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The Tragedy of Strangers

May 8, 2018


Warning: T-rated. Will contain swearing. 

There are many different tragedies that people tell.
There are the tragedies that end in death. These are the story of a woman who lost her children to an unfortunate accident, the civilian gunned down by a terrorist, and the seven-year-old who died of cancer. We hear them on the news, pause for maybe a second to exclaim “How terrible!”, then continue with our busy lives.
There are the tragedies nobody sees. These are the supposedly inconsequential difficulties that are an occupational hazard of being alive. When an old memento is lost, when we forget something important, and when we realize that sometime in our pasts we were a horrible person and there is absolutely no way to go back and fix things.
And then there are the tragedies that we see, but dismiss as petty, shallow, and stupid in the overarching (overrated) pursuit of success and happiness. These are the daily dramas, the teenage angst, the melancholy that strikes without cause. The two lovers who met against all odds but turned out not to be, the orphaned child who grows into someone perpetually lonely, and, perhaps worst of all, the tragedy of a pair of people who knew everything about each other and shared their hopes, fears, and dreams, but then became strangers once again.
There are not enough people telling the stories of the strangers who became as close as siblings only to lose each other to fate, to time, or to their own incompetence.
Regina liked to swear. Perhaps it wasn’t a proper habit, by any definition of “proper”, but she was young and besides, she kept it PG around adults. But her blunt candor and shamelessness made her interesting.  For a time, she was popular. And she decided that she liked it. She drifted from her old friends and became a tentative member of the “popular” kids. Regina knew she didn’t belong there. She was a puzzle piece jammed into a spot she didn’t fit, but for a few months of just the sheer novelty of being liked, being normal, it was worth it.
Drew was as socially awkward as it got. He didn’t understand sarcasm, blushed at every sexual innuendo, never cursed, and was generally kind to people. He could be condescending from time to time, yes, but that was a result of his general insecurity about social situations. For a time, he was unpopular. He decided he hated it and did his best to become someone girls fell over themselves to fawn over and guys jockeyed to find a spot to talk to him. Slowly, he changed himself to meet his goal. He was an athlete, after all, and people liked athletes. That was something, right? He had that going for him.
Somehow, these two very different teenagers became friends. They bonded over homework, shared annoyances, and the fact that they were two people who didn’t quite fit the norm and were struggling to meet the standards other people set for them. Then came a third.
Tristan was optimistic, funny, and had the single most annoying crush on this one girl that Regina was friends with. His Napoleon complex pissed everyone off, but he was loyal as hell and didn’t let people mess with his friends. He and Regina didn’t have much in common, but Regina liked him because they made the same jokes. Besides, he was nice.
“Drew, you’re such a showoff.” Tristan was laughing as Drew’s face turned bright red. “I am not,” he snapped.
Regina snickered. “You are. Tell me, was it absolutely necessary to dribble behind your back fifty times before spinning and doing a reverse layup? Against someone half your height?”
“Hey, it’s fun!” he said defensively. But he was grinning.
“We know,” said Tristan. “It’s why you’re such a showoff.”
Drew threw his hands up in the air in defeat.
But all good things must come to an end.
It was harder and harder for Regina in the “popular” group. They were all athletic, obsessed with typical teenager-y things like Starbucks and Vans and were, well, popular. Her two best girlfriends were two of the most attractive people at school.
And Regina? She was pudgy and unathletic, liked to study, thought the typical teenager-y things were dumb and vapid, and, when compared to her two best friends, continually came up short. The only thing she felt she could do—knew she could do—was getting good grades. She could do that. She could memorize facts and formulas and explain random things like Cantor’s Diagonal Proof and regurgitate information like a broken garbage disposal. The only reason half of her friends still talked to her was because they could ask “Regina, how are you supposed to do Question 5?” and she never did have the strength to tell them to figure it out themselves.
Swearing became less fun. It was something she did because it made people look at her, made them do a double take, made them smile. She cracked dirty jokes because they shocked people and made her feel like she was funny. She thought that if she stopped, her friends would lose interest in her and drift away. Or, worse, only talk to her because they needed something from her. That was a terrifying thought.
Regina never once considered that maybe they weren’t her friends at all if they did that.
She became moody at school, melancholy, and pessimistic. The girl who smiled sunnily at those she met in the halls was fading. Fading fast, and she knew it. Regina didn’t want to lose herself but she didn’t know how not to.
Her first mistake was confiding in Drew. She told him everything: her petty fears, her insecurities, and the sheer hopelessness she felt every day.
