I have to admit that, at first, the name “Marla Grey” did not ring a bell. Seeing a message request from Marla on Instagram confused me and continued to baffle me for several days. That was until I dusted off one of my high school yearbooks and finally figured it out. Marla was one of my close friends, who I completely forgot about. Seeing her name and picture, along with the note she wrote me inside of the book, brought fragments of memories. I tried to put the pieces together to get a sense of exactly what happened to her and our friendship, but it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. Seeing a picture of Marla and I on a class field trip in Washington D.C. was what brought everything from my past back to life.
Marla Simpson and I were great friends throughout middle school and high school. When I first met her, she was a geeky, awkward preteen who stayed silent as much as possible. Within our friend group, she started out as the quietest and shyest of us all. She had great grades and a lot going for her. Starting high school began to change her. Her parents divorcing halfway through the four years of school somehow flipped a switch inside her and it seemed like she fell apart. The sweet, shy Marla we all knew and loved transformed into the exact opposite. She became rude and practically shunned us all. She joined our school’s popular, mean girl clique and we were thrown out like garbage. I never thought Marla would turn into a bully and my friends and I decided to steer clear of her. When she moved away with her mother shortly before our last year of high school, rumors quickly spread around school. Most people assumed her mother found a new job somewhere far away, which was the most normal assumption of what was said. Others thought that she enrolled at a strict boarding school to get her act back together again. Some of our peers even said that she went to juvenile hall, although other people at school could confirm that was not true. I have to admit, I was relieved that she was gone. The hatred she hurled at me towards the end of her time at our high school was overwhelming. I did not think my former best friend could become such a cruel person. She seemed to thrive off the suffering of others, especially when she caused the harm herself. Most of her bullying was verbal, but there were times where she would push me against lockers because I “stared at her weird”. I know that her parents’ divorce was not the main reason why she changed. There were other motivating factors, like starting to fail assignments and her older brother going off to college. Although I tried my best to understand why she was different, it did not change the fact that she became an enemy of mine. When she left, I was at peace again. Her being gone strangely felt like the beginning of our friendship. It was quiet again. Honestly, I managed to forget about her until digging into my past after her message request. I suddenly needed to meet her and wanted to pick up where we left off. I wanted to know why her last name changed and what she had been up to. Also, I wanted to prove to her that I was better than she made me out to be. I wanted to show her that I was not the different, horrible names she labelled me with in high school. It was important to me for her to see that I was thriving and not being defeated by the words that came out of her mouth. I stared at her message request for several minutes before giving in to answering.
Right after I messaged her back and learned that she would be in the area again, I asked if she wanted to meet for coffee and she happily agreed. Three days after I replied to her first message, I was in front of one of the Starbucks in my neighborhood, waiting for her to meet me there. Honestly, I did not know what to expect. Was she going to be taller than the last time I saw her? Or maybe thinner? I wondered what she expected from me. In the midst of my worrying, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a female voice say my name. It was Marla.
Her straight, blonde hair was now wavy and brown. She looked very well put together. She was in nice clothing and happier than the last few times I had seen her. We hugged and walked straight inside. She ordered an iced tea and I was surprised because she was a huge coffee drinker when she was younger. My first impression was that she had changed once again, into how she was when I had met her. I prepared for her to talk the whole time, but she was quiet. I liked that.
After we chose to sit next to a window, I said, “It’s been a long time. It’s really nice to see you.”
“It’s really great to see you too.” She smiled. “It feels like it’s been years. But I guess it kind of has been, hasn’t it?”
I agreed, “You’re right. Plus, I love your hair. It looks awesome. When did that happen?”
“Thanks. I love it a lot more than my blonde hair. I’ve been dying it brown for maybe three or four years now. I needed a change.” She sighed and had a sip of her iced tea. She continued, “We have to catch up. What’s been going on, Bethany?”
“You go first, please.” I insisted.
She held her hand out, revealed a beautiful diamond ring, and said, “Well, I’m married now.”
“No way! Congratulations!” I exclaimed.
“Thanks so much. I’m super happy.” She smiled.
I asked, “Please tell me more. I have to know about what happened and who your husband is.”
She sighed and said, “Everyone probably thought I was going to end up with this rich, idiotic hottie and live in a huge European city with tall buildings and blinding lights that would keep me up at night. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t think the same. I envisioned being a trophy wife in Paris or Rome or wherever else life would lead me. And then I met Carl Grey. He works for a plumbing company and is also studying to become a teacher. I never knew that I needed someone so humble and hardworking. We were together for over three years before he proposed and we’ve been married for three years now. We started out here and are now living in Vermont. It’s been like a dream, a dream that I needed. I was more materialistic than anyone should be and I’m so ashamed of that now. Carl taught me how to be a good person. Anyways, on a lighter note, I’m in law school now and really hoping to help others instead of myself for once. But that’s enough about me. What’s been going on with you, Bethany?”
