Sometimes I wonder if I live in a world of shells.
Where is the soul? How can it be found? What if… it isn’t there?
There are soulless people all around me. Look around and you will find them, too. Like my best friend, Bianca. She’s nice. If you cry, she’ll come over and hug you, and if you get a better grade on a test than her, she’ll still congratulate you. She’s funny, and cracks jokes whenever I’m feeling down. She likes songs, but isn’t the kind of prissy girl who loves makeup and boy bands.
But she doesn’t really understand me if I ask her to define what love means to her, or if I try to explain to her why it would be natural for someone in war to truly want to die for others. She just doesn’t comprehend.
Even if I try talking about these serious matters with my teacher, she doesn’t really understand. These people lack something in them, it seems, something that would enable them to discuss with me what’s really going on in the world, and what life really is about. They just want to talk with me about the latest song that came out, or the importance of knowing what happened on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
We each have an inner self and an outer self.
I think everyone has an outer self that hides their true thoughts and feelings. At least I do. The outer self protects the soul so that the misty dreams and hopes inside a person can be shielded from reality. My soul contains my deepest thoughts, hopes, memories; it is where I philosophize about the world.
My friends don’t hide their true feelings and thoughts from me. They come and ask me for advice, and we cry and laugh together. But somehow I sense that it’s only their outer self I see.
Bianca’s deepest worry at the moment could be an upcoming test in math. She’s completely hopeless at it. My teacher’s deepest worries could probably be more relevant. Maybe it is war in the Middle East, police shootings, or a loved one dying. But neither of them ever show a hint of their inner self, no matter how close I may be to them. Their thoughts, and worries, and feelings consist of what is related to their lifestyle. They don’t question and organize everyday things that happen in the cycle of life; they just take it for granted. None of them care why someone would want to start shooting someone else, they only want to stop it. People are too obsessed with business and their lifestyles to think about the broader and yet more important subjects in this world.
But the more I reveal my true self to them, the more confusing they become.
At lunch today I asked Bianca, “What do you think your soul looks like?”
She laughed and told me she doesn’t believe in that nonsense. Then she hugged me and changed the subject to the math test and asked me to tutor her. I sighed, and began to drill her on percentages. But was math really more important than trying to understand what the soul is at that very moment? It’s as if she doesn’t have a soul, or an inner self. It’s as if she is just a shell.
The worst feeling is the feeling of being alone.
I am running, chasing Bianca. She is gaining more and more distance on me. “Wait!” I shout.
“No,” she yells back. “Wierdo!”
I feel a sharp pang in my heart and my vision blurs as tears fall fast on the ground.
My room swirls into view as I open my eyes and realize it was all a dream. My eyes are wet, and I am drenched in sweat. A bird chirps outside, and my heart stops beating so fast. But I am still troubled. I remember my conversation with Bianca yesterday. Does she think I’m weird? No, I think, but I am still trembling.
Different is a crime.
Normally, English prompts are fun and easy, something I can analyze and maybe show some of my inner self in. But this time, it’s hard. I stare at the prompt: Who are you?
It is a good question, but a question that is difficult to answer. I remember what Bianca had said only yesterday. “I wish I could be you. You’re smart and nice and generous, and just plain awesome.” I had thanked her. Should I trust her judgment?
Another memory penetrates my mind. Bianca and I were in a project group with a group of boys. They were playing with cards instead of working.
“Give them to me,” I thundered, holding out my hand. “NOW,” using my best “don’t mess with me” voice, and flipping my hair back sophisticatedly. My eyes flashed as the boys cowered under my unending gaze.
I remember Bianca was so surprised. “Whoa,” she had told me, eyes large like two suns. “I didn’t know you could be so… mad and… mean, but not in a bad way,” she added quickly.
“Yeah, I can be like that.” I told her nonchalantly.
She gave me a startled look. “Weird,” she muttered.
Weird. Bianca thought I was weird. And come to think of it, I’ve seen that startled look before. Like when I fight, but not with fists. With words. I’m mean. Sarcastic. Mockingly polite. No one can get in trouble for saying nice things, because you can say you weren’t being sarcastic.
That look on Bianca’s face. That muttered, “weird.” And when she and I volunteered to help the teacher during lunch, I was quiet. So quiet. I didn’t even smile. I just did what I was told and left.
