Her name was Cassie and so that’s what I called her. Seems logical enough; but in the short time I knew her she had many names. She wore each one with a sort of obligatory and twisted pride. She was her father’s punching bag, her mother’s replacement, a boy toy, an addict, a drunk, and a mother; and she was only fifteen years old.
I was worried about hanging out with her since the only thing we had in common was our aversion to school; but I was even more worried about the prospect of spending yet another day alone, reading at the park, and thinking about why it was I just couldn’t get my act together.
It started out by accident: there was only one bridge under which to hide until the bell rang for freedom. Free from the boredom of classes for me; and for her, free from the private hell she had no choice but to face when surrounded by so much normal in the classroom. It wasn’t a friendship made in heaven, to be sure, but it was a friendship made nonetheless.
There was not a pain in the world that Cassie had not experienced firsthand and to counter that pain she was searching wildly for the perfect drug to mask, dull, and hopefully remove it altogether. I wasn’t big on experimentation with drugs and alcohol and the few times I slipped and tried even the slightest amount of anything I became so ill and so incapacitated that it was enough to turn me away forever. Still, the good kids don’t hang out in the park in the middle of the school day, so I became a keen observer and helpful shoulder for those who tried drugs but, unlike me, found that it did just what they needed it to do.
And Cassie tried everything.
I watched her shove everything and anything into her veins and her lungs. When it wasn’t quick enough, she’d find a way to make it work much more quickly. She put acid in her eye, needles in her arm, and in between highs she would cry and tell me that she wished she could be more like me. She wished she could hide in the books and never be found again. I would cry with her and say, “Just stop.” But she couldn’t.
Times were different then. If I had told someone about her addiction and said she needed help, they would have suspended me for ditching and her father would have beaten her so badly that I was fearful I’d never see her again. Different times. Instead, I sat at the crumbling park bench and wrote my stories while she sucked powders into her nose, acted out Shakespeare hilariously, and cursed at her bad luck.
See that’s the thing, even when she was so high she thought she could reach the stars, Cassie was a brilliant storyteller. She would spin the most exciting stories about what she had done and where she was going. The world was her oyster and she was its walrus. She never stopped talking. It was as if her world was spinning because of her words.
Then one day she showed up with chalk. She made me sit on the grass so she could color on the tabletop. I was annoyed by the blades, each one finding a way to my soul and making it itch, so much so that I could pay little attention to what she was doing.
She just squinted through cigarette smoke and her hands moved furiously. Every so often she would stop, look at the tabletop from above with her hands on her hips, then send a long white cloud of smoke into the air. I would look up and shift uncomfortably in silent protest against sensory overload; but she didn’t notice me at all, she just went straight back to work.
When she ran out of cigarettes she got up, wiped her chalky hands on her jeans, and said, “Come on let’s go to Sal’s.” Sal’s was a small shop and he sold individual cigarettes so that they were more affordable for minors. Different times, indeed.
I stood up, about to protest the grass yet again, and my heart caught in my throat.
I’m not sure how I can ever capture in words the beautiful scene she had created on that tabletop. It was Henry Moore in two-dimensional organic lines but Monet in its obscure exactness. The scene was of a woman holding a baby. She was leaning back against a tree on a flowered field and there was water in the distance. The detail, the love in the mother’s face looking down at the baby, is an image I will never forget. I stood there enraptured by her creation.
Cassie became impatient, “Come on! Let’s go!”
I was about to tell her something. It was right on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to shout out that there was a genius in the park! I wanted to ask her where she had been hiding this talent! I wanted to tell her to do more, more, more! I wanted to preserve it forever! But I am slow to respond and she was listening to nicotine fit.
“Come on!” she said impatiently, running a hand over the mother’s face. She didn’t smear it much. It was still beautiful.
We walked away from the bench just like it didn’t exist. Like there was nothing important and awe-inspiring on it. She even left the chalk behind.
I only knew Cassie for a month, maybe two or three, until the weather was too cold to read in the park. But I would see her around, sometimes with her baby boy who looked eerily like the picture of her father she had once shown me, sometimes with a group of friends clearly high on something; and then one day, I can’t pinpoint exactly when, she was gone altogether. It was like she fell off the face of the park bench and no one seemed to know, and fewer people seemed to care, where she had went.
It wasn’t an accident that we got along. Gifted people find one another every single day; and long before she found her drug-induced escape route, she was a hopeful child full of gifted capability and talented promise. She was self-taught for so long that self-medicating seemed the best next step to her.
I had been through this before. I saw her bruises and they tell grander stories than any of her big words. And the bigger the bruise, the harsher the choice of drugs and the faster she needed to get it down; and I, useless friend, would watch helpless as she floated away from her bruises and a smile returned to her face.
Cassie is today’s Portrait of Gifted because a gifted mind grown in darkness will sometimes go the only direction it sees some light, even if that light leads them into more darkness. I find it amazing that I left school, where bright minds were flourishing, and found a gifted soul across the street in a city park. She was an addict, yes; but to me, addiction is a part of being gifted. We are addicted to our passions and seek out knowledge and growth with an intensity that we cannot sometimes control. When gifted is grown in the wrong environment, when overexcitabilities are punished and the options are stifled, it can seem hopeless. Addictions prevail but the mind can no longer seek knowledge and growth. It’s just not enough when the world’s pain is resting on a heart.
Of all the names Cassie was given, all the labels, and all the talk behind hands and shaking of heads, she should have been, just once, considered Artist, considered Good, considered Gifted. She had no time, no money, no space, and no hope. She only created one thing while I knew her and yet in that one thing I saw more than many people can express in a lifetime.
For her, life was drawn in chalk. It can be a beautifully woven idyllic story; but as soon as the weather turns, everything you have will wash away and all you are left with is a crumbling park bench and another winter.