I see her through the clouded lens of decades past, the tiny girl with the weary smile, and the sure, square hands darkened with charcoal and chalk. At nine, she built her world of art on sidewalks and cement walls, springing dark-eyed figures out of marigold fields, and white rabbits out of wishing wells.
She had a quiet grace and sensitive hearing. I remember her brother standing next to her in the empty schoolyard one summer day and screaming loudly in her ear. She collapsed to the ground crying, covering her head as if the sirens had gone off and the world was coming to an end. Her brother scoffed and walked away satisfied. I stood with my back against a wall, watching her world crumble, my eyes darting left and right, for what seemed like hours.
“It’s okay,” I finally whispered, gathering up her chalk and charcoal and putting them in my bike basket. “It will be okay.” I repeated myself dozens of times, not knowing what else to say, and finally she lifted her braided head and nodded at me with a tear stained face.
She wanted to hold hands on the way home, so we did, my left hand in her right, my other hand pushing my bike. We walked in silence, with another secret between us, one of several, and our shared knowledge bonded us together more tightly than any game of double-Dutch rope or cats-in-the-cradle ever could.
Ms. Mary Mack Mack Mack and hands wrapped in brightly colored strings were only covers, dusty book jackets under which all the real stories stirred and collided. We were, underneath the false sing-song rhythm of childhood, The Girls Who Knew Things (no one else knew). We were The Girls Who Felt Things (that no one else could guess). We were The Girls With Secrets (that couldn’t be trusted to the world). We were best friends.
On the day she was to move thousands of miles away, I rode my bike all the way to Idlewild Park, a leg-numbing journey of ten to twelve miles. I rode the kiddie train around the park and glared at anyone who looked in my direction. I wanted a fight. A knock-down, drag-out, fists flying fight. I wanted to beat the whole world up. I wanted others to know my pain, and I wanted pain enough to cry.
I did cry, eventually. Under the cover of pine trees and dusk, when I knew for certain that the moving truck would be gone. When I no longer had to see the sad brown eyes staring back at me, or hear the promises of daily letters and one-day-we-will visits.
She was gone. And she took with her all the art and color and trust that had filled me. I felt drained of everything except defeat. I screamed into the Truckee river, the scream of a wild, abandoned child, and I bitterly harbored half a hope that she would hear me.
I hear you screaming now, my friend. And I know, I really do, how hard this is for you. It came as a shock, although in my mind this last scene has played over and over again until it finally wore down to the inevitable.
I can’t, I won’t, compete with your darkly romantic visions of a slow suicide by neglect and Jack Daniels. I won’t be the one to keep your secrets anymore, because they are killing you, cell by cell, moment by moment, day by dreary day.
You climbed the ladder with drunken energy, only to let go effortlessly once you were near the top. There, crumpled into yourself, nothing mattered. Not those who felt obliged to nurture you back to health, or those who acted as both catalyst and crutch. Not those who paid your bills when you forgot, or remembered your children’s birthdays.
I was there when you bought your house. It was a beautiful house, once, and just what you always dreamed of – water, mountains, privacy, room for dogs and cats and horses. Now I walk inside and everything has turned into garbage. There are puddles on the floor, mountains of filthy clothes, rotting food on the counters. There are no animals in sight except the dark-eyed one that sits among the melted candles and artistic ruins, drinking herself into oblivion.
It turns my stomach to think that you live like this. That you, who are capable of so much beauty, and who worked so hard to produce and attain it, could let everything turn to a pile of shit in a matter of a few years.
I’ve wanted to scream, but I held back, not wanting to hurt you. I’ve wanted to grab you by the shoulders and shake you back to life. I have felt anger so primal that it took all my willpower not to add the mark of my hand to where yours had been, and punch holes in the walls. I thought, wrongly, that gentleness would sway you. I thought, maybe, if I washed the clothes and mopped up the puddles, and held your hand, and whispered in your ear, and showed you how deeply you were loved, that something would click.
Instead, it was all a huge disconnect. You. Me. The World. But mostly you. Growing so numb that I have to wonder how much of you is really left. Your eyes are void. Your dry skin hangs from fragile looking bones. Even your tears are dry. Pathetic, heaving sobs begin and end in wanting, needing, insisting on more of something, but it’s always vague and never named. You wallow in the dirt of self-pity, and tell me you are stuck, but your nearly lifeless hands reach for nothing except another grimy glass.
And there’s him. The leech that has sucked you down into some lover’s abyss I’ll never understand. He loves you, you tell me, but from here it looks like greed and a matter of ease. You, not for the first time, are so willing to let everything go for that one man who will finally take you into the less-than-zero zone. If you both have your way, and I’m now convinced you will, you’ll be worth less than zero when he is through living off your lifeblood and scavenging through your possessions. Then again, you might be dead and it won’t matter anymore. He’ll stay and pick through the bones like the vulture he is, and the rest of us – those who have truly loved you and tried to protect you – will have to sieve through our anger to find our grief.
It’s one thing to fight you. We have fought before, and fairly. Two against one, though, is one too many.
I am saying goodbye, my once-precious friend, and there will be no promises of letters or one-day anything. I am done, because you are done. Because I still have a life left, and I can’t live it fully while I’m trying to manage the one you and your two deadly habits are intent on destroying. There’s no damage control I can do that will ever rise above your need to experience some kind of death daily.
Do not dare tell me that I have not loved you well enough, or strong enough, or deep enough. I have loved you far too long, and way too much. I’ve kept your secrets and indulged your disease, and drained myself of time, money, and energy in order to give you whatever temporary relief would get you through another day. My love for you long ago exceeded any expectation of mutuality, and I have loved alone. Alone. Like a wild child, desperate to hang onto my one true companion – The Girl Who Once Was.
I will miss her. I will miss you not nearly as much.