The Minty Periphery, Part One: Penelope

Have you ever had a connection to someone–any old kind of connection–that you can’t really explain or make sense of, but you can’t seem to shake, either?

…Sorry. Let’s start this again.

Have you ever tried growing mint?

I might not strike most people as the gardening type. And, well, today, as it stands, I’m not. But thanks to my mother’s careful ministrations, my childhood was filled with plants.

Every year, right around this time, our kitchen windowsills filled up with yogurt containers full of potting soil and egg cartons full of peat pellets, and we would tend seedlings. By “tend”, of course, I mostly mean that every morning I rushed to the windowsill to see if anything had grown or changed in the slightest, and was filled with delight if something had.

Just look at those beansprouts! Aww!

Yes, when I looked up “peat pellets” to get this picture, a good chunk of the results were about their use in growing marijuana.

When we were past the last danger of frost (always a contentious proclamation to be making, might I add), we transferred our little baby seedlings out to the vegetable garden in the backyard. My mother helped me dig rows of little holes in the soil, and I pressed the seedlings (pellets and all) into the earth with grubby, small fingers.

We grew pumpkin and zucchini and snow peas and sweet peas. Every year we planted tulip bulbs, and every year the squirrels dug them up and took them away. At the time I was furious, but now I’m in love with the idea of what probably happened: squirrels have very poor memories, from what I’ve been told, and it’s very common for them to bury nuts and forget about them. So somewhere, probably in the radius of my old neighbourhood, unexpected tulips are springing up every year in somebody’s yard even though they were stolen out of ours.

We had an enormous squirrel population. This is how I cope.

You clever guerrilla-landscaping little bastards!

But I digress.

Eventually I got really into the idea of growing herbs, and started reading all kinds of books about their various culinary and medicinal properties (not to mention quite a few witchy, mystical uses, I’ll admit). The season we began growing herbs, we started a little late. We weren’t on top of things enough to start our seeds indoors, so to fill the beds we hit the Canadian Tire garden centre and bought some plants. Basil. Oregano. Chives. Lavender. Rosemary. Thyme. Mint.

They were great. We had a lovely season, the yard smelled fantastic, and I made a lot of really nice breads with fresh herbs in them, because I’m fancy. The garden was beautiful, with each herb confined to its own little corner.

But the next year. Fucking Christ.

Perennials, kids: they don’t care where you tried to put them or how you wanted them to grow. They’re going to do what they damn well please, and their soft stalks have gotten all wooden over the winter and you will give them liberty or you will give them death. The oregano came back massive, the lavender had taken fierce root and the thyme had sprawled way out. But the mint.

It had sprouted in separate tall shoots all over the garden, at random. This was ruining my plan of having a mint patch completely, so I made up my mind to pull up the deviating shoots and transplant them back to where they came from, with the original plant. So I, in my infinite wisdom, without really thinking too hard about maybe getting a trowel or something, gripped the stem right at the bottom and pulled, hard.

Imagine my surprise when the plant didn’t just come up by the roots, but it disturbed the dirt a solid meter away from me as I ripped a long, thick tendril out of the ground.

That, kids, was how I learned that mint grows like this:

They go from one end of the garden to the other, and out to the sides.

Except mine were waaay taller. Because I’m just better.

It’s connected by these big thick tubers, and you can’t tell by looking at them until you dig one up. So every shoot of mint in my garden was basically the same plant, though at the same time they have their own individual roots. They were all connected, but in this bizarre underground way that, without prior knowledge, you wouldn’t really expect. But try to uproot one, and all of a sudden you realize it’s very attached.

This is what I’m talking about. Are there people in your life that are like weird plants?

There are people on the periphery of my life–way out on the edges, the outskirts, the cheap seats–that I maintain a strange subterranean connection to. As peripheral as they may be, as much as they would be minor characters with almost no speaking roles if my life were a movie, they are tied to something intrinsic and I don’t know what.

Especially when they’re uprooted.

We delved a little bit into my childhood friendships not long ago. For whatever reason, these friendships are my fixation right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about the group of kids I was close to an even decade ago.  The scary tough girl who took me under her wing on my first day of the fourth grade has a two-year-old son now. The boy who gave me my technical First Kiss (on the cheek, in a game of truth or dare) is engaged. The girl I couldn’t stand for being such an insufferable teacher’s pet, the only person low enough on the social spectrum that even I bullied her, grew into a wonderful friend and endlessly kind human being who let me sit in her truck in the high school parking lot and held my hand while I sobbed for an hour. You can read my letter to Mercury, my artsy geeky story girl best friend. But she wasn’t the only artsy, geeky story girl that I befriended in the fourth grade. There was this other girl. This other crazy artistic powerhouse of a girl who could draw circles around us both.

…That’s a terrible idiom in this case.

She, uh, she drew real real well.

Trigger warning a couple paragraphs down: childhood bullying.

Anyway. From the day we met in grade four to the day she moved away at the end of grade six, she was my other best friend. Looking at it that way, this wasn’t a very long period of time, especially when you cut out the three months in which I moved away, only to move back again. Three years of friendship: it might not seem like much.