Bianca asked, “How are you so quiet? You’re never quiet.” I just smiled. That look. The mutter. She didn’t understand. I can be bossy. Or lenient. Or kind. Or horrible. I can be moody and shy. I can be loud and outgoing. I can be brilliant. I can be naive. I can be a perfect little girl. I can be mischievous. It all depends on who I’m with. Is that wrong?
Is that wrong? What, then, is right?
I act differently among different people. Is that wrong? I don’t want to be mean, I just want to do what has to be done. Is that wrong? I used to be like Bianca when I was little. One personality. One way I’m supposed to act, one way I’m supposed to think, one way people think of me as. But that doesn’t work. People judge me no matter how well I try to shape my outer self.
So I made my outer self a combination of everything, acting differently depending on the situation. Is that wrong? It was fine, but now people are starting to notice, and they say it’s weird. Every time Bianca mutters that cursed word, I feel that sharp pang in my heart like in my dream, as if she is stabbing my heart to pieces. It’s just a matter of how long my heart will last her stabbing knives.
A perfect world is not perfect.
I’m starving by the time it’s lunch time. Bianca and I grab our lunch boxes and race to our table. Rushing to eat, we both slam down on the bench at the same time with a loud crash. I look over to her. I can tell she is holding back giggles. So am I. I smile. She smiles. Then we are laughing so hard, our stomachs hurt. That sets the rest of the table laughing even though they don’t know what’s so funny. Recess in summer is usually way too hot. Today is not an exception. Bianca asks me if I want to play tag.
“Nah,” I reply. “Too hot.”
She runs off and I’m left looking at the clouds. I think, Wow, those clouds can teach us a lesson. It looks like they’re still, but they are moving ever so slowly. But soon, I’m pulled out of my reverie. It’s time to go back in for seventh period. Social Studies Project. We are choosing which image of King Tut to use for a player in our board game.
“Do the cute one!” begs Bianca.
I grin. “Yeah. So then people will want to be him. This needs to be appealing to the boys.”
Bianca whispers, “Especially, Ben.”
The cute cartoon image of King Tut kind of looks like Ben. I giggle. We finish the project. We are the first ones to finish, so we just talk and play.
Going home, I tell my mom how much fun I had at school. I run into my room and look at my wall. It has photos of all my friends from school. I touch Bianca’s face. Then I rip them all down and burst into tears.
Before I cry, my heart cries.
My mom is trying to comfort me, trying to find out what’s wrong. I’m ignoring her. She says I can tell her.
“It’s okay,” she says. But it’s not. “I’ll understand,” she insists. She won’t. My heart is shattering under those knives. I can feel the blood pulsing, a force. Something is pushing tears to my eyes, drawn from hidden wells. I close my eyes, resisting the force. A sob creeps up my throat and bursts out of my unwilling mouth. I taste the salt of my tears.
“But you were so happy today,” my mom says, confused. “Today was like your perfect day.”
I tell her they talk with me, but it isn’t real.
“Of course it’s real,” Mom reassures me, more puzzled than ever.
“NO,” I sob into her shoulder, half-crying, half-stuttering. “Th-that’s not what I meant. Everyone t-talks about projects with e-everyone!”
I hiccup and fall silent as Mom, bewildered, asks, “What do you want to talk about then, honey?”
There is no way to explain to her that I want to share with my friends my deepest thoughts, my soul, without having to mold myself into someone they would appreciate. I am desperate for another soul who will love who I really am, unconditionally. Someone who I can pour out my heart to.
“Honey?” Mom prompts.
I look out the window. “Clouds,” I tell her. “I want to talk about clouds.” Mom wants me to talk to her about clouds. I run to the bathroom, away from the world that will always hurt me no matter how kind they seem to think they are.
Tears reveal the hidden wounds.
I huddle on the white tiled bathroom floor, crying uncontrollably. I grab my shirt in clenched fists and pull them towards my face. My face is red, but I am cold. I tuck my knees into my chest. What was wrong with me? I have shaped my outer self into a person whom everyone can like and work with. Yet, Bianca doesn’t like me as a person with many personalities. It is like my shell is cracking, but I don’t know how to rebuild it. I have pretended and acted for so long, I don’t know who I really am.
Which personality should I become? What if I regret my choice? I watch those clouds moving ever so slowly, wondering. I want to show part of my inner self to the world, reflect it in my shell, so that people can see who I am. But will they like it? I wish I could be like the rest of them – soulless, innocent, happy, carefree. I can feel my tears pushing behind my eyelashes, and I give myself up to their power.
