It happens seemingly overnight – ‘seemingly’ because you know it didn’t, it couldn’t happen that fast, even though it sometimes feels like it. You enumerated each and every day like a condemned man counting his steps to the gallows and Death is an algebra teacher who allows no miscalculations and marks your mistakes in blood. No, it didn’t happen overnight. It happened over the course of three gut-wrenching, bone-shaking months. It crept underneath the hospital bed and rippled through the covers and shot up those plastic breathing tubes right into your bloodstream and grew like a tumor on the walls of your self-confidence. There, it spread and festered, gnawing mutely, a disease with no name – until the day you came back.
You woke up that morning and counted the cracks on your ceiling like you counted everything else in life. You stomped through the permafrost in your decrepit black Carhartt’s and almost didn’t care whether or not the Niagara Falls of melted Michigan snow would gush from your socks all through school because the guys would be making you laugh too hard to notice. You hop-skip-hopped over the train tracks and hummed a muffled tune under your breath as the bus stop crested into view. God, you loved that bus stop. You loved the conversations and confrontations and that feeling of coexistence – of camaraderie – it always instilled in you. But not today. Today you will notice every globule of water beading on your feet and you’ll count the cracks in the fourth grade ceiling. Today you won’t laugh or hum a muffled tune because there’s someone else standing at the bus stop you love and your friends are conversing and confronting and coexisting with someone who isn’t you.
The disease has a name now. It’s called ‘being replaced’.
They have no shortage of platitudes to bestow upon you. They greet you and welcome you back and wonder aloud where you’ve been this whole time. All the while, you’ll nod and laugh and joke it off, accepting what has happened because acceptance is all you’ve ever known. You were raised on acceptance, food stamps, and forced humility – the diet of the poor. Acceptance is as intrinsic to your being as constant death or eternal life. It’s the only thing you can do, really. So you accept. And you learn to share your spot at the bus stop and in the neighborhood’s collective life with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beaming little boy. And you tell yourself that you’ll get used to it.
You should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy. Nothing is ever that easy, especially for you. Then again, it’s never been quite this hard, either. There are no guidebooks on how to assimilate into the background, no gauze bandages for the throbbing sting that pinpricks every time you see him doing the things you used to do with the people you once spent almost every waking hour dying to impress. There is no cure for this disease and no known end in sight but the least you can do is try to understand. You need to. Nothing else makes sense, but there has to be some reasonable explanation behind this.
So you watch. And you come to know this boy, your ‘replacement’, like the translucent pink scars crisscrossing your chest. You memorize the iambic pentameter of his laugh, the intermezzo and intonation of his peculiar speech. You observe how he interacts with others – the obedience, the cluelessness, the compassion – and, though they are few and far between, the times he interacts with you. You remember those miniscule moments of connection when he rubs your back and coos into your ear, ignoring the pervasive stench of vomit; the fantastical crayon doodles of the two of you framed by words of inspiration (“you can do it!” “keep on keepin’ on!”) he sometimes leaves in your locker, even though you’re now alive and well. You see these things happening all around you and you expect to find an answer, proof of how and why he is a better version of yourself. But there isn’t. And he’s not. Truth is, he’s nothing like you. And your friends like that.
You are sure of this. You are sure of this until the day you hear his sobs through a bathroom wall, quiet, gasping, desperate. The door opens and he comes out with eyes red and puffy and glistening under the dank fluorescent lights. He isn’t beautiful when he cries, but you still think he is anyways. When he sees you there, he sniffles, ducks his head, and stares down at his shuffling feet, the epitome of shame; you rip out a sheet of brown paper towel and paw it over to him, asking if he’s all right. He doesn’t respond at first. Just smiles sadly and blows into the paper towel. Then he cocks his head to one side and says, “How did you do it?”
“Do what?” you ask.
“Not care so d-darn much what they think about you. Or wonder if you were just being used again. Or if they ever even liked you in the first place. How did you do it?”
It’s the last time you envy him. It’s the first time you realize you aren’t so different after all.
You tell him the truth: “I didn’t.”
From then on, the disease mutates, shifts into something new. It pulses through your pounding veins and rattles the breath shared between you and him and grows like a welcomed abscess on the walls of your heart. There, it spreads and swells, roaring in your ears, a disease with a name – one you won’t dare speak aloud for fear that it’ll go away. But you have the words on your tongue and the circumlocutions in your mind, so you can describe it. It’s the knowledge that things and people and even you, yourself, change, and it’s the knowledge that things and people and even you, yourself, can survive these changes. It’s every day that Nick and Harry and Alex crash your house or wake you up at some ungodly hour or drag you on one of their insane, mad-cap adventures, letting you know that yes, they’re still your friends, and they’ll still be there to make you laugh until you forget everything that’s messed up in your life. It’s the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beaming little boy who is so different than you but somehow manages to know exactly what you’re going through and exactly what it takes to make it better.