This girl was a piece of work. She has some real anxiety issues for sure, and likely always has, and in elementary school, pre-mental-health-awareness-craze, these manifested pretty badly.

Now, I was a pretty weepy, high-strung, angsty, tactless and outspoken nine-year-old. My favourite things at the time included reading, drawing pictures, watching cartoons, playing Civilization III (on the computer! Wow!) and messing around with HTML. (I had a brief, weird phase at age nine where I was mad-smart at web design. It went away. I have no idea.) I wasn’t popular. I was introverted and awkward and just plain bad at being a normal kid and playing well with others, and I compensated by being an insufferable smartass, knowing that while other kids could make me feel like shit, I at least had the power of making them feel stupid.

But Penelope? Ouch. She had a lot of the same traits as me–she was bookish, she drew constantly (and better, I should add, than I ever have), and she was heavy into the same cartoons and fandoms that I was. And she had double the awkwardness, with maybe half the skill at brushing it off. It wasn’t that she didn’t try–we both tried–but we weren’t well equipped to handle crowds of other kids bent on hurting us and mocking us in every way. We were cursed with shaky voices and trembling lower lips, cheeks that flushed with embarrassment all too easily and traitorous tear ducts that sabotaged our daily attempts to stand up for ourselves.

Sometimes standing your ground works–but other times, it’s just an excuse to be knocked down over and over. The bullying inflicted on us was mostly verbal–and compared to some situations I know it’s nothing–but no bark has grown over my memory of how it feels to be that helpless. I hold no illusions about the cruelty of children; I haven’t brushed it off with time and age and I haven’t gotten callous and maintained that it’s “just a part of growing up” and “kids should learn to deal with it”. I am very aware of the tragedy of growing up a weird kid, because it’s the same one all weird kids face: they’re gonna put you through hell and there’s nothing you can do but wait until they know better. You’re gonna have to hope that when you come out of the other side of this meat-grinder that is grade school, you are intact. You will have to rebuild yourself, instead of just growing up like the other kids. The adults around you will expect your childhood to be a continuous process of growth; they will not be ready for the idea that it left you full of holes or that you will have to fill them with something somehow. The other kids will dig deep wounds in you that aren’t being dug into them in turn, and you will become intimately aware of your own psychology because you won’t have a choice. You will have to struggle to feel valuable. You will grow up and the people around you will say things like “bullying prepares kids for the real world, where they have to try to get along with people!” and you will wish you had the courage to say, “Fuck you, actually, because in the ‘real world’, when someone harasses or hits you or steals from you it’s a crime and you call the police. It’s only children that we force to protect themselves all on their own.”

This is all to say that Penelope got bullied to absolute pieces. She was treated like shit, and she was so reactionary that the other kids ate her alive. She carried stuffed animals to school every day. She wore bizarre outfits. She was unusually short and very skinny. She had a speech impediment and couldn’t quite say the “sh” sound, and I doubt I will ever forget the sound of her “standing up for herself” as critics of anti-bullying measures so often recommend, trying to remain calm, yelling “S-sssut up!” I remember the words being parroted back at her over and over and over. She cried easily.

I remember all of this, all too clearly, and it still makes me angry to think that she went through all that–twice as badly as I did–even though she was, by my own metrics, phenomenally cool. She was funny and silly and crazily artistic, and she fit right into Mercury’s and my spectrum of fantastical recess games. We drew comics. We brainstormed heavily. We had crushes on boys and drama with other friends and talked about books and clothes and TV and movies and life, the universe and everything. I remember being tight-knit. I remember eating popsicles on Penelope’s front porch, playing dress-up in her hallway, building forts in her room and listening to crazy j-pop remixes. I remember building villages in the sand with her at recess.

I still have the (Avatar: the Last Airbender-themed) card that she drew for me when she found out I was moving away in grade five. Mercury gave me a picture frame as a going-away gift, and now, at nineteen, it sits on top of my filing cabinet with the same picture of the three of us, arms across each other’s shoulders, on the schoolyard in our puffy winter coats.

When I moved back, life continued much as it always had, except that Mercury made it her personal mission to crush me nearly to death with a hug every day as a gesture of relief that I was home.

Grade six was a nasty time for all of us back then. Everyone I still know from that year agrees that it was the grade where everything went to hell. The “popular kid” friend group suffered massive infighting, I learned later, and there were major schisms and crazy Queen Bees and Wannabees shenanigans going on. We didn’t notice because we were going through our own crises.

October 2006 to April 2007 was my massive episode of legitimate, diagnosable clinical depression, which is really a whole other story. I was eleven. It was very, very bad. It was the worst thing I have ever known and I’ll leave it at that. Mercury and I have patched together the details long after the fact, and I think that was when she started to become depressed as well. It was definitely when she started wearing her windbreaker all day and refusing to take it off, when she got sullen and when she started preferring the gothic, angsty Teen Titan Raven over the happy-go-lucky Starfire. You can laugh, but that was a very real benchmark at the time.

