This story is by Sarah Guarini and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As a child, Violet was what her mother would call “painfully shy.” She spoke normally, until one day when she was five years old and just…didn’t anymore. She hid behind her mother’s skirt when a polite stranger complimented her mittens. Neighbors, no matter how kind, couldn’t get a word out of her. She didn’t have a single friend. After all, how could she make friends without communicating with another living soul?
Her silence served her family well. She was such an easy child to manage. So, they groomed her to be just-so. Just so perky. Just so compliant. Just so sweet. Just so fine with however anyone treated her. Not too pretty, not too hard on the eyes, definitely not sexy, and strong without being called “butch” by her father. She was just so smart, but not so much as to outshine her mother. She was raised to not make waves, to not take up space, to never dare inconvenience anyone by sharing openly her feelings. If she felt something that wasn’t happy or pleasant, she squished that feeling with the heel of her shoe in her mind to prevent anyone, let alone herself, from seeing who she really was.
She’d grown up in the home of a woman who was also just-so on the outside. Her mother was just so funny, just so gregarious, just so outgoing. But, on the inside, her mother was sick. Her illness wasn’t something that a doctor could see. It wasn’t anything that was perceptible to the human eye. Her mother’s illness was one of metaphorical weeds. Whenever something good crept into her life or her mother’s, some sort of weed would grow up and choke it out, depriving the good thing of enough light and air to live.
It happened all the time. When she was young, her teachers took note of how bright Violet was. They invited her to participate in the accelerated math classes. But her mother’s silent judgement crept into her mind like weeds, choking out any potential pride. The teachers were wrong, she decided. She wasn’t good at math.
Soon after, different teachers noticed her sharp mind. They convened and decided to extend an invitation to Violet to attend a special school for gifted and talented children. It would be free. The bus would pick her up right outside her home. Again, her mother’s snake-like criticism quickly wrapped around that notion, squeezed it, and reminded her that she was too shy. She would never make friends at that school. She shouldn’t attend. And she didn’t. Nor did she attend the children’s choir for talented, budding musicians. Mother would have to drive her all the way to the city, and she couldn’t ask. She opted out of sports, out of extracurriculars, out of play-dates with friends. She opted out of anything that would pose even a hint of a burden to her mother’s ego or her family’s tight financial situation, of which she was always keenly aware. She opted out of most of life. She went on being just so amicable. Just so accommodating to whatever others wanted.
For most of her life, she felt as if she was under a spell of some sort. Some force or being would hold her mouth shut even when she felt desperately compelled to speak. When she was eight, Violet watched in complicit silence as a little neighbor stepped on a fallen apple where a bee had perched. She felt as if she watched the scene unfold in slow motion–the child’s bare foot hovering for what seemed like several moments above the rotten fruit–yet, she said nothing. She desperately wanted to cry out “Wait! Stop!” but her tongue betrayed her, and Violet watched in horror as the little girl stepped squarely onto that bee. She ran screaming all the way back home, while Violet stood frozen.
For years, she went on like this. Wanting to speak, wishing she could, regretting her silence, then squashing the inevitable guilt that ensued. She hoped against all hope that someone or something would break the spell for her. She wished that it would end as suddenly as it began.
Day in and day out she endured it. Then, one day in seventh grade, on a day like any other, her loneliness gripped her heart more tightly than it had ever before. Sitting alone on the school bus with her forehead pressed against the window, the normal bustle and laughter of the children around her suddenly became too much to bear. At her stop, she bolted down her street, threw open the door of her house, dropped her backpack, and hid herself in her closet. Hugging her knees to her chest, she sobbed. Burying her face in a pile of dirty clothes, she let loose a primal scream.
She indulged her sorrow for a bit longer before deciding she needed to face the world again. A thin line of light streamed into the closet where the door hadn’t shut completely. A pen had prevented it from closing. She picked it up, then felt around in the dim light until she found her old diary. She began to write.
She wrote for hours. She doodled and scribbled. She invented worlds, characters, and–her favorite–new versions of herself. She invented a version of herself who could speak and understand any language. She invented a version of herself who was adored for her witty humor. One version of herself could feel exactly what composers felt as they wrote their opus. Other versions were popular selves, some were fashionista selves, others were defiant selves who challenged everything she had ever been taught by her mother and father and church leaders and teachers. Some versions were athletes, pushing her body to the limit.
Every version was someone she longed to be.
She spent that weekend huddled in the darkened spaces under her bed and in her closet writing until her hand cramped, sleeping for a moment on her graphite smudges, then waking to write again. Her family didn’t seem to notice her absence, as she was so quiet to begin with. Periodically, she snuck out for a snack or bathroom break, but she never stopped writing for long. She had fallen in love. She was in love with the idea of who she could be.
On Monday before school, she tucked snippets of her writings into her pockets. These little quotes and phrases were her reminders of who she could be, if only she’d open her mouth to speak. If only she was brave in real life like she was brave in her paper world. She committed herself to study these versions of herself. She’d try to be more like them.
Eating lunch alone, she stole a glimpse at one of the lines that an outgoing version of herself had spoken to a classmate, just in case. A new student came and sat near her. It was fate. Now’s your moment, she thought. She gathered her courage…and said nothing. She ate in stoic silence until the bell dismissed her for gym class.
As she and the other girls awkwardly and carefully changed so that no one else saw any other’s nudity, she clumsily let her overalls fall to the floor. Her precious pieces of paper flew and floated all around her like feathers. Versions of the selves she wished she could be scattered around the bare feet of her classmates. Retrieving them would be impossible. It would break every code in the unwritten rule-book of locker room etiquette to scamper about on the floor invading the space of partially clothed girls. She froze. Again. Girls started to notice the bits of paper strewn across their gym shoes and shorts. Most ignored them. Some, seeing where they had come from, slid them back to her without a second glance. But then, other girls, not knowing what they were, picked them up and read them. One of the readers tucked it into her own pocket with a smile, as if it were just the right fortune from a cookie. Two other girls read theirs to one another, exchanged grins, and looked around for the papers’ author.
She’d been discovered. Exposed. They knew it was her. They approached, gingerly extending the nest of scraps they’d gathered, all covered in Violet’s vulnerable words.
“These are really good. You should share them. We’re in lit club. These would be really great to publish in our spring zine. We meet today after school in the cafeteria. You should come!”
Violet was beside herself with joy. She didn’t know how to reply. What should she say? What did she even want to say?
The few seconds she spent pondering their request seemed to stretch for minutes. What would her mother think? She took a deep breath. What did she want?
“Thanks,” she said. “I will.” Relief. Finally. She was free.