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  • When you’re a child, you don’t really choose your friends. It’s a universally recognized fact of life from adult dinner parties to the school yard at recess; “you kids go play together.” Your friends become a composite default of those peers who live close-by, with whom you attend school and after-school activities. Sure, there exists a slight margin to account for the odd personality clash or parentally-deemed “bad influence,” but by-and-large the whole concept of friendship at that age is simple and predetermined. In my tiny 1950s-esque New Jersey suburban hometown, my friends were the girls who lived a few blocks from me. We knew each other’s families, took ballet together and had been having sleepovers and pool parties since we were in kindergarten.

    Of course, what simultaneously completely sucks and ends up being incredibly necessary is that middle school marks the end of this golden era of innocent friendship. Suddenly, things start to change. For me, that change manifested first in some kind of vague political awareness.

    It was the second week of sixth grade and I was walking to school with four of my friends. We were halfway there when Kaitlin Larssen, who lived in the house next to the house next to mine, pointed to my backpack and said, sharply, “what is THAT?”

    Kaitlin might have been my favorite of all my childhood friends. She was a tall, lean girl who managed to be sweet and bitingly sardonic all at the same time. There was a listlessness about her that was strangely compelling and even as she got older, she seemed to have an uncanny ability to eat whatever she pleased without gaining a single pound.

    The THAT that Kaitlin was referencing was a small round red button with yellow letters that read “Boycott Chinese Goods.”

    “It’s a protest button,” I replied.

    “What does it mean?” asked Patricia Giovanni, who was always kind, but never bright.

    “It’s about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Chinese took over the country from the Buddhists and it’s not right,” I said.

    “Who cares?,” asked Jennifer Crowley, a large girl who was naturally annoying. I already considered her a nemesis of sorts. “It’s not like we live there!”

    “We should care. They stole the country and killed people and now the Dalai Lama has to live in exile.” My understanding of the situation was highly rudimentary.

    “Who’s the Dalai Lama?” asked Patricia.

    “What does boycott mean?” asked Clara Clancy, who was often quiet and seemed a bit vacant in general.

    “It means you don’t buy their shit, duhhhhh,” snapped Kaitlin.

    “I just think you can’t take it lightly when people are dying in other countries.” I said.

    “When you die, do you want to be buried or cremated?” Patricia asked, to no one in particular. “Because I want to be buried. “

    “Buried,” said Jennifer.

    “Buried,” said Clara.

    “Buried, duhhhh” said Kaitlin.

    “Cremated,” I said.

    “Ewwwww whyyyyy!?” asked Jennifer.

    “Well, I feel like it doesn’t really matter, because I’ll already be dead. Besides, why take up more space on earth when earth is crowded as is?”

    “You know that means they burn you up. That’s so gross,” said Kaitlin.

    We were almost at school. We passed the deli where all the cool older kids hung out and the drugstore where we went to buy penny candy after the last bell. The pride of our town, a genuine Olmsted-designed county park, was directly across the street. We passed the townie sporting goods store called “Ben’s” and the pizza parlor and the old world Italian bakery, where I would accidentally witness a late night mob meeting years later. We turned toward school, which shared the town square with the library, the police station, city hall and a commemorative statue of a World War One doughboy. Lining up outside our class-designated doors, we saw some commotion erupt.

    Two wrong-side-of-the tracks girls, Tanya Maine and Heather Randolf, were fighting on the steps, undoubtedly either over a boy or one of them calling the other one a “skank,” which they both were. Yelling quickly turned to pushing and shoving, which drew a crowd. Kids were huddling around them to watch with a kind of lackluster attention, not because anyone really cared but because what else was there to do? My friends moved toward the mass that was forming around the altercation and I followed them to join the onlookers.

    Heather pulled Tanya’s hair. To reciprocate, Tanya punched Heather hard in the shoulder, knocking her off-balance and sending her onto the concrete.

    “OWW, YOU BITCH!” screamed Heather, standing up to reveal a cut on her forehead that dripped bright blood into her left eye and then down onto the ground. Tanya laughed. The bell rang and we filed in for another day of school.
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