A CHIP ON THE SHOULDER PLANTS A SEED IN THE HEART
"Best Friends for Never"
My mother always thought I was obsessed with being popular when I was young, but she was wrong. The obsession was really about finding and belonging to a group of girlfriends I knew I could always count on. It would extend far into my adult life, superseding the traditional quest of finding “the one.” And it all started back in Third Grade.
Cassie Rhee was a new student who had just transferred to our school from Colorado, though her family was originally from Korea. What I remember most about the Rhees was that they had a problem with a very popular children’s book that was in our school library. A book that would later become a movie with a 21% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It was called The Stupids. Too bad Cassie Rhee’s parents couldn’t have found a career as development executives for a studio or production company and moved to Los Angeles instead. Anyway, the Rhees made our Elementary School remove every single copy of The Stupids series from its library because, as my mom put it, “they clearly felt someone wrote their unauthorized biography.”
Cassie Rhee was a pretty young girl, with impeccable style, an outgoing personality, and a sexual awareness inappropriate for a Third Grader that would, no doubt, get her into trouble in the years that followed. For the time though, it got her noticed and made her untouchable. She was skinny, with pink full lips, lush bouncy black hair, and skin so tight you’d swear she didn’t have pores. There was something about Cassie Rhee - it was that she was both the hot Asian and the Regina George. She was the girl you loved to hate, yet wanted to be, and hated that she didn’t love you. That hot Asian infiltrated our circle of friends faster than a penis infiltrates a newly legal vagina. She introduced and established a hierarchy within that circle, and, of course, placed herself at the top.
Cassie Rhee befriended and eventually hijacked Emma and Leslie, two girls in our group who were best friends by default (due to the fact they’d known each other the longest since both of their mothers were long time friends), and eventually the three of them formed their own little clique, hanging out exclusively with each other and leaving the rest of us behind.
One day, my friend Maura suggested we invite Cassie Rhee over in the hope we might convince her to let the two of us be part of the new group. When our invite was accepted, you would have thought Justin Bieber was making a house call back in 2010. Our exhilaration quickly dissipated though when Cassie Rhee scoffed at our idea of having a water balloon fight. She wasn’t amused by our pitch to jump on the trampoline either, as she found that embarrassingly juvenile. As Maura and I desperately tried to improvise something to entertain the girl we’d hoped might bring us back to our friendships motherland, Cassie Rhee took it upon herself to propose a game that did meet her standards.
“I want to do something bad,” she said. “Let’s throw pennies over the fence so when your neighbor mows the lawn, they fly up and hit him in the face. I bet they’d make him bleed.” Looking back, I now wonder if Cassie Rhee has any relation to Kim Jong-un... Needless to say, I didn’t participate in the penny throwing, but Maura did and Cassie Rhee seemed pleased. I went home fearing both her and my future as a friendless outcast.
The following day, I was surprised to find there were suddenly seat assignments at our lunch table, courtesy of Cassie Rhee. My new place was at the end, where I strained to hear anyone’s conversation. I felt left out and neglected. It was a feeling I would grow gradually familiar with, and that would only get worse as the school year dragged on.
“What is this?” I said to Maura, pointing to her right pinky finger one day. The shimmering blue coat of polish caught the sun while we were playing tether ball during morning recess.
She immediately tried to hide it. “It’s nothing.”
“Why is only one of your nails painted blue?” I pressed.
“Okay. If I tell you, you have to promise not to say anything.”
“And also you can't get mad.” I nodded, confirming I knew how to do the impossible and choose my emotions.
“The Fourth Graders started a club and made Cassie, Leslie, and Emma the Presidents for the Third Grade. Once you’re in, they paint your right pinky nail blue, so you can tell who else is in the club.” It was like a gang symbol you flashed to show you were a member, only we were female suburban kids of the desert, so we got to call it a "club."
I was immediately desperate to join. “How do you get in?!”
“One of the Presidents from your grade has to invite you. If you say yes, they paint your nail blue and you’re in.”
Despite the fact Maura told me the club had been started by Fourth Graders, I knew better. Cassie Rhee was behind it all. She was pure evil, maybe even slightly disturbed, and she was punishing me for my insubordination with regard to the penny incident. But, much like that day, I thought it best to keep my two cents to myself. Beyond everything I wanted to get back in with the group of friends I’d known since Kindergarten, and I knew, in order for that to happen, that meant getting back in Cassie Rhee’s good graces first. So, I played by the rules, kept my mouth shut, and waited for one of the Presidents to approach.
Day after day I noticed another blue pinky nail on the playground that wasn't mine. Then, when it seemed as though the entire school had made their elite little circle except me, I started to fall apart. It never did dawn on me to just ask my mom for blue nail polish, so I could paint the damn thing myself, and tell anyone who asked that one of the Fourth Graders had done it. Regardless, I eventually broke down, groveling at Cassie Rhee’s feet and begging her to let me in.
After many days of deliberation, she told me "they" had reached a decision. “We’ll let you in.” Before I could start celebrating, she added, “BUT! Because you asked us, you have to pass a written test first." It was as if she sensed my excitement and was just as eager to snuff it out.
The day before the test, the club gathered for a meeting to discuss what sort of questions would be on it. Immediately after they’d adjourned, Maura called me. Because I wasn’t allowed to miss a single question, she insisted she help me study to ensure I’d pass. So basically, she told me the questions and answers, and I memorized them.
The following day, Cassie Rhee strutted over to our lunch table carrying her Hello kitty lunchbox and a crisp college ruled document. "I hope no one cares, but after everyone left my house yesterday I came up with some even better questions and added them to the test." It was said, pointedly, to Maura and me, as if she’d tapped our phones and heard our entire “study" session for herself.
Maura recoiled, and none of the other club members seemed too bothered by Cassie Rhee's last minute changes to object. She slid the test across the laminated table top to where I sat, and I furiously went to work, answering everything as best and as correctly as I could. By the time I slid it back to her, I was fairly confident I’d passed.
“You got one wrong,” she said with pleasure after just a few seconds of scanning over my answers.
“Which one?” I asked in disbelief.
“What is JTT’s real name?”
Impossible. Who didn’t know the answer to that question? Jonathan Taylor Thomas was the masturbation fantasy of every young girl in the 90s, making his way into our hands and hearts - not only for his roles as Randy on Home Improvement or Ben Archer in Man of the House, but more importantly, as a tender young cub named Simba
“Jonathan Taylor Thomas is his stage name,” she clarified, smugly. “We were looking for his real name - Jonathan Taylor Weiss.”
“You didn’t make that clear!” I argued.
“Sorry,” she said, pleased her clever wording had paid off, “You can’t be in the club if you miss a single question, and you did.”
To this day, I will never forget JTT’s true identity because for a long time, it was responsible for derailing my own.
I would have many different groups of friends over the years and trouble fitting in with every single one. While there are different forms of heartbreak, it is my belief that the most damaging, by far, is the kind of heartbreak one can endure through female friendships. As children we expect our girl friends to be there for us, to support us, to include us, and to make us feel special when the rest of the world isn’t. Yet, these expectations and supporting one another has always been somewhat of a challenge, even as early as our days on the playgrounds, and for me, it only seemed to grow worse as I grew older.
My mother always told me a girl was lucky to make it through life with two really good friends by her side. Despite my persistent efforts to prove her wrong with even more, I would inevitably learn the only real friend a girl can count on is the one living within herself. Because as my experiences would prove, the concept of best friends is as much a bullshit fairytale as Prince Charming showing up to rescue you.