“I look like a goddamn potato,” she told him, frowning. He shrugged. “Not really. I mean, look at me. I’m whiter than paper and more athletic than half the people here and girls hate me. I just have to wait until high school, and by then I might have a chance.”
Drew’s smirk made his whole face light up. Damn, she loved that smirk. She loved when he was happy.
“Fat chance,” she told him, grinning despite herself. “We’re gonna be alone forever.”
His expression turned slightly serious. “Look, Gina. You should hope that things’ll be better. It’ll make everything stop looking so terrible.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Last year—remember, I had no friends—I felt the same way you do now. I was too afraid to hope that things would get better because then I’d get disappointed and I’d fall, hard. But hope kept me sane, and things are better now.”
“If only it was so easy. Magical hope and all that. I just know that if I do ever start being optimistic something awful will happen and everything will suck even more.”
Drew shook his head in exasperation. “God said once that He won’t help you if you can’t help yourself, or something like that.”
“Bringing religion into this conversation? Really?” Her tone was dry, sarcastic. It usually was, nowadays. “You’re not even religious.”
“You like discussing this stuff. Hear me out, bro.”
She shrugged. It was true. Religion was interesting to talk about. “So why’s God relevant?”
“Because I can only give you advice. If you don’t listen to me, it’s your own fault.” Drew looked at her, and said quietly, “I’m begging you, Gina. Try looking at the bright side for once. You’re popular, funny, and a darn good writer—though not as good as me,” he added as an afterthought, to make her smile.
She did.
Regina managed to follow his advice for approximately one day before lapsing into the fog of melancholy. She and Tristan were getting into more and more fights about his “ridiculous and obsessive crush on Kate” (according to Regina). As a result, she got even closer to Drew. So close that people asked if they were dating, hoped they were dating, and cheerfully told them to date. Her response was always the same. “He’s basically my brother,” Regina would say, glaring. “I don’t date my siblings.” Drew would nod, and Regina would flip them the bird.
As the two of them became as close as siblings, Regina and Tristan’s relationship became even more strained.
“Why are you mad at me?” Regina asked him. Engaging him was her second mistake.
“Because you told Kate I thought she was flirting with Greg. Duh,” Tristan said sullenly. Regina bristled. She had only asked Kate if she was interested in Greg to alleviate his fears.
“You’re so paranoid that it’s annoying,” she replied. “I’m not trying to tell her.”
“I can’t trust you,” he said. It was those four words that incensed Regina more than ever. Her temper was quick to flare, but nothing set her off faster than being accused of things she wasn’t. She especially hated being called untrustworthy.
“Gee, thanks,” she replied, as coolly as possible.
“Don’t talk to me. I don’t care anymore,” Tristan said. (An obvious lie, because he hadn’t walked off yet. )
“What is your deal?” Regina asked, temper flaring again. “Ugh, talk to me tomorrow if you want to apologize,” he told her, and turned to leave.
Apologize?! I did nothing wrong!”
“Kate told me. Don’t act all innocent,” he said, engaging her again.
“I didn’t tell her! What the hell? I was trying to help you!”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” he scoffed.
“What even happened to you? You would never be this mean.” Vindictively, she added, “Maybe I didn’t know you as well as I thought.”
Tristan never could walk away from a confrontation, she reflected later.
“Neither would you. Maybe I didn’t know you as well as I thought,” he said. How witty, she thought dryly.
“I would never hurt you the way you’re hurting me right now.”
She wanted to cry. By all the damn gods she wanted to cry. Or punch him. Maybe both.
“You showed me you can’t keep my trust. Nothing hurts more from a friend that that.” (He was wrong. Lots of things hurt more what Regina had supposedly done, which she would find out later.)
“Well, thanks for only telling one secret, not a bigger one.” Tristan smiled sarcastically, eyes flashing with malice.
Jeez, he hadn’t even told her it was a secret. That he thought Kate was flirting with Greg.
The fight went on and on and on. They said ugly things to each other, the kinds of things that can’t end a friendship on their own but sure as hell can if said often enough.
But the next day, they made up. And it happened again, and again, and again.
The trio had crumbled into ashes. Tristan had started hanging out with Drew and a boy named Ed, and the two previously best friends rarely managed a conversation without getting into a screaming match.
“God, you’re so depressing,” Tristan said to her during one such screaming match. Scorn dripped from his words like wall paint that hadn’t had a chance to dry. “You’re not even fun to hang out with anymore.”
It was one comment, but it was one she’d heard before. It stung doubly hard.
Tears pricked at Regina’s eyes. “Fuck you,” she spat, and spun on her heel. “That’s a bad language word,” he said mockingly from behind her. She could hear the smirk in his voice.
