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Some days, it feels like I can’t even walk down the sidewalk without stumbling over myself. I trip and fall at every step, slamming into the ground again and again as trickles of blood flow from my knees. Every time I pick myself up, it gets a bit harder, the weight of my failure a bit heavier. Even on days when I manage not to trip, I still have the bruises of yesterday to remind me of my past humiliations.

And so I shut myself inside a shell of isolation. I still fell, but it stung a little less when nobody else knew how much it hurt.

Of course, I still had people I called friends, people I’d talk and joke with at school or social events. But in time, I realized that none of them ever really knew me. They were people I could laugh with, but not people I could cry with. They saw who I was on the outside, and were satisfied with that. I’d put up a shield around the rest. They never cared to ask what was inside, and I never cared to tell them. And so I was safe, hidden deep within my impenetrable shell of anonymity, surrounding myself with people who simply let it be.

Somehow, I wasn’t quite content. I had designed my fortress of isolation in such a way that a person could only find out as much about me as they desperately wanted to. In a kind of selfish way, I was somewhat disappointed that nobody had challenged that, that nobody had taken the time to attempt the impossible task of finding out who I really was. I knew it was absurd. If I wanted people to get to know me, I should have simply let them. But instead, I made my defenses even more secure. I was sure that nobody could ever figure out how to get through, even if they wanted to.

And then you came along. You slipped past my defenses as if they were invisible, moving through the wall of my fortress as if it were nothing but a shadow. You coaxed me out of my shell like you were convincing a canary to climb out of its cage. And you set me free. You were always there to catch me the second I stumbled—and if we fell, we fell together, and laughed at ourselves as we brushed off the dirt. You didn’t care about the stupid stuff I said or did. Every time you found out something new about who I was inside, you treated it like some precious treasure, showing no trace of the contempt I always felt looking at myself.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course. My shell was like quicksand. If you’d struggled too hard to get through, I would’ve seen right through you and resisted, shoving you back and shutting you out. But you knew how to move through my defenses, slow and gentle enough to slip through the quicksand like water. Sometimes you did it with words, other times with simple silence. The silence often spoke more than any words you could have said.

And we were silent, caught in the reverie of a Friday in June. The sun shone bright as summer, infusing every blade of grass with a verdant glow. Through the silence we heard a smattering of chipper birdsong, a gentle rustling breeze, and the occasional rumbling of a passing car. I smiled contentedly as I savored the last bite of my sandwich, almost forgetting that you were beside me.

Then you shattered the silence with a simple question:

 “Why do you hide so much?”

I panicked. It was the first time I realized how far through my defenses you had gotten, and that there was no way of turning you back. With anyone else, I could have laughed and made a joke, or perhaps furrowed my brow and asked what you meant. But I knew exactly what you meant, and a flurry of answers flew through my mind. Because I don’t want anyone to know me. Because I’m embarrassed by who I really am. Because I’ve got a good thing going here with my friends, and I don’t want to ruin it by letting anyone see this mixed up, messed up tangle of failure inside.

The answer finally came as a whisper, as if I was afraid to let even you hear it. “Because I’m scared.”

I regretted my words the instant they escaped my mouth. My answer sounded stupid, even childish. I didn’t dare look up at your face. I couldn’t stand the thought of your mocking grin, or the derisive snicker I deserved. I wished I could take it back, laugh, say I was joking, convince you it wasn’t true—even though it was the truest thing I’d said in my life.

I kept waiting for your laughter, but it didn’t come. When I finally dared to look at your face, all I saw was your thoughtful gaze, nodding toward the horizon. You looked back at me and smiled—not the scornful smirk I had expected, but a gentle expression, filled with tenderness and understanding. You paused for a few seconds, as if trying to find the right words, then smiled again. “Well… I hope—I hope you know that you don’t have to be scared of me.”

And from then on, I wasn’t. You got to know me, and somehow you liked what you saw. If I told you something embarrassing, you knew when to laugh and when to take it seriously. If you saw something I was hiding, you gently pointed it out and helped me through it. You saw parts of me I never knew were there. You knew me better than I knew myself, and somehow, you didn’t hate me for it.

I know it’s possible for someone like you to exist. Maybe I’ll meet you, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll end up being you for someone else. I would like that, I think, to draw another person out of the loneliness I live in every day. I hope I can come to understand what truly binds one person to another, and how to reach into the depths of someone’s soul to find who they truly are underneath it all. Perhaps it is not possible, but what else can I do but try?

After all, we’re all alone somehow.

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