It was a feverish summer; the heady kind of intensity that came with being twelve. The sun shone, high in the sky, the air damp and humid, as it usually is in Sheffield, the fifth largest city in England, the city of steel and trees, in the North. The storm built and built, and one day, that fateful Friday, it broke.
It started with a joke. Helen* never brought quite enough money for a pudding with her custard, so she would attempt to barter, in jest, her USB stick to me, to get another fifty pence. Most often it would make me giggle half-heartedly; her silliness could be rather infectious. Sometimes I would give in and give her whatever I had left to get a pudding.
I had always been a good girl, and I mean that literally. I have always embodied the lawful good persona, I had high grades, never acted out, I was a chief people pleaser. I was exceedingly calm and not easily ruffled. Unfortunately, that day I was.
It began with a joke and ended with an end.
There was an unspoken agreement about the table my friends and I would sit at while we ate our lunch in the canteen. We sat down and ate. I sat with my back towards the large windows overlooking the leafy courtyard opposite my friend, Helen. She was not my dearest friend, but at that school she was my first, and I hadn’t realized from the first Hello we shared that things would come to such a head.
Yet, I was aware of the strange history that lingered between her and my other friend, Lisa*. There had been various breakups and makeups throughout their childhoods, small occurrences that had ended in Helen screaming or breaking things, a few instances of Helen taunting Lisa. They seemed to be on good terms when I met them both, but looking back, I should have seen the red flags in Lisa’s stories. Helen had clearly lost friends before. I had gleaned that from people that used to be her friends and whenever she was brought up in conversation they would purse their lips. I thought they were all wrong about her, and I was determined to prove it. I was determined to stick with her.
I had often felt it was my duty to defend her from others, even as she was the one who usually instigated the dramatics. I had always been a little hot-headed when it came to my friends. I never paused to consider that the other side was perhaps the one that had it right, this time.
I had none of the history with her that others did, having moved to Sheffield recently. We were great together until we weren’t. We would play tag and other chase games in the school courtyard, devolving into euphoric giggling messes. We would play MASH, plan our lives with boys she liked and ones I went along with. She would come over to my house and we would do all sorts of craft projects together: make masks, or a paper bridle and saddle for my large stuffed horse. Once we were making a baking soda and vinegar volcano for geography lessons and she threw a massive tantrum because I wouldn’t let her pour pink paint all over it. I remember that our teak table quivered oddly for years after she came around that day.
The next day, it was as if nothing had happened and I was her “very best friend” again, not “really bossy and horrible” as I had been earlier. It was a very intense friendship, colored by extreme highs and lows just like that.
So that day, instead of joking with her about pudding, I took a deep breath and said quietly but intentionally:
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
The sentiment had simmered unspoken for over three months. She could be very possessive, controlling even, and she would try to poison my other friends against me. She often had intense mood swings, and I usually didn’t know what would set her off. She once got so hyper during hockey practice that she swung the heavy end of the stick between my index finger and thumb. It may have been an accident, but the fact remained that I couldn’t hold a pen for over a week afterwards. (Perhaps it sounds unfair to still hold that against her.)
I didn’t want to set her off, but still, I must have known how she would react, somewhere in the back of my mind. I still don’t why I did it in such a public place, where about 700 students were eating.
I can still hear her now, the clatter of her spoon onto the table, her custard untouched, growing a thick yellow skin, the stunned silence from my other friends, the strangled utterance from Helen’s lips.
I stood up then and repeated myself.
“I said, I don’t want to be your friend anymore, Helen.”
I moved towards the wall and she followed me, and suddenly we were at the back of the hall and everyone remotely in earshot sat enraptured by us.
That was when it came. An onlooker, a mutual acquaintance of ours, Evelyn* declared,
“That’s not very nice!”
She was right. It wasn’t nice. I hadn’t planned the breakup to be so dramatic or public, but as soon as the words left my mouth the situation had torpedoed beyond my control. But I was angry, because it was none of her business, even as I had accidentally made it everyone’s business.
I yelled at her,
In Sheffield that was a throwaway scolding, forgotten as soon as someone finishes their tea. Friends would say “shut up” casually to each other over anything, an exaggerated story or a teasing joke. But in Iceland, the other culture I had been raised in, one does not say shut up. One does not say Þegiðu. It is one of the ultimate insults. In Iceland it is the kind of thing that would make a person stand up from the dinner table furiously and throw down their serviette in a huff.
I had been raised to never say shut up, I was a good Icelandic girl, with a ‘Queen’s English James Bond’ accent, I was not a ‘Northern Ruffian’. (It is possible I was still a little bitter about our move from the south where I grew up). But I said it and I meant it, and I knew that my mother would have given me a Death GlareTM had she ever known about it. So, I regret that.
