I was the new kid. Not new like the kids who had just moved to the city but the kind of new where the kids all recognize you as not being recognized. In the city where I grew up in southeast Michigan there were two high schools and five middle schools. Unlike many of the suburbs of Detroit there were no conveniently numbered streets to draw districting lines on and so they were highly irregular. Two of the junior high schools fed directly into one high school and two directly into the other. The third was split with twenty of the students going to one school and the three hundred others going to the other school. You can guess which group I was in.

So, as can be expected from the way these things go, I found myself pretty isolated those first few weeks of high school. Nearly everyone was making new friends with the confidence bred from the knowledge that if they failed they could always fall back into their old circles. It was obvious, even to me, that the people I hung around with tolerated more than enjoyed my presence. I ate alone in the cafeteria.

Some people say high school is the time when popularity seems like the most important thing in the world, hell for the inner geek that most people claim they were at that age. But that's wrong: Junior high is purgatory for the socially awkward. Children becoming adults in body but remaining immature in mind, seizing any opportunity to create an outcast as if they needed more reasons to make someone different. I thought I knew their game. I had been alienated in the last three years to the point that I viewed all attempts to reach out to me in high school as baited traps: older or more popular people trying to have fun at my expense. So I relied on the defense so much more common than anyone who uses it realizes: I drew into myself and made the occasional cynical retort just quiet enough to escape the teacher's attention. I was that weird kid with braces at the back of class.

We met that first year. You had just moved from Romania and didn't really know anyone else. You spoke three languages and were studying a fourth and you spoke every one of them with music in your voice. I didn't think much of you at first. Just another potential enemy to guard against. I was assigned to the seat behind you and made those same cynical comments, sure that you simply bit your tongue and tolerated me like the others.

One day I said something, I could never remember what, and you just laughed. You laughed so hard that you turned around just to show me how I had made you smile. Your eyes were blue. I stopped seeing you as a potential enemy, and began, for the first time, to see a potential friend.

 The next year we had our first class of the day together. You had a friend there and so did I and so we kept to ourselves mostly; only acknowledging that we knew each other and little more. You were bright, very bright. I wonder if you ever really needed that help with your homework when you sat next to me outside the classroom door, waiting for the teacher to show up.

We became closer. We sat together in the classes we shared the next year. I still mouthed off to teachers who were frustrated by my seeming willingness to “waste my potential”. You heard this and told me I was being a bad student and to do my work. But I saw you smiling at me every time I didn’t. When we’d leave class you’d take my arm as we walked down the hall. One day you whispered quietly that you liked me. I failed to rise to the situation: “Everyone likes me,” I said.

Senior year came. I had managed to break out of my shell with a few people and gained enough confidence to consider myself a well-liked person in the school. Still, school dances scared me and prom terrified me. Like it happens so many teen movies, I worked up the nerve to ask you to prom the very day you told me who you were going with. You invited me to go with your group: a few of our friends, nothing too big. You showed up with your boyfriend and I alone. I spent the prom in a melancholic daze, talking with the other single guys there who hadn’t quite figured out why they had come either—watching you laughing at his jokes and dancing with him (though how you managed to dance to rap music I don’t know). I went home early.

I called you today; I don’t know why. You poured all your problems out on me and I valued every digitized word. You’re having trouble with your dad and starting college and buying books and your driving ticket and still living at home and not-being-able-to-do-anything-but-study. I respond the best I can; I’ve never been much good at it but you thank me for being such a good friend anyways.

Sometimes, all you can be is a friend.

// Written for a good friend of mine after two of her best friends broke up.

That fateful day there was a split
If only she knew
She'd be caught 'tween the two
Worse still, become the one to break
Two who'd been the best of mates
What would she have done?
Then came the time to play the game
With it a horrible feeling of shame
Who's side was she really on?
How she wished it wasn't like this
Making her feel so remiss
She in sleepless nights
With her conscience fights
In the end, how could she really be
Any more than a wonderful friend?

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