When hubby and I first moved to northeastern Ontario thirteen years ago, baby boy in tow, I noticed a familiar face one day when I was shopping at a local big-box store. It was a woman who’d once been both my friend and the person I least wanted to see at school. I’ll call her Cee. In grade five, when I was the new kid at school, I recall Cee sitting on my back in the cloakroom when I had bent over to tie my laces, and inviting her friends to laugh at me with her. I remember when she mocked my innocence when we had seen an opened condom in a frozen puddle, and I didn’t know what it was. Before we were friends, Cee asked me every day “How’s it hanging?”, to my bewilderment, and when I would answer politely as I had been raised to do — “Fine, thanks” (with a slight questioning tone because I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about) — she and her friends would dissolve in hysterics. Of course, I wasn’t a stranger to being picked on. I’d been a target for others for most of my childhood, and would remain so until the end of high school. I knew better than to engage, focusing on my reading and my writing and my small circle of good friends. I shrugged my shoulders, ignored her as best I could (as I’d always done), and cried once in a while, but I could never understand why Cee treated me that way.
Then, in grade six, we suddenly became friends for a time, in that strange and inexplicable way of adolescent girls. We had sleepovers, and I made her a stuffed unicorn with rainbow-hued yarn hair. We confided secrets. We had fun. I thought she was cool, and I was glad that we could spend time together that was enjoyable instead of making me feel bad.
But just as suddenly, in grade seven it was back to the routine in which I was her target, and knowing some of my secrets made it that much easier for her to zing me. It could be that she’d had a fight with her bestie and I’d simply filled the gap until they were able to be friends again. Or, she might simply have grown tired of my quirks. I liked playing intramural volleyball, but I remember once faking a stomach ache so I could sit with Cee in the stands instead, as per her request. And feeling badly for that, wishing I was down on the floor serving and volleying away. I liked volunteering in the library at recesses, stamping books and shelving returns, which she found boring. For whatever the reason, our friendship dissolved and she went back to treating me in a way that just felt nasty; I turned my concentration once again to the things that made me happy, and the summer after that grade, my family moved away. I stayed in contact with my two best friends from that town, and I tried to move on.
But running into Cee at the big-box store, it all came back, of course.
She was behind a cash register, and she didn’t recognize me. Nor did she know me the next time I shopped there, or the next. I’m always conscious when I go into that store that she might be there, but our encounters have been purely by coincidence. I pick the shortest line, like any shopper at that particular retailer, but of course, while I’m waiting, I scan to see if she’s there. To see if If we’ll finally make eye contact, a real connection to show that Cee remembers me. I’ve kept waiting for some glimmer of acknowledgement, some flicker in her eyes or a smile, but maybe too much time has gone by. What do you do when you see someone from your past who fills you with such mixed feelings? Especially someone from childhood? But those are the formative years — those memories are as sharp and powerful as any made as an adult . . .
Yesterday, I finally took my courage in my hands when I saw her again.
I’d been shopping with my children, picking up sunscreen and hats, and then after we’d left the store, I’d gotten a text from the hubby asking me to pick up just one more thing. So leaving the thirteen-year-old in charge while they munched on burgers in the car, I ran back into the store to buy a specific measuring tape. (NOTE: It’s for a friend. Yeah, okay. There’s another blog post on him and his damned measuring tapes.) The previous cashier I’d gone to had closed up for her shift, so I went to the fast lane with my single purchase, and there she was.
“Did you grow up around here?” I asked.
She looked wary. “Yes,” she answered cautiously.
I smiled and nodded. “I went to school with you,” I told her.
She looked confused.
I gave her my first name — the nickname I’d gone by back then. Cee shook her head, clearly drawing a blank. I shrugged and waved my hand as I picked up my purchase. “It’s been a long time, I moved away in grade six,” I told her. And I immediately wanted to kick myself because it had been in grade seven, but that small detail probably didn’t make any difference. Cee doesn’t remember me.
On the drive home, I thought about how the rest of this story might go if this were a movie or a novel. Perhaps Cee would turn over that ginormous brunette with glasses in her mind, the woman who said she’d been to school with her, for the rest of her shift. And perhaps when she went home, she’d dig out some old school photos and scan the faces of the kids from twenty years past, checking the names, before sitting back with a shock of recognition. But in all probability, she’ll just chalk me up to some nut job and forget all about that moment of her day. Or if it comes back to her at all, she’ll laugh about it with her family or her friends. It doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things.
Except, in a small way, it matters to me. I don’t remember everyone I went to school with, and unless you have a photographic memory, I doubt that you do, too. It’s even more of a challenge for me to remember former classmates because I changed schools every few years until I was in grade nine. The ones I do remember are in my brain because of the impressions they made on me, good or ill. These relationships helped to shape my future friendships and collegial communication. I found out that I preferred ignoring people who treated me badly more than fighting for myself, which hasn’t always been the best alternative. I know better now that sometimes, standing up for yourself is more than just keeping to yourself and trying to avoid notice. Being a doormat is not the greatest defence. In grades five and seven, though, I didn’t know my own power.
Thinking about all of these things, I started to realize that I don’t even know what I want out of a successful encounter with Cee. Do I want her to apologize for how mean she was to me? I’m actually not sure. I think, if she does eventually remember it, an acknowledgement might be nice. I don’t know how realistic that is, though. And I’m not sure what good it would do for either of us. The little girl who still exists in my heart wants it, but the grown woman just wants to make a connection with someone who was also once a friend, and catch up a little on our lives. But what does an apology mean if it doesn’t come from the heart? Actions speak louder than words; I’d take a glimmer of recognition, and then a hug with some reminiscing.
And if the shoe was on the other foot, would I want someone bringing to my attention something I’d done in his/her childhood to make him/her uncomfortable? Given my personality type, I’d be apologetic immediately, and I’d examine my actions then with a fine-toothed comb, seeking to heal whatever injuries I might have caused. And it would bother me for a while, the way that most of my mistakes bother me (though since having therapy for my anxiety, I’ve gotten much better with letting things go).
I thought about my encounter with Cee for much of our hour-and-a-half drive home, and then I was distracted by lawn mowing and laundry and the kids and all those mundane details of the weekend. I remembered to tell my hubby about it today, after I found some stories I’d written in grade five. Now I wonder if I’ll be embarrassed the next time I go into that store. What if she’s at the register, and this time she does remember me? Do I revert to old habits and go out of my way to avoid her? Or carry on, staying focused on the here and now, and accepting what will be?
I won’t know until I’m in that building again. I’d say it’s a pretty poor chance that she’ll recognize me anyway. It’s just me with those images and dialogue from 1987, 1988, and 1989 in my head. It would be cool if she still had that felt unicorn I’d made her, because I did a good job on it and I’d love to see it, but that’s even more improbable.
In the meantime, my own children are both older and younger than I was at that time, with their own friendships and dramas and conflicts. I try to keep the memories of my own youthful encounters alive so I can relate to them, but I’m finding lately that it’s getting harder to remember what it was like to be eight and thirteen. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to be putting more years between those painful moments of adolescence and the challenges of the present day. I think what I really want from Cee is a shared acknowledgement of that fact. That an echo of the original feeling remains, but we can see it differently now and talk about how it’s affected our parenting (if she has kids). Maybe it’s easier to let go of the past if someone else has the scissors to cut the string.