HOW STRANGERS BECOME YOURS

   The people in our lives serve many purposes—friends, family, enemies, and in between. We enter and exit, and in wanting to see a pattern, we humans give it one: they came into our lives for a reason; we are stronger with/without them; there is something to be learned from that person; an angel in disguise. The clichés go on. 
	People do not exist in our lives for mere cliché, fate, or divine design. Others create our identities, selects for who we are: reflections of ourselves, whether they be good reflections—our friends, bad—enemies, or simply neutral. These reflections are never perfect, and in those gaps, life exists.
	My boys—Michael, Scott, and Daniel—have been all these reflections. Michael and I are similar as much as we are different. Scott and I were opposites that merged into a friendship. Daniel uncovered the best parts of me—and the worst.
	Our lives converged on the robotics team. Michael, joined first, followed by Daniel, Scott, and I a year later. In 2015, we were shoved together: powers above decided we would make up the “drive team,” four students charged with running the robot during matches. Over the next two years, we would become a unit as our nervous habits blended into a conglomerate of stress and we stood together against the fanfare of competition. 
	In those years, we shared memories: in the workshop, sitting in class, on the competition field. The moments we shared define me, define us.
Tall Boys and Their Peppy Corgi
The first thing worth noticing about all three men is how tall they are; averaging their heights gives you 6’1”. The data varies plus or minus an inch, meaning, Michael is 6’1”, Scott is 6’, and Daniel is 6’2”. The numbers suggest there is little variation in their height. And it would make sense, to tell you that they all feel like they’re the same height, but I can’t do that. Life would be too easy if there were a direct correlation between height and how tall they feel. Michael is lean, a soccer player, and a year older. He’s the only member of any drive team in the history of our robotics team to be on homecoming court—meaning, he’s the only one pretty enough to be asked to be an escort. When introduced during the homecoming game pep-rally, instead of striking a pose with his date, they politely waved, plastic smiles glued to their faces, and sat. There was nothing giddy in him. Still, there is much to appreciate: his sharp jawline and the lithe curve of his back. His ass is the nicest of the drive team. Michael is quiet—and if this were a romance novel, this would make him mysterious and brooding. The romance author might tell you about his dark eyes, and their sadness. This is real life, though, and his silence made me worry about him. Is he quiet because all is well? Or is there something wrong? What if he’s sad? He looks so, so sad. His face reminds me of an Irish Wolfhound. Asking if he’s okay only yields a sigh, “yeah.” I had little faith in his claim. He’s eight inches taller than I am. I rarely notice, though. He doesn’t make me feel small. In his silence, he notices things—notices my boiled over frustration channeled into a threatening wave of a hammer. “Hey man,” Michael knew to aim his concern at the cause of my frustration, unwanted advice from another. With one look, he ended the teasing I was attempting to solve with violence. I appreciate his help, but I’m sure he doesn’t remember. Scott gained his height during our friendship—sprouted up ten-or-so inches in the course of a year. He finds jeans uncomfortable and wears cargo pants instead. This is a character flaw. However, many men in robotics fall victim to the siren song of pockets and loose cotton-synthetic blends. We can’t judge him too hard. We can judge him for the dress shirt he never tucks in, worn with black cargo pants as if those are close enough to dress pants to be acceptable. At competition, he wears prescription safety glasses, and honestly, it’s a great idea. While I can pretend I don’t need glasses, being farsighted and pretty good at guessing what’s happening in the world, Scott needs his glasses. The safety glasses are nicer than normal ones too—they have less glare. I usually notice that Scott is seven inches taller than I am. It makes him a good post to lean my head on, when we’re stuck standing for three hours. His shoulder is a nice place to rest, just the right height for me. There is no power dynamic in his stature, though, just an added convenience that he can reach things high up. Daniel is blond and tall and pale. He is my beacon in crowds, a fluorescent buoy in the sea of people. If one manages to lose Daniel in a crowd, you have bigger problems than needing to find him. His color scheme is as stereotypically Nordic as one can imagine—he’d fit in just fine in Sweden, or Norway, or Iceland, all icy blue eyes and golden-white hair. The sun doesn’t tan him, as it might Michael or I, but turns Daniel’s skin into a smattering of freckles over bright, painful pink. “It’s not sunburn,” he’ll tell you. It’s definitely sunburn. He’s the kind of man that cares if his shirt is tucked in, or about stains. Every time I wiped cherry-colored grease on my jeans instead of the rag he offered, he huffed. I learned to look him in the eye, wipe my hands on my pants, and take delight in his disgust. There are never times I do not feel the nine-inch difference between he and I. He always towers over me, radiating warmth, a firm reminder that he is present. In hugs, one of my feet always leaves the ground, hovering barely an inch as he pulls me completely against himself. I am a whopping 5’5”, if you haven’t done the math. At first, I let it be a negative trait—too short, too small, too feminine. I was not like the boys—a girl, small, sensitive. While they were immovable police dogs, I was a corgi jogging after them. They are tall and strong and imposing. I barely clear their shoulders and strike little fear into others. My size is a part of me, though, neutral and unchanging. Over the years, I stopped noticing I was the “other” of the drive team. They never made me feel like an “other.” I held traits similar to all three of them—why would my boobs make me any different than them? So what, if I need their help