Fragile Like Us
I THOUGHT IT WAS THE start to a love story.
The boy, who looked to be around my age or slightly older, had skidded to a stop in front of me. He gave me a quick, obvious once-over and then switched on a wide, flirtatious grin. His friend, better looking but very much not grinning flirtatiously at me, rolled his eyes.
“Heeeey,” the boy said, just like that. Heeeey.
“Hi,” I said, sending up a quick prayer that my bus wouldn’t arrive before the conversation ended. I tried to flick my hair casually—difficult to do when it’s a touch on the bushy side—and lifted my chin, like my sister once showed me when she was trying to teach me how to act confident.
“What flavor have you got?”
He gestured to the cup in my hand. “Oh,” I said, stupidly. “Toblerone.” I’d only had a few sips of the milk shake. I liked to let it melt a little before I started drinking it properly, and the cup was heavy in my hand.
“Nice.” The boy carried on grinning at me. “I’ve never tried that one. Can I have a sip?”
Here is what I was thinking as I handed it over: He likes milk shakes! I like milk shakes! This is a MOMENT. This is the START.
And then his back was to me and he and his friend were running away, their laughter lingering after them. When they were a few feet away, the boy turned, waving my cup triumphantly at me.
“Thanks, love!” he bellowed, either not realizing or not caring that he was not old enough—not to mention suave enough—to pull off “love.”
I just stood there with my hand holding nothing but air. The other people at the bus stop were all staring at me, some hiding smirks, others clearly pained with secondhand embarrassment. I adjusted my bag strap as nonchalantly as I could, avoiding anyone’s gaze, seriously considering stepping in front of a passing bus.
Three days ago I had turned sixteen—the first of my friends to hit this particular milestone, thanks to my end-of-August birthday—and my parents had rented out a hall for my birthday party. “You can invite boys!” my mother had told me,
looking more excited by this prospect than anyone. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want boys (definitely not), the problem was that I went to a girls’ school, and I could count the number of boys I knew well enough to speak to on one hand. Despite the efforts of my best friend, Rosie, who went to the coed high school and had plenty of boy/friends, the gender mix at the party was hopelessly unbalanced. I spent most of the night eating cake and talking with my friends rather than flirting wildly and dancing with what Rosie called potentials, like sixteen-year-olds are supposed to do. It wasn’t a bad way to see in a new age, but it wasn’t exactly spectacular either.
I mention this so my okay-have-my-milk-shake-stranger idiocy has some context. I was sixteen, and I honestly believed that I was due a love story. Nothing epic (I’m not greedy), but something worth talking about. Someone to hold hands with (et cetera). The milk-shake meet-cute should have led to that. But instead I was just me, standing empty-handed, and the boy was just a boy.
When the bus pulled up just a couple of minutes later and I retreated to the anonymity of the top deck, I made a mental list of milestones I would have reached by the time my next birthday rolled around.
1) I would get a boyfriend. A real one.
2) I would lose my virginity.
3) I would experience a Significant Life Event.
In the year that followed I achieved just one of these goals. And it wasn’t the one I expected.
“So he just took your milk shake?” Rosie’s voice was skeptical. It was nearly nine p.m., and she’d called me for our traditional last-night-before-school-starts chat.
“Yeah. Right out of my hand.”
“He just snatched it?”
There was a pause, followed by the sound of Rosie’s laughter tickling down the line. Aside from my grandparents, Rosie was the only person I spoke to using the landline. “Oh my God, Caddy, did you give it to him?”
“Not deliberately,” I said, already wishing I hadn’t brought up the milk shake story. But it was always hard to stop myself telling Rosie everything. It was just second nature.
“I wish I’d been there.”
“Me too—you could have chased after him for me.”
Rosie and I had spent the day together, another before-school-starts tradition, and had actually each bought a milk shake before going our separate ways. She would definitely have chased after him, had she been there. When we were four, not long after we’d first met at a ballet class we both hated, an older boy had snatched my bow (I was the kind of kid who wore bows in her hair), and Rosie had sprinted after him, taken back the bow, and stamped on his foot. Our friendship had followed a similar pattern ever since.
“Why didn’t you chase him?”
“I was surprised!”
“You’d think after all this time in separate schools you’d have learned to chase your own bullies,” Rosie said, her voice light and teasing.
“Maybe year eleven will be the year.”
“Maybe. Do they even have bullies in private school?”
“Yes.” She knew very well that they did. She was the one I’d cried to for several straight months in year eight when I’d been the target. My school, Esther Herring’s High School for Girls, had more than its fair share of bullies.
“Oh yeah. Sorry. I mean boy bullies. Obviously you don’t get those at Esther’s. Those are the ones I chase for you.”
