When I was born, I was vaguely aware that I was different to the person who sat next to me in the kindergarten. My hair was darker, straighter, overall, prettier. My lips were fatter and my eyes were a different shape. But most significantly, my skin was a different colour. It was what others liked to call ‘yellow’ and what later, I learned, I could also call ‘olive’. ‘Olive’ sounded better than ‘yellow’ but it still didn’t change that I was different. And when you’re different, it gets noticed, especially when you have no idea what the best way is to deflect those staring, wide-eyed eyes.
“Why aren’t you doing anything June?” I look up. It was Mrs Blake. The methods teacher. She didn’t hate me. Rather she liked that I did all my work before class came round. The only bone she picked with me, was that I did nothing in class. I guess it was unfair, that I flaunted my asianness.
“I’m sorry Mrs Blake,” I said, pushing my textbook open with a lazy hand. “I guess I should do something.”
She smiled sadly and patted me on the head. It was weird, and it was perhaps the first time that she did it. But I knew what she was thinking. I was such a good student, yet I was also such a bad one in her class.
I looked down at the graphs in front of me. Technically I’d already done them, neatly printed the little numbers around my neatly ruled graphs. There was nothing like attention to detail.
“Boooo Junneeee…help me!” Nicki whined to my left. She was struggling over the fact that her pencilled graph looked too sweet to the right rather than a bell curve. She tried hard all the time, and generally had good results. Just, not as good as mine.
“What is it?” I asked, my pen already poised and my hand already pulling her book to me.
“I have no idea.” And just like that, I started scribbling over her piece of paper, my mouth and hands moving before she finished talking. It was just the way that I was. I liked being smart. I liked showing off. But why not? I have the ability, right?
At lunch, I yawned. I never ceased being tired. Nicki was chatting ecstatically, laughing loudly and squealing – well maybe not squealing exactly – on my left, while I leaned my head on Enna’s shoulder on my right. She was so bony, it was hardly comfortable, but I was tired.
It was rather peaceful, rather comfortable, up until the moment when the class clown decided to crash my parade.
Nate’s a nice enough guy. His humour is off the wall. His style, one of his own, and tasteful. But for some reason, the guy had it in for only one person. In this entire school, there was only one person he liked to make a huge baboon out of. And who was that person? That person was me.
“Juuunnnnnnnneeeeeee!” Wheeee ka-blam! I’m knocked off my seat and slammed to the ground. “Juuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnneeeeeeeeeee!”
No other moron would say my name so moronically. What was he? A child? “The fuck! Get off me!” I said, but my words were muffled under his overly dressed arm and I had to shove his arm away to breathe.
“What was that bug?” He said in reply.
“Stop calling me Bug! God, get off me!” Not only was I plastered to the ground, but I’d lost my roll too.
He looked at my blushing pissed off face and smiled. He plucked at my cheeks with his hands as though I was a baby or a little kid he could tease. It was irritating. Just because I was a petite Asian, it did not mean I was the same as a kid. I shoved him off me. Easy to do, considering the fact that he’d only been sitting on me, not anchoring me.
He tumbled to the ground and I spent several minutes wiping invisible flecks of dirt off my person. Gross!
“You owe me a bloody lunch, twerp!” I said not able to look at him.
“Twerp?” He feigned outrage. He was anything but small or annoying, but still, he crossed boundaries that I didn’t feel comfortable with being crossed at all.
Annoyed, with a hate more passionate than my love of the canteen cheesy puffs, I stalked out in search of peace and resolution. To find peace and resolution though, was near impossible. Granted, I was able to find it by arriving at Studio Arts early.
Ms Smith also loved me a lot. I may not have many great inspirational art works, nor did I have a particularly interesting art style. I just enjoyed “creation”. At that moment though, Ms Smith needed to go out. She left me knowing full well I wouldn’t do anything that would disappoint her. To her, I was a responsible student. I was also hard working and determined. Both those reasons were enough, still, she locked the art room door behind me, telling me she’d return in time for class. Technically the door wasn’t locked from the inside, just the outside. And with that, I closed my eyes, figuratively and started working on my canvas. Did I mention? I like manga art. Or art like it. It’s just beautiful, and the lines always seem to flow beautifully from my hand.
I painted a warrior, fierce and female, beautiful and strong, yet clearly deadly with that monster blade in her hand. Well, it was a rough painting, with space to be refined, but still, I wanted to paint it. I wanted to vent my annoyance. It happens generally, when I get frustrated. And this was the only class where I could release it.
