Equally Different

Submitted into Contest #202 in response to: Write a story about lifelong best friends.... view prompt

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Friendship Coming of Age Historical Fiction

Veronica

They always said she was special. She could feel that people treated her differently since she was very young but it became a habit so she didn’t pay much attention to that phenomenon. Her parents were ready to put her on a pedestal. True, she was a late child to a couple who adored each other for nearly twenty years before her arrival. They gave up any hope of having kids when Veronica (or Roni) came along.

The first time she stunned her parents was when she was ten months old. She pulled up next to the bright striped toy with a mirror and confidently said “Roni!” pointing at the mirror.

“Oh, that’s right, it’s you, Roni!” gushed her mother not thinking that it was a bit unusual for a baby’s first word to be her name. It also didn’t occur to anyone that she said it with the precise clarity of a grown-up. No baby talk or mispronunciation of the “Rs”. From that point on, Roni was talking with ease as if she had many years of practice. While her speech and development progressed, Roni was not interested in walking or crawling. She was perfectly content once she was placed on the floor among her toys and moved around only when necessity called for it. Their pediatrician couldn’t quite figure out the reason behind it. Physically, Roni seemed to be fine and healthy but stubbornly refused to walk. She finally began to wobble around when she turned two. Everyone wrote it off as a slight delay and settled with a comfortable thought that she was light years ahead in every other aspect. Roni was taller than most of her peers, by far much more intelligent, and kept up with most conversations by the time she turned three.

Around Roni’s fourth birthday, her father walked in and saw her sitting on a rug holding a large book. When he came up closer, he realized it was Bradbury's Martian Chronicles that he was browsing earlier and left on the sofa.

“Sweety,” he sat next to her. “What are you doing with this book?”

“Reading it,” matter-of-factly replied Roni without looking up.

“Reading?” Roni’s father was perplexed. Sure, she went to daycare but that would not lead to a four-year-old causally reading Ray Bradbury on a rainy afternoon!

“Well, what do you like about it?”

“His writing,” Roni replied and looked up at him with her serious blue eyes. “I don’t understand everything it says but I like the way he described the world on Mars. It’s colorful and brave.” Roni’s father felt dumbfounded. He read this book a number of times but it never occurred to him to describe it as “colorful and brave”, if you put aside the little weird thing that a toddler is comfortably reading Science Fiction materials geared for adults.

When Roni turned six, she could as easily recite the Mendeleev table along with Pushkin’s poems. By then, she mostly walked around on her own but still looked at any physical activities as unnecessarily annoying and participated in those at a bare minimum. No one in the 80s in the USSR could figure out what to do with Roni but everyone was certain that she would become something amazing until one day, at the beginning of her first school year, Roni collapsed unconscious in the middle of the classroom.


Delilah


“Do you know what they told me? They said I’m a sticking Jew! Why are they calling me that?”

“Because you are Jewish.”

“I’m what? No! You are kidding, right?”

Delilah was staring at her grandfather with big worried eyes. But he just looked at her lovingly with a little mix of pity. Maybe he should have talked to her about it sooner but she was always such a happy baby, he wasn’t sure how to get to it. If only his Sarah was alive! She would have done a much better job with her daughter. What can he possibly give this little girl except for all his health issues and problems that were typical for an old man? How do you explain to the six-year-old what it truly means to be Jewish, to break the stigma that Soviet schools are putting in her head while they brainwash all the kids?

“It’s in your blood, Leya,” that’s how he called her affectionately from the second he saw her. It was Sarah’s wish to call her Delilah, the result of her childhood obsession with Tom Jones. He didn’t mind the name, maybe even liked its uniqueness but couldn’t imagine how a little girl could possibly pronounce it. So, he changed it to Leya. Comforting, familiar, and very fitting for the Jewish neighborhood where they lived. He did his best to raise Leya in the conditions of modern life. It was hard. There is a reason why grandparents are meant to spend only part-time with their grandkids and not carry all the responsibility. After losing his daughter and her husband in that horrific accident, he didn’t think he would be able to survive. Leya was also in that bus but by some miracle, she came out without a scratch. She was only six months old.

Every time when her grandfather looked at Leya, he thought how unfair life could be. No, he was very grateful that her life was spared and he had this bundle of joy and light in his life. However, there wasn’t a night when he would come into her room to fix her blanket and not think about how much he wished that her mother was here to see how fast her daughter was growing.

Like any grandparents, he thought she was the most precious being in the world but he was old and honest enough to admit that while Leya was clever and full of charisma, she was not a pretty girl. Bushy hair, slightly bulging eyes, a big nose with a noticeable hook – all of those were the obvious signs of her Judaica identity. Still, he was worried about what it would mean to her well-being as she was going to get older in the country where Jews were practically equated to a plague. He was thinking about “preparing” her before she started school but every time couldn’t find the right words or the strength. How could he possibly explain such complex things to a little girl? What is he going to do when she gets older and he would need to tell her about menstrual cycles, reproduction, drugs? Impossible fate!

