“I love you.”
It wasn’t the kind of “I love you” that girls yelp in gratuity when their best friend convinces their secret crush to go on a date with them. Or the kind of “I love you” that one uses when their best friend gives them all the answers to the final exam.
It was a romantic “I love you.” The three-word statement that every film in Hollywood tends to overdramatize. She was a girl and so was I. My best friend. It wasn’t like I was the kind of person that didn’t accept every kind of love, it just wasn’t the type of love I wished for.
I was caught off guard, as I was only sixteen, and was decently sure at that point that I was attracted to men, and only men. I pretended like I didn’t hear it for a few weeks, but it attached to every though that passed through my mind.
I wasn’t overreacting. I knew what I heard. Her tone was different than all the other times we said it in the library and English class. It slipped off her lips as if I was watching her say it in slow motion.
“I love you.”
It lasted for what seemed like forever. The constant voice in my head reminding me that this isn’t something I can push away like all my other worries.
I wanted to tell her I didn’t feel the same way, but I didn’t want to be the cause of any more scars on her body or in her soul.
And there it was, another one of her freshly cut minuscule wounds. She made them tiny so her mom wouldn’t notice. It’s not like she would anyway, even if they were as large as 20 stab wounds.
She was all alone. She only had me. I didn’t want to make the voices in her head worse. The ones telling her to follow the light. Or was its darkness since her way there would be the cause of self-infliction. Ever since her out-of-state girlfriend took the “coward’s way out,” at only 16, she’d been even more suicidal than usual.
“I’m only a teenager,” I thought. “How am I supposed to make her feel better?”
I never truly knew, but I tried.
I was her shoulder to cry on, her weekly therapist, her mental hold. She was my best friend after all, and I thought this was how best friends were supposed to help each other. Isn’t every relationship, whether romantic or a friendship, supposed to be a healing process on both ends?
I didn’t want to lose her on such malevolent terms, so I was the only healer during this time. I didn’t want her to focus on me or my needs because it would eventually become a distraction, and she didn’t need any more of those.
We eventually forgot about the romantic feelings she had for me. I figured it out when we stopped playfully saying “I love you” and discussing any aspect of our love lives. Not like I even had a love life at that age like most others, but it still wasn’t really a topic that came up in discussions. She did know though, that I only found boys attractive.
I kept a special calendar to remind her of how many days she had gone without mutilating her flesh.
I was always the one she texted at 2 a.m. when she was thinking about doing “it.” I reminded her how many days, weeks, or even months clean she was, and how her dead girlfriend wouldn’t want that for her. That may seem harsh, but I always believed in blunt honesty in order for people to clearly understand.
She was one of the only people that didn’t mind.
There was even a point when she made an anonymous Instagram account named @b*e*the*orth*s*le*ce. I never asked her what the name meant but it seemed like something only a depressed person would understand so I didn’t even attempt to comprehend it.
She only posted six photos for the world to see, and I’m surprised they were never removed by Instagram itself for being too triggering and graphic. Half of them were self-harm quotations that supported the act, and the other half were zoomed images of her pale skin, disturbed by a blade. I’ve never seen blood so potently red before. I thought it was only like that in horror movies. But her life was a horror movie.
Skin cutting is the most common form (70 to 90 percent) of self-mutilation, according to Mental Health America. “Rates are higher among adolescents, who seem to be at an increased risk for self-injury, with approximately 15 percent of teens reporting some form of self-injury.”
As much as I tried to aid her in every way I could, it never seemed to be enough. She still cut. She had a moment where she was about a year clean, then suddenly started again. She became distant and never told me why, but I eventually got it out of her.
Now, I’m not the type to force people to say anything they don’t want to say, but I knew it was bothering her in a different way.
It wasn’t like the time she found out her biological father denied her existence as an infant.
It wasn’t like the time her uncle molested her as a child.
It wasn’t like the time she came out as a lesbian to her homophobic mother.
It wasn’t like the time her girlfriend committed suicide.
She didn’t want to be Layla anymore. Layla reminded her of someone who was weak. Someone who wasn’t an inspiration to her little brothers. Someone who had gone through too much pain that it wasn’t possible to allow that common path to continue to follow her.
Or should I say him?
It was our senior year when my best friend was no longer Layla. Layla was now Max.
I knew about transgender people, and the existence of their community but I didn’t realize I would be experiencing it so closely.
According to The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 0.7 percent of youth, ages 13 to 17, or 150,000 identify as transgender in the United States.
I was hesitant to ask if this is something they wanted. I figured it would seem insensitive and knew this was as hard or even harder to express than telling your parents you’re gay or lesbian. This is a completely different playing field.
His mother already squirmed with uneasiness about the fact that her only daughter was attracted to girls, and now must address the fact that she wishes to be identified with he/they pronouns.
This change in gender didn’t truly change the status of our friendship. Max was glowing now, despite the hatred he received at home.
