You see her over there, at the isolated table. Isolated because you’re in the middle of a pandemic, a deep swimming pool where you don’t know which way is up and which is down and should you breathe and reach the surface or are you going to drown with lungs full of water, to put it metaphorically. You may feel alone in this swimming pool, but she seems practically in her own world. Is that a know-it-all expression on her face? It’s like she’s thinking I am the only one who knows how to get out of this swimming pool and you do not. Not the person you’d want to ask for the time or weather.
You see she is rereading a worn-out paperback, and she guesses you feel sorry for her and want to recommend another book. She looks up at you, skeptically. Is she judging you? Or trying to be intimidating? It comes off as stupid and unaware. If only she knows just how boring she is, how unapproachable. Do you want to risk talking, and possibly having to listen to her? It’s early morning, and you’re already sleepy enough as it is. Why listen to a potent dose of a sleeping potion that you have no need for?
That girl, sitting all alone, is me.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve felt lonely. I lived a fairly sheltered childhood, and I always felt like my interests set me apart, as I preferred reading or listening to classical music over playing sports or video games, and for a long time I didn’t know anyone my age who was interested in those things. It felt like everyone was shallow. As a result, I developed a pretentious individuality complex.
I thought I was the only one who was into what I considered “deeper” than the usual interests of most students. If I read a book when everyone else was playing video games, it seemed like I was the smarter, superior student. While all my friends were drowning and struggling for air in the metaphorical swimming pool, I thought I was gliding effortlessly through the water.
I remember sitting outside class waiting for the period to start. Most people were on their cellphones, talking with their friends about this new game, new anime, or whatever garbage they were into. It probably wouldn’t have hurt to pretend to act interested, even if I wasn’t. But being the obnoxiously pseudo-intellectual middle schooler that I was, I just buried my nose further into the book that I was reading. Probably a math or science fiction book. Of course I refused to read all the popular young adult series. I considered myself too good for them.
,I remember always standing alone. Memorizing pi and strings of Fibonacci sequences on the playground in fourth grade, staying inside for recess to practice clarinet – I had to be the best – in sixth grade, alienating myself from the other kids in seventh grade to get absorbed in yet another book. But what if I hadn’t done that?
What if I had asked someone about an anime or a video game? It wouldn’t have been so hard. Adults claim it’s as easy as counting to ten when they’re being reassuring. It’s not that easy, but maybe it’s as easy as solving simple math problems. Maybe it would’ve been worth a shot.
You see her alone. Not wanting to get too close (you don’t want to contract COVID-19, after all), you smile and wave. Awkwardly, she lifts a hand and you can tell she’s smiling under her mask. If you could look inside her head, you may see something different from what you originally thought. You may see an attitude of we are not drowning. We are all staying afloat together, helping each other. And if one of us swims off, everyone will drown.
You take a seat next to her.