The Friend From High School
It’s a new year. Your fresh start begins today. No more epic screw-ups, Georgia. You got this!
This is what I tell myself every year on the first day of January. It’ll be different this time, I can feel it. It has to be. This year, I’m starting off on the right foot—at the gym.
I used to run and exercise regularly, but then last summer I got a foot injury that put me out of commission for some months. My foot healed, but in that time, my lazy self had taken over. Now, most of my clothes don’t fit me, and when I bend my knees, I can hear them creak. Even though Oscar likes me fleshier, I’m done with feeling like an immovable lump. Lenny, my gym rat brother, always invites me to go to the gym with him. My usual response: “Next week.” I’ve agreed to go today, however, because it’s time I start working my knees again, before they snap.
Lenny’s in the weights section where all the muscleheads spot each other and grunt manly encouragements like “Gimme a thousand percent! Come on! All you, brother! All you!” I’m in the mostly female dance studio where we’re all quietly stretching and waiting for the Zumba class to start.
The studio is packed already. I didn’t think anyone would come to New Year’s Day at the gym, but wrong was I. Everybody’s here for that fresh start.
The blast of workout music disrupts our quiet shuffling, signaling the instructor is about to start. “Happeeeeeee neeeeeew yeeeeeeear!” begins the energetic, toothy Zumba leader. The class whoops back with new year enthusiasm; I give a half-ass “hoooo” to not look so out of place.
The instructor has us all marching on the spot while she tells us the breakdown of the hour-long class. I zone out as she gives extra tips to anybody who might be new. That’s when I see something in my periphery that makes my gut do an involuntary crunch. After a second, my brain registers what I’m seeing, followed by a moment of desperate denial. Say it ain’t so! I think frantically. It can’t be her, but it is. It’s Senna Sinaga, my ex-best friend from high school.
I had barely ever given that wench a second thought after we graduated. I had moved on as if she had vanished from my world for good. I have a strong impulse to ditch class and join Lenny in the musky section of the gym, but the other part of me that needs Zumba in a bad way is telling me, Do not let her, of all people, stop you from doing something good for yourself.
I watch through side-eye as Senna confidently saunters in as if she’s the instructor herself, late to her own class without a care. The only one in here in a crop tank flaunting perfect abs, four-ten Senna looks like a model for sexy teen sportswear. Her long hair, now a perfect shade of coffee brown with highlights in all the right places, is tied back in the perfect ponytail, with not a hair out of place, which means she’s using product. Who the hell uses hair product for a 7:30 a.m. workout?
I’m suddenly self-conscious of my frumpiness, with my immense curly black hair twisted haphazardly into a lazy bun, a baggy, old T-shirt long enough to cover up my paunch and big caboose, and lint-speckled spandex. My cute red Nikes—thank goodness—bring life to my otherwise despairing appearance.
Senna daintily places her mauve towel and matching water bottle off to the side, positions herself at the front row, and, like a pro, jumps right into the workout with ease. She doesn’t belong in this class.
While the rest of us non-athletes get to enviously stare at her aspirational tight butt, I’m compelled to focus on her one “flaw”: her child-like size. She’s always had to be at the front because she’s so tiny. I’m in the middle row, two tall people behind her. From what I can see in the studio mirror, I’m not visible to her. I steady my gaze on the instructor to avoid looking Senna’s way, just in case. If we never make eye contact, I can pretend I never saw her at all.
Just being in the same room as my ex-bestie again, after all these years, is messing with my chi. All that new year enthusiasm has gone down the drain as I hark back to how Senna abruptly abandoned our friendship halfway through high school. We had big plans to travel to Europe after grad and move into an apartment together until either of us got married. We even vowed to name our children after each other.
She was my first real friend. I was awkward, self-conscious, and unapproachable. My acne was so nasty and volcanic that people couldn’t look at me without showing revulsion. Senna, a petite Indonesian beauty with hints of Dutch in her blood, seemed undeterred by my looks. My low status in high school did come to matter, however. When she finally had the chance to move up in the ranks with the cool kids, she took it. Just like that, she stopped talking to me entirely.
I jolt back to the present. The choreography is getting complicated, and I’m starting to mess up. I don’t want to screw up in front of Senna, even if there’s a slim chance she won’t recognize me.
During the cool down, we’re all bending forward doing a hamstring stretch when I look ahead to the instructor. That’s when my eye catches Senna bent forward, smiling right at me with her face between her spread-apart legs. Doh! I quickly look away. Too late. Eye contact was made, and that smile she gave me is cause for concern.
After ignoring me the way she did in high school, why wouldn’t she continue to ignore me? Why smile at me now? Does she want to talk? I sure as hell don’t.
I run through my head how I’m going to get out of here without running into her. If I bolt out of class before the cool down is over, I can get to the lockers for my jacket and bag and hurry to Lenny. I’ll get his keys off him, then sprint to his pickup. I can hide in the back seat until he’s done his workout. That plan is solid.
