The Midwest is a small-talk, large-silences place. Growing up in one of its small towns meant often not knowing the secrets were there, even in ourselves.
In 10th grade, the girl who sat in front of me in English class had greasy hair and white skin so dry it flaked. I could see the back of her arms, the scaliness. She lived on a farm. Her dresses were big and homemade. Someone made those dresses for her, but they didn’t make them the right size. They didn’t care about her. Or maybe she made them herself but hadn’t been to 4-H to learn how to do it well. She looked large and baggy. I worried about her skin. Did she know about skin cream? I had Jergens lotion at home, and thought about bringing it in for her. Went back and forth in my mind, decided not to–it would make her feel bad. She kept up in school well enough, otherwise quiet. Maybe she just didn’t like to wash her hair. She seemed miserable. Best to say hi and then say nothing else. Only it wasn’t best. I wonder now, what happened to her at home?
My friend D, we re-meet as adults, have coffee. She remembers me from the school bus--clothes always matching, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, very quiet, getting dropped off at the modern house with a flat roof. She is now a retired grade-school teacher, a NASA fan, and has a sewing ministry at her church. Back in grade school, we were both in a 4-H club that met in the basement of that church, although we didn’t talk much there. I see her now when I go back to my hometown to visit my mother. After some time, and a number of coffees, I tell her how strained my relationship with my mom is, how she criticized me much more than she did my brothers. How she was called in one time I was in grade school because I didn’t speak above a whisper. “Oh, I didn’t know,” D said, “I wish I’d known. You could’ve come over to my house. My mother would’ve hugged you.”