Her fists clenched. She wanted to spin on her heel punch him, but she wouldn’t. She knew she wouldn’t. Tristan would tattle and then she’d be well and truly screwed.
She never forgave him for the things he’d said, the way he’d made her feel like during every fight when he called into question all of her personality traits. “So salty,” he’d mutter.
Depressing. Mopey. “What happened to the old you, Regina?” he’s ask. “I miss the one that made jokes with me and wasn’t so sad all the time.”
The worst part was that she agreed with him. She was petty, selfish, and insecure, and she knew it.
What happened to the old you, Regina?
The summer after that terrible year where everything fell apart, Drew was busy as hell. He had been doing some serious thinking about himself and the people around him. During school, he had been too busy comforting and “therapist-ing” Regina about her numerous problems and her feud with Tristan.
Regina and Drew texted back and forth almost every day at the beginning of summer, before he had to leave for New York. That was when their conversations became shorter and more sporadic.
“I’m going to summer camp,” he texted. “And I won’t be able to text because they take our phones.”
“Awww,” Regina replied. “Have fun! And text as soon as you get back. We rarely talk anymore.”
“Yeah, definitely.” came the reply.
Summer camp came and went. She got no texts from her “hypothetical and metaphorical brother”.
So Regina, out of curiosity, asked Tristan if Drew had texted him lately. Maybe his parents had taken his phone…?
“Haha, yeah. He’s at my house right now, actually,” said Tristan. It was months after the end of their friendship, after a fight where she had straight-up refused to forgive him. They were on tentative speaking terms, but they still rarely talked.
“Really?” she texted back.
“Yeah.” Tristan sent a picture of the two of them, Drew smiling into the camera on what was presumably Tristan’s couch, and Regina’s heart dropped into her stomach. “Cool,” she replied, pressing her lips together. “Thanks, bye.”
She thought it was a betrayal. It damn well felt like a betrayal. She and Tristan hated each other, even thought they were currently at a cease-fire, and every opportunity she got she insulted him, picked him apart, tore at him. Drew would only defend his best friend.
Petty, petty, petty. Why did she even care? She shouldn’t care.
Her third mistake was texting Drew. “Yo, why didn’t you text me? Thought you said we’d talk right after you get back.”
“Had to spend time with family, since I’ve been away.”
“And by family, you mean Tristan?” It was spiteful, she knew. She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t, wouldn’t stop.
“Yeah, Tristan’s practically family.”
His text hit her like a sledgehammer to the gut. “So what am I?” she asked, knowing the answer. Dreading the answer. Why did she do these thing to herself? Why couldn’t she just leave things well enough alone?
“You’re a really close friend, obviously.”
Had she really been so stupid to think he would consider her as a family? Best friend, maybe? She knew him inside and out, and he knew everything there was to know about her. And yet Tristan, Tristan, was family.
Regina put her phone down and allowed a choking sob out before pressing her lips together tightly. “Yeah? Fuck you, Drew. Fuck you,” she typed. Her heart was being squished into a tiny lead ball that rolled around in her chest. Every breath was an uphill battle as she watched the three dancing gray dots that meant he was typing.
Regina swore. She swore long and loud and reused several four-letter words.
“You know what? Whatever. I don’t care. Bye.” He fingers shook as she typed.
He didn’t even care enough to demand an explanation again. Why did she care, though? Why did it hurt so much that they weren’t siblings, that he wasn’t her brother?  
More fights. So many more fights, petty ones, real ones. Tears shed, long conversations that Drew wanted to leave but couldn’t.
“Hey, so I heard Tristan called me a bitch.” Her thoughts spiraled into tighter and tighter coils.
“Well, he says that kind of thing a lot. I wouldn’t remember an exact instance,” came the nonchalant reply.
He really  didn’t care, did he? He’d defend Tristan to the death but her, oh, you think Regina’s a bitch? Cool for you, bro. Hey, wanna play Frisbee?
Her nails dug into her palms, leaving red crescents behind.
They stopped hanging out. They stopped texting. Drew got a new crowd, a crowd of girls who worshipped the goddamn ground he walked on. It made Regina sick. “Do you even still want to be friends?” she asked on a call. It was better to do these kinds of things on a call, her friend had told her. He wouldn’t be able to leave without seeming rude.
    She knew exactly where she was sitting, even months later. She had been leaning up against her bed beside her bookshelf. She remembered the hardwood floor digging into her behind. She remembered the weak afternoon sunlight.
“Regina…” Drew sighed. (He used her full name. He never did that.) “I don’t want to be friends in the same capacity as before.”
“Don’t lie to me.” Her voice was steady. How was it steady? Her hands were trembling.
