To Allen and Sofia; Thank You

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

Allen,


I remember your short red hair, and how it used to be longer than mine. I remember that I heard your name when it was called at graduation, but I didn’t think about you at that moment. I don’t remember looking at you when you walked across the stage and accepted your diploma. I didn’t think about how you had grown into such a kind and considerate person over the many years I had known you. I honestly can’t remember the last time you have crossed my mind. How you were able to overcome your childhood struggles, and how you had achieved an important milestone in your life by graduating.


I wanted you to know that over the past five or six years since we’ve seen each other, no one calls me Allen anymore.


When people ask for my name, I tell them it’s Ellen. Not Allen.

Art by Maddy Sutka

Have you met any more Ellens? I’ve run into a few Allens, but I haven’t worked or had college classes with them, so people haven’t gotten my name confused with anyone else like what you and I went through in school. Every time somebody called your name, we’d both answer. Every time they said my name, we’d both answer. It became so constant that Allen was just another nickname. Believe it or not, it never offended me.


You and I both know in school my name was shorthand for all the unpleasant names they couldn’t call me. All the gay jokes and homophobic slurs were boiled down to one word. And I had to live with it. I had to write it down and say it over and over again every single day of my life.


To me, my name was wrong. All it was to me was just another slur. So every time they called me by your name, it was a moment I didn’t have to be Ellen.


Over the last year, I realized that I took a lot of influence from you. I remember I used to dress like you, with short hair, skater-legged jeans, and Hot Topic shirts. I wasn’t trying to be you, but I always noticed how confident you were in yourself and the way you looked, and that people respected you for it. Everyone liked you, and for good reason. You were an energetic, funny, and creative kid. No one beyond our teachers ever gave you any flack, and I envied that.


I wanted that level of safety in my life, so I did as you did. Dressing and behaving more masculine. There was safety in that. Acting tough and confident made me less of a target, so many of my bullies lost interest. I had to keep playing up my masculine side, just to give myself some peace of mind. A way to live without being afraid of what people would say about me.


I wish I had enough strength to ignore what they said. I wish I didn’t internalize my pain or close myself off from people. If I could give my past self any advice, I’d tell her to lean on you more. Because the truth is we were never close. We weren’t true friends. Growing up, I was so scared and paranoid that I believed you would hurt me if given the opportunity. I couldn’t trust you, so I refused to let you get too close.


But you weren’t like the worst of them. In the 13 years we knew each other, never once did I hear you make a smart comment about my name or sexuality. In the small conversations we had, or the times you played with me during recess, you gave me support. You were a genuine and kind person to me, and your existence made elementary school tolerable. Whether or not you know it, you made it possible for me to live. I’m only sorry that I didn’t give you more of an opportunity to be my friend.


Middle school and high school worked as the final nails in the coffin for us. We went from 12 kids in our entire grade to 200. Without sharing a classroom with you, I had to get used to being Ellen again, not Allen.


Since we weren’t that close to begin with, it shouldn’t surprise me that we didn’t stay in touch. At graduation, the closest I probably came to you was 50 feet. I was too busy trying not to trip or make a fool of myself at the ceremony. I wanted to get out of that building and away from everyone we went to high school with as quickly as possible. And I left without saying goodbye to you.


I can’t tell you why I haven’t talked to you for so long. The only reason I can offer is that when I left for college, I was ashamed of where I was from. I had let the bad memories that drove me to leave my home convince me that there were no good memories there at all. And that everyone who I didn’t see in the best possible outcome of my future wasn't worth the trouble of keeping in contact with.


I viewed you as an acceptable casualty when I left. And for that, I’m sorry.


I don’t know if you’ll ever fully know what you mean to me, because I’m still learning to appreciate you. You were the ideal that I thought of in men. You were fun, independent, and strong. You made friends with everyone you knew and didn’t have a mean bone in your body. I tried to emulate that, but I feel that I came up short.


I realize now that I write this, I probably have idealized you. As I don’t remember many of your lesser qualities. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll see each other again, and I can get to know the real you.


I don’t know how you feel about me, or if I’ve crossed your mind in the last few years, but I just wanted to thank you. For the small ways that you helped me and inspired me to change my life. I’m still trying to figure out if they were for the better, but they got me through some of the hardest parts of my life. And if they in any way helped me get to where I am today, that is surely worth some credit.


I will always be grateful to you. Thank you.


