Thirty years ago, I was a cute five-year-old kid living in suburban Long Island, NY. And, like is typical of most kids growing up in Long Island neighborhoods during the mid-eighties, my next-door neighbor just happened to also be my best friend. When you’re about five, proximity is often the most significant factor in friendship. I can’t for the life of me remember her name now, but I remember what she looked like. Dark blonde hair. Fair skinned. Freckles. Brown eyes. And together, we were a silly pair. Most of my memories consist of playing in her room with her very girly toys, or digging in the dirt somewhere in her backyard.
The memory of her, our friendship, and the events that followed don’t feel like real anymore. Yet they were. I felt completely uninhibited, silly and free during that time in my childhood. Closing my eyes, I can easily bring myself back to this time when I knew that there existed one person with whom I shared that feeling: my first best friend whose name I can’t remember. And soon after, the exhilaration fades because it all ended in one day.
I only vaguely remember the details of the events that transpired, but the feelings I felt that day imbedded themselves into my skin, stabbing through me, marinating my bones. No matter how hard you scrub it off, you know it’s in you.
My friend and I were playing independently in her backyard when her older sister and another girl from down the street showed up on their bicycles. The older sister was the stereotypical mean bully type, but the girl from down the street was worse. The presence of those two girls paralyzed me in the way a person freezes in front of a dangerous snake. I never knew what they were going to do next, but I felt in my gut that it would be bad.
Despite remembering how I felt, I didn’t rehearse the specific details of how everything transpired. I remember hearing laughter, and it wasn’t coming from me. I remember feeling frozen and scared. I remember feeling stupid and embarrassed. And above anything else, I remember feeling worthless. In a matter of maybe five minutes, something once innate and joyful within me died. I was inside of a trash can.
Maybe I cried. Maybe I screamed. Maybe the older girls freaked out and let me go. I can’t remember how I got out of the can. Did I run home? Did I walk? I don’t remember how my parents found out. I only vaguely remember my grandfather’s panic showing up in the form of a slap across my face. “How could you be so stupid?” I didn’t know. There was yelling. There was screaming. There were cops. There were tears. Hello, shame. It all blurs together like the strokes of an impressionist painting.
I never saw my friend again after that day. Like the loud drip of a leaky kitchen faucet that hits a thin and overturned pot while everyone sleeps, the sound of this feeling echoing in my mind kept me very much awake. Eventually, memory would fade into the backdrop in the way the sound of that drip would fade into the nighttime symphony of unknown noises. My once favorite friend became a forgotten catalyst for the gaping void I’d carry for the rest of my life. Hello, abandonment. Each new inevitable trauma I’d add to the plate would be another drip, causing me to misplace that first one. A symphony of drops.
We moved a year or two later.
I eventually forgot about this memory. Remembering something horrible that happened to you in childhood as a child is one thing. Remembering it as an adult is another.
That day was never discussed after it happened – except for an older cousin retelling it to me as an older child in an attempt to fuel her hypothesis that I was indeed stupid. I suspect the event was discussed in her house openly when it happened. Gotta love family.
I sat with the memory like it was a weird and awful dream for years. I wasn’t physically harmed, so the assumption must have been that I was okay. No one would talk to me about what actually happened. Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t the only person traumatized by this experience. I don’t think anyone really wanted to remember it because it was so bizarre, and ultimately so sad.
I was a five-year-old girl that was forced into a trash can. Wait. There’s something wrong with this sentence.
I was a five-year-old Indian girl that was forced into a trash can.
One evening several years later in the early 1990’s, I walked down a street with my parents and younger brother to my grandmother’s house when a car filled with a few drunk men slowed down as they passed us, and then aggressively threw half-empty beer cans at us. The smell of the Bud Light can bouncing off of my father’s shoulder and onto my very pretty clothes still stings.
“You’re okay. We’re okay. It’s okay. They were just drunk.”
There was no discussion about it nor any mention of the racist vulgarities spewed during the attack. While on a run some random evening years ago, I slowed down to a walking pace to catch my breath. A car with lowered windows, loud music, and laughter accelerated past me. Standing there frozen, the memory flashed before me. Suddenly, I was crying. It never registered before that the incident happened because my family was Indian. Soon afterwards, it made sense why I never wanted to drink beer. Whenever offered in college, I’d make an excuse about never liking the taste of it, and yet I took no issue with tequila.
Unpacking these complicated memories in therapy led to my realization that the trashcan incident was catastrophic to my self-esteem. It built the foundation for a lie about my self-worth I’d later spend almost a decade diligently working to unlearn.
I think about these two stories and wonder how children are facing these situations today in our hostile cultural climate.
Losing that very first friend created in me a void that only grew larger with time. She was the friend who knew me the way I wanted to be known. Before I was Indian. Before I was a category. Before the first shadow was cast upon me.
I remember her name now.
It was Tony.