From our Rejection issue, Leslie Jamison looks back on the geometry of junior high friendships.
November 15, 2014
Who were we kidding? Back then, friendship was nothing but musical chairs. You’d steal anyone’s spot if it meant you got a seat. Or at least, I would. I did. This was fourth grade. You were best friends with N when I came onto the scene and made it a triangle. I remember sleepovers at N’s little bungalow, its lush lawn with sprinklers always running in the drought. I remember getting pissed when we had to write reports on famous writers and you got Shakespeare and I got stuck with Twain, which wasn’t even his real name anyway—Samuel Langhorne whatever—which was all salt on the wound of our president reports the year before, when I got stuck talking about FDR right after Evan Roosevelt talked about FDR, and it turned out Evan was his great-grandson, or something. So that sucked. And then you got Shakespeare, a guy I felt I had a lot to say about.
You were a tomboy, with your shorts and baggy T-shirts, and your meticulous, almost robotic intelligence. You were on the front end of the braces curve. N was our femme queen, indisputably, cased like a sausage in tight pink jeans, with her faux-pearl-beaded headbands.
Triangles have trouble holding. I learned that more than once, the first time at your expense. N and I broke away. We made a straight line, no room for a third point. You were hovering in a distant, stubborn orbit. I remember there was crying. By which I mean: you cried. One of our teachers said we should make an effort to include you because it was a hard time in your family—your parents were getting divorced. Do you know they told us that? Did you tell them to? Back then, “divorce” was still an exotic word to me—it sheened your plight, your exclusion, with a kind of savage radiance: commuting to homeroom each day from your broken home only to show up for our abandonment.
A few years later, when my own parents told me they were getting divorced, I thought about you. This was supposed to get her special treatment? I thought. It’s not so bad. Or maybe it wasn’t It’s not so bad, so much as When will the world turn up some special treatment for me?
So N and I left you behind. We got close with M. This was the next triangle, its eventual collapse inevitable: I got left. I was the third point dangling in space. I don’t know if it made me regret playing the game. It just made me wish I’d played it better.
Maybe this isn’t a letter to you so much as M, anyway: What was your secret? Or to N, that serial de-friender: What the fuck? I just Googled her. Turns out she works at an elementary school. She married a woman in a beautiful ceremony last January, both of them in white dresses, beaming.
But I want to tell you about this thing that happened later. I think you were in a different class by then. We were studying Native Americans. I know, I know. You’re saying: Which time? Every year we studied Native Americans. We were a two-weeks-on-the-Mayflower, two-months-on-Hopi-kachinas kind of school. But this time we built our own mud villages, and then watched one Friday as Ms. C “showed [us] what it must have felt like” by kicking them into crumbled piles. It didn’t make me feel for the tribes we’d studied so much as it made me glad I hadn’t been part of them. Less a pang in the heart, more like Sucks to be you. I wish I hadn’t left you in the lurch. Or I wish I’d regretted it more. I wish I hadn’t begrudged you Shakespeare. I hope you did a good job with him. I’m sure you did. You’re a professor now. The Internet told me so. It’s strange to me that you even exist, still, that you survived being nine—that we all did.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams and The Gin Closet. In her spare time, she enjoys stalking former classmates on the Internet.