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Areesha Nouman

Grade: 8

Birchwood School

Instructor(s): Maysan Haydar, Lorraine Tzeng

Fitting In

Short Story

Fitting In

Everything was silent as the girl sat on the edge of the chair, staring at what seemed to be nothing at all. Each movement and action around her was a suspenseful one; it was almost as though everything was holding its breath, frozen in time - waiting for her to make a mistake. She seemed silent as well; nothing dared to stir in that moment. The wind whistled against the half-open window, its echo an eerie whisper. It rustled the papers on her desk, breaking the silence that hung in the air.

Her already tired eyes drooped even more as her attention was now drawn to the pile of homework on her desk. She knew she had to get it done at some point, yet the motivation and strength she needed to do so was suddenly nonexistent, there one moment and slipping out of her outstretched fingertips the next. She turned away from the desk and shut her eyes, the view of darkness not so much different from that of her room, faintly illuminated by a dim lamp. When she opened them again, her gaze met the pale, white wall in front of her. The girl looked up, then down, then back at the wall again. She fidgeted with her fingers and stared blankly at them, her stance so impatient as though there was somewhere she needed to be, something that needed to be done. But she was waiting for nothing at all. Rather, she was trying to get through everything as quickly as possible; she had long ago learned that anything, everything, was much less painful the quicker it was done. Even though it was a piece of advice she was never able to live up to, she knew it was true.

She powered on the laptop, not wanting to look at the homework or the white wall that glared coldly at her, that were judging her every breath and movement as though she was doing them wrong. Not wanting to think about the present, her mouse gravitated toward the app that contained the album of photos that she scrolled through almost daily, gazing at nostalgic photos of vacations or school events. She scrolled past the array of pictures, the screen bright, almost blinding, in front of her tired eyes. The girl's look was glazed as she stared at the photos, only blurs of color, as her finger swiped the screen. She reached a set of birthday party photos from a few years ago and stopped suddenly. She knew that things had changed for her since then. Nobody treated her with the same friendliness as they once did at a time that felt so long ago, back when she truly felt like a child. Over the years, she had drifted away from everyone else. Being invited to someone's party was to other people a common aspect of life. But for her, it was an event that she dared not expect, but one she could only hope for. If she was invited, she often thought to herself that it was only from sympathy, an act done out of pity given her situation. She almost was afraid of looking at the pictures, not wanting to bring back all the memories of lost times, but she could not help herself. Pushing the warnings from her mind away and clicking the collection, she studied the pictures of her friends crowded around a cake, their eyes shining and expressions laughing. She instantly regretted her decision.

It wasn't hard to spot herself, and she cringed. She looked nothing like them in any way. Not her clothes, not her smile, not a single thing about her was even remotely similar. It wasn't hard to notice how their short-sleeved t-shirts or sleeveless dresses or shorts contrasted with her sweaters and long pants. It wasn't hard to notice that she was not an average American girl, that her parents were from Pakistan, not Europe, not America. It wasn't hard to notice how their smiles looked so genuine, while hers was barely an effort to plaster on a fake grin. It wasn't hard to notice how their hair was done up in all sorts of styles, braided or put into a bun, while hers was under a hijab. How different, how alien she looked and felt compared to the others was something that always stood out and made her question herself. Why was she even trying to be like them? Why was having to wear typical Pakistani clothing, whether to a party or at home, something that she sought to avoid, something that was such a pain? What were the hours of switching back and forth between each sweater, debating over which pair of pants to wear, looking at herself at different angles in the mirror, and trying as much as she could to fit in with the other girls, doing to help her? No matter what she did, she knew that it would never work. She would never be able to blend in with the crowd or pretend that she was one of them. She stuck out in every photo she scrolled through, every place she went to, and it seemed unpreventable.

She shut the cover of the laptop and pushed it away from her, not being able to bear looking anymore. Her gaze once more shifted to the pile of homework, still waiting for her, wanting her, expecting her attention. She sighed resignedly and heaved herself up only to fall back down onto the chair before the desk in the corner of her bedroom. She ignored the blinds covering the window, though they seemed to be pleading her to open them, to let some form of light into her life. Picking up her pencil off the floor and grabbing a sheet of paper, she switched on the table lamp, squinting her eyes against the sudden flash of brightness. Pencil in hand, her thoughts flew across the paper, guided by her mind, faster than she could keep up with. It seemed as though writing was one of the only things in her life that brought some relief and joy to her.

