“Red nails?” she asked with a smile. Even if I would never see this woman again, I would learn to hate her smile. It was condescending, and patronizing; they were big and I was tiny. “Aren’t you too young to color your nails like that?”
“No, I’m big,” I mumbled, but my voice was muffled except for the last word, which she misheard anyway.
I should have said no. The bravest version of me would have said, No– would have told her, Red.
But I nodded, and she painted my nails pink. It didn’t look half-bad, so I told myself to settle with that.
With all the wisdom and knowledge of a fifth-grader, I proclaimed myself absolutely, hopelessly in like.
That is, I proclaimed it in secret.
He was a friend, boyish, slightly awkward, but oh so smart.
I should have told him, maybe smiled at him. I should send him a letter! The bravest version of me would have done it. Just walk past him and slip the note in his bag secretly.
Just as I mustered the courage to do it on the school bus, he caught my eye from afar and grinned. I felt my cheeks turn pink — pink as my nails at age five — and crushed the paper in my pocket as I lowered my gaze to my shoes.
I saw him walking down the corridor in the opposite direction. I had no idea when he and C had ever become close, but they sure were spending all their time together now.
I thought back to the summer and all the hurtful things I’d said and did. He’d texted me just last week so I presumed we were okay. But when school started again, he barely ever looked at me.
Sometimes I missed hanging out with him, and by sometimes I meant all the time. Most people were only just growing out of their gender wars phase, but we had already spent a year as best friends.
It was probably my fault, that whole stupid fight, and I should probably say sorry.
He probably misses me too, right?
If he missed me, why is he totally ignoring me right now? See, it’s not all on me!
It’s probably not worth sacrificing my pride for. I’m just going to embarrass myself if I apologize.
Let him come to me. The nerve!
He looked at me quietly as I passed them, but I raised my chin and didn’t spare him a single glance.
Fifteen sure felt like a huge number to me, but when I met my brother’s friends they exclaimed with part envy at how “young” I was. At fifteen, I felt like I’d been through a lot. Life was getting kind of boring, in fact.
All my batchmates thought and talked about these days were the cheer dance routine and the assembly at the end of the year; the time of dancing, singing, volunteering all your talents out. But I really wasn’t feeling it. If I were feeling like anything at all, I probably felt like I’d make a giant fool out of myself.
My favorite teachers were, of course, encouraging me to participate. The bravest version of me would have done it, knowing that trying was important, that caring about something was important.
The bravest version of me had written in my blog repeatedly about how I needed to leave high school and enter college knowing exactly what I wanted to do so I could focus all my energies and capacities towards doing what I wanted to do. The bravest version of me would have understood that I needed to do something.
College is terribly confusing.
It was especially difficult in freshman year because I seemed to be surrounded by people who knew what they were good at and what they wanted to do. I, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue.
I watched a bunch of my classmates try out for the school paper, and I wondered why I didn’t too. I didn’t even feel vaguely interested. I did try out for the literary publication, but I was so nervous, uncertain and insecure that my words stuttered and tumbled off my lips. My interviewer would later tell a friend of a friend who would tell me I only needed to be more assertive.
The words would sail murky waters in my mind for weeks and months at a time. I would remember it whenever I was in class, tempted to raise my hand to ask a question. I would remember it whenever I decided not to ask, for fear of looking stupid.
I echoed the word — “assertive,” spelling it out with my tongue but never catching it with my fingers — whenever my roommate arrived late to the room, having been to a night of rehearsals with her student group. I would take the word apart and repack it into the forms of excuses, sadness, fears, insecurities, written as paragraphs put together so poignantly they made me feel sorry for terrified, un-brave me.
The bravest version of me would not have gotten angry or disliked me; she would only pity me.
The bravest version of me would have sat next to you that first day I heard you singing. She might have sung along, laughed to your jokes, slowly inched her way into your company as a friend. She might or might not have ever told you how happy you made her, how you unknowingly helped her survive. The bravest version of me would have done that.
But I couldn’t even say hello.
I wrote you a poem, but never sent it. You floated by on the ground once when I was standing at the balcony, wondering what it would have been like to be another paper boat sailing next to you. The bravest version of me would have saved all the poems and paragraphs I scribbled for the day I might muster up the courage to smile at you.
Damn it, why wasn’t I brave?
I decided to say no. I decided that I no longer wanted to be hung up on being with someone, to be scared of being by myself. After how many years, I was finally mustering the courage to love myself. So I mustered the courage to tell you I couldn’t stay.
I also decided to run. I wasn’t sure if I trusted myself to lead, but I decided to try. The bravest version of me understood that trying was important.
I put on makeup and colored my hair. It wasn’t the color I had asked for, but that wasn’t my fault. Anyway, I kind of liked it, and I would try again next time. Five-year-old me didn’t have such big dreams, but I think she would have been proud.
I saw you pass me in the corridor, although I’m not sure if you noticed me. I’m not sure you ever noticed me, but I decided it didn’t matter much. I decided to look away. I decided to trust that better things would come along, even though I already risked that before.
I told myself — words still coming apart on my tongue despite their confidence in their wholeness in my head — that I was scared, and there was courage in admitting to yourself that you were scared. And in letting yourself be it.
I won, by the way. And I said yes.
At age five, independence was an alien concept to me. At age five, bravery meant the absence of fear, the absence of your knees knocking together or the absence of your words disappearing into smoke the very second you needed them to work. At age five, I was too young to know fear, only embarrassment, but at age five I didn’t even have the imagination to dream the bravest version of me.
At age twenty, I sit in the second row with my hand raised for the answer that could be wrong, that’s brave enough to be wrong, brave enough to admit that we can’t always be brave. The bravest version of me understood that. And now that I’m starting to understand that, I think I’m starting to realize something.
The bravest version of me is — has always been — just me.