Eighth Grade

Melina Bhattachan

Published Spring 2020

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I am thirteen years old and I am terrified. Blue and red are all I can see. The colours radiate off the cars and the trees and the houses, coalescing into one foggy blur. I hear sirens hazily ringing in the distance and the buzzing hum of people chitchatting. Someone screams. Another person gasps. People in neighboring homes come out their doors sporting robes and pajamas, disoriented and trying to see what the noise is. People are starting to crowd around one specific house.

House 530, a suburban townhouse with similar replicas all lined into one tree filled street. It has a burgundy door and burgundy roof to match. A police car sits in its driveway. This is a house that I have known since I was in kindergarten. This is a house that I have visited many times, either for after school study sessions or weekend sleepovers. This is a house that I made my first real friend in.

It is as if there is a frenzy going on. A circle starts to form around the house, as if someone is doing a show. Go home, nothing to see here folks, just one girl’s attempt to sink into permanent solitude, to dissolve into the warm air, and be one with the nothingness of the sky.

I spot her parents talking to the police and I make eye contact with her mother. I quickly look down. She points to me, and gestures for me to come over, as I am only two doors down. I walk over, no expression on my face, and an empty feeling in my stomach. Her father is stoic and rigid – it’s impossible to read his face. Her mother is hysterical, her hair a frizzy mess, with swollen eyes, and tears streaming down her face. She tells me the police would like to talk to me.

They ask me questions such as:

“Did you know she was suicidal?”

“Did you know she self-harmed?”

“Do you know why she would do this?”

No no no. I suddenly have the urge to throw up. I feel sick to my stomach. The surrounding noise comes to a halt. The warm June air abruptly turns unwelcoming and cool. I start to shiver. A pregnant air of nothingness fills the weighted silence.

And then…nothing.

I’ve always been kind of a loner. I’ve been known to lazily stare into space, or discretely float out of conversations, just to get out of talking. I’ve had days where it feels like my throat will close up from not talking. While I didn’t have heaps of people fawning over me, trying to be my friend, I did have a core group of friends that I was close with. I had one friend, in particular, that I considered my best friend.

We met in kindergarten – I told her that I liked the sequins on her sparkly pink shirt, she said she liked my shirt, and the rest was history. She had always been the more outgoing type – she never refrained from saying what she was thinking. She was confident and easy going. Some might say that she was ‘mean’ or ‘unkind’ because of this, but I didn’t see her that way. I secretly envied her, because I wanted to be like her, and instead I cowered in the corner and shrank away in fear when I had to talk out loud or confront someone. She feared nothing. I feared everything. I knew that while I considered her my best friend, I was never quite sure if she considered me her best friend.

Maria and I are walking home from school on a particularly hot day in June. It is not a long walk, but it feels like forever in this kind of heat. Today was our last day of school before the exciting week of end of the year festivities, such as graduation and the class trip to Ottawa.

“Did you get your dress for graduation, yet?” I ask her.

“Not yet,” she sighs. She sounds sad for some reason. I wonder why. We are about to graduate and go to Ottawa, and after that, embark on a completely new and unknown journey that is high school. This is exciting!

“You OK?” I ask carefully.

She shrugs. “Yeah, I guess. Just kind of tired, you know?” She sounds distant. I nod, and don’t press on the issue any further. I want to talk more, but I feel my throat closing up, how it usually does when talking about important things. I want to continue the conversation, but I am scared, unsure of what to say or how to proceed next. We are silent for the next five minutes, then I ask her how she did on the math test that we got back today. She said she did okay.

We were in eighth grade at the time. Eighth grade is a huge deal. Ok, maybe not a huge deal within the realm of one’s 90-year journey on earth, but eighth grade was a huge deal to me. For me, eighth grade was an ephemeral time, existing in the space between looming independence and clinging dependence. We were mini adults in children’s bodies. I was excited, yet I found I was scared of everything. Scared of saying the wrong things, scared of getting lost in a huge and new terrifying building, scared of coming off as the weird, shy, quiet girl. High school felt distant, yet closer than ever.

It is June 2013, and the temperature is very hot in this sickly incorrect way like what I imagine the weather in a disaster movie is like just before the bomb hits or the aliens land. It is driving me insane. I am thirteen years old and I am rife with fear and anxiety and excitement and sadness. One more month of middle school, then I’m off to high school. In June of 2013, I find myself occupied with many different things going on in my life. The science fair has just ended, our entire grade is looking forward to a 3-day trip to Ottawa, graduation is looming ever so quickly. Our classes come to a halt. We are pretty much done with the learning portion of middle school. It is all happening so quickly.

As life was going on for me, life was grinding to a halt for Maria. She opted out of the Ottawa trip because her parents didn’t have enough money to send her. She missed the deadline for the science fair competition. I didn’t know what was going on with her. I never asked. I was thirteen. I didn’t know how to have a serious conversation about anything. She would always say seemingly trivial jokes about death, but I always kept my mouth shut. Every time I opened my mouth to say something, nothing would come out. There were things that I so badly wanted to say, but never did.

She attempted suicide two days before eighth grade graduation.

I never went and visited her when she was staying at the hospital. I know I should have. I don’t know why I didn’t. I wish that I did. I knew that I was afraid of what she might reveal to me. Afraid of all the hints I must have missed. Afraid to confront just how terrible of a friend I was.
I felt like a shadow. I wept in despair. Why couldn’t I just say the things that I was feeling, like everyone else? Why did I have so much trouble with this? What was wrong with me? Why was every word I said shrouded in so much embarrassment and sadness? Maybe if I had said something to her, anything, she wouldn’t have done any of this.

It is finally July. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and summer is finally here. Within all of my fear and anxiety about transitioning to high school, I am so glad that I finally have two months of summer after such a tumultuous year to just relax.
Maria texts me a week after graduation.

Her: Hey.

Me: Hey.

She tells me how she did it. She used a rope.

I ask her why she did it. She tells me about her parents, her sisters, how she tried to run away. She tells me about how she used to self-harm. I am so nervous I am shaking. My brain can’t comprehend any of this. Why didn’t she tell me? I want to tell her, I know her parents are hard on her, but they still love her. I don’t say this. I end up texting her:

I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. Just know you don’t deserve that, and you’re so great. I’m sorry.

I nervously await her response. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the three dots at the bottom of the conversation, signaling that she is curating a response. She replies:

U sound like my mom.

Life went on. It was a normal summer, filled with late nights and sleepovers. During our many outings that summer, I never asked her about it. About any of it. Maybe I should have. There were rare moments where she would bring it up herself. Not the incident specifically, but she would talk, sporadically. About her parents. About her sisters. In these scattered moments, I made sure to be a good and observant listener. I wouldn’t know how to respond most of the time, but I was there. I know that maybe that wasn’t enough, but I hope it let her know that I was trying.

After these little moments, there would be relief, and we would laugh at something trivial the next second. It felt like old times, even though I wasn’t really sure what old times meant.

But that one night in June, so many years ago now, has always stayed with me.

It is September 2013. The first day of high school. Maria and I walk to school together, like before. We share jokes and laugh, like before. We are nervous young humans, excited and terrified at the prospect of high school. Even Maria, tough as nails, felt a bit nervous. Before we step through the doors, I pull her aside and tell her quietly that I’m sorry for everything. I tell her I am trying to be better. I am learning how to say things that I truly feel. I tell her that I hope she has a great year, genuinely. She tells me that she hopes I have a great year too, and we hug. When she steps back, I see that there is a tear trickling down her cheek.

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Bhattachan is in their 3B Term of English: Rhetoric, Media, and Professional Communication.