He thought he had a bit more time but no! The very first day in school and she was already being tortured. Little assholes, they never waste any time! And where were the teachers in all of that? He knew the answer to that too but didn’t want to admit how useless it would be to complain to them – there would be no point. Even if he tries, it would only make things worse. So, with a heavy sigh, he sat down with his precious baby girl and tried to explain to her what antisemitism was and why it was so prominent in this country during this time.

Leya ran to her room afterward, crying hard. She seemed to understand that it was impossible to undo who she was. She loved being the center of attention and wanted to have many friends so he wasn’t sure which she was taking harder the fact that she was a Jew or the impossibility of having an active social life.


Veronica


This was a newer school. Roni started here just a year ago. The fifth grade was slow and steady but some things were still hard to process. The headaches still came back frequently causing nausea and nose bleeds but the older she was, the more bearable it became. She was polite with her classmates, and patient when they asked her idiotic questions. Roni tried her hardest not to stand out – what good would it do? Human memory was short so no one even remembered that she was the same girl who was proclaimed a genius at a very young age. Now… now she was like everyone else. The illness, the surgery, the recovery, and multiple treatments – all of that took its toll on her ability to learn.

At first, her parents were worried she would never catch up but she did over time. The school was easy now, each day blended into the previous ones. She learned to pretend to be like everyone else even though her feelings and view of life were much more mature. Roni learned the hard way to keep her “grown-up” opinions to herself if she wanted to avoid conflicts. It was comfortable and she preferred it this way – to be one of many. But she still didn’t feel happy and for the first time in her life, Roni couldn’t conduct her own analysis to understand what was missing in her life.

She waited patiently for the summer break so she could stop pretending to be “one of them”. Sometimes, when her patience was running thin and she was ready to give up and show what she was really capable of, Roni would close her eyes and envision her room – a simple desk with just enough space for a few books and a notepad, comfortable sleeper sofa, a whole wall of bookshelves that her dad built for his reading daughter – the last thing he made before he was gone. She really loved her little library. Every book was a treasure because they were his. How nice it will be to sit by the window with a book and be by herself. Quiet. Peaceful. Serene. Safe.

The buzzing noise at the door distracted Roni from her thoughts. What is happening? She glanced lazily in that direction, slightly curious – maybe this day would be a little different from others. At first, she felt disappointed seeing the teacher at the door who was sort of backing into the classroom clearly finishing up a conversation in the hallway with someone invisible to Roni. She was ready to get back to her doodling when the teacher opened the door wider waving someone into the room.

“Come in, come in! We need to get started.”

The girl that walked into the room didn’t look boring at all so Roni’s curiosity spiked. She had big bushy hair that was sort of offsetting her unusually large nose. She glanced at the room with a challenge as if she was taking it all in. Nope, she certainly didn’t look ordinary.

The teacher introduced the newcomer as Leya and sent her to the seat two rows behind Roni. The lesson started but Roni managed to steal a look at the new girl a few times between the notes. To her surprise, Leya didn’t write a single line and just kept looking around as if she was afraid someone was going to attack her from behind.

The bell finally rang and they were able to leave the classroom. Roni caught up to the girl who stood in the hallway with her back to the wall, appearing to be either scared or cautious. Should she approach her? As a rule, Roni never talked to anyone unless spoken to hoping to keep interactions to a minimum. She passed by Leya, then again still uncertain of what to do but then her instinct told her to go for it and she always listened to her sixth sense.


Delilah


Another school, new teachers, new classmates. Nothing is going to change – it’s all the same anywhere she goes. No friends among peers or teachers, kids who chased her after school scoring points if they managed to catch up and hit her or pull her hair. Everyone looked at her as if she was a leper. On one hand, she was grateful that the teacher didn’t use her full name when she introduced her to the class. But Leya also sounded so Jewish, there was never any question after that where she belonged. Only fifth grade… five more to go! Can she survive it? Would she finally give up and just run away and work at some vegetable stand for the rest of her life becoming one of those unhappy women that yelled at everyone and constantly stole? How did they know how to do it? Was that something that they taught them in the salespeople college? Is there such a college? Or can she just quit school and go to work when she turns sixteen? Oh, even that was five long years away!

“Do you want an apple?”

Leya flinched and turned towards the voice. It was a girl from her class. Leya actually noticed her when she was walking to her seat. She had a couple of funny-looking pig-tails and big thick glasses. But her bluish eyes were emitting intelligence and kindness – something that Leya hasn’t experienced in her schooling years. Not sure what to say, Leya could only nod. The strange girl produced a tiny piece of fruit out of her uniform apron and offered it to Leya. Then she repeated the same gesture, getting one for herself. They stood next to each other feeling an immediate connection joyfully biting into small green apples that turned out to be juicier than one could expect.

