered it, and I still don't really understand what happened, or why. I only know that it did.
I was a slut. I was branded.
Once, walking down the crowded hallway, someone actually coughed the word at me.
And there was a burst of laughter.
I was sitting next to him on the sofa when this happened. He covered the mouth piece.
"It's your friends," he said. "You better pick up the extension."
I did. And we spent the next 15 minutes listening to my friends trash talk me.
When the call ended, we hung up and stared at each other.
"What the fuck was that?" he said. I didn't know what to say. I cried, I think. In confusion.
As the year went by and things got worse, I lived increasingly in a state of social fear, sweating constantly and making multiple trips to a little-used washroom in the school basement, where I stuffed paper towels under my arms in an attempt to keep the stains from showing. (I'm sweating right now, actually. I'm sweating just thinking about it.)
We graduated. The girls and I made a show of going to the prom as a group. Matt drove. We were one happy clique.
Summer arrived. I made plans to go to university out of town. I was desperate, for more than one reason, to get away.
He refused, of course. And called me immediately. He was loyal, which might have been why I was so very taken with him. He urged me not to go, and in retrospect, I can't imagine why I didn't listen. I was angry at that point, I suppose. I didn't want them to think I was afraid. I didn't want to seem weak.
So I went. Matt came with me. We ended up at a city park. The girls requested that we sit on the grass in a circle and Lucy produced a "talking stone." ("Please don't speak," said Lucy, in a syrupy-sweet 'I'm so mature' sort of voice, "unless you are holding the stone.") And then they passed the stone around the circle and proceeded to tell me that they were kicking me out of the group, and why I was no longer welcome.
To be fair, not all my "friends" were in attendance. Devyani was out of town and missed the whole thing. Sonia, I believe, refused to attend, for which, I suppose, she deserves some credit. I noted at the time, and still remember however, that the telephone call to "warn" Matt about me had originated at her house, so clearly, she knew what was happening.
Lucy was there, of course (she being the meanest of the group and the one who seemed to hate me the most). I must have done something to deserve it, but I never knew what. Charoula was there as well, along with one other person they'd roped in for support. Charoula, to her credit, seemed embarrassed by the whole thing and didn't say much other than that she didn't really have a problem with me and didn't know why she was there. (She acted as though she'd just stumbled upon the meeting or been roped in against her will, despite having directly participated in planning the event. I guess her resolve failed her once we were face to face.) It was Lucy who did most of the talking. But as a group, nonetheless, they were quite the jury. Like something out of a movie, which is why I thought of Heathers.
I went off to University a week later. I made new friends. I never saw Lucy, Charoula or Sonia again.
Despite all that, believe it or not, I tacked a picture of those girls up on my dorm room wall not two weeks later. A picture of us all together. Smiling. I guess I didn't want to seem like I had no friends back home. Or perhaps I didn't really understand that it was over. I let those girls stare down at me for more than six months before I had the sense to take them down. Pathetic, really.
But none of that equals the most important part of the story. Here is the most important part of the story, the thing that matters most after all this time:
That night in the park, as I walked away, riding high on the fact that I'd had the last word, I tripped.
I was wearing a pair of high-heeled suede boots (with cut-off jean shorts, thankyouverymuch -- stylish!). And I had been sitting cross-legged in a park for over an hour. One of my legs was asleep. And so, when I stood to walk away, I stumbled, my sleeping leg twisting under me and making a sickening pop. I turned my ankle badly. It hurt like bloody hell.
I didn't look back, but I knew as I limped away that my exit had been ruined slightly. Matt and I spent the rest of the evening soaking my swollen and blackening foot in ice water. It was really glamorous.
Why is the fact that I tripped the most important part of the story? Because years later, I ran into Devyani (the one who'd been out of town for my formal execution) and we rekindled a relationship for a brief time. And, somehow, the Heathering came up. She hadn't been there, but she'd been told about it. And what she said about it amazed me.
"I heard you fell down," she said, with a small giggle.
I heard you fell down.
That's the part of the story she heard. That's the part they remembered! That's the only part, I imagine, they found worth repeating.
Hearing it blew my mind.
I don't think my "friends" were bad people. I think they were teenagers. I think they were prone to pack mentality, and without empathy. Maybe all children are like that. Maybe it's how they survive. (At least one of the girls was over 18, but it's obvious we weren't truly mature.) I'm sure (I hope) those girls grew up to be perfectly lovely women. Things change. I know I wouldn't like anyone to judge who I am now based on who I was in high school. Nonetheless, I find myself feeling less than perfectly forgiving about the whole thing. Some betrayals stay with you for a long time. They colour your life. This was certainly the case for me. I'm still hesitant and guarded in my friendships with women to some extent, and all this happend thirteen years ago.
When I woke from my fevered dream of being Heathered, I was sweating. Can you believe that? My nightshirt was soaked around the collar. In my dreams, I've been in car accidents, I've drowned, I've even been shot in the head, but I've never been happier to wake than I was this morning. I feel bouts of childhood nostalgia just like the next person, but today, I felt none of that.
I've never been happier to be in bed beside my partner, with endless work days on the horizon, bills to pay, dishes to wash, laundry to do, and an appointment with my mechanic in the afternoon. I've never been happier to be grown up.
High school is, more often than not, just something we have to make it through.
I made it. And I'm grateful.
UPATE: Alright princes and princesses. I deleted the last names and blurred the photos. Keep your pants on.