reaching the top shelf in the workshop? Between the four of us, there was no strife. Outsiders—adults—were the ones who made me feel small, unworthy. Not the sixteen-year-old boys I worked with. Michael apologized every time he mentioned my height. Scott ignored my height, which led to me accidentally smearing lipstick over his pristine white shirt—a bloody stab wound from sudden embrace. Daniel let me be small, but never chastised me for my lack in size. I held their respect, as a whole human being—not as a small, overemotional girl—but as someone they could depend on. Someone who kept candy in her purse and was willing to listen. Someone who checked on them and worried for them and was their friend before she was a girl. They stood up for me, when 5’5” wasn’t enough to make people listen—people, being adults. Adults who felt a girl couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t gain their respect. I learned quickly that when people didn’t listen to my soft cheeks and quiet voice, to point my troubles towards the boys, make their options to deal with me, or deal with one or more of the three, tall, confident and capable young men over there. With the boys, I never had problems. No one asked about my lovely breasts, to perform sexual acts on them, or for my phone number. No one told me I was gorgeous, and they were in love with me. No one asked for a hug for no goddamn reason. I entered a bubble free of harassment and became comfortable there. With the boys, there was no fear. I had three knights keeping me safe, whether they knew it or not.
Concerns for Concussions
The first competition of the year was held in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in the last week of February. Do not go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in the last week of February. The Atlantic is gray, icy, and disgruntled that you are splashing in it. Nothing is open, waiting out the chilly winter for the more economically profitable summer. It’s plenty warm, you think, hailing from a land covered in six inches of snow. I only need a sweatshirt. That is the only positive. Michael was concussed during this competition. Someone told me this, as we had been assigned to something called “the drive team” and were supposed to trade-off between matches to do a job. We were “human players” (whatever that meant) and shared the spot with two others. “He’s concussed,” someone told me. It really meant, “keep an eye on him.” I didn’t know what the “drive team” was, or what “human players” did, or who Michael was. Everything was new to me, a trembling freshman, flung into the world of robots. We had just spent six weeks building a robot—named Marvin, because our team is named MARS, call ourselves Martians, and someone a long time ago panicked when a news reporter asked if the robot has a name. The easiest task on my whole list of questions was to identify Michael. He’s a sophomore. His brother is Eric—I know who Eric is: a boisterous senior with a big smile and complete disregard for personal safety. He started this year on crutches. Michael is the softer version of Eric—the younger brother who watched Eric, learned from mistakes, and took stock on how not to start the year on crutches. Michael did not learn how to remain un-concussed. Michael does not speak. I attribute this to being concussed but would later learn this is his norm. To be fair, I also do not speak. We work in silence together. So, I didn’t ask if he was okay—others would bother him about that. But I still worried. Should he have been walking around? Or competing on the field? Or even standing? I didn’t ask. Instead, I watched Michael from a distance—a distance that would remain between us. We would hover, just outside of personal bubbles. Our lives overlap in hindsight. There is very little that involves both of us directly.
Opposites Don’t Attract
Scott was twelve when we met, still in middle school—still in private middle school. I was from a public middle school, where eighth graders weren’t allowed to date sixth graders because the eighth graders were sexually active. Saying my time in middle school was rough around the edges leaves out much of the experience and ignores the social-savvy I carried forward. Private schools leave children sheltered and with egos too high for their experience. Our one friend in common wanted us to like each other, because Scott had earned the title of boyfriend and I, the title of best friend. Therefore, by the transitive property, we were friends. We had little in common. In fact, what we had in common was one friend, and had managed to befriend her for completely divergent reasons. It looked like we might have something in common—both hailing from middle school robotics teams. However, we were fast to realize we came from different flavors of chaos. Scott was able to experience the stress of trying to problem solve finicky robots. I spent my days trying to keep one kid from giving himself a concussion via smacking his head on a wall, peace-keeping between lofty, angry, young boys, all while trying to make the robot move forward, let alone complete any tasks. We have different opinions on middle schoolers and robots. He came from gods. I came from a team where we had to troubleshoot how to deal with a child biting and scratching other children. Still, we were around each other. I knew nothing about him—and passed judgement on things that weren’t him. Scott never fancied himself a god any more than all twelve-year-olds do. He was someone who needed love, friendship, and some time to grow up. Two years later, I would meet Scott all over. After a breakup for him and leaving a best friend for me, I found we weren’t so different. We’re writers. We adore science fiction, albeit with slightly different tastes. He’s funny. We are equally delighted by witty turns of phrase and irony. Making up stories became a natural past time. What if we created a story about a tiny demon, whose sole motivation was eating potato chips? What about a comic strip about a three-legged chihuahua and a very old golden retriever that accidentally finds Cthulhu? Don’t ask how these stories were birthed, or where they went. They went nowhere. But our friendship grew in those stories.
