Art of Vulnerability

October 20226 min read

It’s March. I stand outside a Japanese croissant store with you and Giselle while we wait for the rest of the group to order. Evelyn pokes her head out. "Giselle! Amanda wants to talk to you. Come in.” She winks at me.

Now, it’s just you and me.

We admire the croissant poster on the glass window. I know what I want to say. I open my mouth, but the words are a sneeze stuck in my throat. My heart rate brings me back to my cross country race.

The others walk out the store. Oops. Evelyn set me up perfectly. I let her down.

On the bus home, I get another chance. I’m sitting on the sideways-facing seats beside you. Evelyn and Melinda across the aisle.

You tell me about Precision, a bridge bidding system. 16+ high card points to open 1 club, 12-13 to open 1 diamond with a 5-card major. I love hearing you talk. Even if it bores me, as long as you aren’t bored. Three stops before yours, I choke it out.

“I like you.”

“Ah. Sounds about right,” you respond.

I’m looking straight ahead but I don’t see Evelyn or Melinda. I see myself reaching for your hand yesterday morning. I see myself texting you out of the blue, asking if you’ve been in a relationship before. I see myself inviting you to hang out over March Break, after drafting replies to each of your possible responses.

“What gave it away?”

“Er… it wasn’t obvious. Just… your vibes, I guess.”

You’re speaking to me but I don’t hear you; your words a whirring ticket machine at Chuck E. Cheese.

It’s April. I jump out of bed. Instead of breakfast, I grab an apple to eat on the way. The bus you take arrives 25 minutes before class starts, but I rip my mask off to sprint for it.

I ask you how you’re doing.

“Life’s great. I totally won’t get yelled at tonight when my parents see my biology test.”

How are you feeling?

“We’re fine. Everything will be fine, right Laura?”

Our interaction is a tree stump trying to sprout branches. Will we ever have a conversation without sarcasm?

We’re standing on Don Mills Road after school, a group of us around the bus stop. You laugh when you yell in French. “J’ai aucune idée ce que tu fais maintenant!” You laugh when you trash talk the Canadian bridge team. “They’re trolling.” You laugh when you tell me you want to be a music teacher, but instead, you’re at TOPS. “My middle school in Gatineau has a better music department.” Does your personality have more than these three parts?

I sit beside you in chem. You’re walking around shaking classmates’ hands. “I like handshakes,” you say. When it’s my turn, I put on my best business grip. When we let go, you do it first.

Why do I keep trying? Why do I ask about you although you'd most likely respond sarcastically? Why do I never miss leaving the house at 7:55?

It’s May. You don’t initiate DMs except to send math memes. A William Rowan Hamilton parody at the back of the chem room. I laugh like a maniac until Ava turns around, looking at me. We’re on the bus home from band practice and you attempt to derive the derivative of ex without using the derivative of ln(x). I admire how you’re not satisfied with memorization. I skip physics to go to Mr. Gani’s room and you teach me fractional derivatives on the chalkboard. I admire how you plug the square root of negative one into the gamma function. Perhaps coming to TOPS was the right choice, if only to meet a fellow math nerd.

Your hand starts to linger longer. You lace your fingers with mine as Ms. Wilson talks about alkenes versus alkanes. I squeeze as if feelings are skin-transmittable. Chemistry is now my favourite class.

We lock eyes as you step on the bus. The rush-hour crowd between us feels like an insurmountable barrier, but you manage to wade over to where I’ve saved a seat for you. Amy watches us geek about special relativity. “You two’s conversations flow so well. You guys are so in sync; you’re practically the same person.” You say thanks. I let out a sigh. I’m not the only one who wants to talk.

It’s June. To work on our chem project, you’d asked to come to my house. Now, you’re sitting on the wooden floor of my room. We’re Not Really Strangers cards are stacked between us in 3 messy piles.

We’re on level 2. I flip over a card. “What could you benefit from letting go of? Why are you still holding on?” You break out that distinct derpy smile that I would’ve interpreted as sarcastic a few months ago. Your eyes in upside-down semicircles. Your forehead in wrinkles.

“Gatineau,” you say.

Now, I think it might be your coping face.

“Can’t find anyone in Toronto equally good?” I ask.

You’re looking down. You’re gluing cardboard pieces together monotonically. You’re whispering, as if another straw will crack your voice. “They were my family. They were everyone I loved.”

All those times I was turned off by your sarcastic “It’s fine”s, the classic “You think I’m competent?”s, the slight jabs at Toronto kids being cold in -10°C, were you trying to communicate something? Were you trying to convey that you desperately hoped your biology test would be fine, that you were insecure about your cello performance, that you longed for Gatineau although it’s been three years since you left? When you laughed about Canada’s bridge team losing, were you hurting about not having a long-term teammate in the sport you practice 20 hours a week for? Was this your way of expressing emotion without exposing your insides for the world to scrutinize? As if in disguising your emotions into jokes, you could pretend you weren't being vulnerable?

I think about trying and failing for weeks to crack open your shell on the daily 40-minute bus rides. Now, a card game brings it out. When you're sad, you sit on your bed and cry for a bit. "It's quite nice," you tell me. I made efforts to know you, not because I wanted to expand my network. You might be the first to achieve both. You talk about Precision and I listen because you're cute when you're passionate. Liking you taught me to love human connection like one appreciates a Jackie Liu painting – for the beauty of the art rather than a larger purpose. The art of peeling back those sarcastic layers and touching that fuzzy core of yours. The art that spilled into my other friendships.

I want to hug you, lean into your gentle TOPS sweater. I don’t, because I’m scared you'll interpret it wrongly.