he watched them. Giggling, linking arms, striding confidently in packs. The doll-like make-up, meticulously painted. She watched the inflections of their heads, the raised eyebrows and the exaggerated hand gestures. Their valley girl accents floated on air towards her.
“He was like, so, like “nuh huh”, and I was like, yeah, what-EVER. And she totally just stared at me”
She mentally reviewed their clothes each morning – who wore the same outfit twice, who had borrowed another’s jeans. The rapid fashion changes that swept through the group. What was in, and what was like, so totally out. Which girls were in and which were, like, so totally out.
But most of all, she watched the stragglers. The dregs. The runts of the litter. The kids who just couldn’t keep up. She saw their heads droop dejectedly, their hands hang limply by their sides. The wry, embarrassed smiles and the hurt in their eyes. Some tried. Bless their hearts, they tried. So very hard. They pushed and pushed to fit in. To belong. To be a part of something larger than themselves. The earnestness, the naivety burned from deep within. They were too keen. Too fiercely keen. They wanted it too much, and the desperation leached from their pores.
For others, rejection had taken its toll. They couldn’t find it in themselves to try any longer. They’d dug deep into that well of courage far too many times.
Millie had been young. She finished school at 10. Girls were forced to then. There were houses to clean, mothers to assist, fathers to tend to and money to be made. Schooling was for her brothers. But she remembered the torments, the torture, the hair-pulling. The isolation, the social slurs and gingerly navigating the minefield of teen girl friendships. She even remembered the names of the popular girls. It was 75 years since she left school. But she still remembered. She even dreamed of them now. Funny, she hadn’t thought of them in decades, but Martha, Ethel and Bertha were back, interrupting her sleep as they once had all those years ago.
From her porch, she watched these new Marthas, Ethels and Berthas. And she watched the new Millies too. The porch swing pressed relentlessly on her bad hip. Its springs released from their cushioning prison, they were free to twist themselves into her thigh. The rickety sidetable shed its varnish skin, which flaked on the wooden decking like whispers of straw-coloured snow. The deck had been cruelly stripped of its own protective coating by harsh winters and hot, humid summers. Its bleached bones lay like a stranded corpse on the hot, exhausted lawn.
Millie’s care worker said she needed more help. That the house was a state. That she was like one of those hoarders from the TV show. Millie didn’t know what this meant. Her TV hadn’t worked in maybe 20 years. It still stood guard in the corner of the living room, but only the cats used it now, as a resting place. Millie didn’t use much of the house. It was a beautiful, old home. A heritage home. It had been her mother’s. A family jewel. But too many rooms. More rooms than Millie needed. Years ago, before her legs had grown tired, she’d dragged her mattress downstairs to the living room. She slept there now.
In the days, she sat on the porch, rocking in the wind. Some days, the rain flung itself in and spattered her. But she didn’t mind. In fact, she loved the feel of the wet on her face. In the nights, she curled up on the mattress and hugged herself.
On normal days, Millie watched as the popular girls blazed the path. They sashayed like they owned the world. Like they were the first to discover life itself. The jumble of teenagers then continued in descending order of popularity, with the bookish children bringing up the rear, forced to walk behind in shame.
But one day, the pattern broke. That day, a pariah led the way. With dishwater hair sticking out at odd angles, cratered skin, and no natural grace, the girl trod leadenly. Her jeans were just a tiny bit too short, her backpack a teeny bit too high. Following her were the coven. The hoard. The clique of styled, chic proto-ladies. From their mouths spilled taunts. Horrible insults, carefully designed to inflict maximum pain. Perfectly crafted to worm their way into teen insecurities, borrowing deep into hidden fears and untold worries.
“You smell like fish. You stink”
“Martin said you tried to kiss him once. Like a vacuum cleaner”
“Nice jeans Stacey. Get them from Goodwill?”
The girls held each other in fake laughter, as they lashed Stacey with whip-cracks. Each projectile landing a stinging blow. Stacey marched on. Never turning back. But Millie could see her flinch. She could see the hands peeking out under sleeves, clenched and white at the knuckles. And she saw the tears start their shuddering roll down her cheeks.
This was new, Millie thought. Normally, the loftily-elevated girls didn’t deign to mix with the outcasts. As if unpopularity were a communicable disease. As if lowering one’s self to that level by acknowledging the mere existence of such plant life was forbidden. Why the change? Why today?
The trail of girls didn’t notice Millie. They never did. She was an immoveable fixture, part of the old, decaying furniture. Present everyday in the same place. Millie supposed she simply blended into the clutter of broken, elderly ornaments on the porch. That day, for the first time in a long time, Millie felt her eyes swim with the injustice of it all. Millie hadn’t even cried when Ernie died. But then, he wouldn’t have shed a tear had she gone first.
Days turned to nights, the leaves began to crisp, the winds picked up their pace and eventually, snow settled around Millie. By now, she sat on the porch in her blanket. A hot water bottle tucked under her and a mug of cocoa in hand. And still the abuse continued. Some days, Millie wanted to scream at Stacey. “Stand up for yourself girl. Turn around and confront them. They’re bullies. Plain and simple.” Other days, Millie watched passively. Waiting for the day the girls found another target.
And one day, as spring crept in, she snapped. Enough. Enough.
Somewhere in the living room, amid the muddle, the broken plant pots, the old TV, several couches, the cats and more chairs than she cared for, lay a pad of little paper. What did people call them? Post them notes? Mail it ins? Her care-worker left them so Millie could write shopping lists. But she just used the backs of empty cereal boxes for that.
Millie spied them underneath a dusty stack of old phonebooks, and ripped off the plastic covering with her teeth. Spitting out the pieces, she found a pen lying on top of the cat food. Returning to the porch, she wrote. She wrote and wrote and wrote.
The next morning, with plans in place, she settled once again in the swinging seat.
Stacey approached from the bus stop. As usual, she took a deep breath and steeled herself for the gauntlet ahead. Practice had taught her to be first off the bus and to put a great distance between herself and the pack. If she almost ran, the curved arc of the poisonous insults fell short, landing harmlessly on the sidewalk.
Millie shifted in her blanket, keeping her eye on Stacey as she approached the first rock. A boulder, protruding from a front lawn, was covered in yellow. Like papery moss crawling over the surface, the post-it notes clung to the gray. Stacey stopped. And reached down for one. Peeling it off, she brought it to her face and read.
And her mouth twitched. It curled, very, very slightly upwards.
Millie knew what Stacey was reading at that moment. “You are beautiful. Inside and out”
Stacey looked around, her forehead crinkling in puzzlement. Eventually, she walked on, stopping again in front of Millie’s house. Millie was delighted to see her pick up another note. This one said “You are stronger than you know”.
This time, a shy, reluctant smile crept out. An actual smile. A smile that touched Stacey’s eyes. And reached into Millie’s heart. Stacey stood up a little higher. She cast a glance around her again. Millie watched her tuck the notes inside her jacket, like talismen forming a protective layer.
As Stacey continued on her path, Millie knew there would be more notes.
“You are worth it”
“Believe in yourself – you are a strong woman”
“Be yourself, because you are beautiful”
Millie swayed gently, ignoring the sharp springs of the seat and the cats mewling beside her. And she allowed herself the first real smile in a long, long time.