The Boy Who Smells Nice
I joined the high school robotics team the summer of 2013. At first, we thought I might be good with the outreach projects, writing brochures and press releases. After realizing that wasn’t for me, I moved down to the 3D printing project. 3D printers had just become vogue in 2013—and our team wanted to be able to print whatever our hearts desired. So, my job was to scour the internet for 3D printers. One day, that turned into me being sent into the workshop and I became the newest addition to the mechanical sub-team. We made the robot from raw metal. I never turned back. In the workshop, there was always something to do; always something to organize, or a new machine to learn about, or ideas to try. I loved the workshop. As a fourteen-year-old girl, I had other reasons to love the workshop: boys. The workshop was filled with boys. Cute boys. Nice boys. And one of the boys smelled like heaven—sticky sweet, glorious, intoxicating, probably Axe body spray. It didn’t matter. I loved whoever this boy was that smelled so good. They existed in a gaggle—the mechanical boys—and I thought I had who the boy who smelled nice pegged. I thought he had to be one of the seniors, Eric—Michael’s brother, the one who started 2014 on crutches. Eric had rippling muscles, was full of smiles and giggles. I was waist deep that phase where I developed feelings for older boys. Eric was exactly my cup of tea. Eric was not the boy who smelled nice. I discovered this in October. Our lead mentor had asked me to work with another new member of the team, Daniel, to make a travel cover for some of our punches, because they had no cover and would dump out every time we traveled. The task was simple, and my first foray into working without a mentor. I hadn’t met Daniel yet—wasn’t sure who he was and was immediately disappointed. Sure, he was as tall as Eric, but he was also 14, still plush with baby-fat and pale—alarmingly pale. He had no sense of personal space, standing mere inches from me, bumping into me, always edging closer, closer, closer as we walked down the hall, radiating heat. But he smelled good. In all fourteen years of my life, no man, boy, anything had ever, ever smelled this good. A pit swarmed in my stomach. What am I supposed to think of this boy? He is not who I expected him to be, soft and warm and friendly. Friendly like a yellow lab, dragging me through conversations. His new mission was to string me along on his adventures, never letting me be forgotten. All I wanted was to be a brooding, silent shadow in a crisis of emotion. I don’t know what his intentions were, but he decided we were friends that day. So, we were.
Oh Good, We’re Screaming
In the same locale as I had met a concussed Michael two years earlier, the competition of 2016 was rough. The robot refused to work, simply because we had not yet finished troubleshooting. So, over the days of the competition, we troubleshot. By the last day, it seemed like the robot was done with its problems. Inevitably, the robot had one more trick up its sleeve, but that is another story. We stood together on the last morning of competition, waiting for the day to start, not yet awake enough to really do much. We always seemed to have the first match of the day and had been left to our own devices until competition commenced. Michael, the oldest of the bunch, showed Daniel a video. They giggled—as boys often do. For all their claims of manliness, my boys giggle a lot. The high of competition had made them punchy. They repeated the video a few more times. I was too far away to hear what they were watching, and ignorance is bliss. Michael and I were two planets that orbited. Daniel and Scott connected us—I don’t know Michael like I know the other two. We had maybe two, whole conversations, ever, despite being on the same robotics team for three years. His laugh was quiet, rare, but genuine. We touched each other on purpose once— a side hug initiated by him, a very weird experience. All other times, we worked with at least a foot between us, content in our personal bubbles. He sang under his breath as he worked, but only if there’s music to sing to. Quiet and tall were the easy adjectives to use for him—quiet being the operative trait for this story. After a few more reruns of the video, Michael and Daniel forgot about the stress of competition and were consumed with their delight for this video. They had devolved into repeating it to each other in between their laughter. The video was of the Grinch doing yoga—originally. The teacher asked the class, including a person in a Grinch suit, to “release all the sounds trapped inside your mind.” To this, the Grinch bellowed. And my boys were about to reenact this. Michael grinned, backed up a couple feet, lifting his arms above his head—a rising sun or some yoga bullshit. He took a breath, paused, then released a primal, horrifying, absurd, and deafening shriek. From within Michael erupted all the sounds of stress he’d been bottling since the beginning of the competition, perhaps since the beginning of time. And damn, was Michael stressed. We stood, shocked for just a moment. I didn’t know Michael could make a noise that loud. I’m not sure Michael knew he could make a noise that loud. Around us, strangers looked to the noise—some understood, others were not so empathetic. We finally decided it was meant to be funny, so we chuckled a little—still horrified by the noise. Not to be outdone, Daniel had to join in. He could not deliver the same primal scream, but it was plenty loud. Michael and Daniel started a call and response of terror yells. I stared at my shoes, blush creeping under my makeup, as their screaming began to draw more attention. We all wore matching t-shirts. I could not pretend I did not know them. I stood next to a girl from another team. She patted my shoulder, understanding the look of “honestly, what the fuck, guys” I wore. The screaming became one of their things, with Scott eventually joining in the “fun.” And that was how I learned that my boys are screamers.