----


To Sofia,


I hadn’t realized how much of an impact you’ve had on my life until very recently. While I was still working full time during the lockdown months of Covid, I reacquainted myself with your 2006 film, Marie Antoinette. I admit that I am still a novice in understanding and appreciating your work. I should have watched another one of your films, and not the one I have seen at least 20 times. I just wanted to return to a piece of media that brought me a lot of joy as a kid, especially considering the mental, physical, and emotional beating I’ve been taking since March 2020.


But when I finished watching it, I felt a lot emptier than I did two hours prior.


A specific moment of your film sticks out in my mind. The image of Marie, standing on a balcony in a pewter blue dress, staring out at Versailles’ gardens. Wallowing in her failures as a princess of France, she is encapsulated in her loneliness, despite being surrounded by a never-ending parade of courtiers.


When I first saw the film, my level of film critique was as follows: this movie’s pretty. These costumes are pretty. Everything looks pretty, but overall, it feels... empty.


Now that I’m older and can analyze this film to a better degree, I realize that even though I wasn’t looking too deeply into Marie Antoinette when I was a child, its ideas still resonated with me. Back then, I couldn’t put what I was mentally going through into words, but the loneliness, frustration, and struggle to accomplish anything without criticism or insults piling up, I knew what that felt like. I dealt with many of the same issues your version of Marie went through, although to a lesser degree. Now I finally do get what you were saying; many girls go through that. No matter what era.


I’ve always been open about the fact that I’ve shown symptoms of depression since the age of nine. The traumatic experience that led to it happened when I was eight, but I wasn’t diagnosed with depression until I was 13. During those years before I was a teenager, my femininity was mocked and criticized by my classmates to the point I didn’t want anything to do with being a girl. I purged my wardrobe of all dresses, skirts, and anything I viewed as “too girly.” They were quickly replaced with dull, bulky hoodies and jeans. Anything to hide my changing figure. I looked like half of the boys I grew up with, and felt like a sack of potatoes. But it gave me some degree of invisibility to my bullies, so I forced myself to get used to feeling as though I was somewhere between being a girl and a boy.

Art by Maddy Sutka

By the time I grew numb to my new androgynous look, all the girls I knew started emphasizing their looks and the parts of their bodies that made them look feminine. I had spent years being shamed and made to despise my feminine side, only to see it praised in other girls. I was presented with a singular idea of femininity: images of thin, fashionable long-haired women. Everything I was not. So when the time came for me to start fitting in more and taking on more girlish attributes, I put my foot down. I was so poisoned against that one definition of femininity that I refused to ever like anything girlish ever again.


I have a hard time remembering any of this, as I have repressed so many of those unpleasant childhood memories to the point that I can hardly recall any of them. I lost my childhood and had to enter adulthood a decade before I was ready.


My feminine side had caused me too much pain to keep it around, and I found a somewhat safe balance in my androgyny, but a chance encounter my parents had with a DVD copy of Marie Antoinette changed all of that.


A film by a woman that indulged in its feminine energy to the point of excess and never apologized for that? I hadn’t seen that before. I was enthralled. Suddenly, all of the feminine things that I had let go of years before became interesting to me.


I read Marie Antionette biographies. I researched French court fashion and devoured every book of historical fashion I could get my hands on. Marie Antoinette is solely responsible for starting my great love for period dramas and women’s pictures. I became invested in learning about women in history, and I have your film to thank for that.


I’d like to think that I wasn’t just drawn to your film for the aesthetics and that your story of a lonely teenage girl struck a chord within me. A lot of the media I consumed as a child that was catered to girls always had an optimistic or positive view on being a girl. Your film, along with your other works, showed me that there was a dark side to being one. That princesses didn’t always have a happy ending. That dose of reality matured me and made me aware that other girls might have felt the same way I did. I don’t think that I was your intended audience, but your film had a deep effect on me.


However, the most important thing Marie Antoinette did for me was make me okay with being feminine. Even though I knew I didn’t fit neatly into what people typically thought of as feminine, I wanted to reintroduce myself to it. It was gradual, but I made myself okay with looking at and enjoying girly aesthetics. I then gained the strength to wear clothes that were complementary to my figure. Because I wanted to look as glamorous as Marie. I wanted to feel strong while wearing jewelry or a dress. I forced myself to take those small steps from my androgyny, and looking back now, I don’t regret it. Your film was a push for me towards embracing my femininity.


Thank you, for putting me on the path to regaining my confidence as a girl.


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