I don’t know why the school principal thought the three of us should meet in the cafeteria, during school hours, in the dark. Maybe the school didn’t have office spaces to privately talk to students. Or, maybe it had some but they were all being used. I wouldn’t have known because I had never been called away from class before.
“You are here,” she said, her words rich with Puerto Rican Spanish, “because some of the other fifth grade teachers have noticed strange behaviors between the two of you. They said you’ve been too close to each other physically.”
I looked around at the rows of tables where phantom children ate, and at the very back, the only part with any light, where later on in the day we were to cram in for rice and beans. I looked down at the folds of my plaid skirt, and at the details in the principal’s gold jewelry.
“From now on, you should keep in mind the proper behavior between two girls,” she continued.
I didn’t look at Dianne sitting next to me. I felt far away, on my own, ashamed, and wondered if they would call my mom.
Dianne was my best friend.
During lunchtime, instead of comparing nail colors like the other girls, we created adventure scenarios that we acted out in a plot of grass behind the school. We became brave taino Indian girls who intrepidly crossed dangerous rivers to escape peril and feed the family. We were adventurers, photographers, librarians and doctors. Sometimes we’d play Polly Pockets with Mariana, another girl who was far too dainty to play real pretend. Although sometimes, when it was the three of us, I would become Natalio, the male version of me, and make them laugh with my deep voice and manly mannerisms. I loved being funny to them.
I loved Dianne because she was brave, and I was afraid of Dianne because she was brave. She didn’t care if none of the other girls played pretend. As I experienced the outside world inside me for the first time, Dianne remained true and immune. She contrasted with everything around her yet she didn’t notice.
One day during lunchtime Dianne wanted to roll in a pile of leaves. Another time we found out that in the rain the earth created a type of mud we could spread over our arms like a transformative beauty treatment. The beige mud was refreshing on the skin. It took so long to clean after the bell rang that we were late to class.
I loved Diane because she was smart. While I was reading “age-appropriate” fairy tales, Dianne read books from her family’s collection. It wasn’t that Dianne didn’t know or care about boys, or sex, or how to treat your hair, but that she refused to give in.
I loved Dianne because she was Dianne. One time during basketball practice she let her hair loose. Here hair, brown and wild, swung with the ball as she searched for it and threw it at the basket. She was terrible at sports, but even when she struggled she remained defiant. To all others Dianne was just a silly girl, but to me she was everything I wanted to be: incandescent, genuine, strong.
I didn’t tell anyone about what happened that day in the cafeteria.
Instead of being brave like Dianne, I slowly moved away from her. I joined a group of girls who spent lunchtime throwing a volleyball in a circle. Yahaira, the leader of the group was a chubby girl who liked to laugh. Itzaira, the other member of what would become a smaller group of three, was slim and kept her hair tight back in a ponytail. I continued to talk to Dianne but we stopped having lunch together, and because she didn’t fit in this new group, she remained alone until we all left for middle school shortly after, to start again.
If we are all marked by our early experiences, then I hope I am marked by this one the most, for while it’s great to draw inspiration from times of bravery, it is the times of cowardice that change us.