A couple weeks ago I dreamed I met a girl from high school. On my former university’s sun-spattered campus, the light so bright it seemed to make her glow, she wore the same bright gold, slightly oversized sweatshirt she used to wear. When she saw me she raised her hand in a wave. We embraced like old friends. Which we weren’t. Over those four years we’d spoken a handful of times, even that year we saw each other every morning in homeroom, but I’d always envied her easy, pretty smile. She fixed that smile on me as she talked, catching me up on things, and we parted with promises to speak again. It was odd, even for a dream. In the waking world she’s a bodybuilder/personal trainer/something of the sort. I only know because of irregular social media updates that see her transformed from that skinny girl in a too big sweatshirt to a muscular and successful woman.
With most of my former classmates, my only connections to them are a Facebook friendship. I watch them get engaged and married, move to new cities, take new jobs, travel abroad, have kids. I click “like” on their posts. They’re all moving forward, and while the selfies I post may be pretty or funny, and while some of those girls also click “like” from time to time, they catch me at the same point in my life each time.
Starting over went well for me once.
The high school I chose had three buildings, was ten minutes from my house and was all-girls. I’d been anxious at first, as any eighth grader would be, but I was surprised by how easy it was. I didn’t want to crawl out my skin and disappear there. It was the only school I’d looked at that didn’t take itself too too seriously (thought it did take itself too seriously), and the only one where I thought I could thrive. And I did. I made friends within a week, including the best friend I now live with. I got good grades and was mostly content.
The next time I tried starting over didn’t begin to compare.
Freshman year of college passed in a blur of semi-friends, bad parties and the wish for it to be over. Sophomore year I got an on-campus job that came to consume my life. The friends I made there were the only ones I had (save that roommate/best friend from high school). I went to parties with coworkers and came to call them friends, I was promoted twice and gained more responsibility, more authority and the esteem of coworkers who knew I did things right. I was a fixer, I go-to person to resolve disputes and find solutions. I was given free reign in some aspects and allowed an abundance of wiggle room in others. I held this up as evidence that I was finally tapping into something my high school classmates had found long ago, that I was finally proving myself. College started to make sense, and then as quickly as it had began, it stopped.
Everything imploded. People were cruel behind my back, I spent hours arguing via Facebook Messenger, choking on my own rage and hiding in closets to cry. A guy called me a bitch at work and my fingers burned from the rapidity of my typing fingers as I confronted him, desperate to whittle him down to as small as size as he’d made me. This was after my boyfriend (from work) tried cheating on me with another girl we (used to) work with, and my fingers stung from all the typing then, too. Then my throat from all the screaming and of course, the crying. It was all unfamiliar to me. High school’s ridges and peaks, its dramas, had never been like this. While part of me was grateful, another part of me was disappointed that I hadn’t been better prepared. If I had I may not have convinced myself I’d discovered something similar to the world I’d left only to be proven very, very wrong.
It was these days I thought most of my former classmates, imagined them rallying around me, lending their strength and their wisdom, being on my side. I had an Italian class with one of them. She sat on the other side of the room, and we spoke only when put together for group assignments and usually in fractured Italian. I imagined telling her everything multiple times. I never did. I’d made a few friends who pulled me through. And my best friend, as well as two others at a distance, were there to anchor and sustain me, but I longed for those three buildings and the girls inside of them, who would make everything simple again.
That was only the beginning of the downturn. Work swiftly became a little shop of horrors, but I grew accustomed to them all: the unrelenting stress, the rudeness of superiors, the unacknowledged and unpunished sexual harassment from coworkers, the disregarding of empathy, sympathy and everything else that may be construed as human. And in the midst of it all, those girls from high school hovered at the back of my mind. They would have quit, I knew that. I envied that certainty that I imagined they had but knewthat I didn’t, and I stayed. I didn’t even leave when I graduated in December.
I was stalled by a place I’d carved out for myself, one where I had power and influence (as middling as it was). I know what the bad things are here, I don’t know what they are elsewhere. I’d started over once already, and it got me here: working a job that I can actually feel ruining me, procrastinating on cover letters and scrolling through job boards. I pick out positions that seem promising, jobs that seem more than promising, and I worry about what will happen if I actually get one of them. I’ll have to do what I’ve been dreading and finally start over again. Move to a new city, attempt to make friends, drift to the bottom of a totem pole and dive into a pool of uncertainty, all with the nagging suspicion that it will go poorly.
It’s been almost five years since I graduated from high school and months since I graduated college, and those girls at that school are still one of the only things that made sense to me. I wasn’t immune to the bumps and bruises of adolescence, but I was happier than any high school horror story led me to believe I’d be. As I get further and further away from those three buildings, I cling tightly to sunny afternoons lingering in the parking lot after school let out. To the blustery days with the windchill below 0 and zipping between buildings with only a thin pair of leggings between our bare legs and the cold. To the mornings when we congregated at a chosen person’s locker to gossip and finish last night’s homework.
We weren’t all friends, and it was far from a utopia, but we each had our people we squeezed around the lunch table with, the ones we pilfered french fries from, and the ones we stuck with at various dances and mixers and parties. And we had each other, even from a distance, even as mostly strangers. There was a simplicity to those years that I haven’t found anywhere else, despite how hard I may look.
Now I think high school may have been an anomaly, that the unerring indifference I now feel is going to be my endgame. That nothing will ever be as easy or shine as bright as those three buildings, those navy skirts and the girls I spent those four years with. I look at their photos with envy and wonder, seeing how much they’ve changed, wondering if they really did change or if I just missed their independence, their brilliance, and their fearlessness in high school. It was probably the latter. I didn’t know them all as well as I wish I had. I was touched by their mere proximity, even if I didn’t know the ebbs and flows of all their lives, if I didn’t know much aside from their names, what classes we had together and what sports they played.
College gave me a revolving door of people to meet and forget, to meet and wish I’d never met, but high school gave me a regular cast of girls who were dynamic and lovely and brave. I must follow their example. They are the people I need to impress, to live up to and be worthy of. They have started over again and again. They are doing it even as I type this, and it’s my turn to do the same.
FYI: I originally posted this on my never-before-utilized Medium page. Follow me there for more sporadic (but maybe, eventually not-so-sporadic) updates.