When I was a kid, I was a rebel. So was my best friend John.
John was one of those awkward boys with a too-large nose and too-long limbs. He didn’t like sports and he loved books and he was just like me. I was awkward too, shy and more comfortable around adults than other kids, with a deep-seated love of science fiction and heroic tales. His house was just down the street from mine, so it was pretty inevitable that we’d find each other, even though he was a couple years older and I was a girl.
In elementary school, we sat together on the school bus. “John and Christine up in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” I can still feel my face heating up. They teased John for sitting with me; they called him gay, which made no sense but I could see how it stung. So we just shrank down into the puckered green vinyl of the seats, hoping to be forgotten and ignored.
But on the weekends, we were rebels. No, not rebels; Rebels.
When we didn’t have to go to school, John would come over to my house, where we could play out in the woods until dark. Sometimes I wore a white dress with a belt, relic of some church yard sale or somebody’s grandmother’s closet. If I was lucky, my mother would help pin my thin braids up in Leia’s iconic hairstyle. I don’t remember what John wore, but he played Luke Skywalker. Always Luke, never Han. A huge fallen tree deep in the woods was our Millennium Falcon, the long-dead rootball serving as the cockpit. We spent hours running all over the neighborhood battling the Empire, John with his stick-saber, me with my brother’s toy gun.
It was always just the two of us, a quiet Rebellion. I didn’t like the stuff girls were supposed to like. The other girls watched Degrassi and read Sweet Valley, swooned over the Brat Pack boys and styled their hair like Molly Ringwald. I didn’t like stories that were based in real life places and real life experiences. I wanted stories that were bigger than life.
Middle school meant John had a different bus, a different schedule, different friends. I hung out with my friend Jenny instead, and we read Sweet Valley High and Seventeen and practiced dancing to Michael Jackson and Tiffany. By the time I started sixth grade, we hardly spoke to each other anymore. We certainly didn’t sit with each other on the bus. And then in high school, his parents sent him to a different school altogether.
John killed himself a few years after that, in college.
I don’t know if he was really gay. In the end it doesn’t matter. I do know that he was bullied his whole life. That he struggled with depression. I was told, in hushed tones with furtive glances, that he had experimented with drugs. I don’t know if that was true either. I only know that he was unhappy, that he’d always been unhappy, except when he was being somebody else.
Last week I watched the Rebel Alliance destroy the Death Star. In real life, my own rebellions are still mostly small and personal. But in my writing I build worlds that I think John would be happy in. Worlds where there is more than one kick-ass girl. Worlds that are big enough to contain the lives I put into them. Worlds where being yourself is not an act of rebellion.
In memory of Carrie Fisher, who was always unabashedly, unapologetically herself and who died a rebel at heart.