The Other Stephanie

When I tell you that when I was younger, I made a new friend and that almost as suddenly as she became my friend, she altogether stopped being my friend; and then I tell you this confusing thing happened when I was in Jr. High, you'll probably go, well, duh!

(And you'll probably also go nice sentence structure. NOT! Because we're all flashing back to Jr. High for the purposes of this story.)

We were both named Stephanie. Which is kind of how the conversation started. Or at least that's what I remember latching on to because I was pretty weirded out that Stephanie would approach me. Same name, but different as can be.

Picture The Other Stephanie. Soft blond hair always falling in perfect curls around her shoulders. Effortlessly cool style, pretty smile with (don't ask me how at this age!) perfectly straight, white teeth. Dark, thick eyelashes over clear blue eyes. A dimple that somehow made her seem older. Constantly being chatted up by the fellas.

Now picture me. Thick curly red hair with a mind of its own. Wardrobe style that sometimes approached cool (the hand-me-downs from my legitimately cool older sister) but most of the time was what I would later learn was called eclectic. Mouth of tin working on fixing my square-bite grin. Freckles for miles. Pretty much felt like "the fellas" were a completely different species.

I was a bonafide nerd, even back then (before that was cool). Looking back with the annoyingly awesome accuracy of retrospect, I can see that I was in fact a pretty cool kid. At the time, though, the idea of "cool" was very much what other people were. After all, in Jr. High, being different was the quickest way to get tagged for execution.

I was goofy. Stephanie was glorious. So when she approached me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to come hang out at her house, I sort of skipped over the deep sense of shock and confusion, and launched right into curious excitement.

We lived a few streets apart, and we saw each other every week on Sundays. Most of the time, the "cool kids" kept their church and school friends separate. I wasn't that sophisticated about compartmentalizing my life. Friends were friends. I had a small circle of really good ones. Church or school or running around the neighborhood, we'd just pick up where we left off with each other.

So when Stephanie invited me to her house, I figured I had somehow managed to bridge the church vs. state line. After all, she had never been mean to me. She wasn't like that. She had always just been indifferent.

We made plans, and I raced home after school to okay it with Mom, who was (huge relief!) happy to make the transportation arrangements.

Stephanie and I became inseparable. Laughing over the name thing became a running joke with us. We taught each other tricks on my neighbor's trampoline (I owe my knee-flip to her, and I taught her how to stare up at the sky and fall spread-eagle onto your back and pretend you were falling from space to get that tummy-flopping vertigo feeling). We hung out in her tree-house. We watched movies and compared notes on younger siblings and asked our moms for snacks.

I was filled with the thrill of the newness of this friendship, and how fast and how completely we got along with each other. She was not aloof at all! She was hilarious and friendly and a lot of fun to be around.

Then, after one week (an eternity in Jr. High time) it all ended. I called out to her in the hall of lockers before school started one morning, and she ignored me. I guessed she probably didn't hear me. So I walked right up to her to say hey, and to see if she wanted to go hiking around the foothills after school.

She was standing in a small group of people. Her other friends, who never really wanted much to do with me. I said, "Hi, Stephanie!" and then was launched head first into bizarro land. She looked right at me, face unreadable, and then turned and walked away. Her friends followed her, sniggering. One of them raised an eyebrow at me, as if to say, really? You think she'd talk to you? Gimme a break. I stood there staring after them as they walked away, heart pounding. I didn't even think to be insulted, I was just so grievously confused.

For a while, I was sure I was just missing something. I willed it to be some sort of game, or at worst, a misunderstanding. Maybe there had been some kind of miscommunication about arrangements to hang-out and I had missed it and she was mad at me. There had to be some explanation. In my experience, friendship didn't just turn on and off like a faucet. I was going to get to the bottom of it.

I tried approaching her a few times - again in the hall, one time in a class we shared. At recess. - I was met with the same blank-look-turn-away. Sometimes no acknowledgement at all.

So I wrote her a note. In the note, I told her that if I had done something to upset her, I was sorry. I would love a chance to redeem myself. I valued our friendship, I missed hanging out. I pulled my heart off my sleeve and stuffed it inside that envelope. I waited until I saw her at her locker, exchanging books for the next class. I thought if I tried to hand it to her, it would likely be ignored. So I waited until she closed her locker and turned to go, and I walked up to her, put my letter on the pile of books in her arms, and walked away. Maybe if I wasn't looking, she wouldn't just throw it away. Maybe she'd read it and see I was sorry for whatever and see that it was all a mistake and I'd get my own note slipped through the grate holes of my locker.

Days passed. Weeks. Eventually I stopped trying to say hi to her in the halls. Eventually, I stopped noticing where she sat at lunch, whether or not she was in class that day. Eventually, I accepted my post once again in the ranks of the obsolete.

It bothered me for a long time. I wasn't lonely, I had some really amazing people I got to call my friends. The sort of people who talked to you even when they were mad at you, and if you wrote them a note they'd write you one back.

It wasn't so much the ending of the friendship that bothered me. It was not knowing why.

It was easy to say it was because I wasn't popular and she was. But I had gotten to know her during that week of The Stephanies. She had opened up to me. That was real. And that's what bothered me so much about it. After all, in the beginning, she had approached me.

Years and years and years later, just needing to assign some sort of meaning to the story so it could have a proper ending and I could stop feeling so bewildered by it all, I decided that I had been a project. Probably a service project she needed to complete for her Young Women's values at church. I was a check mark next to "pick a person who you think is probably pretty pathetic and do service to them for one whole week."

Week over. Check.

The truth is, I'll never know what went down between me and the Other Stephanie. But that experience taught me something about my own vulnerability. And it shaped how I view and value friendship. I have had some truly remarkable friends in my life, and I think I may not have been able to fully grasp the miracle of a true, real friend if I hadn't experienced the other thing.