He sighed again.
“Regina, I don’t think I want to be friends with you anymore.”
“So this is it?” she said quietly.
“Yeah. Goodbye.”
“Bye.” She hung up.
She condemned him. Regina hated Drew as much as she had once loved him and it hurt her every time she said something mean, something spiteful. Yet she got a particular high from tearing him down, a savage glee, from trying to make him feel an ounce of the hurt she felt.
Regina was fully aware that she had been a bitch. Throughout the endless array of fights she had betrayed him, lied to him, gotten angry over the stupidest, most immature things.
But so had he.
He had kicked a hole in her chest and then ran over her with a Hummer. Lashing out was the only thing she knew to do.
But lashing out would be disastrous. She had lashed out with Tristan and all it had brought her was heartache.
Yet...staying silent, ignoring Drew, hurt just as much. There was a parasitic worm eating at her and no matter what she did, it refused to die. She ignored him for days and replied to his probing, cautious questions with clipped words and curt answers.
Drew had just said something at her and she had turned her head away, biting her tongue. “Y’know, we can still talk,” he added, face lapsing into a frown.
Regina choked on her incredulity. The sheer nerve! Yes, of course they could still talk. It wasn’t as if every word out of his mouth was a blow to the chest.
“Sounds like you’re having regrets, Drew,” she said, mockingly. It was the longest sentence she had said to him in weeks. “D’ya miss me?” Her face twisted into a sneer. “Aw, ickle Drew misses me!”
She turned on her heel and strode away, fists clenched on the straps of her backpack, leaving him with his mouth open to reply.
That was just the beginning.
She kept expecting him to tap her on the shoulder, ask her to stop walking away. She expected a text from him about the way she was acting. She expected him to care at least a little that she couldn’t stand to speak to him.
He never did, and that, perhaps, was the nail in the coffin for that little spark of hope in her chest that he was having second thoughts.
Her ability to give him the silent treatment snapped. So their interactions progressed from Regina refusing to talk to him to the bitchiest comments.
She made a point to make the most condescending things around him as possible. Regina was a master at subtle jabs as well as outright insults, and as Drew’s ability to come back with a snarky comment deteriorated, she felt worse and worse. But she kept her latest and greatest mask on. Around him, she became the bitch he already thought she was. The thrill of being able to cut him down so quickly and mercilessly was intoxicating. And, like other intoxicating substances, it was both addicting and harmful.
At this point, she wasn’t sure where to draw the line between where Regina ended and “bitch” began.
Drew got a girlfriend. He and newest best friend—her replacement, Regina thought, with a twinge of bitterness—were, for some reason, talking about love. She couldn’t resist making a jab. “What do you know about love?” Regina asked scornfully.
“I know about love,” he said defensively.
“Really?” Regina’s voice was sweet, syrupy. “I loved you, and look what happened.” It was the first time she had said “I love you” to a guy.
He had never been her boyfriend. She had never loved him romantically. But she had loved him, goddamnit, and she’d be damned if she never got a chance to tell him—to make him feel the bitterness lurking around the edges of her every thought. I love you. I miss you, the old you. I miss what we had and will never have again. I loved you.
“I loved you too. That’s why it hurt,” came the quiet reply.
He sounded so fake. Putting on another performance for Tori, her damn replacement. There was no emotion behind his words except the shallow emotion of an actor, and a convincing one at that. She might have believed him if not for the truths she carried in her heart.
There hadn't been any love behind her words—just anger and scorn and betrayal and everything that she could never say harshly enough to cut him to the bone. And disgust, too, at the person he’d become. The people they had became.
She barked out a laugh. “Talking out of your ass again. You think I care?”
“You brought it up—” he tried, but she turned away, gritting her teeth in frustration and anger and pain. A minute later, he was talking to replacement-Regina about something funny Tristan had done.
Drew didn’t care.
She knew he didn’t. Here she was, still caring by needing to insult him, tear him down, by missing him and thinking about how she used to love him and being so damn miserable because he was in all of her classes, and she had to see him every day hanging off stupid replacement-Regina and his girlfriend.
(She sat with her back to the wall, her face tilted skyward, and her tears quietly rolling down her face as she thought about what could have been if maybe she hadn’t been so stupid and messed everything up.
Maybe if she hadn’t been bitter. Maybe if she hadn’t been depressing. Maybe if she’d done a better job of keeping her smile from slipping. Maybe. The maybes, on their own, could drive her insane. The what-ifs and the could-have-beens only made everything worse. Self-loathing was her motto, her mantra, her creed.
Regina watched Drew and her replacement laugh with Tristan, and felt something die in her chest.)