I began to slowly stir my coffee with the wooden stirrer. Marla seemed to really have her life together and after hearing her story, I felt like I had nothing to show for the last eight years of my life. I wanted to lie so bad and tell her that my life had been a fairytale since we had parted ways, but telling her the truth seemed to be a better option.
I nervously laughed and answered, “I’m really happy for you, Marla. It really sounds like you’re doing well.”
She smiled and said, “Thank you, Bethany. That really means a lot to me. But like I said, enough about me. How have you been? How is life?”
After several seconds of hesitation, I stopped stirring my coffee and finally decided to answer her questions. “I have to admit that it hasn’t been that exciting, at least not as exciting as your life. I’m a therapist at the child and adolescent psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn. I started working there a few months ago actually and I really love my job. Even though it took a lot of time and effort, it’s been more than worth it.”
“Everyone knew that you’d be doing something great, Bethany. We all expected you to do great things, because you’re such a good person. And in our part of the city, you can’t always find genuinely good people.”
My face began to turn red and I replied, “Thank you, Marla. I’m glad to hear that people felt that way about me. All I can do is try my best, right?”
Marla nodded and sighed. She asked, “Are you okay? You can be honest with me. I know you had a tough time when we were younger and I just want to make sure you’re doing better.”
I started to move the coffee stirrer back and forth. As the echoes of the wooden stick hitting the sides of the mug grew closer and closer together, I knew I needed to ground myself and tell more of the truth. My glance slowly fell to the table as I took a deep breath, then I tried my best to truthfully reply.
More than anything, I wanted to say, “I have been really unwell, to be completely honest. I thought helping the kids and teens at work would heal me in a way, but it has only reopened old wounds. Their pain reminds me of my own. Being adopted by the most amazing family doesn’t erase the torture my biological family put me through. I relate to so many of the kids I work with and it brings me back to being in foster care and going home to home. It is a great job, but it’s all a lot right now and I’m really overwhelmed. It’s also nerve wracking to be here, because I’m still scared of you and what you are capable of.” But instead, I reluctantly chose to say, “It’s stressful, but I am enjoying it. I’m happy.”
Marla grinned and replied, “That’s really great to hear. I’m glad you like it.”
I smiled back at her and we sat in silence for a couple of minutes. I would be lying if I said that it was not awkward to be back with her. When I last saw her, I did not want anything to do with her ever again and I thought that was the end of it. Despite the great years of friendship, the bad seemed to weigh heavier on my heart. Our conversation restarted when I had a random case of hardcore word vomit.
“You really hurt me, Marla. Towards the end of your time at school, you really hurt me and so many people. When I realized that you were the Marla Grey in my inbox, I stared at your message request for a few minutes before deciding to answer. Honestly, I was scared you wouldn’t have changed. It really seems like you have changed for the better, but being here with you right now is still painful. I don’t know what I ever did to you to deserve what you did to me. I don’t mean to ruin this nice time, but I had to say it. I’ve been meaning to open up about this for so long.”
Marla glanced down at the table and started to cry into her iced tea. She looked up again and into my eyes. She stuttered, “I’m really sorry, Bethany. More sorry than you’ll ever know. That’s part of the reason why I came here. I need to make amends. Right now, it’s not all about catching up. I have felt guilty everyday about what I’ve done for so long. When I finally realized how messed up and disgusting I was to so many people, I felt so ashamed. I was such a monster. I know meeting up at Starbucks won’t change that, but I wanted to apologize to you in person. I don’t want to be a coward anymore. Again, I’m so sorry.”
I could not erase the past with her apology. It was impossible to forget about how rough she made my life, but I was able to see the genuinity on her face and hear the sincerity in her voice as she apologized. I felt closure, knowing that she was ashamed of her actions. I grabbed her hand, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Have you heard this one quote by Ally Condie? It’s about friendships and the past.” I paused, waiting for an answer. She shook her head and I continued, “It goes something like, ‘Growing apart doesn't change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled. I'm glad for that.’ I find that quote so accurate in our case.”
She nodded her head and whispered, “It’s a really beautiful quote, Bethany. Thank you.”
We continued to chat about whatever else came to mind. Our reunion was necessary for both of us to move on and move forward. When it was time to leave, we hugged and promised to keep in touch. The quote I mentioned was on repeat while I walked away. Seeing a text from her, saying that she had a nice time and was excited to meet again sometime soon, created a new, beautiful tangle in our roots. And I was glad for that.