There’s not a lot of things in life you know for sure. You’re not sure about your identity or your aspirations. You don’t completely trust your memories. People even like to tell you that even science isn’t known for sure, and you’d have to agree because in middle school your favorite thing to do was say ‘Truth isn’t universal.’ There is one thing you’re sure of, though: it’s the little things that count.
The little things count when Ashley pokes her little pink tongue out of her little mouth at the class photo and says, “I look so bad!” They matter when the girls crowd around the picture and point slim fingers at ‘ugly hair’ and moan about being too tall or tilting their head too much or not liking the clothes they wore. Later when you squint at your round face in the front row, short hair held back by a headband, legs crossed, hands on your knees, your focus is drawn to your face. It’s the same face that your mom loved for it’s round nose and cute cheeks but your mouth is so square. You frown and tuck the photo back into its folder because little things matter. A smile matters.
The little things count when you’re in fourth grade and you’re standing in line to sign in in the morning but get stuck behind two girls. They count when you witness the secret handoff of a Justin Bieber book between two smiling friends. When one of them is the new girl your classmates smile too wide at and immediately abandon when recess starts and the other is the kindest girl you know who’s hated for crying too much little things matter. While you’re staring at Justin Bieber’s long hair on the glossy hardcover surrounded by lights and you member that just yesterday you’d overheard your other friends complaining about his high voice and terrible music and terrible hair little things matter. A book matters. Two girls matter. You’re silence and your ignorant agreement with the Other Friends matter.
Your neighbors’ house burned down yesterday. Four dead, even the dog. Nothing left. You heard it from your mom through tears and hugs and then on tv and then in harsh whispers from the lunch table next to yours. You just sat there. You didn’t cry. You didn’t know why.
The house is on the wrong side, so when you walk to school you don’t have to pass it. You just see, out of the corner of your eye, a gray frame in the shape of a house and a pile of ash that spills into the lawn, dirtying what grass is still green. You get a clearer view of it on the way home. Every day it changes, people picking through the remains for memories and parts and eventually the rain wipes away the ash until the place looks like a pile of sticks, like the model house you built in third grade. One week you join the entire town as they crowd around the house with flowers and candles and stories and tears to mourn the family. You just stand with your hands in your pockets, cheeks pink from the wind, and it feels like your body is sinking. It gets difficult to keep your eyes open and the murmurs and sobs are being replaced by a faint buzz of white noise, so you gently push your way out of the crowd and slip into your house hoping no one saw. Later, in your bed, with wet hair and a mouth that tastes like mint you curl up and press your clasped hands against your chest and wonder why you still haven’t cried. Your stomach sinks deeper.
The day of the fire your mom has herded you out of the house. Even though your houses were far away she could see the smoke and you were leaving, just in case. Bundled in a blanket and wrapped in her arms you’d watched from across the street as the flames lit up the sky a beautiful scarlet that faded to black. The night of your high school graduation when you watch the sunset from the playground with your friends it reminds you of the fire. Beside you they laugh and cheer and send off that last day by raising a stolen bottle of champagne. Then they pass it around with some plastic cups as the stars come out, bumping each other’s shoulders and reminiscing about how Alex drew crude pictures in sharpie on the whiteboard that one time. As you sip champagne under night sky your friends poke fun about your apathetic face until someone tells them off with a ‘they’ve always been this way’. You lie down and inform them that honestly, really, you’re gonna miss them so much. You’re gonna miss this place. They laugh and pile on hugs and the corners of your eyes crinkle just a little.
Later, when you volunteer to dispose of the empty cups the slight sinking feeling in your stomach that’s become so normal it’s like it’s not there spreads to your chest. It feels like someone’s attached a rope to your insides and is struggling to climb up. You toss the cups in the trash. When you return you return to tear stained faces and more hugging, this time sorrowful. You sit down on the side and smooth out your white graduation clothes and wait for someone to come to you. And when one by one they do you still haven’t cried.
Read Part 1 here
You hear your first rumor in second grade as well. It’s about a boy named Ian who moves in near the end of the year. He’s a little shorter than you, long eyelashes and lanky frame, and has a feathery dark brown mess of hair sitting on top of his head. He also has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. So of course he becomes you’re almost friend. Almost.
In second grade recess comes before lunch. Second only to independent writing time, it’s one of your favorite times of the day. Before recess the whole grade crowds into the second grade hall, filling the building with sounds of opening and slamming short blue lockers. The hallways overflows with the chatter of young high pitched voices. The windows at the end of the hall spill in bright noon day light and in your wide second grade mind there’s no room in that hallway for anything but smiles.
One particular day, sometime soon after deciding that rather than slamming your locker door you would carefully lift the latch and close it, Ian doesn’t come out with the rest of the crowd. But you don’t look for him. You’re not friends, just almost friends. Just people who are very ver nice to each other. So you hear it from another almost friend. The girl with frizzy brown hair asks where he is and the very blond girl says he was talking to the teacher. Then that they were arguing. And the teacher had thrown a table. And he had thrown a chair. And for half a moment, while you watch their backs walk away, you believe it. Then you don’t. Then, for the rest of recess and most of lunch and every time in the future that you thought of the event your throat tightens and you gets a bitter oily taste in your mouth because you’re not sure if it’s true.
You put more thought into it than you should. You think about how Ian’s face always twisted a little bit every time he talked about your teacher and you think about how your teacher can have a short temper sometimes. You think about how your teacher is a universal least favorite even though you never figured out why and you think about how no one’s really friends with Ian because he’s eccentric and passionate and acts in a way that, to anyone older, places him as obviously rich. And you like to trust people so much. And you don’t like to ask. So you never find out if the rumor was true. All you know is that in third grade Ian makes a lot of friends then loses them all in eighth and your second grade teacher’s name is said with distaste right up until the day of your middle school graduation.