Friends are our chosen family. They have the wonderful capacity to make us laugh till we cry, to hold us up in dark hours and to keep our secrets under lock and key. Tell a friendship story.
What do three Maasai warriors, a twenty one year old Cherokee man, a former WWE wrestler suffering from acromegaly, and a female African American artist have in common?
They were all my imaginary friends.
Like many others in middle school, I was ferociously bullied. I wore glasses, had frizzy red hair, bad teeth, and painful, disfiguring acne. I was a real stunner. I was also uncoordinated, shy, and socially awkward. So, you know, that made me an easy target.
I endured the standard name calling and taunting, but was also treated to regular butt and breast grabbing (by boys AND girls), pushing, shoving, tripping, spitting, pencil stabbing, fingernail scratching, buckling (being thwacked in the back of the head by a belt buckle), and so much gum stuck in my hair that I ended up with a quarter sized bald spot over the crown of my head from trying to pull it out on my own. The few times I tried to defend myself, weakling that I was, I was overpowered and threatened with worse treatment.
I don’t know where the teachers and hall monitors were when this was going on day after day, and riding the bus was the seventh circle of Hell. When I complained to the “trusted adults” you’re supposed to be able to confide in, I was brushed off and told to ignore it. At most, I was told “You should have responded thus: _______.” It was like the adults didn’t hear me, couldn’t SEE the naked scalp, the long, red scratches on my arms and legs, the bruises and gouges, the mucousy gobs of spittle soaking into my shirt and running down my hair. Where in God’s name were the people who were supposed to protect me?
Things got so bad, I began to have anxiety attacks and would pray nightly that either I die or that my tormentors die before I had to go to school again. I thought the blackest thoughts and took respite in plans to take my own life.
One day, the worst day, I decided to do it. Recently, a little boy in a neighboring town had been hit and killed by his school bus as he crossed the street. I had to cross in front of my bus to walk home after school, so I told myself that instead of crossing the street after my ever-vigilant bus driver waved me clear, I’d start walking on the right side of the road and dash out in front of the wheels when the bus began to move. I can still see my bus driver’s suspicious face as I refused his wave to cross the road, and walked weak kneed, up the right side of the road. I remember peering backward at the face of the bus, then at the front right tire, my heart pounding as I calculated the timing to get run over. I can still feel the whoosh of hot exhaust as the bus pulled back it’s stop sign and rumbled forward, past me. As the bus left me in a cloud of exhaust, I felt…abandoned.
Horror and relief pooled like water in every joint and I collapsed to my knees on the sidewalk. Acid tears poured from me. In anguish, I cried until I was parched.
And then, I heard a deep, gentle chuckle. Fearful—frantic, I looked around, expecting to see someone standing on his front porch, laughing at me. But I was alone on the sidewalk. I heard the laughter again, then the low sounds of men talking together, as if sharing a funny story. I couldn’t hear the words, but their tone was kind. I looked around again, and though I was still alone, I saw three tall, thin, Maasai warriors. They huddled loosely together a few feet behind me, chatting casually. I stared at them, seeing them—but not REALLY seeing them.
They didn’t look at me, didn’t even acknowledge me, but I knew they were there for me. I stood shakily, and began to wobble-walk home. The warriors followed. I didn’t look back, but I knew they were there. They moved from their cluster, two of them flanking me on either side, and the third walking behind me, adjusting their long-legged strides to my short legged paces. They talked and laughed softly over my head the entire time, and their voices soothed me.
When I reached my driveway, they broke rank and fell back. At my front door, I turned to look at them. They were walkng away, already across the street. The tallest man then turned, smiled kindly, and waved farewell. And then they disappeared.
I knew they weren’t real, but the comfort and peace I felt in their presence…that was real.