**For more information on the inspiration of this piece please visit the prompt**
Just Listen—it was my third book of the week, a YA novel by Sarah Dessen. I hugged my knees to my chest, dipping my face into its creamy pages; it smelled like comfort. As I turned to the next chapter, I heard a rolling wave of laughter and whispers emerging from down the hallway. I hated that sound. It made me miss people.
Soon after, the familiar herd of Nikes and Adidas swept across the concrete, threatening to trip over my Converse—the girls’ volleyball team. Snippets of gossip fell to the floor where I sat, alone, my back against the cool metal of my locker. I peered over page 212 to look up at them, locking eyes with someone from my Spanish class—
Stomach coiled, eyes dropped.
She and her friend burst into giggles. I had to remind myself that they weren’t laughing at me.
(¿Dónde están tus amigas? Señora Jimenez had asked me when
she saw me reading a book outside of her classroom.)
I made sure that they’d turned the corner before I gathered my things and headed to the bathroom, locking myself into an empty stall. My Chemical Romance lyrics stretched across the door in blue ballpoint pen:
I’m not okay. I’m not okay.
I read everything; I always did. On these walls, my peers composed poems of high school angst. Phone numbers promising blow jobs. The bashing of ex-boyfriends. Laments of unrequited love. Accusations of so-called sluthood. I couldn’t help but glance over at the detailed Sharpie sketch of genitalia displayed above the toilet paper dispenser, on which someone had carved get high and fly. All the while, the person in the stall next to me huffed and puffed her way through a post-lunch shit. I tried to ignore it.
Despite the penis drawings and the piss smell, I found peace inside of that stall of secrets and stories. It was like a book that I could crawl into, hide in. I felt a part of it all, somehow.
I was supposed to be alone there. It was okay to be alone there.
There’s this line from a Jack’s Mannequin song called “Dark Blue” that goes, “Have you ever been alone in a crowded room?” I felt that a lot, there. In every clogged hallway and classroom, I was anonymous.
As the toilet flushed in the stall beside me, sputtering and wailing, I thought of writing that lyric on the wall. I always brought a Sharpie with me, twirling it around in my fingers as I read through the newest installations. But the line sounded too cheesy the more I thought about it. So I didn’t. I’d never uncapped the pen.
* * *
I’d envisioned high school differently.
I thought it’d be like a show on the WB—lunches at the nearby fast food joint, football games on Friday nights, giggly conversations by the lockers. I thought that I would figure it all out, whatever “it” was. Life. Myself. I thought that I would magically fall into a band of lovable misfits who would show me the true meaning of friendship—and somewhere in the midst of discovering myself and surviving algebra, I’d meet some sort of Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike in my English class who would woo me into a John Hughes romance.
These were the stories that I found in books, unfailingly, as I curled up against my locker during lunchtime. Charlie meets Sam and Patrick. Stargirl meets Leo. Miles meets Alaska. And then everything changes. They feel infinite. They fall in love. They discover their purpose. The outcasts always found their place among others. I was convinced that these characters had the answer. These books had the answer. Maybe the more I read these stories, the closer I’d be to finding my place, too.
So I tried to find my story among these literary comings of age and bathroom confessionals and hallway gossip—snippets of other people’s interior lives that I absorbed. Every book, every line of graffiti, every sound bite of gossip that I collected and read created for me the feeling of understanding them, of knowing them, of connecting with them, despite my isolation. I interwove my internal monologue through these bits and pieces, crafting a narrative—a voice that, in my solitude, I could finally hear clearly. Or maybe I was just paying more attention to it. As the sense of anonymity and invisibility enveloped me, I turned to my internal self, my voice, to remind me that I had a story of my own.
However, it took me a while, years after that lonesome ninth grade year, before I realized that this story of mine was worth sharing. As I grew older, I met more and more people who asked about me. Who was I? From creative writing mentors to first loves to new friends—people wanted to know my story just as much as I wanted to know theirs. I’ve gradually recognized the importance of sharing my own stories in this process of connecting and understanding. That is, the value of reciprocation. At this point in my life, I feel like my two selves as a reader and a storyteller have learned how to work together.
Six years later, I finally feel ready to uncap that pen.
Let this be my story on the wall.
Post submitted by JoAnna