I used to know a girl named Kaitlin, or Kaitlyn, or Katelyn — I can’t remember which. She went by Katie, anyway. She moved away on the last day of fifth grade, when the fruit flies and hurricane season were due anytime now in our wooded Houston suburb. But before running off to San Antonio, home of the Alamo and Texan freedom fighting, she wanted me to understand a few things.
She’d been planning a little revolution of her own. She was going to bleach her acorn-brown hair platinum (but not her eyebrows, because she knew better than that); to eat Yoplait every day in order to lose her baby fat; and to become a bona fide Victoria’s Secret Angel. There was even a contract in the works, she insisted, and I promised I’d look out for her name in the fashion magazines.
I can’t find her now on Google or Facebook, but I do remember that she once gargled her strawberry Yoplait in the back of her throat to make me snort with laughter. She lived with her mother and “fucking” hated her father (the other girls at our lunch table gasped when she said that), and she spent the night at my house whenever her mom had a guy over. Both of us were short and slightly pudgy, awkward-looking even during our pre-awkward years. We’d talk schoolgirl stuff, zooming from minor humiliations usque ad solar systems. Always, the conversation would wind its way back home to angels and fame and lingerie and halos.
We were only fifth graders, but Katie told me she was heading straight to heaven. She didn’t know what sin was, but she had a lot of hope for the future, and I wanted to believe her. So I did believe her.
I’ve known for a long time that I’m gullible. Katie wasn’t the first friend I’d had who knew how to take me in with glimpses of other ways to live life. In second grade my best friend (or BFFL, as we liked to call ourselves) was a girl named Julia, who decided one day during recess that she could confide in me. “I can’t tell anyone else this because they’d laugh,” she murmured solemnly, with deep blue saucer eyes the same vivid hue as the Texas sky. “But I have royal blood in me. My aunt’s a princess-in-exile.”
I didn’t laugh. I said I was convinced — how couldn’t I be, looking at her lovely, lonely eyes and golden hair? We shook on the secret. It bound us now, I thought. In the back of my mind, I wondered whether I too might be distantly related to any empresses of the old Chinese dynasties.
So three years later, when I met Katie, I’d already had plenty of practice giving my friends the benefit of the doubt. Whether that meant believing something about the past, the way I did with Julia, or hoping for a glamorous future, as with Katie, I trusted in possibilities for them that I would have liked for myself.
This sort of whimsical over-imagination wasn’t just an elementary school phase either. In high school, I hung out with a half-Scandinavian girl who giggled loudly and kissed a lot of people and cheated on her soul mates, who took Linear Algebra for fun and knew how to strain baby-smooth almond milk through a cheesecloth, but who couldn’t understand why she sat alone at lunch.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she whispered, more a question than a statement.
“No, there isn’t,” I insisted in response. To me, that was the truth. She had spun around in her seat on my first day as the new kid, waved and asked, “What’s your name?” I told her. Emily! — the way she repeated my name made me believe I was charming and hip and with it and worth it. Emily — that was me! I liked embellishment, I liked metamorphosis. Throughout the years, my gullibility — whether it meant sharing the excitement of beauty, or being in on a secret of imaginary bloodlines — was less an act of generosity toward my friends than toward myself. I wanted to think that if Katie could get angels and heaven, then so could I. It was the same with Julia, and with my high school friend, who saw me not as I was but as I wanted to be seen.
Katie’s cocoon got lost out there in the wind, and I don’t know what color or how thin her Victoria’s Secret Angel wings are now. I have this hazy gold-tinted version of her stored in my head, which I’ve projected eight years into the future, like those apps that guess how you’ll look when you’re older. And our remembrance of the Alamo is more myth-making than genuine history. I still think of regal Julia sometimes, and I’m still hoping to find Katie’s name on the pearly gates. Because I, too, want the crown.
And I want the halo.