Sad Thursday
It was a Thursday, late in August. My day started with a forced march up four flights of stairs and precalculus. Scott and I were in the class together. In our time together, I had started to find things I liked about him. He was a writer. We both like “The LEGO Movie.” He was mellowing, too, as he aged. We were around each other more, and I was starting to really enjoy his sense of humor. We still had our differences. During precalculus I had to define what “blowjob” means. To be fair, I stared blankly when he made a comment about the Millennium Falcon, so we both have our gaps. After trudging up the stairs, I took a deep breath at the top landing. I didn’t need to pretend the stairs didn’t wind me, but I do have sense of decorum. Being optimistic was one of my roles in my friendship with Scott. “Morning!” I set my lunchbox on the desk beside him. Scott didn’t look like his normal, exhausted self. He looked deflated, didn’t really bother to look up at me. “Hey.” He was never this quiet. “It’s Thursday,” I forced the conversation forward. Making him talk made him less sad. “It’s a sad Thursday,” he didn’t move from staring at his desk. “Why’s that?” A list of possible “sad” things rushed through my head—none particularly serious. I felt as if nothing could be wrong in any lasting manner. Not in high school. “He passed this morning.” And maybe he didn’t say it like that. But it doesn’t matter. One of the mentors on the robotics team had suffered a stroke earlier that month. But people survived strokes. I was still holding out hope he’d wake up and his stroke would become another memory. “Oh.” I didn’t know what to say. The pain started in my chest, between my diaphragm and my sternum. “Oh.” “Yeah.” Scott’s voice was tight—that tight that always marks tears. That tight that grabs the pain in my chest and forces it up. He looked at me and maybe it wasn’t my grief to feel, but I felt erupt, shatter, break, some cliché that doesn’t really capture how I felt but is well known enough that we’ll let it slide. I didn’t know what to feel. Our mentor wasn’t someone I was close to. I never worked with him that often on the team. But standing there, looking at Scott, I felt something. Loss? What did I have to lose? Sadness? Why was I sad? Death isn’t a feeling. I was hugging Scott before I let myself cry. It would be helpful to tell you I am not good at crying—it’s too many things at once: the breathing and the sobbing and the tears and the feelings. I quickly devolve into shaking and squeezing Scott like it might help. Tucked into Scott’s chest, I didn’t struggle to breathe, like I usually do. He didn’t ask me to talk. I was surrounded by warmth. The scratch of his sweatshirt was unexpected against my cheek. Sobbing into him wasn’t in my plan, and school had to start soon. I peeled myself away. I wiped my face, already puffy and red. “I’ll be back,” is what I wanted to say. But tears wrung my throat dry, trembling. “Okay.” It sounded like a breath.
