sereneanais submitted a contest entry to Write a letter to a stranger who positively impacted your life 5 months, 2 weeks ago
You Told Me to Smile
Write a Letter to a Stranger Who Left a Positive Impact on Your Life
You told me to smile. Not because I’d be prettier if I smiled. Not because my resting face made you uncomfortable. Not because I was a girl. I think about this moment a lot: the way you made me feel; the way you looked when we met eyes, and how nearly twenty years later you still mean so much to me.
It was the last day of school–sixth grade. I was so happy to be done: no longer a baby, no longer the small fry of middle school. I was a seventh grader now and that was a big deal (at least to a twelve year-old).
There was, of course, the customary last-day-of-school class party: pizza, cookies, too many treats. We couldn’t go out for drinks but we could binge snacks like no tomorrow and like sugar hangovers didn’t exist. And then we all strutted out of class and to the pick-up gate to wait for our parents or walk home. The giddy excitement of being older made us loud and obnoxious, but happy. As edgy as a twelve year-old could get, I drank my 7-up straight from the 2-liter. And then someone egged me on to chug. If downing a soda was worth their attention, I would lean in.
Friends, classmates, people I so desperately wanted to be friends with had eyes on me. They cheered me on. The moment was electric. I let their bursting admiration course down my throat and drip from my lips, bubbles firing down my throat. It burns. I can’t breathe. A twitch of fear. I’m going to die. STOP! I gasp. I’m not chugging anymore. And everyone is disappointed. I had my chance and I blew it. I act like I can go back but no one is interested then I play it off: I meant to stop. I didn’t fail. I shrug. I’m just going to hang back, lean against this brick wall and sip like I meant to do this. Nodding my head like my heart isn’t ice cold with embarrassment and shame.
Disappointment and disbursement. Everyone was going home anyway, but I still felt like I had ruined the party. I’m alone. I watch the crosswalk turn a few times before I walk a few feet down the block to sit while I wait for my mom to pick me up. I slump down onto the edge of a concrete flower bed. The bushes are kind of dry. Scratchy but big enough to hide. The wind picks up and I curl into myself: cross-legged, my hood on, my hands stuffed into my pocket. I watch the street ebb and flow.
I’m cold but the sun warms the top of the liquor store across the street. The white paint reflects the sun into my eyes and I squint. It’s all almost too bright for comfort. But the apartments atop the liquor store look warm, soft, embraced in the sunlight with the exact amount of pressure to be well.
Cars slowly back up on Indiana. A Mazda. a red car. A truck. And then time stopped.
I could see it through the passenger side window. Your smile and laugh seemed so close to me. You bounced your shoulders in joy, sang into the face of the driver. As you turned, you saw me looking and you smiled, wider and happier than I’d ever seen before. Your cheekbones perk up to bump the lower rims of your sunglasses. Your laugh lines are deep and striking from years of joy. Your tan skin shows how much the sun has kissed happiness into your heart. You radiate. A beautiful orange that brings me comfort.
I’m confused. Your voice, soft as butter, full of love, rings in my ear. I struggle to respond but I am stunned. Then it hits me – an icy cold all-encompassing fear. How do you see me? I’m in the background, lost in a bush, nothing and no one anybody would notice walking or driving down the street. Of all things, why would you tell me to smile? Is it because I look sad? I’m not supposed to show that. I panic. Waves of embarrassment and shame crash into me and my throat tightens around a cry I refuse to let go. How do you see it? What am I doing wrong?
You acknowledge my existence and what’s worse is that you see what I try the hardest to hide. My eyes well with tears and I’m afraid that you’ll see more of me. I’m embarrassed. I want to hide more. Bury my face into my sweater, look away, act like you’re not there. I’ve still said nothing. You repeat yourself, this time with your finger drawing a smile next to yours. I panic because I still have not said anything. I’m screaming but the words don’t come. I want to say I’m fine or I’m sorry or thanks or I will but I’m frozen in fear.
I blink myself back into existence and you roll gently out of my life. The light turned green. Traffic is moving. You’re well down the street by now and I never see you again.
The first tear falls from my eye. I cover my mouth with my hand, the oversized sweater muffling a cry that will never come. I want to disappear. I bury myself within but Ito burst. Release a screech so virulent and feral of pain that it gets stuck in the doorway of my lips. And I’m suffocated. Choked. A torrential storm on the inside that I don’t understand. I’m stuck and feel bad. That’s all I know. feel. bad. but then a painful soft smoke permeates my heart. I don’t want to live. That thought scares me. I don’t understand the aching pain that keeps coming. I don’t know who it is or what it is or why it is.
I thought I could hide in plain sight but you noticed. You saw the pain when no one else did and it became real. It was a comforting embrace of love that dumped ice buckets on me to make me realize my pain, my sadness was real. You didn’t drive past me like I was nonexistent, locking your eyes from contact. You saw and you stayed. You looked me in the eye and told me to smile–what I could not tell myself, what I could not fathom possible. but you were there to see a part of me that no one had. the deep sadness at the foundation of every moment good and great. the emptiness i could not name, could not understand, but permeated my body at all times. the tingle on my skin of cold confusion. isolation. Why don’t I feel like you? Why don’t I look like you? Why does your smile make me angry? Bitter? Remorseful?
I sat replaying the moment until my mom picked me up. She asked if I was okay. I wasn’t. But I said yeah.
I think about this moment a lot. Maybe you had no idea what you were doing. Maybe you were just a happy-go-lucky passerby. In the years that I’ve battled a war within myself, I like to think that you told me to smile because you knew what pain was. You had felt it. But, you were also able to feel joy, to feel love and appreciation and levity. What would my life be had you never passed by?
Over a decade later, I can still see your face and I can still feel the warmth of your smile. I hope one day I can really tell you how much that moment meant to me. I hope you’re alive. I hope you’re well. I hope you still find the strength to smile.
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Wow, it’s amazing how the slightest thoughtful gesture can deeply touch a person, especially a child. And it is amazing how people can see on our faces, what we truly think is hidden from the world. Im glad in that moment this stranger made you feel seen but also allowed you to see yourself and feel your emotions. This piece is beautiful. Thank you for sharing and for being a part of our family. <3 Lauren