I was born in the height of summer, raised in the South, at the doorstep of the sea; one some days, it feels like I swallowed the sun, and fire runs through my blood. I can’t sit still, and I won’t shut up.
At least, that’s how I was as a child. You could always tell when I was out playing because my voice echoed all over the block. Why speak when you can scream? And why wouldn’t you scream when you’re a warrior princess/ninja butterfly/a human-bird hybrid just bursting out of its cocoon? Because that’s what I was, during playtime, (in between family roleplays and Barbies, of course) and it was glorious.
From the ages of 0 to 8 or 9, I was the sort of kid that I grew to absolutely loathe – annoying, opinionated, and determined to have her say, and everyone else’s say for that matter, if she can get away with it. Later, a teacher would notice my lung capacity and order me in the school choir, where I would, at least, be loud in an appropriate setting. But before that time, it was a relief when I got my pencils and drew quietly.
That’s not to say that I was cool about my drawing. Not at all – I didn’t stand criticism and I’d get moody if people didn’t like what I’d made. I was well and truly an emotional terrorist, at school and at home. Modesty didn’t stick. Some of my classmates tried to help me there, and bring me down a notch, but I also had good friends and so long as they were there to play with me and go along with my games, I could shrug and carry on. Haters gonna hate.
I was brave. I was audacious.
And then, just like that, I wasn’t.
I’m sitting on my laptop, fingers knitted together, blasting Rihanna from my phone. I don’t know what to write. I can’t bring myself to finish this story.
“Who are you hugging there?” a counselor asked me once, noticing how I’d taken to clutching her couch cushions to my chest. “Who are you trying to comfort?”
I didn’t know. I said myself, but I was only guessing.
“No one really likes you,” the girl told me, right there, in front of our teacher. “They think you’re a horrible person.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had told me that, or a variation thereof. But my confidence had been taking hits. First, it was my favourite teacher falling ill. Then mother’s promotion to Sofia, which meant that we would all have to move in the autumn. Then my friends, all slowly moving away from me, hanging out together and leaving me out.
I said this, to our teacher, one day in afternoon recess. It was very hot outside, and we were standing under a shade with a couple of other girls. My two best friends were some distance away, talking together on the bleachers. I turned to my teacher and remarked how my friends seemed to avoid me. When that other girl spoke, it was the finishing blow to my confidence.
“It’s because they don’t really like you,” she said. “They don’t play with you because you’re a horrible person.”
And then she went on to list all the evidence of that, one after the other. Things I didn’t even remember saying, or doing, but that she could clearly recall perfectly. And instead of speaking up, or defending myself, I looked down at my feet and just took it. I was being dressed down by a girl who had been my winter camp roommate, and I couldn’t muster enough air to say anything other than “yes,” when my teacher finally asked if any of this is true.
Eventually, I walked away from that shade and started walking in circles under the rusted basketball hoops, my lungs slowly shrinking with each step.
These days I scream plenty in the dojo. Loud, explosive kiais that scare me, accompanied by kicks and slaps that stop just this short of the target. But that’s for what… 4-6 hours a week, if I’m lucky?
I spent years thinking how unfair that episode was, but I still prefer to keep my mouth shut than to speak up on my behalf.
“What would you tell this girl, if she were here now?” the counselor asked me.
I didn’t know.
I really didn’t.
My lungs keep on shrinking.