Nurse Daniel
Of the three, I worked with Daniel in the workshop the most—we’re the same age, spent four years making robots together. As younger students, we showed promise that others didn’t, and earned a certain autonomy. Daniel’s promise came from real-world experience in construction. He came with knowledge about tools and machining. My promise was that I was not stupid. As a girl, I had been socialized to follow directions well and play nicely with others. I could be thrown into most situations and be fine. So, with our promise shining through, Daniel and I were sent to make small parts. Not a hard task, we split into two modes. Daniel ran the bandsaw and I took to rinsing the metal, readying it for paint. Part after part passed from the bandsaw, to my hands, under the water, spray down with alcohol, into the ever-growing stack. My movements become robotic, in time with the screech of the bandsaw. The pieces were six inches, a size I decided was “plenty big” if it were a penis. Lost in my thoughts, I missed the sharp edge on the piece until— “Shit,” I muttered when the water turned red. Pain radiated from my ring finger. Glancing over my shoulder, I checked on Daniel. He hadn’t budged. Didn’t hear me cut my finger. Good. I assess the damage: the tip of my ring finger now sported an inch-long, concerningly deep cut. My first concern was that it would make playing my viola harder. But the parts needed washed. No time for band-aids, if I wanted one. And I didn’t want one. So, I snagged a clean paper towel and applied pressure until the gushing wound was silent. When we’d run out of parts, Daniel and I packed up. I kept the paper towel tucked against my finger. Convinced I was done bleeding, I tossed it in the trashcan as we walked back to the main workshop. An hour passed, work happened, then work ebbed. Daniel and I hid in the back room of the workshop, not wanting a new task. We were “sorting.” I checked my finger, making sure the scab was forming and it wasn’t going to bleed anymore. “What’s that?” Daniel noted my pause in progress. “Nothing.” I went to hide my injury. He frowned and took my hand. I wanted to pull away, but physical contact is a strong paralytic. “When did you do this?” He gawked at my finger, grabbing the first aid kit. I shrugged. “Earlier.” “Gwen.” He didn’t need to scold me. “You need to take care of this.” I had. I had stopped the bleeding and it had scabbed just fine. Except, Daniel had poked it just right, making it bleed again. We judged my finger, coated in the filth of mechanical work. To be fair, my finger was suspiciously red—inflamed from the tissue damage— and the slice took up the entirety of the tip of my finger. We stared at my blackened finger, judging the minutes I had left to live. If this were the apocalypse, I’d be losing this finger. Alas, it’s not the apocalypse. I shrugged, ultimately unconcerned. My finger would heal. I had faith in it. “No, we’re taking care of this.” Daniel rummaged through the kit, clearly having no faith in my finger. He steers me to lean against a workbench, lest I pass out from blood loss. I pressed my lips into a straight line, making my chubby cheeks puff out and poorly carrying my dissatisfaction. He cradled my hand, which I held limp. Over my little fingertip, he smeared over a teaspoon of antiseptic ointment on it. That was unnecessary. My nose scrunches. “Stop that.” I relax my nose, unable to hold negative feelings towards him long. He wraps the band-aid loosely, impeded by the absurd amount of slime he’d subjected my finger to. Instead of the sting of the fresh wound, I feel only the ooze of ointment and the slithering of the band-aid. Any adhesion it may have had is null-and-void. The band-aid’s moments are numbered. He pats my hand, proud of his handiwork. Fifteen minutes later, the band-aid “falls off.” I wash my hands to avoid further interrogation on my injury.
A Photograph of Today
Michael smiles at me when we pass on campus. However, we’re on different campuses, so I don’t see him often. He responds when I text with weird, writer questions, and occasionally when I make a post about writing about our time on the team together. We talk over snapchat, about scary movies and homework and drinking because homework is hard. Scott is one of the few left in my life after high school. We don’t see each other often—he’s in Indiana, and I am in West Virginia. But he always responds when I text. I am never disappointed to see his name pop up on my phone. Daniel? There are many more essays to write about Daniel before I can really tell you what happened, and how I feel about it. Those events were vapid, lusty, and stupid. He didn’t take advantage of me, an enthusiastic participant. But it means we don’t talk anymore. Perhaps he cares for me, it’s easier if I assume he doesn’t. In each of them, time is immortalized. They bookmark memories that would slip into oblivion otherwise. Michael’s screeching is a road-marker for an event that was otherwise anticlimactic. The days in the workshop would blur together if not for Nurse Daniel. Scott made school more bearable, more interesting, and marked a shift in the people I grounded myself with. Alongside each of them, I grew into the woman I am today. In what I love most about them, I find what I want to be—to be as calm and patient as Michael, funny and smart as Scott, charming as Daniel. They’ve taught me what I don’t want to be—frighteningly silent, egotistical, a person willing to take advantage of others’ feelings. Our menagerie of memories makes us who we are—and defines who we think we’re surrounded by. My boys would not write the same collection, could not, should not. The boys you met today are reflections of themselves, truly my boys. To write an essay and claim I have captured them fully is foolhardy and egotistical. But to ignore how they live within me ignores how they’ve shaped me, for better or worse.

By Gwendolyn Nurkiewicz