First published August 16, 2016
I first met her on my first day of school and she was there when I died, but I barely knew her. Our lives crisscrossed each other like strands of DNA. Though we rarely interacted in any deeply personal way, we applied a kind of subtle gravitation force upon each other.
In school, she was the pretty one. The smart one. The one who never let her emotions get the better of her, even when, as puberty hit, the rest of us were turning into mad witches. She remained always cool and aloof. Although popular with a select crowd, she was never mean or condescending to others. She was naturally intimidating but she was never unkind.
I, for one, did not think of her as an individual. To me, she was an icon. The epitome of all I wanted to be, and which I knew I would never become. I tried to emulate her style, her grace, but she always did it better, easier.
When we were about nine, I developed a very secret crush on a boy in our class and carried a torch for him all through school. I dared not share my feelings with anyone lest they laugh at me. It was obvious he would never feel the same about me. He barely noticed me. I was beneath him in every way.
When we were 12, they discovered each other and became inseparable. I wasn’t jealous. It made sense that the perfect girl would end up with the perfect boy. Rather than envy, I felt curiosity. What would it be like to be that confident? To be the kind of woman who could attract a fine man?
After graduation, we all went our separate ways and I didn’t think about her much, except still, perhaps as a standard by which to judge myself.
Many years later, coincidentally, our children went to school together. We would nod a polite hello to each other, or perhaps converse casually about upcoming events. I hated to admit it to myself, but I was still intimidated by her. I always felt bad about myself when I saw her. She reminded me, through no fault of her own, that I was “less than.” Still, I felt no animosity for her. It wasn’t her fault that I felt as I did. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was just living her life, being perfect.
Her house was nicer than ours. Her children, better behaved. Her husband, more successful. But she never noticed the envy of others. She did not act superior. She simply was, by any measure I could think of, superior.
I never sought her friendship nor she, mine.
Eventually, our children moved to different schools and once again, she was out of my life. Another decade passed, and then we met again, this time working for an organization. She had all the right social connections and so rose quickly to the top. I remained firmly in the middle. We ran into each other from time to time, and as always, chatted politely though never vapidly. Short, intelligent conversations about current events or organizational issues. I felt flattered that she took me as her equal.
After a few years, I moved on from that organization, while she remained and rose higher still. Meanwhile, I occupied myself with other things.
Many years later, we met again at the home of some old school friends. Her position in the organization had been terminated. Her husband had left her for a younger woman. She was forced to sell her beautiful home. She revealed these turns of event matter-of-factly, still hiding behind her impenetrable facade, emotionally aloof as always.
That night, when I went home, I looked at my life and I felt grateful. I was happy and I was loved, and those were the most important things. Why should I be jealous of her when I had everything I needed right here?
After that, I removed her from her high pedestal and placed her on a lower shelf. I no longer compared myself to her version of perfection. I realized I was perfect in my own way, and I was OK with that. We are all good at something. I didn’t have to be good at her thing. I only had to be the best I could be at my own. This was the beginning of my self-acceptance.
In and out, again and again, over the years, we would encounter each other in casual ways. Never friends but eventually friendly enough by virtue of our long history, to catch up on the essentials of our lives – for example, the deaths of our parents, the births of our grandchildren, her eventual happy remarriage.
I came to know her better, although never well. I began to understand that the woman I thought she was had existed only in my imagination. She wasn’t aloof. She was painfully shy. She cultivated her friends carefully and so didn’t have many. She curated her facade meticulously but she was far more fragile than she ever appeared. With these realizations, I stopped judging my perceived faults and the perceived faults of others, by a false standard of perfection. I began to notice what was right about people instead of what was wrong with them. These lessons informed my life and my relationships.
Many years passed without us crossing paths. I hadn’t given her more than a fleeting thought in years. But then, in our late years, we found ourselves in the same home for the aged, both widowed, both great-grandmothers. Only we, of all those others in that place, shared a history that went back to childhood. Only we, remembered all those places and people, long gone. And what we didn’t remember, the other often filled in. And so we talked. And talked. And talked. The separation that had always been between us fell away. We were too old to care about hiding our feelings, protecting our faces to each other.
One day, I told her how I’d envious I’d been of her in school, and for many years after; how I’d judged myself against her, and finally, eventually, I felt myself perfectly equal. Better in some ways, worse in others.
And what she confessed to me made me rethink my entire life.
She told me she’d always been envious of me! (Even in my dotage, I was shocked!) She was envious that I did not live in fear of the judgment of others. Even as children, she admired my ability to make friends easily. She felt compelled to always behave in a certain way – quiet, dignified. She admired my willingness to make a joke at my own expense. She felt constrained by having to pay attention to detail. She admired my ability to roll with the waves, make the best of whatever came along. Her shyness was crippling. She recognized that many took this for aloofness, but still, she could never overcome it. She admired my ability to easily engage others in conversation. She rarely felt as if people saw her as she was. She did not feel known. She wished she could be casual and easy with people, let down her guard, and not be afraid to let them see her. She thought I was brave, not caring about perfection.
Oh, the irony of that!
She sat at my bedside the day I died. I’d been unconscious for nearly a week, and she sat with me every afternoon for a few hours after lunch, in silence, just thinking about all the things that had happened to both of us over the years; how our lives had been so different. Yet here we were at the end, in the same place, in the same situation.
I understand now that there are people who remain on the periphery of our lives, but who nevertheless affect us deeply, and whom we affect in return, often unawares. They may meet us upon our journey as merely a pebble in the shoe or a jug of water when we are thirsty. They might be the shade of the trees overhead, which we barely consider until we walk must through a desert with the sun beating down upon our head. They may be a vulture in that desert. They may be an oasis. Or they may be the shepherd dog who nudges us back onto the path. They may be the fruit of wisdom, which we come upon at the moment of peak ripeness.