Backhand: Part Two
It's come time for the Homecoming dance and, although dances aren't really my favorite, I'm having a good time. I'm drinking punch and talking with Christie, Claire, and Hailey. We attempt to dance and probably look like fools, but we're having fun together.
I see Henry across the room. He waves awkwardly to me, and I give a small wave back. He drops his cup of punch and I giggle a little.
"Who's that?" asks Christie.
"Oh, that's just Henry."
"Ooh, Henry! Julia's got a boyfriend!" she crows, and begins to tease me good-naturedly.
The dance continues and I'm having a really good time, much to my surprise. I'm hanging out with friends and just having fun.
Midway through, Alex walks by. "Hey, freshman," he grins. "How about a dance?"
I smile shyly back and nod. I'm not a great dancer, but Alex doesn't seem to care; he looks amused and teases me lightly about it. "See you in stage fighting class," the red Draik says after, and walks off.
When I return to my group, Christie looks stunned. "Was that a senior? And a Draik?" she asks.
"Err, I think so?" I say. I'm not too sure how old he is, really.
We sit back down on the chairs by the wall.
"I wonder why he asked you," she says unkindly.
I don't know how to respond.
I'm lying in bed later, after the dance. The lights are off and my eyes are closed, but sleep won't come. I can't stop thinking about what Christie said, and I can't stop wondering why.
Could she have meant it in an innocent way? Maybe she just didn't know that Alex and I are friends, that he's nice to all his stage-fighting students. She could have meant it in a completely straightforward, friendly way.
But her spiteful tone and resentful expression seem to twist her meaning. It seems as if she can't even begin to guess why a senior, or anyone for that matter, might have any interest in me. As if I am useless and unworthy of attention.
What is she saying to me? Am I overreacting? Is she blameless? Or did she really mean to say those things? The question eats away at me and I think about it, wondering, unable to get any sleep.
I'm improving a little at stage fighting, but not a lot. I'm slightly more aggressive, but nowhere near enough to move on to other exercises.
Emily keeps trying to help me, but nothing I try seems to work well.
I'm confused, caught between anger and a desire for peace, much as I am with Christie.
Despite how bad I am at it, Emily continues to partner and joke around with me.
"Hey, guess what?" she whispers.
"What?" I respond.
"We-ell..." she draws out the word, grinning. "Don't look now, but I think Henry's staring. He's been looking over here for a few minutes."
Of course, I turn around to look at the swordfighting group, and sure enough, Henry's looking our way.
I give a small wave.
Henry drops his sword.
I'm back in the cafeteria, waiting for Christie. I see her across the room and walk towards her, but just before I can approach her, words float towards me and slip into my ears like poison.
Christie is standing with Alexis, a royal Kyrii, one of the most 'popular' girls in our grade. She's nodding, agreeing with whatever Alexis says enthusiastically.
Alexis's nose is wrinkled in distaste. "...totally dorky. Julia's just kind of a loser, y'know?"
"Yeah, I totally know what you mean!" Christie says.
I watch as they walk away together, seeing the smile of victory on Christie's face. Once again, I am frozen, hurt, and confused once again as I listen and crush my budding anger. This conversation is worse than what she's been doing, letting remarks pointed like arrows fly and embed themselves in me. Why is it happening?
Emily's just appeared by my side. She heard the tail end of the conversation as she was walking up. "What just happened?" she demands. "What was that?"
I try to shrug it off. "It's nothing."
"Nothing?! That's not nothing, Jules. She's horrible! I thought you guys were friends. How can you let her say stuff like that about you?! This shouldn't be happening!"
"It's nothing, really," I try to reassure her. "She's probably just having a bad day or something." I'm unsettled, trying to control myself and remain calm, but I'm not sure how I can excuse what I've heard.
Emily's face is bright pink and her teeth are slightly clenched. If this were a comic book, she'd have steam billowing from her ears. "As if that makes it okay?" She's about to turn and go after Christie, but I stop her.
"Doesn't that make you angry, though?" she asks after she's calmed down a bit and the flush has receded from her cheeks.
"Yeah... it does."
In the next stage fighting class, I'm still not "acting with intention," as Alex says. There is no ferocity in my actions. Everyone else has long since moved on to other moves, but I need to master this first.
"You've got to get angry, Jules!" Emily says. "Think about what Christie said to you. Don't you ever just want to slap her?"
I think back not only to that remark, but to everything like that she's said to me. To my surprise, it's happened quite a bit more than I'd realized. Even though I'd rather not be angry, I feel the fury growing in me.
This time, my paw does not meet hers gently. I put power into the smack and it's audible – very audible.
Emily grins and shoots me a thumbs-up.
I grin back. "Thanks, Em."
