I’ve realized now that fear is the worst pain, but I didn’t always know.

I used to think wondering was the bottom of the barrel. Swinging my legs in technicolor, fourth-grade, all-purpose classrooms with history on one side and “World Weather Map” on the other, I stared down the boy sitting across from me with eyes filled with a longing beneath and beyond my years. The boy had curly dark hair and always beat me at push-ups in our karate classes, and I kept thinking if I stared long enough, he would finally see me. They say you can feel people’s eyes on you. I wondered if it was true. I wondered: Did he feel the ravenous, passionate heat of my glossy orbs (I’d already read far too much fanfiction) on the side of his cheek? Did he know that when he returned the pencil he’d borrowed for the math quiz yesterday I kept it in a special pocket of my backpack so the essence of Him could be preserved? Did he do the same to my hair tie when he stole it to tie his Pokemon cards together?

Wondering kept me entertained for the next few years. In eighth grade I overcame my obsession with the boy with the curly dark hair. But I guess Einstein said that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, so my wondering stares wandered to the next-best thing: my mom’s best friend’s son. For the next few years I wondered if he knew that when he climbed into the storage bin behind the gym with his friend, I bit my nails until the white was gone praying he wouldn’t get caught. I wondered if he realized that my LOLs sent surreptitiously from the bathroom didn’t mean that I was impressed, when he bragged to me about how he’d shoplifted $1000 worth of stuff from our local CVS. When he first started ignoring my texts, I found that the wondering deflated a little bit. Lost a little fun. The waiting no longer tantalizing, when what you’re waiting for is a train so delayed that you might as well walk.

And when we finally ended things, I thought I knew what it was to break. I practiced my violin at night and felt a little gap between my heart and my ribs that I couldn’t fill no matter how much I breathed in, hold, out. In went books, every night, I devoured them like ice cream in a rom-com I held onto my friend’s arm as we passed the hall praying I would see him. Out with the old, in with the new, but there was no new. What was I supposed to occupy myself with if not wondering?

Soon the wondering returned, but it tasted different, metallic and sharp and hard to chew, and there was no dark-haired boy or family friend-shoplifter or old park bench for it to cling to. To walk away from and forget about. The wondering lay awake next to me as my mom and brother screamed at each other downstairs and my stomach tore itself into little shreds that floated down the school steps like feathers of a plucked bird.

One feather grew its own wings and alighted onto my shoulder, whispering into my ear so close it sounded like distant thunder.

One day I wondered if it would be better to attach the wondering to someone who wasn’t a boy. That day the wondering circled around my head and cackled as I opened my eyes again and stared past it to a friend that I wished I could call something else. I wondered if it was the answer, this thing inside me, hitherto untapped, a fresh, raw sapling I could nurture. The feather heckled me as I walked home every day. My body tangled in on itself and stuck like spaghetti left too long in the pot without sauce, drying out on the stove, a little bit less salvageable every day. I was a solid block of noodles by the time I knocked on the door to my mom’s office room and said, I think I might be bisexual? She plopped my block of noodles into a Tupperware and stuck it in the back of the fridge. Don’t label yourself. I wondered if she was homophobic, or if she loved me, or if there was an option C. I wondered if my mom had ever seen a friend and daydreamed about kissing her, held her hand in music theory class as a friend because it channeled the wondering through another body. I wondered if she wondered.

After the passion died, not labeling myself seemed significantly easier than battling whatever inner demons my mom was trying to load off onto me. The wondering’s new iron flavor—bloody, stark—filled my taste buds. I never did like red meat. I went to school with a mouthful of wondering that no longer felt so youthful and simple. We learned about vectors in AP Calculus and I anti-labeled the wondering as a non-vector. No direction to this feeling in my gaping chest, no point at which it began and no arrow-headed purpose to it. The wondering started to sink into my belly, digested further each time I said bye to my friends after school and split off for the walk home, curdling slowly in my stomach acid into something else.

One day, I wondered if there had ever been any arrowhead, any direction to my wondering. My brother had just finished telling me that my mother wasn’t a good person, and my mother had earlier that day detailed all the ways in which my brother had derailed his own life, how he was trying to blame it on her. The gap between my ribs had two dimensions now, inside and outside, and the wondering crept into the cracks. Wondering is all we can do and wondering is all I became. The wondering hurt, then, the wondering without an answer. If only one boy with curly hair could look at me and say, I feel it too, or maybe if my mother could hug me tight and tell me it’s part of growing up. The wondering settled between my ribs and in there it ignored my mother—relabeled itself as it stretched my spine into a bent-over hunch-backed question mark.

I’ve realized now that fear is the worst pain, but I didn’t always know.

Writer | Annika Bajaj ’25 |
Editor | Jackeline Fernandes ’24 |