Paola stood in front of me, chest stuck out, her snide eyes challenging. My ears burned and my heart raced as I cranked my elbow back, like a pitcher on the mound. My arm swung forward, palm open, velocity increasing, chest pounding. I slapped the disdain clear off her face with all the strength of my ten-year-old forearm. This was the first time I had ever struck another living thing. It would be my initiation to many a beating I would give my younger brother growing up. The clapping sound of flesh on flesh frightened me, but Paola’s head whipped forward, and her expression showed no change. The warmth of her emerald eyes seemed so contradictory to her character. I hated Paola, and Paola hated me. I had ruined her life, and she sought revenge.
I was the only American in a private, all-girls’ Catholic Spanish-speaking school in Mexico City. My classmates were the privileged daughters of wealthy Mexican businessmen and prominent politicians. These families had maids, cooks, chauffeurs and gardeners to maintain their mansions and their opulent lifestyles. My father was a modest Argentine banker whose skills were needed in Mexico City. He and my American mother had packed up our things and carted me and my two brothers off for an adventure in Central America. My father felt it was important to enroll us in Spanish-speaking schools so that we might appreciate the culture better and learn to speak his native language more fluently. The bank paid for our education and our comfortable house in the hills of Chapultepec.
Immediately, my scholastic abilities shone through. I was the smart, petite American girl who everyone wanted to be friends with. I was novel and exotic to these Mexican princesses because I spoke English and had an American mother who refused to employ the services of maids or cooks. But I had always been a shy little girl who lost her voice when introduced to adults, tucking my chin down into my neck to avoid making eye contact with people. Making friends was an ongoing struggle for a strange child who craved solitude and books more than playing dolls and jumping rope with her peers. I often found comfort in the solemnity and quiet of our Catholic masses, which were a nurturing cave to me where I found mystical and somber solitude in deep prayer. I promised myself this country would be different. I would make friends, be outgoing. I would allow some light to dissipate my darkness.
Itziar approached my desk on the first day of class. I was introduced as the new American student, and the teacher asked my classmates to have mercy on me and to help me feel welcome. Itziar is an Indian word for “star,” which was fitting for this graceful, long-limbed, golden-haired Spanish goddess. Itziar was pure sweetness, a delicate butterfly that landed on my desk and invited me to be her friend and indefinite lunch partner. I was in love. I had found my kindred spirit and knew we would be the closest of friends. Itziar was also quiet and pensive, shy and thoughtful, a lovely thing I wanted to protect and cherish. But Itziar was committed already to her best friend, Paola. I was satisfied with being her runner-up.
Itziar and I spent lazy afternoons at my house playing American board games. My mother would make us a cold lunch, and Itziar was the only one of my friends who wouldn’t tease or make fun of my mother for not having a maid. She politely accepted my mother’s salami sandwiches, and when I visited Itziar at her mansion, her maid would cook us a four-course hot lunch and feed us crepes filled with dulce de leche for dessert. She never judged me and my family. She never uttered a word about our plain house or my mother’s horrible Gringo accent. She accepted our simplicity. We would make blanket forts in my room, and we would read to each other, roll around with my dog, giggle, and take naps.
Itziar was a very smart little girl. She won honor awards in each subject, and she always achieved the highest grades of the class. I was a smart little girl, too. Spanish was my second language, but soon I would receive the honor awards, and I would bump Itziar to second highest grades in our class. This pleased Itziar. Our friendship grew, and soon I replaced Paola. Paola’s temperament was mischievous, clever, shrewd, and wildly competitive. Paola wanted her spot back. Soon I found myself the butt of Paola’s jokes in the classroom.
She teased me mercilessly anytime I made a mistake in grammar, and she relished calling me a stupid American. She tore me apart in Chinese jump rope competitions in our brick schoolyard, her ponytail whipping her neck violently as she jumped higher and higher between the elastic. Her love for pulling the chair out from under me as my backside lowered to sit was immense, and when my rear hit the ground, her cackles were unstoppable. But still, Itziar was a good friend to both of us and tried her hardest to coerce the two of us into a truce.
The center of Paola’s universe was the end-of-semester Spelling Bee. Everyone knew she was the reigning champion, and no one dared study too extensively for the Bee for fear of meeting the wrath of Paola. None of my classmates clued me in on this tidbit of crucial history, and I foolishly studied for the Bee, intending to win. Paola entered the courtyard, her dark hair slicked back in a neat ponytail, navy blazer buttoned up, white collar neatly laying over lapel, her perfectly-ironed plaid skirt falling just above her tight, white knee-high socks, her navy leather Mary-Janes marching on the red brick.
The day wore on, and finally Paola and I stood alone, the entire faculty and student body as our audience. Multi-syllabic words were thrown at us, one after another they were conquered, until Paola faltered, and the victory was mine. Paola’s emerald eyes glazed over as tears cascaded down her tan, rosy cheeks. My victory seemed meaningless now. I had crushed Paola and broken her heart. Her river of tears revealed to me the years of grief I had caused her. I had stolen her best friend, her lovely Spanish goddess, and I had taken away her Bee, the one thing she eagerly awaited all year.
The students filed into their respective classrooms after the Bee. Paola followed behind me, filling my ears with taunts. “You only won by luck. You’re a stupid American.” My sympathy fizzled to anger and contempt. There were no teachers in sight. I stopped in my stride, turned around and stared into her sharp eyes. I pictured Paola being served her gourmet breakfast by her personal cook and being driven to school by her chauffeur in her family’s town car. In that moment, Paola disgusted me. I slapped her across the face and struck her silent. The girls circled around us and in unison whispered, “Oooohhhhh.” Paola didn’t flinch. She turned her cold back to me and glided into the classroom. I wanted to melt into the ground. I returned to my desk and shed a few silent, embarrassed tears.
My father received news a few weeks later that he was needed in another country. We would be moving once again. I would have no friends once again. I would need to mold myself to another culture once again. We left Mexico the day before my school’s end-of-the-year award ceremony in which I had won every award in a complete sweep. I would not be present to receive my accolades. I received letters in the mail decorated with colorful Aztec stamps from both Itziar and Paola, informing me of my achievements. Paola’s tone in the letter was sweet and respectful. I was in another country and no longer a threat to her. She had won her Itziar back, and she was satisfied.
Years later as an adult, I met a friend who had also grown up in Mexico City. He had attended one of the Catholic boys’ schools in the same neighborhood. We chatted about Mexico, He told me of his friends, and I vaguely recognized his friends’ names. They were the brothers of my classmates’ friends. I asked if he knew two girls my age named Itziar and Paola, and I gave him the name of my school. He asked several of his friends and was able to track my old classmates down. He spoke with Paola, told her I was looking for her, and asked if she remembered me. Paola responded, “Oh, yes, the American girl. I remember a little of her.”
What a blow this was to me. This was a girl who had imprinted such a strong memory in my mind and had shaped much of my experience living in Mexico, and she barely even remembered me. After I left, she and Itziar had gone on to rekindle their friendship. They finished growing up together and remained lifelong friends. They were married to sons of wealthy men, and their children were likely playmates. I was only a vague memory in their distant past. To them, I was just the American girl.
Paola has crossed my mind often since the day of the Bee. I understand why she treated me with such cruelty. I can imagine the raw, tender love she felt for her friend. And I know that for these many years I have been carrying a guilt in the pit of my belly for having been a sensitive, introspective, good Catholic girl and for not having seen the hurt I was causing Paola. I should have been including her and reaching out to her when she needed reassurance and acceptance, just as I needed those same things. The years following those spent in Mexico City would be ordinary and sad ones. I never did have a friend as good as Itziar again.