She was lost gradually. It wasn’t as if anyone could point to a single thing that happened and say; “It was there. She was perfect before that happened. Afterwards we lost her. She was never the same.” Perhaps it would be easier if life could be cut up like so many pieces of pie – wedges taken out and examined, some slices smaller than others, some burned, others not cooked enough. She was my best friend, but I never tried to pinpoint the exact moment she slipped away. It was too complex. A tumor growing insidiously, tendrils branching forwards and backward through time. A smile or tears became remembered instants that shifted unexpectedly as if the lens of a camera came into focus. Incidents that seemed blurry suddenly turned clear. Especially afterwards.
I stand in front of her grave. Sun on my face. I was afraid to come here. For years, I avoided it. I would visit my mother and stroll through the village, down sidewalks whose cracks and buckled places were intimately known to my bare feet. I stand in front of her grave and my chest feels hollow. An ache, an echo of her sorrow reaches up out of the grass and touches me. I don’t cry. I didn’t cry when my father told me she’d died. Isn’t it ironic? I don’t know how he knew. Oh wait, yes I do, I remember now. He read it in the news. Fathers are always reading things in the paper. If only they were as good at reading things in gazes. If only what was written in a silence, in a closet where nothing was out of place was as easy to decipher. If only dinners could be eaten in an easy silence and not in one that was taut and stretched to the breaking point.
I was her best friend and although I was younger by two years, it didn’t seem to matter then. I was five, six, seven, eight years old, and we were best friends. I loved her with a fierceness that stunned me sometimes. Everyone said I was the tough one and she was the beautiful one. The sweet one. Her future was mapped out for her in our parent’s remarks. “Such a lovely face.” “She’s perfect.” “She looks like a princess.” “She’ll go far,” predicted my mother.
Mothers are always predicting. Fair or foul weather, whether or not someone would come to a bad end. Their crystal balls are at the tips of their fingers. They are apprentice witches. Mine never made it past the apprentice stage. Her predictions all fell flat.The doors slammed shut. School separated us. Two years grew immense. More doors banged shut. Four years later. My hair longer now, my jeans low on my skinny hips, I hold a cigarette between my thumb and my middle finger, and I shrug when my summer friends ask me about my new home, my new school, and my new family.
Summer friends, whispering about the girl who used to be my best friend. “She’s changed. You’ll see. She’s not the same. She has a new home too, a new school, new friends.”
We stared at each other across a chasm made of divorces, new houses, new schools, and new bodies. She still had the same hopeful, sweet smile. She was still the beauty. I was still the tough one. I never fell into the chasm. I stayed on my side and never tried to cross over.
I tried not to stare at her, three years later, when I saw her at the supermarket. She was the cashier girl. Her hair was still long and shining, her nails perfect. She was the same, and yet different. I tried to recognize her, hiding behind the façade of a checkout girl. Where was the shining future everyone had predicted for her? She saw me staring, and a smile flickered across her face. Then her eyes hardened and she said, ‘next.’
The doors slam shut. Afterwards my mother said she moved down south. “Dropped out of college. Found a sugar daddy,” she said. I could hear her shaking her head over the telephone. “What a waste. All that beauty, all that intelligence, gone to waste.” She went on to tell me other news.
News. It’s read and reread between the lines. I only read sorrow.
My father read her obituary. She was thirty-two and she died of a drug overdose. That’s all it said in the paper. I knew more. I knew she was buried next to her grandmother in a cemetery on a bluff overlooking the creek. I walked down the hot sidewalk ten years later. It took that long to make the trip. Stomach knotted, hand clutching my own daughter’s hand. I kneel on the grave, spreading the white tablecloth and setting out the picnic lunch. The view from the bluff is amazing. I raise my fork. Then I put it down, to tell my daughter all about my beautiful best friend, and why I’m crying.