When the first person leaves class, I grab my water bottle and towel and head straight to the changeroom. I frantically look for my locker. I find it and fumble with the numbers of my lock. Seven, thirty-two, eighteen. Come on! It won’t open. I’ve overshot the final number. I try it again but miss the first number. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I finally get it to open and grab my bag and coat. Yes! I’m outta here!
My stomach lurches when I hear: “Georgia? It’s you, isn’t it?”
In a panic, I shove my bag back inside the locker and pretend I’m fishing for something important.
“Georgia Alfonso! It’s me, Sensei.”
I turn slowly. There she is, little “Sensei” smiling up at me, looking unbelievably glamorous after the cardio workout. Next to her I feel like a giant five-foot-five beast dripping in sweat.
“Senna!” I say, feigning surprise while trying not to stare at her enormous rack. She’s always had big boobs, and now, well, they’re larger than ever. She’s either had kids or a surgical enhancement or both.
“Happy new year!” she squeals.
She hugs me, and I give her a limp squeeze back. She smells like candy, while I smell like feet. I regret not deodorizing today.
She steps back to view me up and down. “You look absolutely gorgeous!”
The other ladies in the room curiously turn their heads, only to see plain old me.
Real talk: I look nothing like the stick-thin, braceface, pimply dork I was back in high school. My ugly duckling phase lasted until second year university, when the “metamorphosis” finally happened. My skin cleared and my ass grew into the bubble butt people pay good money for. My Bahamian-Filipino features also fell into harmony when my face filled out, and I no longer looked like an underfed child. I had entered the ranks of the “attractive.” People in general became nicer, and life got easier. I became confident. Seeing my former friend, though, after months of inactivity and overeating, has me feeling like that awkward teenager all over again.
Her overt shock makes me uncomfortable, but I stiffly return the compliment: “You do too.”
“Do you work out here often? Is this your gym?” she asks.
“I’m on a guest pass,” I tell her. “Lenny brought me here.”
“How sweet! Is he here right now?”
“He is. I should get going. He’s probably done by now.”
“Hold on.” Senna magically pulls her phone out of her towel. “Let’s get together some time. I’d love to catch up.”
I snap my fingers regretfully. “I don’t have my phone on me.”
“Give me your number, then.”
“Uh…It’s a new number. I don’t know it by heart yet.”
Right on cue, my damn phone rings in my bag. I start coughing loudly to mask it. “Agh! There”—cough, cough, cough—“goes my asthma. Gotta”—cough—“run.”
Senna looks concerned as I cough and wheeze violently. “Are you okay?”
I give her a thumbs up and put on my coat while continuing my hack attack. Hurriedly, I grab my bag, and then whack! I slam the locker door hard against my forehead.
A gong goes off and sends shockwaves throughout my head. My vision goes blurry for a second. I try to blink off the dizziness. I’m about to resume my fake cough, but my phone has stopped ringing.
“Georgia!” Senna shrieks. “Oh my God!”
I check my head for blood. None. But Senna’s face says there’s something terrifying going on with my head. The other women stare at me, horrified. I go to the mirror to have a look and do a double-take at the sight of the grapefruit-sized lump at the center of my forehead.
“You need to go to the hospital to check for a concussion,” Senna urges. “I can take you.”
“That’s not necessary. I’m good.”
My phone is once again ringing in my bag, and Senna isn’t letting on that she notices. She gently takes hold of my arm. “I’ll walk you out. I want to make sure you’re okay,” says the chick who stopped giving a shit about me in high school.
When we get to the stinky part of the gym, I spot Lenny on his phone. He’s the one calling. He sees me coming with Senna holding my arm and understands why I haven’t been answering. The disgust on his face when he sees her is reassuring. He puts his phone in his pocket and nods at us.
“Lenny!” says Senna. “Oh my God! You’re such a big guy!” She advances to hug him but stops herself when he steps back.
He is a hulk compared to the svelte athlete he was in high school. “Hey, Senna,” he says, squaring his shoulders to make himself larger and intimidating. He then nods at me. “Yo, what happened to your forehead?”
I’m disturbed that I can see the lump when I look up. “I got jumped by the locker door,” I answer.
Lenny tuts and gives me a what-else-is-new eye roll.
“Georgia should get her head checked out,” insists Senna. “She banged it pretty hard.”
Lenny looks at Senna like she has no business giving medical advice. She shrinks back at his obvious contempt. I love my baby brother more than ever.
“Let’s get going,” he says to me. “Rosie needs a break.”
“Do you have kids?” asks Senna keenly.
Lenny can’t mask his new-dad pride, even with Senna, and smiles. “Yeah. Newborn twins. A girl and a boy.”
“How wonderful! Congratulations!” she gushes. “I’d love to see pictures.”
“We gotta go,” says Lenny, back to his coldness.
“It was really nice seeing you both!” Senna continues with unflinching sweetness.
“Later,” I mutter, giving her nothing more than a side glance.
“Hey, why don’t we—” I hear her saying, but we’re already heading out the gym doors, with no intention of stopping.