I remember it was the start of fall when I felt something was off. The leaves were ripe and brown, crisp shades of yellow and reds laying down pathways that covered sidewalks and stairs. The sky was overcast and gray for many days in a row, an endless sea of clouds blotting out the sun and hanging like a translucent fog around the edges of October. Bitter and cold wind smelled of the snow waiting to be carried down the mountain and rustled the leaves that came to rest outside my window.
Autumn is the season of anticipation, the season of waking up from the sleepy summer haze that burns memories into heat strokes and wandering late night walks. It is the anticipation that as quick as the grass shrivels to nothing and trees prepare for slumber, that rapid change comes after summer, the reminder that people are prone to ripen as quick as spring to wither under the winter sun.
I had a best friend who outshone the sun. Or who I thought was like the bright star; although trying to pinpoint these feelings now is like muddling through the stinging blood clot in my chest. But she was my ride or die, the person I showed up for when her world was falling apart, the person I spent hours therapizing and solving all her problems. She was the person I saw being a part of all my big moments in life.
We met in high school, when I first moved to town. The adjustment was hard; having grown up in the same place my whole life then relocating during the awkwardness of being a high school freshman. The thing about bullying is the isolation it brings, the deep seated need to be wanted and the willingness to put up with anything to hold onto that shard of friendship that keeps you away from the edge of ostracization. Any person that was willing to show me attention was good enough for me. Any person that was willing to look at all my brokenness and be okay with it was a world I was willing to revolve around. When I first approached her, I remember that day the first green leaves began to turn red, darkening to shades indistinguishable to the branches it was attached to. The early fall leaves were ruby red, and so, so pretty, that I had plucked a strand earlier that morning out of someone’s yard, tucking it into my pocket. Throughout the day, I rolled the leaves into little logs and then pulled them apart from their veins.
She didn’t seem to mind when I pulled out a leaf in band class. And it was enough that she accepted me the way I was. She was not free from faults but I couldn’t help but to blindly turn an eye to my bias and my own willingness to be hurt. In this fragile state, I was taken advantage of for seven years.
In the town I went to high school at, there’s a creek that winds itself through town. It carves a path in the hidden pockets where swaths of trees stick together, rings of ivy and moss crawling up rocks and toppled over trunks, and spring flowers bloom between belts of sagebrush. During the winter, I walked these paths in silence, the cold vacating birds south and spindly arms of bare branches tangled into an indistinguishable mass of webs stretching across the top canopy of my make-believe forest.
I escaped for long periods of time into the cold of winter, stomping around in snow drifts and peeling frozen icicles off cars and tree branches. Our friendship was like this season; she was welcoming up front, warm cozy days indoors, hot chocolate en masse, tinkling laughter filling a room. However, the cold always found its way in.
You never fully notice when the cold begins to set in, from the mild autumn days to the bleak mid-winter. It’s only one day when you’re wrapping a scarf around your neck that your thoughts drift to autumn that you ponder how time is like a slipping stream. Emotions are fragile sometimes, and I was a bleeding heart all through high school. I am still a bleeding heart but now I just bleed all over myself. She had set in like winter from the mildest of autumns, digging her claws into my emotions and puppeteering a play for herself fashioned from my life. Only when I moved away did the pincers rip my flesh open to the first day of autumn again.
My first semester away from home was a reprieve from the mounting verbal attacks hidden beneath the surface of my friend’s psych, always pressing and pulling to be known. I had known as I packed for college the long silences stretching into stone walls towered into the sky, brick after brick, that the sticky friendliness that I naively thought as unconditional was being built into something else.
Autumn marked the facade breaking, the fragile cracks that had grown in our friendship becoming visible. The secrets hidden below the surface bubbled up like acid, and burned its way through my skin. Unforgivable things that toppled any hope to repair all the time, love, and care that I dedicated to our friendship. Vile, unforgettable things that left me reeling from the lost pieces of myself and made me lose trust in people and the ways that they are willing to support things which should not be named.
I entered a winter which lasted a long time. A winter where I didn’t walk among the trees. But it was something I had to do to forgive myself for being blind to what was going on. I punished myself for a very long time.
However, I found a lot of beauty in winter. Part of it had been taken away and changed, but I noticed things that became mine. Like little ears that peaked up behind piles of snow, twitching in the cold. Networks of ice crisscrossing pine needles in an intricate dance. My dog sliding on the ice of the little stream in my backyard, and me laughing as I try to pull him off. How the cold air is like a healing salve for all the tears left unsung in my chest. At the end of it all, I decided to reclaim winter.
I had taken myself among my trees again. Spring was peeping out from the melting snow, little buds of grass almost shiny in the sun. As things began to come alive, some birds twittering up in the trees, autumn still lingered. Leaves trapped beneath the snow transform from limp debris to crispy piles at doorsteps, sidewalks, and floating on the creek down from the mountains. The air is still fresh from winter, and I notice this very strange mixture of the seasons at the onset of spring.
One day, I followed a pale yellow leaf as it barely kept itself buoyed on the water. Rather than my favorite red leaves, this yellow one was damaged with rot curling the ends and a hole in the middle. Still I followed it as far as I could before I plucked another yellow leaf from the ground to accompany it on its path.
Every spring, I feel a sudden death. Growing up in the desert, nothing thrives and things die. I couldn’t help but remember the sweltering heat waves of one hundred and fifteen degrees and how lawns would turn dark brown almost like a scorch mark from the sun. If I had to pick any season that was false, it would be summer. Even now and then I tense up at the start of the season.
After years of winter warring my emotions and struggling to heal, I finally got to hear those birds, southern bound, in my life again. The ugliness of humanity was stripped back and I saw its hideous underbelly but I choose to let the past be. While I still wear the burdens of every ill and malicious lie on my back, I am unbroken in all the ways she wanted me to be. And that’s enough.
Discovering my own value is so much greater than any given to me.
But still, it’s nice to feel the sun sometimes.