Sometimes I retrace my childhood, and wonder why, just why, was I always so adamant to come off as tough?
The first time that I watched Goodbye Boys, a 2006 coming-of-age Malaysian movie about a group of boy scouts who undertook the challenge of journeying on foot for 100 km crossing state borders and experienced growth along the way, I cried over the narration one of the boys made because I echo him word-for-word.
He spoke about the folly of youth, chuckling at the pretense that we put on as we insist we’re fine-just-fine, home and school are fine-just-fine as well. He voiced about how between boys they’d act tough, pretending everything’s fine-just-fine when in truth, each boy carried with him baggage that was only too familiar to the person next to him. “But when you’re young,” he narrated with a wispy undertone, “you think that being tough is what marks a man.”
The first time I wrote about them, I was seventeen. It was for a rather prestigious international essay-writing competition and I wanted to find out my worth as a writer by submitting a story that is mine, wholly mine, and expressed entirely through my writing voice. I wanted to write honestly about the burden I carried and did not know how to let go of at that time. It’s not my story to tell, I’d remind myself over and over up to that moment, yet the words flowed freely because their ending- their ending’s where I truly, sincerely, begun. I wanted to come full circle.
Maybe I even wanted to be free.
I’d showed the essay to only one friend, someone I had chosen carefully and deliberately as my proofreader. I knew she’d proofread for the English and structure first before anything else. I figured that if I was lucky, she wouldn’t dwell too much on the story and content. When she handed me back my essay, she had a questioning look on her face. “It’s really good,” she started, “but… this isn’t about you right? For a moment I thought it’s real- is this about you or… it’s really just fiction?” I gave her a sheepish smile and kept silent, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
Years later, at the ages of twenty-three (me) and twenty-two (her), we sat across from each other in a fancy Japanese restaurant for lunch on a sunny Saturday in San Francisco, halfway across the globe and thousands of miles away from home – who would ever have guessed that we’d find ourselves here? – where I, at last, came clean.
“Do you remember?” I asked, “The essay I’d asked you to read for that competition in our last year of high school? Do you remember? …It wasn’t fiction.” I left it at that and let out a small laugh. “I don’t know why we believed so strongly that we couldn’t talk about these things back then- our difficulties, how we’re not okay. Home’s not always okay. Throughout our schooling years, I clutched onto this so-called secret so tightly, so afraid of the reveal. It’s not my story to tell, I would remind myself, but theirs. It’s not mine to tell.” Yet the irony, how strange life works. There we were, realizing for the first time that all along and all the while, our supposedly entirely different lives weren’t in fact all that different.
“Why did we believe so strongly that acting tough was a mark of strength?”
The first time I came clean to a friend about this, a deliberate decision, I was eighteen. It was the former deskmate and my maybe-still best friend. I waited until we graduated from high school and gave it another six months, needing to confirm that this friendship’s for keeps. We were comfortably seated in a Coffee Bean chain in our neighborhood, our usual meeting spot back in the day, when I decided today was it; it’s time to come clean. I was a nervous wreck but I thought that I needed to make this leap; trust a person enough that I am essentially giving her permission to trace my cracks and touch my scars. Over and over, I’d asked myself, what’s the worse that could happen?
I can’t remember if I cried when I told the full story, retracing thirty years’ worth of what I think of as a tragedy. I only remember the guilt that pooled beneath my feet, because even then it still felt like I was betraying them – her – for truth-telling on what happened to someone totally unrelated to us. I remember my friend’s silence, because understandably she didn’t know what to reply to everything I’d just spilled. I told her it’s okay – something I’ve found myself repeating countless times until now, like a broken record player. “I’m not looking for answers,” I said, “or understanding. It’s okay. It’s not easy, not even for me, and there’s so much emotional baggage attached that honestly I don’t even know if I want to hear another person’s objective opinion about this whole mess, but I… I value our friendship that I thought maybe it’s only fair to come clean on why I turned out this way.”
I was eighteen still, when I told another person – my writing mentor and former English teacher, who’s at least twenty years my senior. She’s also my confidante and voice of reason whenever life deals me with a particularly difficult deck of cards – ten years and counting. I never doubted that she would not understand, given the gap in our life experiences; I only hoped that she would not judge them based on my side of the story alone. I remember this moment of truth – we were sitting on a bench on the far end of my high school field; I was back here specifically to visit her. It was a bright, sunny day. School girls were running around and whatnot all over the field in preparation for the upcoming annual sports day. I didn’t plan the truth-telling; she spoke about her mother, and the next thing I knew, I was a like leaky pipe gushing out water uncontrollably, speaking about mine and our complex relationship with each other.
“I love her,” I said as closure to my long-winded tale, “but I think I need to go away. I need to make that happen.”
Once at twenty-one, chattering away with Housemate #2 in a bus on our way back from Philly’s center city – I made it, I went away – Housemate #2 had cut me short to ask, “So… by him being away, what do you mean?” Her expression was full of curiosity. I smiled sheepishly and kept quiet, just as I did years ago. I wasn’t about to go through this again – not with her, who I’m glad I didn’t spill to because I’m not in contact with anymore, and likely not to anyone else either.
I haven’t spoken openly about this since – not even to Housemate #1, the one person I literally trust my life with. It’s my story too, this much I understand now, but it’s no longer in my place to keep playing the storyteller; I have my own life to wax poetic about. Ultimately though, it simply comes down to this – what for? What’s the use? Why rehash old wounds? For whose benefit?
Some nights I trace the scars in my heart and mind, willing myself to forget yet knowing that I never will, and remind myself of forgiveness. What it is and more than that, what it means to have extended it to them. I’m aware of my tendency to milk sadness and recognize too well the solace that I find in its silent embrace. In fact, I know it best as a companion in periods of loneliness. But you can’t carry the past forever with you, I remind myself time and again, because nothing ever grows there. Nothing ever grows there. Some days I wish I could write myself differently, sincerely, because I haven’t forgotten – none of us do – and the wounds in my heart caused by this tragedy still bleeds through my writing, but I also know with an unshakable conviction that I am no longer that young girl who believed acting tough is the mark of a woman.
I will never be free from this that I think of as a tragedy – it lives inside of me and I am in too deep with it – but I remind myself that every day, every moment, every memory retrieved, is an act of willingness. Each one is a choice and a decision made, piling up to shape the person that I am now.
Sometimes I retrace my childhood, and marvel at my coming-of-age.
…and oh, that essay from six years ago? I still have a copy and was rewarded with a qualitative grade of Highly Commended, though only three people have read it and I will not reread it for fear of death due to self-inflicted mortification. I’d titled it – you guessed it – the title of this entry and ended it (somewhat) appropriately;
This is their story, but it has now become mine.