“Whoa, that’s really good.” I jerked, my brush clattered to the ground. What was he doing here?
He was kneeling on the railing to the left of the door. In this school, the art room was one of three. This one sat above the other and while there were two ways to enter, one, the door which my teacher left, or two, the inner metal spiral staircase. But Nate was kneeling on the railing next to the door which Ms Smith left.
I hated that awed look on his face. It made me shiver. And out of habit, I stood in front of the canvas.
“What are you doing here?” I snapped.
“Why?” He leapt down from the railing and walked over to me. His eyes were on the canvas and not me at all. I stopped him. Hand on chest, pulsing with unfailing annoyance.
“Nate. What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you.”
“Because you looked annoyed, plus I bought you lunch!” He took my hand and dropped a packed sandwiched in it.
I was about to reject when I saw what was in it. Egg salad. Okay. So I guess I couldn’t reject that. But it was enough to distract me and for him to see the whole painting.
“Why did you try to hide it?”
“I didn’t try on purpose.”
“So it was by accident?” He poked at my logic, still staring all over my painting. It was like he couldn’t draw his eyes away. Mesmerized, I watched him look up close at every corner, his nose almost wiping away my paint. It was a really close shave as I pulled him gently away.
“If you want to keep being nosy and just plain old Nate, do it as far away from my painting as possible.”
We sat there until class began. He was silent for once, his eyes wide in awe. I’m not sure why I didn’t object to him being there even though Ms Smith expected me to not let anyone else in. Yet the sandwich he brought wasn’t half bad.
“What’s so shocking about my painting?”
“Nothing!” He said startled, spinning his big, wide eyes at me. “It’s just really perfect.” In one second, I saw the belief in his eyes. He believed everything he was saying. He actually liked my painting. And I could hardly believe it.
I stood and walked over to the rubbish bin. I’ve known Nate for ten years. Of course, when we first met, we were the same height, same build, just different ethnicity. He was popular, and I was, well, not unpopular, but definitely socially awkward. I remember the feeling of watching my acquaintances taking part with enthusiasm, the extracurricular activities. It wasn’t that I watched from around the corner, but more like I watched from the side, learning early how to mask my discomfort. I just watched silently, taking on the image of a shy girl. It wasn’t hard, even though I wanted to scream out loud. But I couldn’t take rejection, so I never asked. Every time though, it was always Nate who noticed. And he would drag me around, while I batted him away, fending him off whenever I could, mostly embarrassed that he even noticed in the first place. Then mum came to pick me up. He never knew why I ignored him.
Nate was that funny guy, after all, who never took ‘no’ for an answer. I think I used to like him. Until he made me hate him. Not everyone in this world wanted to be “one with the others”. I didn’t want to be one with the others. I just wanted to be able to go home and relax.
“It’s not that great,” I said instead, turning back to him. “It’s just a painting.” And then my class started arriving. I opened the door.
When I looked back at Nate, he was just staring at me. I had no response.
“June! There you are!” Enna engulfed me in her bony embrace. Yeah she loved me. Just like Nicki. Just like my best friends should. But why did I feel uncomfortable? I shivered unwittingly.
“Whoa, calm down En! I just came here to—” I’d forgotten to cover my painting, but when I turned, it seemed that someone – no, not someone I think as find those big eyes in the crowd of my peers – had covered it for me. “—Finish a painting.” I finished surprised at myself.
“Is it under there?” She pointed to where it was and I nodded. “Well, I can’t wait to see it!”
“Yeah…” It really had meant to be a surprise. “Wanna see it now?”
She looked surprised. A moment before, I was sure she had narrowed her eyes, trying to gauge my mood. She knew what it was like for me to talk to Nate. “Really??”
“Yeah.” I pull the cloth back.
The end of the day is always the same. Up until recently, I just went home, in the direction that was opposite to the way that all my friends went. And it was normally a peaceful ride on the bus. Every so often Enna would come my way to visit her aunt. Today was not one of those days. Today, Nate was on my bus. Like he was, every day. But this was the first time I bothered to look up at them.
They were, as you could probably ascribe the term, “the popular group”, only, they were friends with everyone, even me, and they were nice. They were the kinds of people everyone got along with, and they were also the ones the teachers picked for SRC or representing the school on various singular occasions. I didn’t mind them so much. They were a pretty big group. Nate and Leslie were the centre. The golden couple who were not actually a couple, were the sole focus of everyone else. I suppose it was because Nate was funny and Leslie was easy going about everything.