I feel Mom lifting me up and carrying me to my bed. My tears stream and pool in my ears as I cry myself to sleep.
Sometimes the best comforts are wordless.
I do not go to school the next day. Nor the next. Nor the next. Bianca calls me every night, asking how I am feeling. I tell her I am sick and hang up. It is not a lie. I am sick – sick of being misunderstood, sick of pretending, sick of the people who thought they were helping me. I am sick – sick of the world, sick of life, sick of having a soul, sick of wanting others to have a soul. My skin is warm, but I feel cold, as if those wells of my tears have frozen inside me and the cold is spreading to the very edges of my finger tips. But people are trying so hard to make me feel better. I can see the pain in my mom’s eyes as I refuse her comfort. I can hear the worry in Bianca’s voice each time she calls.
My mother comes in the room. She is holding the phone. I pick up. It is Bianca. “Today is Bring-A-Friend-To-Class Day at my dance school,” she tells me. “I know you’re not feeling up to it, but can you come? I think it might help.” She pauses. I am silent. “Please? For our friendship.” I am already lost among the people in this world. If I lose Bianca, I know I will never get up from the bed I am laying in. I hang up. I grab a duffel bag. I put in an apple, a bottle of water, and a dress to wear over my leotard. I slump out the door, my mother looking at me as though I am a ghost of a dead person.
There are girls in the dressing room who are as shocked and nervous and shy as I feel. But my heart lightens slightly at the sight of Bianca’s smile. She is so happy that I came.
I put on the tights and leotard they give me, and follow Bianca to a large, bright dance studio with a mirror covering one whole wall. The instructor is slim and pretty, sparkling brown eyes complimenting her black hair. I listen to the class’ conversations. They are all of different ages, different ethnicities, different strengths, different weaknesses, but they are all unified through this class. I watch in wonder.
The instructor tells me I’m naturally flexible. She wants to see my limits. I do not answer her. We are supposed to be following her, learning the short dance routine she is showing us. I feel a soft hand in mine. I can tell it is Bianca without looking. I try hard. For her. The teacher yells, “Tendu, arabesque, jete, pirouette. Dance your heart out, my swans, dance!” And suddenly I am.
I think I am flying, flying to heaven. One moment I am tendu-ing, trying my best to point my toes. The next moment I am spreading my arms, lifting my leg, lifting my chest, and a thrill shoots through my heart. Even my heart is soaring in my chest. A smile breaks out on my face, for the first time in ages. And suddenly, I am spinning away from the group, leaping, flying, as they watch, dumbfounded. It is as if some bizzare, joyful spirit has overtaken me as I dance, not knowing the moves, but still dancing all the same.
The feeling of flight shoots through me again, and I feel as though all the stress and worries of the past are draining out of me, replaced by endless joy. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the teacher smiling happily at me. It seems like it will never end, but it does. I stand in the middle of the room, trembling with excitement, smiling and eyes sparkling.
Bianca stands open-mouthed with awe. “Wow,” she whispers. “You’re good.”
I am jumping and running and skipping home with Bianca, the instructor’s words echoing in my ears. “You are a natural at ballet. You breathe through the moves. I’m impressed.” In my hand is a note that the teacher wrote to my mother, asking if I could attend the school. Bianca is hugging me so hard I can hardly breathe. But I’m smiling through it all.
Everyone recognizes beauty in some way. I do through ballet.
Mom is kissing me all over. She and Bianca are thrilled, almost as much as me. She is going out to buy me dance attire right now. Bianca is going home to tell everyone how good I am.
I expect to feel the weight of my sorrows crashing down on me again, but I am no longer frustrated with life. I have found something that I can use to let out my feelings: ballet. I remember my teacher’s big brown eyes as she explained to me how good I was at dancing, how I put my feelings into it. She understood me through dance. I could see it in her eyes. They all did. And now I will be part of their community, too.
I pull the photos of my school friends out of the trash and tape them on my wall again. Then, I add everyone from dance class. Bianca’s picture stands out in the middle. Bianca. She showed me the joys of dancing, although I doubt she truly knew them herself. She had tried to help even when I wasn’t responding to her. I smile, joyful tears filling my eyes. Bianca didn’t understand me. Bianca will never understand me. But Bianca is still my truest friend.
Sometimes I think I live in a world of shells.
But that’s okay.