How much can a person change? How much of them is an intrinsic part of their personality, that will bend like a blade of grass in the wind, but will always return to its original stance?
Where is the line between what is real and what is fake?
My smiles were fake, but they were what people wanted to see, so to them it was real. Does that make them real? My words were false, but they were what people wanted to hear. Does that make them truth?
Before I’d learned to hold my tongue, there had been superficially worried people in my life. Family friends, teachers.
I say superficially because when I began to affect my positive persona, they were quick to grasp on to it, to believe that everything was fine. I came to be very good at pretending, but that doesn’t mean I was always good at it. But it was what people wanted, what made them happy.
Smiling became my best skill.
It was around this time I found my escape in reading. The characters in the books I read always had such outlandish problems: saving the galaxy, underground experiments, meeting fantastical creatures and wielding elemental powers. It was all so removed from my life. I loved them. I devoured them like a starving man attacks a feast, grabbing everything I can, absorbing every word, every action until they were a part of me.
It was frightening to realise one day that I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. Didn’t know what was me, and what was part of a character in a book. It seems hard to believe, with all the fantasy works that I read, that I could ever confuse the two. But in every fictional work lay reality, however cleverly hidden. Feelings of helplessness, anger, or even wondrous joy, they were things that existed even if that magic reality I read of didn’t. Descriptions of soft grass under feet, the scent of blossoms on spring air, they were so easily relatable.
I was sure I’d felt joy, had gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the world around me. I’d lied in the grass and stared up at the sky, content to let the breeze brush over me. Hadn’t I?
I couldn’t remember. I’d been happy, surely. I knew that curl around my lip, that crinkling around my eyes. That was me smiling.
But then, I was always smiling. It was what people wanted. It was what my mother needed. Had I been smiling?
I didn’t know.
Things were better than before. I’d felt it. Seen it. That change had given me the strength to smile when I was suffocating, to be carefree when I was shackled. But there was sobbing behind closed doors, and there were voices raised in anger, and there was more and more medicine behind the mirror in the bathroom.
For a while, things were harder. Less going out to eat or play, less toys and clothes, but that was okay. That stuff wasn’t important.
I smiled, because smiling was important. I shook my head at that bike I wanted, played by myself when it turned out my mother couldn’t get off work after all. It didn’t matter if she couldn’t be there all the time. I studied hard so there’d be no complaints from my teachers. If I was good, things would be easier for my mother, and she would be happy. That was all that mattered.
My mother appreciated that I was good. She even made me a promise.
“I won’t leave you until you’re eighteen, don’t you worry.”
I was fourteen. I was losing reality, not sure what had happened to me and what I’d only read. I couldn’t remember what my childhood had been like. The future lay before me in a black expanse of nothing: impenetrable darkness.
I couldn’t see what the future would hold. I couldn’t see my mother. I couldn’t see me. But I could see that ominous date, those scant four years. There was too much time. There was too little.
I was a child. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what I could do. Smiling had made things better before. All I could do was keep smiling.
So I smiled.