by Meredith Hubbard

Evelyn was kind. Evelyn was sweet, and funny, and hard-working; but she could also be acerbic, sarcastic, and a little bit cynical. Her hair was a fascinating combination of brown and bleach blond, with blue or pink occasionally layered over the top. She had a lean frame, long legs, and long arms, and she was taller than me, though that isn’t saying much. Her clothes always seemed to hang off of her, like perhaps they didn’t quite fit her right. She had wide eyes (I don’t remember the color), but they made her always look slightly shocked. She wore a lot of makeup, and I don’t know why I never told her she didn’t need it. She wore makeup like she had something to prove, with big, bold eyeliner, and brightly colored eyeshadow and lipstick. She would sometimes draw little freckles on her face with eyeliner, contrasting her milky white skin. To be honest, her appearance was a bit bizarre. She was a patchwork of products, clothes, and colors—like a child learning what she liked.

Evelyn was confusing to me, both inward and out, but I loved her for all of these things. Her chaos never really mattered to me; in fact, it made me all the more determined to be her friend. I met her as we were both working as lowly cashiers for a giant in the corporate world: Target, that red-festooned love of middle-class America. I had been there longer, and with all the egoism of a teenager who liked to think she knew exactly what she was doing, I decided to take her under my wing. I would show her how to stock candy, how to refill bags and receipt paper, and where to put all of those goods that were inevitably discarded in the approach to the register. I remember on one of her first days, I insisted on being the one to train her at self-checkout. I asked her all about her life, talking her ear off as I instructed her on how to amend the many complications that would inevitably arise at self-checkout. She learned eagerly as I showed her what to do if something got scanned twice, or how to honor a sale price that wasn’t ringing up. I would smile at her every time I saw her, not that forced customer service smile that everyone who works in retail perfects, but a genuine one. And she would return the gesture, contrasting her white teeth with that blue-black lipstick she loved. I practiced all the little affectations of someone hell-bent on making a friend, and it worked.

We became close, as inseparable as we could be while constantly subjected to the whims of customers. We worked together often, both of us with daytime shifts that almost always overlapped, though we occasionally worked the exact same shift. We took our breaks together as often as we could manage, clocking out together for a blissful fifteen or thirty minutes of freedom. We usually wandered over to the built-in Starbucks for a beverage chock-full of sugar and caffeine, or to the grocery department for a snack or a microwaveable meal. Then, after fetching sustenance, we meandered back to the little breakroom with its fluorescent lighting and constantly blaring television. We talked as we ate, indulging in some mild gossip about our coworkers, complaints about the boorish nature of our job, or groanings about the ceaseless stream of customers and their various demands. When we were unable to finagle our schedules to make our break times match, it was understood that whoever was on break would stop by to visit whoever was not. After buying whatever delectable treat Target tempted me with that day, I walked over to wherever Evelyn was working and talked to her for a bit before going to sit down and rest my weary feet; and she would do the same for me. In fact, I’m not sure why we never got in trouble for our incessant lingering and distraction of each other while on break. We were an odd pair: me, an experienced Target employee, and a teenager fresh out of high school; and Evelyn, a twenty-something woman, brand-new to all the joys Target offers to its employees. But we were friends, and our many and varied differences didn’t matter to me, and they didn’t matter to Evelyn, so it worked out just fine.

But what is a friendship if it doesn’t come with a learning experience? It was just a day, a boring day, as they all are when you work in retail. The fluorescent lights were bright, pounding into my skull with their beams, but serving the purpose of keeping me awake and alert. The registers were in their neat little rows, decked out with red, and lined with candy, reminiscent of a movie theater. Target employees in every shade of red milled about, completing their various activities. I had been subjected, per usual, to the monotonous rhythm of cashiering: greet the customer, scan their items, have them pay, and send them off with a cheery goodbye. It was like a dance with ever-changing partners, and I was the only one who had to remain on my feet the whole time. That day, it had become a little busy, but I needed to head out; God forbid that I stay in that brightly lit prison of forced friendliness for one moment longer than I needed to.

“Evelyn!” I had stage-whispered to my vivid friend, who was cashiering at the register behind me. She glanced up from that mundane task, meeting my eyes with her round ones; the eyeshadow color of the day was an electric blue, accented with little eyeliner stars. As we made eye contact, she—with her perpetual smirk—nodded at me to go on.

“I have to head out,” I pronounced, struggling to focus on her and the guest I was assisting, “Can I send them over to you?” I gestured to the long and growing line in front of my register. She rolled those vast pools of eyes, as she did more often than not when someone spoke to her.

“Ugh,” she groaned, though she stretched it out into approximately seventeen syllables. “If you must.” She contorted her face into a mask of distress, but it was almost immediately replaced by a warm smile and a wink. I rolled my eyes too, before turning my light off and beginning to redirect new customers: “Excuse me, ma’am? I am so sorry, but I am closed, would you mind heading over to my coworker?” For the most part, those stranded customers were disgruntled, but not angry; but one woman refused to go quietly. I don’t remember her face, or what she wore, or any detail of her appearance, except for the rage and disgust that adorned her face as she said, “You mean—you want me to go—to him?”

Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t stay just a few more minutes. I wonder why I didn’t protect my sweet friend, who had stubble emerging on her chin, clothes that weren’t made for her, and an angular, not quite feminine face. Why didn’t I stay, why didn’t I protect her? I remember that after I clocked out, I went straight back to her. The words I said are imprinted on my brain, and I’m not sure that I will ever forget them. Exercising my foolish, childlike empathy, I said, “Was she horrible to you? She was horrible to me too.” I don’t remember if she said anything, or just nodded, but I remember her eyes— those wide, beautiful eyes, with their winged eyeliner and bright blue eyeshadow. At that moment, they somehow were even wider. And instead of their usual humorous twinkle, they were blank, empty. I could have found sadness in them if I had looked deep enough, but on the surface, there was nothing. I hugged her tight, but she still didn’t say anything. There was no anger, no hurt, no resignment, no sadness, just cold, unfeeling nothingness. I don’t know exactly what occupied her mind at this moment, but it isn’t too hard to imagine. I am sure she felt angry, sad, and maybe even embarrassed or ashamed. I always wonder how many of those emotions were directed at me, if any. At the moment, I thought that her lack of emotion just meant that she didn’t care, or that she wasn’t upset; but now I understand that her blankness was just the texture of the walls she had built firmly around her heart.

We’re not friends anymore. After about a year of friendship and shared retail experience, she moved away from her family, who left unfulfilled many of her immaterial needs. Funnily enough, she moved to Chicago, not far from where I spent the first ten years of my life. We tried to keep in touch over text, but the world came between us in every possible way. I was kept insanely busy with work, school, and family, and she had troubles and occupations of her own.

I am forever glad that I became friends with her (though it ended sooner than I had wished), but I was hopelessly naïve. I thought that by being her friend, by loving her hard enough, I could make up for or protect her from the hate that was her constant companion because of the way she was. I believed that I could make up for her parents, who never disowned her, but never loved her as much as she needed. I believed that I could make up for the people who threw her disgust and disdain with their eyes, whose thoughts were as evident on their faces as if they had said them out loud. And most of all, I thought I could make up for the strangers who thought it their place to pile vicious condemnation upon her head though they did not even know her. I inherited this flaw—or strength, based on how you perceive it—from my mother. I have grown since, but at sixteen, I was still fully convinced that I could be for Evelyn everything she lost, or everything she never had. This unwavering belief in myself made it sting even more when I failed—or perceived myself as failing—that day over two years ago.

Two years wiser now, I look back on that collection of moments and cringe; because I thought I understood, but I unequivocally did not. I placed myself alongside Evelyn, as the two victims of the situation. My misguided empathy aligned me with her so closely that I thought we felt the same amount of anger, that we had existed in tandem through that moment of heartache and pain. I try not to blame myself, for I was only sixteen, but at the same time, I hate the child that I was for trying to understand something that I will never be able to understand. That customer—who seemed to think it her right to expose Evelyn, though she already couldn’t hide—was not horrible to me about me, she was horrible to me about Evelyn. And I felt hurt, but my empathy could never fully understand the pain, anger, and hurt that Evelyn experienced that day and many others. This was the only instance I experienced, it is not hard to guess that Evelyn suffered through a thousand other situations, before this day and after, just like or worse than the one I was there for. I did not, and will never know what it’s like to have a stranger look me in my face and truly, purely hate me. I will never know how it feels to be condemned to the most vicious depths of hell by someone who does not know me. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t tried to understand. I wish I hadn’t tried to relate to her in a way that I would never be able to. I wish I had looked her in the eye, and said, “I don’t understand, but let me be here for you. I don’t understand, but I love you, and I’m here.”

I never saw Evelyn as a man, though I was shocked when I first saw her. I was a sheltered, homeschooled, conservative Christian teenager who had never encountered a member of the LGBTQ+ community before. I knew what she was; I saw the shape of her jawline, I saw her body made of hard lines instead of curves, and I heard her deep, often rasping voice. It wasn’t that I was unaware, and it wasn’t that I was certain of where I stood, but I was able to love, truly love, Evelyn without any qualms. Though I was young and I didn’t fully understand the cruelty of the world, I was still able to love her. I was able to love her without trying to change her, or even having the mindset that she need to change. When I looked at her, I didn’t see a sinner, or a misguided man trying to be a woman, I simply saw a person. And every person is deserving of love. So I hope and pray that the world can grow, that it can change, and that it can learn how to love deeply and unconditionally. I hope and pray that the world would begin to look at people like Evelyn and say, “I don’t understand, but let me be here for you. I don’t understand, but I love you, and I’m here.”

Meredith Hubbard is currently working towards a Bachelor’s degree in English at a Christian
university. She enjoys writing poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.

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