I let her tease me about teenage boy thieves for a few minutes more until we hung up. I headed back upstairs in the direction of my bedroom, walking past my mother, who was ironing in front of the TV.
“I’ve got your uniform here,” she called after me. “Do you want to come and get it?”
I trudged reluctantly back toward her. My uniform was hanging on the cupboard door, the pleats on the skirt perfect, the blazer practically shining. I’d avoided looking at my uniform all summer. It was even greener than I remembered.
“All freshly ironed,” Mum said, looking pleased and proud. No one was happier that I was at Esther’s than her. When she found out I’d got in, she cried. Actually we both cried, but mine were not happy tears.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the hangers.
“Are you excited about tomorrow?” She was smiling, and I wondered if she was being oblivious on purpose.
“Not really,” I said, but I injected a note of humor into my voice, to avoid a long “don’t disparage your opportunities” speech.
“It’s a big year,” Mum said. The iron made a loud, squelching hissing noise, and she lifted it up. I suddenly realized she was ironing my father’s underwear.
“Mmmm,” I said, edging toward the door.
“It’ll be a great one,” Mum continued happily, not even looking at me. “I can already tell. Maybe they’ll make you a prefect.”
This was unlikely. Being well behaved and getting good grades was not enough to set you apart at Esther’s. The two prefects likely to be selected from my year group were Tanisha, who’d started a feminist society in year nine and wanted to be prime minister, and Violet, who headed up the debating team and had campaigned successfully to get the school to go Fairtrade. Esther’s was made for people like Tanisha and Violet. They didn’t just achieve, which was expected to be a given for everyone, they thrived.
“Maybe,” I said. “Don’t be disappointed if I’m not though, okay?”
“I’ll be disappointed at them, not you,” Mum replied, like this was any better.
Great, I thought. Another thing to worry about.
“I really hope you’ll be focusing on your goals this year,” Mum said, looking up at me just as I tried to make my escape from the room. She was always big on goals.
I thought of the milestone list I’d mentally penned earlier on the bus. Boyfriend. Virginity. Significant Life Events.
“I am,” I said. “Completely focused. Good night.”
Here’s my theory on Significant Life Events: everyone has them, but some have more than others, and how many you have affects how interesting you are, how many stories you have to tell, that kind of thing. I was still waiting for my first one.
Not that I’m complaining, but my life up to the age of sixteen had been steady and unblemished. My parents were still married, my best friend had been constant for over ten years, I’d never been seriously ill, and no one close to me had died. I’d also never won any major competition, been spotted for a talent (not that I had a talent), or really achieved anything beyond schoolwork.
This wasn’t to say I hadn’t been on the fringe of these kinds of events for other people. Rosie herself had had two, both bad. At two and a half her father walked out on her and her mother, never to be seen again. When she was eleven, her new baby sister, Tansy, died. My older sister, Tarin, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of eighteen, when I was ten, and the entire period of her diagnosis had been marked by dark clouds and tears and Serious Discussions. I’d experienced
these latter two events from the middle of the storm, and had seen how they’d shaped the lives of two of my favorite people in the world.
Rosie and Tarin both thought my significant-life-event theory was ridiculous.
“Don’t wish tragedy on yourself,” Tarin said. “Or mental illness.” She didn’t get it when I tried to explain that significant life events could be happy things as well. “Like what?”
“Like getting married?” When her eyes went wide I added quickly, “I mean in general, obviously, not for me anytime soon.”
“God, Caddy, I hope you dream bigger than marriage as your life’s significant event.”
Rosie was dismissive. “They’re just horrible things that happened, Cads. They don’t make me more interesting than you.”
But the thing was, they did. The only interesting story I had to tell about my own life was that of my birth, which aside from my starring role as The Baby really had nothing to do with me. My parents, holidaying in Hampshire several weeks before my estimated arrival day, were stuck in a traffic jam in a little village called Cadnam when Mum went into labor. She ended up having me on the side of the road, with the help of a nurse who happened to be in another car.
This made a great story to pull out of the hat if I ever needed to, and I’d told it so many times (“Caddy’s an interesting/weird/funny name. What’s it short for?”) I knew what kind
of facial expressions to expect from the listener and the jokes they’d likely make (“Good thing they weren’t driving through Croydon/Horsham/Slough! Ha!”). But that still didn’t make it mine. I couldn’t remember it, and it had no effect on my life. It was a significant event for my parents, not for me.
If anyone asked me for a story from my life in the present tense, I always went blank.
Of course I wasn’t trying to invite tragedy into my life. I knew the takeaway from pain is sadness, not anecdotes. But everything about me and my life felt ordinary, hopelessly average, even clichéd. All I wanted was something of some significance to happen.
And then, so slowly at first I almost didn’t notice it happening, it did.