Christie and I are talking in the back of chemistry class. She's been totally nice to me after what I heard in the cafeteria and I don't think she knows I heard it. I'm not sure what to do; I don't really want a confrontation, but I'm not okay with what happened.
I'm a little anxious about the test that's being handed back. I tap my paws rapidly on the desk to help relieve my nervous energy.
She smiles confidently. "Why are you worried? The test was super easy. I barely studied."
"I'm not that good at chemistry!" I defend, but hope she's right.
We both get our papers back and I look at mine eagerly. A big red B+ is written in the corner. I positively beam – no matter what Christie thought, I'd found the test difficult, despite the hours I spent studying.
I look up, expecting to see a similar expression on Christie's face, but instead, she's biting her lip and frowning at the D in her hands. She shoves her paper roughly in her binder and for a second, I think she's about to cry.
"Are you okay?" I ask worriedly.
She blinks rapidly for a moment and then laughs "Fine! Absolutely fine!" Her voice sounds shaky.
I look up, but the crushed expression is gone, painted over with a much sharper one, and her voice gains steadiness and malice. "Of course, maybe I'd have liked to have done better – but whatever. See, I have a life outside of school too. Like, I don't even think you have one sometimes. Honestly, how many hours did you study for? Seriously. I have friends and other stuff to do, you know. Well, maybe you don't know – do you even do anything? Ever? I really can't tell if you do."
Her harsh tone and stinging comments evoke the anger I've been summoning in stage fighting. She continues to speak, but I don't listen to the words. Instead, I hear Emily telling me, "This shouldn't be happening!" I agree, and this time, I decide to fight back. I know she's saying this because she's hurt, but that doesn't make it okay. She's not going to stop acting like this and, after what I heard in the cafeteria, I'm done making excuses for her.
With a strength I didn't know I had, I stand up, say loudly, "Shut up, Christie. Just because you didn't do well doesn't mean you can take it out on me," and walk away.
Later that day, I'm telling Emily about it in stage fighting. "That's absolutely terrible of her... but it's great for you!" she says, embracing me. "I'm so happy you stood up to her!"
Alex sees us not working on a fight and walks up to us. "Hey there, that's enough of the chit-chat!" he teases. "Let's see how it's coming along. Julia, you go first."
I nod. I can do this. I know I can. I can stand up to Christie; I can do anything. I swing my hand back, bend my knees, and put my whole body into the slap. It's loud and fierce and everything it should be.
Even Alex is impressed. He's used to my soft, timid attempts, not to this. He grins and offers me a high five. "Nice job."
Emily and I leave stage fighting class together today. We're going over to her house to hang out. We're walking together, talking and giggling, and I don't think life could get much better. I'm enjoying being with my new best friend and I've succeeded in stage fighting; I'm happy.
Christie, however, is waiting for me. "What was that, Julia?! What's your problem?"
I can't take her anymore. I'm about to simply walk away, until I hear what she has to say next.
"Why're you acting like this? What is wrong with you today?"
I snap. Something inside me emerges that I don't fully recognize. I'm no longer the weak Julia I was; something stronger, the essence of who I aspire to be when fighting comes alive. I spin back to face her.
"What's my problem? What's my problem, you say? No, what's your problem?! I've done nothing to you, nothing but be your friend! And this is how you treat me? You're mean to me, you hurt my feelings, you make me feel worthless and you know it – and you have the nerve to ask what my problem is?!" I'm full-out yelling now. My anger is overwhelming; it scares me but excites me at the same time. This time, I'm really showing exactly how I feel, saying everything I'm thinking. I'm free and I'm strong and I don't need Christie anymore.
She looks at me in shock, her mouth open. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me! You've been completely horrible to me lately and that's not what a friend is. So, if you're going to be like this, we don't need to be friends."
"So, what, it's just over now? Don't be stupid, Julia-"
People are starting to stop and listen and it's sort of embarrassing, but I don't really care anymore.
"Oh, so you're saying you really want to still be my friend? So you'll stop treating me like I'm completely worthless, stop picking on me, stop stabbing me in the back and saying mean things about me to Alexis? Because lately, it hasn't seemed like you really want to be friends at all. "
Her anger is almost tangible at this point. "I haven't been mean to you; you're taking it all wrong! You're just-"
But before she can finish her sentence, Alexis walks down the hallway, trailed by a small group of other girls. She pauses by us and looks me up and down and then looks at Christie. "Hey, Christie. We're going to get ice cream. Want to come?"
Christie pauses for a second.
"Looks like you'd better go," I say. "I think you've already made your choice."
I'm leaving someone who was close to me for years, someone I wanted to hold on to, but frankly, I don't care anymore – my friend Christie is gone. I'm not a doormat anymore and I refuse to subject myself to this. Finally free from my own weakness, I rejoin Emily and walk away.