The words, “What if” run through my mind constantly. What if I had said this? What if I had done that? What if I had held my tongue instead of shouting words back? What if I was a better kid? What if I loved more. What if I hadn’t messed up. Would things be any different than they are now?
Through the short time that I have been on this earth I have found that “What If” is a futile question. Nothing can bring us back to the moment that we wish we could do-over.
But, when I was younger, I didn’t know any better. One morning, my dad was doing math with me right before I was about to leave for a friend’s house. He insisted that I finish all the problems before I was allowed to go. I am terrible at math so I squirmed and squinted at the problems before I threw some numbers together and called it my answer. Slap! Went his hand across my face. Like it always did. Stupid girl, he muttered under his breath. Like he always said.
Then, I was at my friend’s house, and being the bossy girl I still am today, was giving orders on how to build a proper pillow fort. When I finished my part and looked over at my friend’s, I was deeply disappointed. Her pillows were placed all wrong! You’re stupid! I cried. Then she cried. And I cried. She called her mom and when her mom reached the living room she pointed at me and said that I said those words.
I ran into their bathroom and locked myself in. I stayed there for an hour and the mother came and sat by the door, but I would not allow myself to be comforted because I felt I didn’t deserve it.
I can’t say for sure that I regret that moment. I think the moment I truly regret the most was back in third grade when I celebrated my first birthday party at the new house my family had just moved to.
At first, the other third grade girls were mesmerized. I was one of the only Asian people in school and they were unabashedly curious.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Oohhhh…she has that smooth, silky Asian hair like Stacy Liu.”
“Do you like to play checkers?”
But, after a few days, their interest waned. I knew my social skills were supposed to pick up where interest left off, but I was shy, awkward, and very much lacking in any type of people skills. So I had a lot of trouble making friends.
The thing is, I was too proud to say I wanted any. I pretended like I was happy in my own world. Every day at recess, I carefully tip-toed on the curb running along the playground, like it was a tightrope suspended above a shark-riddled ocean. Some days, when I was in the middle of an intense novel, I would spend the whole thirty minutes with my nose between pages, sitting on the bench next to the playground attendant.
Maxine was the next new girl. She started school just a few months after I did. She walked right up to me while I was on one of my walks.
“Will you be my friend?” she asked.
I was startled. Who could want me as their friend? I was nobody. I was the weird girl that the other kids whispered about while on the swings. I was the stranger who walked on the curb next to the monkey bars. I was the one the playground attendant told my teachers about. I was the kid whose teachers called my mom about, and whose mom had to leave work early to sit in special Parent-Teacher conferences.
“No,” I replied.
My birthday is in May and a few weeks before my eighth birthday, my mom told me I was having a birthday party. She gave me a stack of cards and told me to invite all the girls in my class.
“Here’s one for Sarah with the pretty blonde hair.”
“And here’s one for Amanda, who is really good at art.”
“One for Jane, who can eat a whole slice of pizza.”
“Michelle, who all the boys want on their soccer team.”
And none for Maxine, who I did not want as a friend.
Of course, within a week, every girl had gotten their invitations and they were excited about the theme party. I felt like a movie star with all the attention people were giving me. “Hey, Steph we’re so excited to go to your party! I love chocolate. Will we make chocolate lollipops?”
“Yes!” I exclaimed.
Maxine found me while I was getting a pair of scissors from the supply drawer in the back of the classroom. “Steph, I didn’t see an invitation in the mail. But my mom says it’s coming. It is coming, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, haltingly.
“Oh good. I can’t wait to go to your party. I even have your present picked out.”
I felt kind of bad. Maybe I should invite her….No! I stick to what I say, always. And being stubborn me, I did not send her an invite.
The day of the party came. It was so fun. My babysitters led us through a game of Hide and Seek, and then we played freeze tag in my backyard. We made chocolate lollipops and ate cake. I was in the middle of opening a present when my mom called me. “Stephanie…your friend is on the phone.”
My heart sank. I knew it was Maxine. “Hi, Maxine.”
“Hi Steph. I never got the invitation to your party. My mom said it probably got lost in the mail. Can I still come over for the party?”
I paused for a long time. Then I said, “No, Maxine. You weren’t invited.”
I heard her break out into tears on the phone. “I knew I wasn’t invited. I just knew it. Why don’t you like me?”
I slowly hung up the phone.
Maxine never tried to speak to me again. Gone was the annoying pest who followed me during my walks on the curb. Empty, was the seat to the left, whenever I read a book on the bench. Missing, was the eager face who approached me whenever we picked partners for class. And lonely, was I, in my quiet reverie, during the brief periods of time between English and Math. Maxine had always been there, daydreaming beside me.
Remember the pillow fort incident? When I called my friend Stupid? I came out of the bathroom after awhile. Her mom asked me to apologize and I wholeheartedly did, between big, gasping gulps of tears. But, I never said anything to Maxine. I don’t even know her last name. If I could go back, I would say: I’m sorry, Maxine. I’m sorry for ignoring you. I’m sorry for not appreciating you. I’m sorry for leaving you out in the cold. I’m sorry because I should’ve said yes to being friends with you. I’m sorry, Maxine, I didn’t even know how to be friends with myself.