Meanwhile, Penelope was getting “sick” with alarming frequency. Almost every day she would raise her hand in class and announce, “I don’t feel well.” At first, she got sympathy. She got sent home. Then she got cut down to going to the office to lie down, and eventually her parents actively refused to let her come home when she called. Looking back, I think this was a very real manifestation of her anxiety. She was bullied and terrified all day, and I don’t blame her anymore for wanting to get out.

At the time I was mystified–I was depressed to the point of total detachment, and when I was at home all I did was lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling and feel nothing. I dreaded weekends because I lacked the routine of school to keep propping me up as a living human being; without the structure, I absolutely dissolved. Now I see that Penelope was really suffering, in a different way, and I feel bad for having treated her like she was lazy and faking it constantly.

That spring, my depression lifted and Penelope’s problems didn’t. She told us one day that she was going to start home-schooling; she did. For about a month, if I remember correctly, she wasn’t at school. We saw each other on weekends and we talked on the phone here and there, but she was gone. I remember feeling a sense of loss–not that we had lost her, but that we had lost. I felt like it was a defeat. I hadn’t considered the other factors–her mental health, namely–and I understood it that the mean kids had finally driven her out.

She came back for the last month of school. At the end of the year I got a phone call from her.

“Mefiante?”

“Hey! Penelope! What’s going on? I wanted to talk to you, actually, because I have this thing–”

“I’m moving to New Brunswick.”

“…Oh.”

That was it. Promises were made to keep in touch, to call, to write letters, and above all to be Friends Forever. But how many people have made promises like that? How many times a day do you think that happens?

How often do you think it works?

We exchanged letters once or twice in the seventh grade. We lost touch for a while before she responded to the letter I sent her, which eventually arrived containing her deviantART.com handle. 2008 was the year we were all on deviantART, and we kept in touch there for a while. Slightly.

I think it was somewhere around the tenth grade that we had our last actual communication. I stopped using deviantART almost completely (website fatigue, you know?) and that was the only place we communicated. This girl who had been such a big deal for three years faded out of my life almost completely. It happens. That should have been that. It’s happened countless times with countless other people, and I haven’t been particularly bothered.

But here’s the thing. Here’s the mint-tuber mystery connection you were promised so many paragraphs ago.

I have these recurring dreams, and I’ve been having them every few months ever since the summer of 2007 when Penelope left. The dream updates itself as I get older–the places change, the people age–but the premise is always the same. Penelope has come back, and we are catching up and comparing notes and laughing about how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes I feel guilty. Sometimes I feel extraordinarily relieved. But in these dreams I am telling her about everything that’s changed, about what we’re doing now, about everything she’s missed as though it would have been the most important thing on her mind, everything that’s been going on in a town where she only lived for three years. In more recent editions of this, the dream is so convincing that I actually say to her, “This is going to seem weird, but I actually kept having these ridiculous dreams about you coming back to see us!”

I had this dream a few weeks ago. It’s one of maybe three dreams I’ve woken up remembering in the last several months. I don’t understand. I don’t understand why Penelope stands out in my head as someone that shouldn’t be let go of. I have no idea what she’s like now. I don’t know in any detail what the last several years of her life have been like, but I am fascinated and I have no idea why.

The only lead I have on her is her deviantART page, which she doesn’t seem to use much anymore–and it links to a tumblr. Which I clicked. And I browsed through. I was jarred by seeing photos of her, looking so different but so much the same. And yes, I feel very crazy about being so caught up in this person who I only knew for a brief while, but I am. I am caught up in it, and I’m positive it says something important about me, but I have no idea what.

After all, there are countless people I’ve lost touch with over the years. I ran into another girl from the sixth grade at the bus stop a few weeks ago while I was out with Sunshine Moonbeam, and I told her the story and how strange it was to see her there. I was too shy to approach her and doubted she would want to see me anyway, even though we used to be friends. Hell, there are all kinds of people I used to be close to that I’m not anymore. Why not the tough-girl-turned-teen-mom? Why not the boy who kissed me on the cheek?

Why Penelope?

I don’t know.

I know (from my internet stalking) that Penelope no longer definitively identifies as a girl anymore, something I wouldn’t have picked up on, although she wasn’t very specific (and I obviously haven’t asked) so I will continue to refer to her as a her for now. She’s also no longer in New Brunswick, and she’s in a long-distance relationship with a girl.

I know from talking to her, before losing touch, that when she got to NB she repeated grade six, and that halfway through that process she started homeschooling again. The internet has since told me that she went to some kind of alt school and subsequently dropped out of it. She sounds as though she might not be doing that well. I have no idea why I feel invested in this situation.

I can’t explain. I don’t understand the secrets of the Minty Periphery of my life, but I can’t help but wonder if, one of these days, after one two many of these ridiculous dreams, I should send her a message and find out whether she remembers us. It might be nothing; it might be crazy. It might be guilt at having seen her destroyed by bullying and knowing she’s still suffering from it in some way. It might be that having social media constantly available to me has built up a weird addiction to being able to access other people’s lives and that I can’t stand not having access to hers.

I don’t have a solid answer here; all I know is that there are deep roots.

(This was longer than I meant it to be. This is a series now. There’ll be another one.)

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