I think what scares me most is losing people.
I remember vividly that the first nightmare I ever had. I watched my brother antagonize a wolf that was standing on his hindlegs riding the carousel we were on. Glenn kept bothering him again and again, ignoring my warnings that the wolf would hurt him. Sure enough, the wolf got pissed, whipped around and slashed open my brother’s stomach. My brother gasped, clutching his midsection as he collapsed while I screamed.
Now, being six, I imagined him filled with grey lint that my mom had to remove from the dryer with the clean clothes. Oh, and there was a little fish skeleton that looked plucked from an illustrated Bible story. I woke up in a cold sweat, and began sobbing my eyes out until my mom came into my room asking what was wrong.
“GLENN IS DEAD!” I managed through my tears.
My mother took my hand and led me to the next room over where my brother was sleeping soundly in his bed, thumb in mouth and ratty blue blanket wrapped around the rest of his hand.
“He’s fine, Laura. Go back to sleep.”
I never forgot the dream. It was joined by others where different people in my life continued dying tragically (although mostly not by antagonizing wolves).
As I grew older, I attached myself to different friends in my life. The idea of a best friend was second nature. I didn’t make many friends so the ones I had, I intended to keep forever. I expected my friends to do the same.
So, you might imagine my rude awakening when my best friend of three years (who I should mention was four years my senior), grew up without me. We had been drifting steadily apart for a while, our handwritten (and delivered) letters were becoming few and far between, her family changed churches, she moved to the house behind the one we had climbed trees in and the builders tore down the trees for a new house, and she started calling to hang out less and less. It felt like I blinked and she was gone.
I didn’t know what to do. Somewhere along the way I told myself I wrote her a letter telling her we were done being friends. But that wasn’t true. It was a lie I made up because I didn’t want to believe she could move on without me. I certainly didn’t know what to do without her. I didn’t know what to wear for my first day of high school, let alone where to sit at lunch or what classes to take. My world expanded from my house and church to include a school with over 1000 kids.
I was drowning before I made it to homeroom. I forgot my combination to my locker inside my locker. I saw more kids my age in the first twenty minutes of being in the building than I had seen in my entire life. There were a few girls in homeroom that whispered to each other and, because they were girls, I thought maybe I could sit with them at lunch.
Unfortunately, I got to for the next two years. They made faces at my microwaveable Chef-Boyardee and had not informed me to buy my own Vera Bradley lunch bag. Instead, I had a Tootsie Roll lunchbox I had saved up all my shares for saying Bible verses in AWANA for. I swapped it out for a dark blue bag before the fall was over. There was also a hierarchy in the seating arrangement at lunch that I didn’t learn fast enough. I sat in people’s seats and got dirty looks till I knew my place was at the end of the table with the outcasts.
I missed my my old best friend. She never made me feel bad for wearing sweatpants to school. I wanted so badly to be able to talk to her about everything. How the girls turned their noses up at my ravioli or Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches. How if I didn’t wear makeup, I was the weird one. But when I tried, it shouldn’t have been with the dollar store, purple eyeshadow.
It took me a while before I realized that if I wanted to fit in, I had to make my own crowd. I started looking for people on the outside: the new kids, the art students, the drama kids, the nerds. They were quiet. You had to poke them awhile and make yourself vulnerable. I had to drop into seats next to kids and introduce myself and show I was scared to be alone so I was reaching out to them. People are faster to open up when they feel needed.
By junior year, I had collected a small group of people who I actually liked hanging out with at lunch. They were mostly underclassmen but I didn’t care. They listened. They saw me. They wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t said anything. We could be ourselves together.
But after high school, we drifted separate ways. Not that we wouldn’t like each other’s photos on social media, but we didn’t reach out. Our need to survive had moved to other circles of life. We let go. We moved on.
A pattern had begun. And I sure as hell didn’t want to see it. I latched on to people I needed. People, who I felt needed me. The easiest was my first boyfriend. He was broken. Alone. Another unseen ghost, gliding by.
He saw me. He listened to what I had to say instead of acting like I wasn’t there. Not many other guys had done that before. He talked to me. That was more than any guy had wanted before. He wasn’t just there because I had the answers to a quiz, or was easily impressed by a flip on a trampoline, or was easy to hurt. He cared about what I had to say and put thought into what he said to me.
Then he was gone too.
No amount of tears, begging or heartfelt letters leaking out all the words he wouldn’t let me say to his face, brought him back.
For the next guy, I tried to break free from the pattern. I set boundaries, was not going be a doormat, and set expectations. But it didn’t matter either. I got to be his therapist. He got to be mine. 10/10 do not recommend. Suddenly, he was a stranger too. Another one of the people I thought I knew best, turned out being someone I didn’t recognize at all.
Maybe I got too caught up in all they could be. Maybe I thought my identity could be built on how they saw me. But it didn’t matter. Remembering didn’t bring them back.
I still have the memories, though I’ve tried to rewrite them. They come in and out of my head like unwanted drafts of cold air.
A tree that would be good for climbing reminds me of being nestled in the branches below my childhood friend, staring up at her and wishing moments in trees would never end.
Rain on the sidewalk reminds me of my first date. It rained so we couldn’t ride the Ferris wheel but my boyfriend held out his hand and danced with me in the puddles until a group of middle schoolers said: “EWWWW”. Then he flipped them off before kissing me.
Each curtain call leaves me scanning the audience for a face that isn’t there and the hug that lifts me off the ground and spins me around because “I’m proud of you” doesn’t cover it.
People come and go. We pass through each other’s lives. Some have extended visits but they’re still just that, visits. Perhaps the impermanence is what makes them special. I don’t know.
The memories of people I used to love haunt me. I think my second biggest fear is that one day, they’ll stop.