“Veronica, but everyone calls me Roni,” said the strange girl wiping her hand on her skirt and offering it to Leya.

“Delilah, but everyone calls me Leya,” replied Leya with a shy smile, accepting her hand.

“Do you want to join me during lunch?” asked Roni, wondering again what possessed her to say that.

“Sure,” replied Leya, equally hesitantly worried that it may be a trick just to lead her to a place where new classmates can welcome her properly.

Roni turned out to be everything Leya always wanted in a friend but could never dream of finding. She was smart, funny, brave, and loved to read as much as Leya did. Before they knew it, they became nearly inseparable doing everything together. Roni’s calm and sensible dominion worked well with Leya’s explosive energy and tendency to go to extremes. Roni was concentrated on keeping her personal space and wasn’t interested in any interactions outside of their little circle. Leya was much more romantically inclined and wanted to believe in good in the world despite all her earlier horrible experiences. She believed in signs and fate, but even more so – she believed that all her troubles were behind her thanks to her friend.

It was true. Leya wasn’t sure if it was because Roni was taller and stronger than most or because she possessed that amazing talent of incinerating her opponents with one glance, but no one dared to bother her in the last two years, so life was great!


Veronica


She hated to admit it but things were so much happier now that she had a friend. Leya got to know and accepted all her oddities without a doubt. She knew when to leave her alone and when to push a little to get Roni out of her shell. It was surprisingly pleasant to spend some time outside when the weather was good, lazily moving back and forth on the old swings in the nearby playground. She found that this comforting movement boosted her thinking process, helping her to form thoughts in a more prominent clear way.

For two years all was quiet and she really enjoyed her friend’s company. They couldn’t have been more different in their characters or appearances but there were fundamental values that were very common in both of them. Leya was a welcome guest in her house and Roni’s mother couldn’t be happier that her special daughter finally found a friend. Maybe just as strange but in a wonderfully different way. Equally, Leya’s grandfather was also glad when Roni came over. She loved to listen to his stories, amazed at how much he was able to “get her”.

All was good until the day when one of the newer students decided that Leya was not good enough to “walk around the school.” Roni convinced Leya to ignore the instigator and her newly founded group and just stay close together. The tactic worked for a while until that day.

Roni came to school with a massive migraine. Leya convinced her to leave earlier but on the way to the exit, their way was blocked by the same enemy who clearly decided this time not to back down.

“Step aside, I won’t say it again,” Roni said quietly and patiently.

“Oh, and should I be very afraid if I don’t obey?” sarcastically replied the girl, and in the next second went flying. Leya had no idea how it happened but before she knew it, they were both rolling on the floor punching their offenders again and again everywhere they could reach. All the pain and suppressed anger that they both kept inside for what seemed like forever, came out in this fight and they stopped only when a few teachers pulled them apart. They won. Their enemies retreated and it was all worth any trouble they were heading into.


Final Diagnoses


“Happy fiftieth anniversary, you are an old rag now!”

“Look who's talking, you turned fifty just three months ago!”

“Hubby made any big plans for today?”

“Could be, I decided to let them surprise me this time around.”

“Well, we will toast to your health on this part of the Earth.”

“Health? You know what I actually realized recently, and yes this is my humble opinion of a clinician. If we were growing up in this country and at a later time, they would have absolutely put me on the spectrum and you would have been tagged with AD&D.”

“Absolutely! But that’s why we are such a perfect match! Don’t you think so?”

“Autist and Hyperactive? You are right, we are a perfect match. One thing is for sure - it’s never boring!”

June 16, 2023 00:33

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6 comments

Mary Bendickson
22:53 Jun 21, 2023

Nice long term balance. Makes you wonder if labels are good things or bad things to assign to children when they are unique.

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Ela Mikh
23:04 Jul 03, 2023

Very true, I've been wondering the same thing...

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Danitza Eterovic
21:20 Jun 21, 2023

Hi Ela, I liked your story. It was interesting to see how Leya and Roni balanced each other.

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Ela Mikh
22:08 Jun 21, 2023

Thank you very much for reading - yes I liked the way characters came out :)

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Delbert Griffith
11:47 Jun 16, 2023

Great tale, and a heartwarming one, Ela. I loved the ending; seeing the girls much later in life, still friends, was perfect! One thing: "Ray Bradberry" Is actually "Ray Bradbury." Nice work, my friend. Cheers!

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Ela Mikh
16:46 Jun 16, 2023

Oh thank you! That is embarrassing that I misspelled it - will correct it at once. Thank you for your feedback!

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