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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

five years in a flash

As if I was still in high school, my mom woke me up at 6:45 am this morning. I had been the last to use her car, and the keys which she was searching for I had forgotten to put back on the hooks. I rushed down the stairs, but she had already departed, having realized they were in the one place she had yet to look - the car.

Up at 7, I turned on the latest episode of the Bachelor and strutted on my walking pad, giggling and kicking my feet when Joey said to Maria, "you're all over the place woman." Unfortunately, she gets what it means to let fear talk you out of enjoying a moment (and then regretting expressing that anxiety almost immediately). One of my roommates (my dad) is in Canada this week (he had watched the episode last night when I was still at work), and that meant I had the freedom to play Olivia Rodrigo on my speaker and manically clean my room.

An old shoe dresser has been sitting in my closet over the last few years, and the sight of it has driven me insane. Simply put, its industrial black exterior does not match any of the quirky girl, mirrorball aesthetic I have dripping all over my bow comforter and mismatched rainbow decor. So, I did what any sane person would do. I emptied out all of my shoes, disassembled it, and carried it down to the basement. There, I spray-painted it gold over a blue tarp, and left it to dry. It would make quite the perfect bookshelf, I decided.

I went back upstairs, picking up the books that had fallen off of it when I had displaced it from its residence inside of my closet. There, on the floor, lay harmlessly my high-school yearbook. Why not take a trip down memory lane? I can think of several reasons now, but hindsight is 20/20. The first page I reached included a photo of me at 17 years old, with a highlighted blonde bun, and an arguably more-full hairline. I was standing with one of my favorite campers from a service program I used to participate in. Immediately, I started sobbing. Obviously.

It was my senior yearbook and so I decided to further my anguish by scrolling to the section that featured my classmates. The cover photo is of a few classmates and I, sitting on a couch in the Senior center. I had straightened hair, a glowy-orange-ish fake tan, and a monogramed quarter-zip. When I thought about the mold I was trying so desperately to fit into, that preppy perfect girl I wanted to be, it made my stomach squelch. Even worse, I felt a twinge of nostalgia, one that indicated that a small part of me missed my high school 'friends', even the ones who did not seem to like me at all. All I wanted in high school was to fit in and to be liked and I never achieved it, not really. At the time, it made me feel like a failure, and it still does, even when I think about it today.

Anyway, it set me off on a spiral that ruined the momentum of my productive day. I couldn't shake the pit in my stomach, the one of horrible loneliness and self-loathing that so often consumed me in high school. I guess the best way I can describe it is a hopeless desire to make yourself more valuable that only serves to make you that much more discardable. Like the first time you realize you didn't get invited to a party that everyone else did while your scrolling on Instagram at 8 pm on a Saturday. Your first instinct is to turn the solution onto yourself. Well, probably if I were prettier, thinner, less horrible - maybe I'll start to get included again. Because what else would have changed between the time that I was close friends with people and suddenly, I had to call and beg someone to go their prom party because I had not gotten invited to a single one?

In the mail, turned up an invitation to my 5-year reunion. 5 years already? I remember someone had once told me that they could envision my career as a server at McDonalds. Three years later, I seated their family at the restaurant I was working at for the summer. A once upon a time best friend came into my job at Free People and I helped her find a shirt to go to out that night. When I think about that dreaded question, the "what will you do with your life?" I can think of a less forgiving audience for the answer - I have less of an idea now then I did back in May. I think I became what they expected me to be, and that is half the reason my day drove itself into the mud. No one in my family argued when I told them I had no interest in attending the reunion. They threw it out before I even got a chance to see what font they picked.

The invitation coupled with the yearbook, well it just brought me back to this horrible place and what was probably the worst version of me. I won't deny that I was immature when I got left out or felt hurt, I was a teenage girl! I was probably the most emotionally unstable person those girls had ever known, but that was my normal. And I was trying my absolute best, given all other existing circumstances.

It seems insane that I'm writing about this, that I'm even thinking about this. Maybe you never let go of the things that made you feel unworthy of love, or those that you regret. Maybe it is that as a Cancer Rising, it is my duty to be overtly introspective and depressing. Maybe it's that a part of me feels robbed, that I don't have that landing nest to fall back on. I don't have a youthful group of friends or a place to call "home". I'm sure if I had played the game better, if I had gone to therapy sooner, if I hadn't given up on pacts to "eat clean". If I hadn't expected people to chase me when I walked away. If my sense of humor wasn't so dopey, if my backpack wasn't so messy, if my hand didn't shake whenever I started to raise it in class. Maybe I'd still have that landing nest.

But I don't.

The thing is, even if I had done everything right, it wouldn't matter. Because they still wouldn't have liked me - the chaotic, diffident version of myself that I was. In turn, they missed out on the one who is exceptionally great at level-headed advice and the one self-aware enough to laugh at her previous antics. (Actually, it seems like they got the better end of the deal.) But they didn't know her, and so, how could anyone know who I would have become. Maybe it's their loss, but it's more likely not. It could be as simple as this: we weren't meant to continue the chapters together, we were just each other's exposition.

I'm beginning to realize this has nothing to do with high school. Or those friends. Maybe it has everything to do with me, and what high school led me to believe about myself. I really never thought that I would get over the loss of their friendships, or that isolating grappling with exclusion. It darkened me, significantly, and it was a heaviness that took me a seriously long time to get over. Unfortunately for the people in my lives now, it means that I sometimes need reassurance to recognize that I'm not being carelessly cast out of their lives forever.

I guess I should clarify, that I don't often think about this topic.. But, when it does come up it feels like it's scraping at the bones of what I despise about myself. I'm unbearable - blah, blah, blah. We could turn it around and say, that it is also what makes me unique. I have tried so hard for most of my life to hide that fact that I am a big fat nerd. Well, there's no hiding it anymore. I have a blog, for goodness sake.

So yeah. I'm not going to my five year high school reunion. And that makes me kind of sad. Which makes me feel silly.

So I spent today bogged down by negativity and a terrible attitude, but now is the time to recenter.

In five years, this version of me will become unrecognizable and mortifyingly embarrassing to 28 year old Alex. But, I'll work on giving 23 Alex grace, the same way I'm trying to give it to me at 18. Or 13. Or 8, or 3, or -2.

Consider this my time capsule to remind myself that things weren't quite so bad.

In five years, I'll still be friends with people like Gen, Sabrina, Annie, Maggie, Rachel (to name only a few), I'll finally stop biting my nails, I'll have written a novel or a television show and I'll believe that it's good, I'll host dinner parties with Aperol Spritzes and heart-shaped ice, I'll see my parent's for church and breakfast at least once a month, and my sister's will sleep on my couch whenever they visit me, I'll steal my dogs from my parent's because I couldn't imagine a morning without them.

I'll look back and I'll wonder why I was so upset about all the uncertainty I'm facing. I'll be mad at myself for ever complaining about getting to live with my parent's for the last time, about being the first person to hear about their day, and feeling safe, knowing how much the three of us have molded into one, comical braincell.

In 10 years, the first time my daughter gets excluded, I'll feel that pang in my chest again. But, it's the empathy I gained through my experiences which will help her get through it. Or maybe she'll be much cooler than me and I'll never have to worry. (It wouldn't be very hard.) If they decide to send me an invitation for my 10 year reunion, I'll give it a moment of inspection. Helvetica? How the arts department has fallen off.

When I recycle it this time, I won't have any regrets.

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