Weeks. It took weeks and weeks for her to realize that no, the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is apathy. And she was tired of hating him, tired of feeling as if her very blood boiled every time he got near. Tristan’s betrayal had hurt, hurt for a long time, but she had gotten over it eventually. Drew’s...Drew’s still stung, but she shoved it down. Regina didn’t want to feel it anymore.
So one night, she took a notebook and wrote what her heart was screaming and her fingers ached to put on paper.
I realized that the boy whom I’d move mountains for, tear down the world for, and fold a million paper cranes for, was gone—irretrievably and irrevocably.
Because Drew was gone. After their falling out, he had become someone else. Someone Regina couldn’t recognize or reconcile with the Drew from the previous year. To get everything he had ever wanted—popularity, girls, a hesitant acceptance—he lost everything that made him worthwhile.   
It is that sobering thought that breaks my heart, she wrote. I had loved him with all of my tattered soul and he had left.
Yes, Regina felt she needed to be properly dramatic. She needed catharsis, and if it took her writing like a heart-broken Juliet then by God, she would write like a heart-broken Juliet.
It breaks me a little more every time I see him happy—happier—without me. And it kills me because one cannot love a stranger, no matter who they used to be.
Love is a tricky thing, Regina thought. To love someone romantically had its own slew of problems, but loving someone platonically could hurt just as much.
The next morning, she woke up with a weight off her shoulders. There was a lightness in her step for the next few weeks as she adjusted to the novelty that was not giving a damn about someone who, previously, she would have done practically anything for.
But Drew’s stupidity still got on her nerves. An intelligent statement that was both coherent and true was rare coming from him nowadays, and it drove her insane. She missed being able to have intelligent conversation about complicated topics without the length of his junk dominating the conversation. Dear Lord, if he said one more thing on how “Well, if I were President, I’d completely get rid of the federal debt limit!” in his happy ignorance, she would punch him.
In the throat.
With a steak knife.
Science class was a new kind of hell. The teacher had gotten the brilliant idea to put Drew and Regina diagonally from each other and replacement-Regina next to Drew. They would have “deep conversations” while the teacher lectured and Regina hissed at them to be quiet.
She was fed up with it all. Drew was having his third identity crisis in as many months and she was tired of him and replacement-Regina discussing it, so she jumped in to clear things up, in one of her rare moments where her logical, rational brain took a vacation.
“Let’s make this easier. Who are you?” she asked, a bite to her voice than would never, she thought, truly go away.
Drew was on the verge of making a snarky comment before Regina smirked and said, “Really. Without the sarcasm and wit, please. Who are you?
He opened his mouth to reply, closed it, and looked away. He frowned, and Regina saw something flash briefly in his eyes.
He was scared.
Regina’s breath caught.
Replacement-Regina (Tori. Not her replacement—Tori.) snickered, oblivious. “You don’t know, do you?” Sighing, Regina decided to jump in the deep end. “Look, I want to help you,” she said, pushing away the thought of the terror that had flashed in his eyes and silently adding “If only to get you and your sycophants to shut up.”
His eyes widened. “You want to help?”
Rolling her eyes, she said, “You’ve got to stop projecting a version of me and basing your actions around the projection. People are much messier than your 2-d versions of them. It’s easy to label me as a bitch because it’s so much easier to hate a bitch, rather than an actual human being with actual human feelings.”
She should know. She had hated a projection of him for months, before she’d realized that he was so much more than a projection. He was a person, flawed and insecure he may be. It had been an incredibly tough pill to swallow, but she had, because it was that or go on being angry her entire life. And honestly, she had better things to do.
“You’re rather incredibly self-centered, if you haven’t noticed,” she added. The cutting remark had slipped past her lips before she could snap her big mouth shut.
“What? I am?”
Regina sighed. “I know you better than everyone else in this room, Drew, except for maybe Tristan. Do you agree with that, at least?”
“You do know me better than everyone else, including Tristan.” He said this honestly, in the simple, straight-forward way she had missed so badly. There, a glimmer of his old self. The one he had buried under his ambitions of fulfilling the high-schooler stereotype.
“Finally, he says the right thing,” Tori said dryly.
Regina only smiled grimly at her before turning back to Drew. “Listen. Text me, okay? I can help. I owe you for the long conversations therapist-ing me. And if you don’t text…” she shrugged. “I won’t mind.”
He wasn’t going to text. She knew him well enough to know that he never would.
And despite his nod during science class, she never did get a text from him. She looked at her phone screen and sighed before tucking it into her pocket and moving on.

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1 Comment
  • mariaa


    almost 2 years ago