I watched them as they flirted. I watched as the others joined in gossiping about who knows what about every single person in our year. And I watched as Nate brushed off Leslie’s advances turning them into something else. What a riot. It was none too soon when my stop came and I could shove off.
Hauling my bag over my shoulder, I pushed my way through the crowd of bored students, and out the door. It was always a trial, since I was petite. But I’d gotten used to it. Just like I’d gotten used to being different.
“June! Wait!” I turned to find Nate hopping off the bus as well. I stared at him. Partly surprised. Partly happy?
Leslie had been my first friend. Hard to believe when we were walking in different circles, isn’t it? But it’s true. She loved pigtails, was pretty cute and had a way with people and opinions in general. She liked being with me though and we’d spent countless hours just playing with Kelly dolls and gathering our own boxes that we converted into dollhouses. We made up stories and shared gossip. But it was all child’s play, and somewhere along the way, I switched schools, met Nate, and then, ended up going to the same highschool as Leslie. It was like fate, and judging by their similarities, I knew soon enough that I could not hang around them anymore. I couldn’t share what they could share. I didn’t have the ability to sit around the table, share a fun luncheon and pretend I was one of them. And I walked away. I ignored them all through summer, and when the next year began, I made friends with Nicki and Enna. Both of whom had been in the class next door the previous year.
“Where’s your house?” Asked Nate after several minutes walking.
“Is that any of your business?” I snap.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said over me, as cheerful as the cat that steals the tuna we leave outside. “I know where you live.”
He began walking ahead of me. Leading, without a care, just like always. I really hated his teasing. I know he didn’t mean anything when he said he knew where I lived. But I can’t help but remember when we were younger and he came over just because he could and because mum wasn’t around. She didn’t come home, but I freaked out so much, and when he realised how uncomfortable, for once, he apologised seeing that his joke went too far.
We stopped in front of the block of apartments where I lived. And we stared. My balcony was visible from where we were standing. There was no clear sign of anyone living there, since nothing was visible. No clothing line, no old bike that I knew was squashed in one corner. Not even the wooden boxes that were stacked next to the bike. If it was a weekend, then there would be clothes hanging across the balcony.
“You know, I miss having you around shorty. I don’t see why you have to hang around at home all the time. You can still party with us. Leslie misses you too.”
I scoffed. “Leslie does not miss me.” Leslie stuck her nose up and continued doing what she liked, including being nice to me in front of others, then ignoring me when they looked away.
“She does.” He looked at me pointedly. “If you didn’t ditch us with those weird thoughts of yours, we would have been fine. We could have stayed together. It’s just fact.”
“Yeah,” I said sadly. I catch his eyes, “But I couldn’t stay. Don’t talk like you know everything Nate. You know nothing.”
“You know, you could always just say it.” I faltered. I really hated when Nate was serious. Serious didn’t suit him especially when he was so direct and so honest. It was hard to tell that he had something to hide as well. He had no right to talk.
“Oh shove off Nate, what the bloody hell do you know about me?”
“More than Nicki and Enna do! Just as I know more than the girls you hung out with before N and E, and the girls before that. Of anyone, I know you better than them. So why can’t you be honest with me?”
“Don’t badmouth my friends Nate, and I like Nicki and Enna. For once they accept me for who I am, acknowledge that I don’t do much, and sympathise. I don’t want to run and ditch anymore Nate. Can’t you just let me be friends with Nicki and Enna?”
I could see “no” forming on his lips.
“No! Nate No! I’m not the same. I’m not the same. I’m born different!”
We could have stayed there forever, pondering my exclamation. But we didn’t have forever. We only had today. If the sky turned to water, he wouldn’t walk away. Nate would stay, I knew that. In his mind, we were friends. In mine, I’d severed the tie. It flapped in the wind.
“Good bye Nate.”
I walked away from him. I walked away, just like before. These things, ties, they are all the same, they can be tied, they can be broken. It all depended on the people, if they were willing, a tie can last forever.
Mum wasn’t home yet. I dumped my bag in my room, pulled out notes, grabbed a cup of water and sat back on the couch. Just like I did after school every day. At home I wasn’t really anything particular. Just June Wong, hard working, high scoring daughter of Fiona Wong, who just couldn’t get into a better school than the one she was currently attending. But June at school didn’t care about stuff like that. If she cared, she would have been very disappointed in herself. She’s a Wong—Fiona Wong’s daughter, and she had expectations. Like she’d said earlier to her childhood friend, “I’m born different”.
My expectations are different. My wants. Everything. I’m not Nate. I’m not Leslie. I can’t pretend like I don’t have those expectations and can do what they can. That would just be a lie.