A short piece originally titled 'Not Belonging', this story explores the concept of exclusion in a society where people are judged on how they look, what they say and the habits they have that are perceived as weird.
There I was, under the seamless openness of the Australian summer sky, when my future best friend came over to claim a seat next to me at what would soon become our table.
'Can I sit with you?' she said in that quiet, tentative way she had.
I welcomed her with a warm smile. 'Of course. Where's your other friends?'
She grimaced slightly as she replied, 'I don't know. I had a feeling that I didn't really belong there anymore...'
At her words, my mind flashed back to the previous year I had endured. The strongest empathy for her brimmed over as I recalled being surrounded - confronted - by all-too-familiar people in a totally unfamiliar situation, as I experienced the sharp prickling of unforeseen emotions.
Mocking. Resentment. Exasperation. Small talk and meaningless hugs. Shallow consolation to support the weight of a hollow feeling that I was somehow not good enough.
In vain I struggled, attempting to grasp the senseless helplessness that overcame me as I walked away. Sitting down in an isolated corner on the burning concrete, I watched the faceless people moving away in unison, some of them throwing pitying looks that had no substance over their shoulders as they went.
Suppressed, angry tears gained dominance behind my eyes as a formation of ants sped towards a melting sticky patch nearby - silent and unnoticed by anybody but me amongst the chaos of the playground.
Aimlessly wandering around for months on end with a bitter flavour in my mouth, I passed them by several times. The artificial appearance of sympathetic guilt flickered across their faces as they smiled sickeningly at me, seeming to await a meek smile in return. For several months more this was the mode of the majority of all communication between all others and me.
I was isolated and alone, albeit amongst a mass of people.
At times I tried to talk myself into believing that I wasn't concerned about their thoughts and expressions about me, however it seemed impossible to consistently shut them out. Wherever I settled down to eat lunch or maybe even talk to somebody, unconnected parties sought to speculate and reach a confirmation from me that I had been voted off the island of cool people:
'Why don't you hang out anymore? Don't you like them?'
'I thought you were all best friends.'
'Did you leave or did they kick you out?'
'They told me that...'
My reprisal to most of these inquiries was, 'Why don't you go and ask them?'
Time progressed and we all transformed into unrecognisable beings. The more people talked, the more I realised the true shape of their person. One spoke either brashly or jokingly but always had a smile to spare for everyone who was kind to him. Another wore the badge of 'cool guy' but increasingly associated with one of the 'nerdier' groups. Yet another was softly spoken and smart beyond her years, but had gained that knowledge through a combination of being pushed by her parents and the pressure to do as they wished.
And eventually, rather than belonging to the people who didn't appreciate me for me, I started to belong to myself. Then I realised who I had become when I did belong to them...
There was a shadow rippling along the steaming ground, chasing after three other shadows. The first shadow was fast approaching, no match for the three who had perhaps been caught unawares. On catching up to the other three, the shadow stopped in front of them in innocent anticipation. But while three stood panting and glancing shiftily at one another, the innocent shadow shrank a little in defeat and humiliation. The other three walked pointedly away.
Another scene flashed before my eyes - a group of friends stood around a table, a few of them drinking a sickly strawberry milk I hated. For a while we talked and laughed in good humour until one of them took my schoolbag and began dancing around the table tauntingly as I attempted to grab a hold of it. On an almost successful grab, they thew their pink drink directly at me.
Saturated in the sickly, stinky, stickiness, I retrieved my bag and stormed away to safety with the snorting laughter and barely concealed mirth reverberating in my ears. As I worked to try and wash the stench out of my white blouse, a lump formed in my throat and a salty something trickled onto my lips.
Their friendship had been an illusion, nothing more, while I had rejoiced in it and believed it to be something special and rare. But that special something - that warm, comforting feeling of being connected to someone - dissolved not two years after I had discovered it.
Leaving me with nothing but the deepest hole in my chest and the crumbling tremors of what once was my safe place.
From there I began to rebuild my dignity. Frequently taking my lunch to a new safe place I had found, I slowly regained my sanity through speaking to people whose shadows were surrounded by dappled light and who didn't ever drink strawberry milk. These shadows came to life with personalities that I never knew existed beyond their bestowed "labels" that I never would have associated with in my former, shallow state of mind.
I soon found that in some ways they were exactly like me.
I was mesmerised by their utmost hidden strength. Their withdrawn nature on the surface and the boisterous buzz beneath.
Their righteousness, their honesty, their fairness. Their quiet, elusive sparkle.
We worked with purpose. We talked about in-depth things freely and openly. We didn't need to fill every silence with words. We consoled one another when times got tough. We accepted the facts of differentiation between us and understood that that was what gave us our sparkle to begin with. We were it.
The silhouettes of my new friends took shape - people who I could confide in, people who could understand my awkward silences and annoying habits, people that I took pride in being friends with because they were different from everybody else. I had evolved. I had learned.
My best friend sat with me at our wooden table with the dark spots of old gum on it and we laughed. We made weird jokes about rabbits and a new personage called John Lemon. We responsibly offered tissues. We worried simultaneously and defeated one problem at a time, until the first problem of not belonging was just something that we used to care about.