By Kristy Kiernan
I was the new girl. Always. We moved a lot, but this move was a doozie. From the sunny, laid-back beaches of southwest Florida to the frozen preppiness of Chicago’s North Shore and for the first time in all of our moves, I did not fit in. Southern accent, freckles, grinning at everyone, smart-ass Me in jeans, sandals, and pigtails vs. anemic, eye-contact avoiding Yankees in monogrammed turtlenecks and headbands. I was heavily outnumbered. And cold. Effort usually expended making friends was redirected to figuring out how I might be able to avoid leaving the warm house again… ever.
I don’t remember how Becca and Christina first approached me, but I do remember the relief I felt the day they did. They taught me how to use public transportation, where the Mrs. Field’s Cookies store was, and we even bought matching green-and-white striped Izod shirts, which we wore on the same day thinking that would be pretty cool, and then, after spending the day denying that we had planned it after it was clear that it was definitely NOT COOL, never wore again.
They had been best friends for a long time, and I don’t know why they chose to fold me in. They were a classic Mutt and Jeff duo – Christina was quiet, tall and too thin, with long red hair and nearly colorless eyes, and Becca was brash, short and too heavy, with dark hair and eyes. Perhaps I averaged them out, bridged their differences so they weren’t quite so painfully obvious. Whatever the reason for their kindness, I was grateful, and, eventually, took it for granted.
In sixth grade, the boy situation was just starting to heat up, and the three of us cycled through crushes faster than the leaves fell that fall. On a visit to the ice rink one Saturday, the three of us were sized up for a potential couple skate with an eighth-grade hockey player, and I “won.” We skated by Becca and Christina, who watched us silently, Becca’s eyes narrowing as she noted that the boy and I had taken off our gloves in order to hold hands.
I hadn’t even had any idea how to ice skate before that month, when Becca and Christina held my hands and pulled me along between them.
Things changed after that.
As they always do when boys happen.
Two Saturdays later we made pseudo-prank calls. Pseudo because we never followed through on the joke – we wanted them, the boys we called, to know it was us. And it worked. We wound up talking with the same boys we pretended we couldn’t stand during school hours, passing the phone between us, the first fumbling flirtations of girls without fathers. It was exhilarating, and dangerous, and, oddly enough… I was good at it.
Because I was funny.
I hadn’t known I was funny. I knew my family was funny, but I was the baby, and most of it flew over my head. My family was also cruel, as funny families so often are, and most of that flew over my head, too.
But on that day my funny kept the boys on the phone, and I was suddenly promoted to leader of our triad. And there was, as there always is, this one boy in particular. We all liked him. It was quite possible that every girl on the entire North Shore liked him. But Becca liked him best, and she was nervous when I dialed, twice pressing her thumb to the bar in the cradle to cut off the call before anyone answered before she finally turned away, head thrown back and hands held up to heaven, abdicating responsibility for what might happen next.
Christina watched without saying a word, worry accentuating her pale brows as they drew together, lending a rare intensity to her eyes.
The boy and I got along famously.
But I knew my job, and it wasn’t to flirt for myself. I steered the conversation to Becca with all the skill and subtlety an eleven-year old could muster.
He didn’t like her. He said she was fat.
And I didn’t know how to cover for him. How to spare her.
But I was funny.
I still don’t remember exactly what I said. But I bet she does.
I do remember that I used the word “chubby.”
And he laughed.
And she… did not.
I was, truly, surprised.
Instead she burst into tears, and then she left. I’d never seen anyone “storm off” before. But she did. Christina followed her, still without a word. They were out the back door and running down the alley before I registered what had really happened. I ran after them, and when I reached the alley I yelled after Becca, “It was just a joke! I was just joking!”
She stopped running and turned around, and she screamed back at me, “Everything is just a joke to you! Everything! Not everything is funny!”
Christina, halfway between us in the alley, looked at me reproachfully, and I, for once, was the speechless one when she said, “How could you say that?”
Becca looked at her gratefully and then turned away, and I could almost see her gather her dignity around herself as Christina joined her. They walked off together, Christina’s long, thin arm around Becca’s shoulders. I watched until they turned the corner.
I was funny. And I was cruel. And I deserved, without question, to lose their friendship.
At school Becca and Christina closed rank back into a duo, and I was left to fend for myself for the rest of the year.
People still tell me I’m funny. But I think more things than I ever let come out my mouth. Because while they might be funny, they might also have an edge of cruelty to them. Becca’s loss was devastating to me. But I admire her. I admire her, and Christina, for knowing more about friendship than I did at that age. I admire her for taking a chance on a girl who was so different. And I wonder if I changed her, too. If she didn’t take as many chances on people, because she learned that they might hurt her.
I still don’t remember exactly what I said.
But I bet she does.
Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius, Matters of Faith, and Between Friends. You can find her on her website.