Nobody at school knew except for me. He did still look “woman passing,” as he didn’t start his hormonal transition yet. Although it was the most honest and free he had been, it was our little secret. We became even closer. I felt the need to not hold anything back anymore as he had told me something as personal as that. A new identifier. Still my best friend at least.
I felt comfortable telling him anything. From complaining about how I’m a 17-year-old girl who will graduate high school without ever kissing a boy to how annoying my algebra professor was.
I knew he wouldn’t judge me as I had never judged him. He began to reciprocate the way I cared for him. Before, I felt like I was the one that took in all his pain, hurt, and darkness.
As unfortunate as it sounds, I cared about my other friends (the small circle they were), but not as much as I cherished my friendship with Max.
It didn’t matter that he had romantic feelings for me, and it shouldn’t become a topic of relevance. I am only attracted to men but that didn’t mean a change in gender made me want more. That’s not how it works. And he knew that.
Suddenly, there we were. Anxiously holding hands in the mirrored hallway, awaiting our future as adults. It was graduation day and I didn’t know that would be the last memory I had of him.
He had to attend graduation with a sparkly black dress, pump heels and makeup that made him look like a human barbie doll. His hair was short at this point, pixie cut if you will, and his mother still looked into his eyes, hoping one bit of her daughter was still in there. Like wearing a blue ombre dress to prom wasn’t enough torture.
Max didn’t fight it, as he usually never does to avoid physical conflict. He just wanted to walk down that aisle, with the “corniest music ever known to man,” blasting throughout the room.
We didn’t get to sit together. We were arranged by height order and since I’ve always been the “twig,” of the class, I sat in the back row, while he sat in the front.
He never looked back at me, but I found myself constantly glancing in hopes of facial moral support. A smile? A wink? But there was nothing. Maybe that was a sign.
We said our goodbyes after the ceremony with the longest hug I’ve ever given to a human to this day, besides my mom of course.
I didn’t cry because I was always the type of person that needed time to fully process any sudden emotions. I didn’t feel the need to because although our time in high school was over, I believed the rest of our lives had only just begun.
We simultaneously told each other “I love you.” The last time those words were even spoken was when he admitted his feelings to me, but that memory didn’t exist anymore. I was honored to have found someone that was my shield, and I needed to express that in the best way I knew how.
Now, almost four years later, I have no idea who he is. I haven’t seen him since we threw our caps in the air. I have no idea how he is.
Whether it was my fault or his, which I am still trying to figure out to this day we just disconnected. I guess that was my first lesson as to what happens when I let people in.
The cafeteria reeked of sour milk, cheap bleach and recycled gossip. There we were – in what everyone called the Loser’s Corner. We always sat together. I guess that was the first time that I fully grasped the words anti-social as a personality trait of mine.
We stared at all the popular kids, five days a week, every 45-minute lunch period. I constantly noticed them laughing and hoped their reasoning wasn’t about us, but I always convinced it was.
They were the ones everyone wanted to talk to, and yet we were the least bit interested. Although we wanted more friends, at the time the only aspect that was significant to us, other than passing AP English, was expanding our friendship, our two-person circle that seemed lonely on the outside but was anything but.
She was the one constant girl that stayed a part of my life all throughout high school. She was sitting alone in the back of the dingy classroom the first time I saw her.
She was a mild version of what the emo kids posted all over Tumblr. Black everywhere, the occasional eyebrow piercing, and Hot Topic rubber bracelets that said things like “I’m a weirdo” and “death the kid.” That was a thing back in 2011.
Everyone else’s table in first period was occupied, and being my timid self, I planned on sitting in the back of the classroom anyway.
She seems like someone who is the least likely to annoy me in here. So why not. I speed walked to the seat next to her before anyone else had the same idea.
Our school was in the mid-west area of The Bronx. This is the area where it begins to merge from slightly safe at night to possibly get shot on your morning commute to school.
I only chose to go to this school because my older sister went there. Clearly, I didn’t have a mind of my own, and ignored the possibility of attending something remotely better, like a performing arts school in Manhattan.
But maybe everything happens for a reason.
I’ve met some of my best friends I still communicate with to this day in that high school. We all met freshmen year as naïve 14-year olds. Most came and went, but Layla recognized me when everyone else was too consumed with where to get weed or what couple was banging in the gym locker rooms that week.
When I sat next to her that first day, the first conversation we bonded over was our favorite tv show, which oddly wasn’t what the kids were watching those days.
It was Giada at Home. Every time I had a class in that room, I’d reminisce on when we would rip papers from our notebooks into tiny pieces and sprinkle them over the entire desk as if we were Giada, seasoning our food with salt and pepper.
I’ll never forget that day. It was the start of my self journey, one I owe it all to because of one person.
I find myself thinking about him when I scroll past the Food Network channel, or when I stroll through the bodega where we always used to buy Reese’s. I’ve never forgotten his birthday. March 19. The season of the Pisces. But I doubt he thinks about me as much as I do him.
I never even got the chance to say thank you. But I hope he’s clean, and found someone that makes their own calendar for him too.
I hope you found peace. I hope you found love.