Helen was screaming at me by that point, a five-foot-two ball of rage. I still didn’t know what say, so I don’t think I said anything. I saw the moment almost in slow motion. She put both her hands in front of her and slammed me against the wall, where I ended up falling over a bin, in front of hundreds of people. In those teen movies I grew up watching, everyone laughed when misfortune like that befell the protagonist. But not this time. People only stared, stunned into silence.
She tore out of the hall, and I chased her with a vengeance. I understood then where the phrase ‘seeing red’ came from. I had never been that fast of a runner, but I was next to her in a second; it felt like I teleported to her.
She had cornered our Year Manager, Mrs. M. and was in the middle of telling her my misdeeds. I explained that she had pushed me and when Mrs. M. probed her on my accusation, I’ll never forget what she said:
“She provoked me, that little bitch.”
I recoiled at the force of her words. I had been called a bitch before — by her a few times no less — but never had she meant it quite like that. It was over then. I was never going to forgive her; We were never going to recover.
It was all too much. I didn’t even hear what Mrs. M said to her. I had been all fight before, but my body decided it was time for flight then. I ran across the hallway and into my form room, which was dark from the grey, waterlogged skies outside, and thankfully empty and unlocked.
My other friend, my dearest and still most treasured friend, Sam* stood in the threshold of the door, her back bathed in yellow light, metallic threads in her colorful hijab sparkling around her. She looked scared and even though she was almost six feet tall at the age of eleven, she looked small. I don’t blame her. I turned my back to her and faced the window and cried so hard that it felt like my heart was bursting out of my chest, my hands coming up to muffle the onslaught. I was a wounded animal, great sobs tearing out of me. She had never seen me cry before. I never cry, and suddenly I couldn’t stop. Because I had been awful, and selfish and honest and vulnerable and unfair. And I had been hurt.
I had shouted at an innocent bystander, been impertinent to my Head of Year and broken up with my first friend at my new school, all in the space of ten minutes.
Sam handed me a tissue, she always carried them in her bag due to her seasonal allergies. She asked me so quietly, so kindly, so sincerely:
“Are you ok, Ása?”
I don’t think I replied.
It felt then like the world was ending. Looking back, it was one of those textbook female friendships that girls might have before one of them realizes that they are gay. I know I never loved her; I don’t think I had a crush on her, but there was a reason that I had mostly had boys for friends before her. Boys liked to roughhouse and play Pokémon, and boys did not want to play pretend “Mummies and Daddies” and boys were not complex.
Boys were not beautiful. (She was.)
People used to joke that Helen was a lesbian because she tended to zone out and would occasionally do so in the changing rooms. I was so irrationally angry and would defend her, saying that there was no way that she was. Even in my rather liberal school, there was nothing worse than being a lesbian at the time. Maybe I had some inkling that I was one, even then, but I couldn’t let her be labelled like that. She would get a boyfriend some years after we stopped talking, and I remember feeling a little disappointed that she hadn’t been one after all.
She had consumed me, starting all kinds of rumors about me, one day saying that I was her best friend in the world, and the next saying that I was a bitch because I had been invited to a party and she hadn’t.
But then I was free. I had extricated myself. I couldn’t deal with the love-hate whiplash anymore. I may have been patient, but I had my limits. I didn’t enjoy drama.
Really it came down to the fact that I wanted to be just Ása, not “That’s Ása. She’s friends with Helen.” To have them all looked at me like they felt sorry for me.
Evelyn, whom I screamed at, grew up to be one half of a lesbian power couple at my school when suddenly being a lesbian wasn’t so taboo anymore. They’re still together, and I always smile a little when I see photos of them together on social media. I volunteered later as a mentor with the local LGBTQ group, and later ran the GSA at my school; I bumped into her quite a bit during her coming-out, but I always felt that I had tainted any possible friendship. I don’t think she even remembered. But I did.
It seemed strange how the queer people around me grew around each other, like intertwining roots of a tree, small interactions marking the relationships between them. How much history people with such a thing in common can create, even before they know about it.
Helen and I found a cool civility and avoided each other as much as possible. There was no happy ending for us, only a few stilted interactions throughout the years. She found a new friend group, adjacent to mine and I was happy for her, even if I never said so. I like to think that distance healed our wounds; eventually we were just people that no longer knew each other anymore. There was no animosity, just a look I would catch in her hazel-green eyes, warmth that knew that there was too much history between us to ever try again.
I think about her every once in a while.
That day was the brattiest I have ever been. I don’t regret it. Because they all started to say “That’s Ása, she’s really good at drawing,” or “That’s Ása, she’s usually in the library.” It felt good to be Ása again. I always liked her the best anyway.
edited by rachel.