The Burden of Freedom

Sonya is unlike anyone I’ve ever known. The memory of the first time she looked at me clings to me like maple syrup to sticky fingers. Even though I’ve licked off the syrup many times before, there’s still a lingering sweetness. Gym class had just ended and the slow mob of students drifted across the hot, baked baseball diamond to the school.

In accordance with some ancient law, we all had gym buddies who tagged along to our sides, and us to theirs. Mine was Maria. I won’t bother describing her. It’s not even important. I don’t even remember. Everyone faded to a greyish brown blur when I saw Sonya. From a distance, she was a pink flame above a black candle with white adidas stripes and nike running shoes. Closer up, the pink shock of hair was streaked with black highlights. It was a Notice Me! haircut, one that belonged to an anime show protagonist or fan, not our cookie cutter high school’s star soccer player. Her eyes were emblazoned in black liner and a small metal loop was plunged through her nostril. Here she was, conspicuously walking to school two hours after the morning bell.

It struck me in that moment how unlike the rest of us she was. My fellow students in the gym class I could easily categorize into boxes even when in uniforms. I’ve seen Breakfast Club, and I know that people are complicated. Boxes aren’t real and people aren’t made in molds, but who has time to figure out who they really are? Sonya had no box and was thus relegated to the netherworld of interbox space. That’s how I always saw her. Until that day after gym class.

We all piled up at the crosswalk together, with Sonya somewhere in our midst, black headphones jammed into her ears, hands in her pockets. The sun lit half her face and I found myself absorbed in the way the division between light and dark crooked over her cheek and glinted on her nosering. Maria said something, and I nodded, as if brushing off a fly. Sonya’s eyes, such an ordinary brown, lifted from their fixation on some distant point to meet mine. Her black-rimmed, intense gaze drilled through all my layers. It pierced my illusory box, all the boxes I held claim to; like a crossbow bolt it flung me out into the interbox space. But I wasn’t lost, like a drifting astronaut. Rather, gravity hit me. An oppressive weight emanated from my chest and pinned me down. Despite all its screams to be released, I didn’t know how. My nails dug into the skin of my arm to eek out the pressure.

Her eyes flickered away, bored and casual, but the weight only intensified. Recognize me! My feet were a conveyer belt pulling the rest of my body towards her.

“What did you do?” I asked her. It probably sounded like nonsense, coming from a calm-looking brunette with folded arms. “What is this weight?”

I saw a slight, sympathetic smile in the corners of her mouth and the crinkles of her eyes.

“It’s freedom.”

The cars stopped at the line before the crosswalk and the bulbs of the flashing red hand switched positions, circuits chiming off in binary to light up the proper bulbs to form a white walking man. In the time it took me to swallow my next question, the uniform-clad bodies around us had spilled out onto the white crosswalk bars on the hot asphalt. The opposite of before, my mind directed my sullen body to turn after them, but she grabbed my wrist.

“See you around.”

She dropped it and slid forward to cross. I trailed a few meters behind her. As long as I kept my eyes glued to the scuffed tops of my converses, the weight wasn’t so enormous. If only I knew then how much heavier it could get, and how it burdened those black-clad shoulders ahead of me.


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