But relief and joy soon turned to frustration. Her pencil was leading her, narrated by her thoughts, but was constantly flipped over to erase the words she seemed to dislike so much. The adrenaline rush she felt as a new idea emerged in her mind was often interrupted by a reprimand from her consciousness, telling her that it wasn't good enough. Instead of the thirty minutes of writing she was often assigned by teachers in class, she hunched over her desk for one hour, and then, before she knew it, two hours: erasing, adding, thinking, until she had pages and pages of words that she tried to feel proud of. When she brought her work back to school to submit, the sheets of paper covered with lines of her handwriting carefully stapled together, her classmates often bombarded her with comments about how much she had written and how she had managed to muster so many words over something so trivial. No matter how much they ogled at her work, she knew they would never realize how much time, how much effort, how much struggle, went into making it something that she felt was sufficient. She sometimes even envied the others in her class who were able to start and finish a writing piece within the span of only half an hour, not in the slightest bit worried whether their work was acceptable to anyone's standards and simply doing it to "get over it." She wished that her parents would actually understand her, instead of reprimanding her about spending too much time on her work and how everyone else was doing just fine without doing so. She knew it was true. She knew it was all true. But achieving perfection in every piece of work was a habit that was so different from her classmates, so unnecessary, yet something that felt uncontrollable.

Hours passed. She powered on the computer once more, this time in an attempt to contact someone, anyone, to rid the feeling of loneliness eating away at her. Pulling up a chain of messages with a classmate, she stared at the long list of texts that had been sent. They had all been sent by her: "Hi, how are you?" "What are you doing?" "What's up?" Replies of silence on the other side and an indication that the message had been read always left her feeling hopeless. There was no point in really trying to foster a true connection with her friends. She tried to remain hopeful, positive, but she could not understand why she was brushed away and ignored.

Maybe it was because she was never a part of the hours-long group calls that consisted of loud gossip and high-pitched giggles about inane topics she could never catch on to. Maybe it was because of all the times where classmates had excitedly whipped out phones, exchanging numbers and laughing over photos and videos, while she stood to the side watching them, empty-handed. Maybe the looks and side glances followed by loud whispers, the ones that she always hoped weren't about her, actually were signalling to her that she wasn't one of them. The girl, even though she knew nothing was going to come out of it, reluctantly typed a greeting. She knew it would remain unanswered, but she reassured herself, told herself that there was hope, that it wouldn't hurt to still try. She held her breath, watching, waiting, hoping. Her heart almost jumped out of her chest when a reply popped up the other side of the screen. She excitedly typed a "What are you doing?" in response to the "Hi" she was given. But when she received her answer, she knew it wasn't going to go anywhere: "Nothing." She sighed, realizing that there was no hope after all, that it did hurt to try. Typing a paragraph about her day and receiving an "Ok" in response, the girl exasperatedly shut the cover of the laptop and resisted the urge to fling it across the room. She just couldn't understand. What had she done? What was making her so different?

The girl stood up and walked over to the opposite wall, eyeing herself in the mirror that was perched against it. All she wanted to do sometimes was change herself completely. She looked in the mirror, hoping to see someone new, someone different. In the mirror, she hoped to see someone who would fit in with the others, blend into each and every photo and finally take part in the hangouts, the parties, the movies that spanned throughout weekend nights. She stared at her reflection blankly, hoping to see someone who wasn't so different in appearance and manner, someone who wasn't so cut off. But it wasn't who she saw.

She saw herself: the girl who spent mornings before school staring in the mirror feeling unsatisfied, desperately yearning to change the person she was never happy with, ignoring the voices angrily calling her from downstairs. She saw the girl who bent her head over her desk, furiously typing, deleting, all in an effort to make her work perfect. No matter how many hours it took, she was never able to achieve the flawless result she wanted. She saw the girl who typed one-sided conversations, always hoping for a message to pop up on the other side of the screen, and only receiving stilted, one-word answers. She knew that whatever she did, she would never be able to be one of the crowd, one who actually dressed, acted, talked like the rest of her classmates and friends. She saw exactly who she was trying not to see.

An outcast.

She saw someone who had and always would have trouble fitting in.