As an only child, it’s weird to be called an “Ate,” meaning older sister in the Filipino language. It’s even weirder, though, to be called someone’s “Tita.” (aunt)  Tonight I saw my niece and a bunch of family members from the East Coast for the first time in over 4 years. We had dinner and played some games later at my house. My niece; a bright, beautiful 9-year-old with wide, curious eyes and an infectious smile, was all over me. We sat together at dinner, played Just Dance on the Wii, and had fun talking about her school crushes and One Direction. She adored me. When her family was getting ready to leave after a chill, eventful evening, she gave me a big hug, her little arms circling around my waist.

And then she told me something I’ll never forget: “I want to be just like you.”

I smiled, hugged her back, and asked her, “Why, Kei?” (Her nickname; short for Keilani. So pretty.)

“Because you’re all grown up,” she replied matter-of-factly, before running back to meet her mom.

Me? The words were echoing through my mind but I had hardly a moment to think about it, because I had to say goodbye to the rest of my family. But I could not forget them, nor how they struck me. In my niece’s small, innocent mind, I was somewhat of a role model. Someone to look up to. Again, me?  No one has ever really told Allyson Rae that before.

See, here’s how it works: she’s always been the burnt piece of toast, the one left on the back-burner, somewhere between ‘misfit’ and the ordinary, forgettable one. The petite shape squeezed into the corner of pictures, meekly raising her hands, caught in a forced laugh. The “poster” child of her parents, easy to slip but willing to please. The girl whose heartbreaking story no one really remembers, or at least cares to anyway, no matter how many times she tells it. The recent 21-year-old who is forced to make plans when possible because she dreads being home, because she knows at her age she shouldn’t be such an introvert even when she sort of wants to be. Because she’s suddenly forced to face the reality of her situation: that she is, and always has been, utterly alone.

Sometimes, she enjoys the solitude. Sometimes it’s refreshing, easy to get lost in. But most other times, she finds herself envious: of other people, of the life she could have, the life she knows is not only attainable but very much possible. She finds herself resenting herself, for not being able to change any of it. She resents how she found herself where she is; stuck. Waiting for something, anything, to happen. For the light to turn green. For the road to suddenly steepen. For her poor heart to stop hurting through all of it.

It’s easy for her to pretend, to change the subject, to numb what emptiness she feels. She’s been doing it for years. She realizes the importance of tending to other’s needs, of first seeing to it that her loved ones are happy. She can talk to people, help them through their issues and worries, share experiences, pretend like she knows everything. Nobody asks her. She doesn’t ask. She’s not used to being taken care of in the emotional sense; it’s always been the other way around. When she does open her mouth, it’s taboo. It’s not important. So she shuts it.

She’s seen harsh judgment. She’s watched people walk–more like run–out of her life, for good. She’s used to that too.

She still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. Okay, scratch that: she has some sort of idea, some simple future plan that involves a small apartment/flat in the city, a cup of coffee in every place she visits, and a wonderful companion. She hopes to travel, & be inspired by the things she sees. She hopes to keep writing, & find happiness with a career doing what she loves. She hopes to find someplace where she’ll start to believe in herself: whether that place is a person, a job opportunity, an experience, etc. She hopes to find the someone(s) who will genuinely accept her, believe in her, & welcome her with open arms.

She’s simple. She enjoys light reading, being inspired by the things around her, and obsessing over trivial things. She does enjoy socializing and trying new stuff, if only to be with her friends and be somebody else for the night. She has a double-sided, outgoing outward personality apart from her inner shyness, her introverted-ness. She likes staying in with a cup of cocoa and good company, if she has any. She cries at romantic movies, has nightmares at the scary ones. She loves to dance and let loose with a partner, preferably someone she loves. And speaking of love… she wears her heart on her sleeve, rather than keeping it guarded. She knows she should. She also admits because of this that she falls way, way too easily. She craves love, and then she gives it away, along with herself. She’s lonely.

She looks after her niece admiringly, eyes wide, and asks, “Me?” 

Yes, her. She needs to believe that she is a role model to somebody, even if they’re 9-years-old. And that’s more than enough to remind her of how much potential she has in a world that is moving full speed ahead. She’s growing up, and yet she’s stuck in her own world, all at once. She’s a firecracker, waiting to combust. She’s an enigma. She’s me.

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