visit to California

Losing a friend. Again.

I met her in fourth grade, but it wasn’t until sixth that we really got started. Sitting awkwardly with our clarinets in our laps, their silver keys digging into our young flesh, we sweated in the band room where we practiced songs that were heavy in quarter and whole notes and only traveled about an octave in pitch.

At some point during my shy struggles of seventh and eighth grade she was there, accepting. In high school, we both loved marching band. But she traded the ridiculousness of marching with a clarinet for a respectable brass instrument. I don’t know when she made time to learn mellophone or even how good she was. But she looked way cooler than the woodwinds. She was like that — she made changes sometimes.

In high school we were both in the “top ten,” an achievement less spectacular given the uninspired classmates and school system. We studied French together and trigonometry and hung out in the yearbook room, where the very young adviser took a shine to both of us. Williamstown High School was full of teachers fresh out of Glassboro State with newly minted teacher’s degrees and a confusion about what kind of behavior was appropriate with students who were only four years younger than they. When two male teachers took us out for pizza after school it felt like a double date and we giggled and gossiped for hours about it.

We’d talk on the phone for so long, that I’d have to pry the round end from my sweaty face where it left a red circle from being pressed against my cheek as I lay on my parents’ bed.

I’d ride my bike to her house every weekend. We spent endless hours there and her sweet mother, who drank boxed Gallo Chablis on ice while wearing a velour zip housedress, greeted me like another daughter. We discovered music videos together and spent hours discussing Duran Duran, who we were convinced we would meet and become girlfriends of.

When the drinking age was only 19, we were still too young, but passed another girls’ ID back twice so we could each get in a dumpy south Jersey bar and dance and drink and feel that we were really grown up.

We went to different colleges, but visited each other there. I remember a frat party at her school that went so late where I ended up pouring drinks with the bartender I was crushing on that night who I’d never see again. In the neon lit bathroom, we dissected all the boys we liked, all the girls we didn’t, then ran out to dance when Escalator of Life came on.

We took our first trip to Europe together. One night we went with a band of Frenchmen I had met the night before. We each climbed behind a guy and rode on motorcycles at 150 kilometers an hour to have dinner with them at their friends’. We were adventurous, young, pretty. Men chased us down the streets of Rome and we ran up to our second story pensione and laughed as they begged us to come down to the street. We were flirts — but she was more skilled at womanly ways. I watched her to learn.

She got an older boyfriend which seemed strange at the time to me — he and his friends were well out of school, working in real jobs with actual apartments while we were still dorming and summering at home.

I remember the exquisite preparations for her young wedding, when the poofs of her sleeves exhibited 80s style nuptials at their most exuberant. We drank shots and danced for hours and then her lovely parents had more booze and food at their house. I remember talking to her in her childhood bedroom that night — all the kids’ rooms in south Jersey developments were like large closets. I thought wistfully, “We will never be in her room together after this night. This will never be her room again.”

She moved across the country with this husband and seemed to have a baby so fast. I was headed in a different direction — up to New York to start a career in communications. But, we mailed birthday and Christmas cards and always felt that special connection — the one that only comes with really old friends who can bounce between memories that span decades with ease.

The evenings out that we managed were always special and between that and letters (real ones) we kept the connection going. Years later when I got married too she spoke at my wedding. When we both had a couple kids each, my family visited hers and she was one of the few who could hold my baby daughter without making her cry. She prided herself on that. Being a mother was important to her, as were all things domestic; she cooked interesting recipes, poured good wine, and decorated with panache.

When did it fall apart? Did I miss signs years before? The point is, one day it did. A conflict that couldn’t be resolved. After three decades of friendship, the rift was the new reality of us.

Years later, a handful of emails were exchanged: conciliatory but not reconciling. The last time I had seen her was a few months before the fight. A visit to Atlantic City seven years ago when we drank vodka and pink lemonade at a beach bar and sunned ourselves on the grey-flecked sand like we had done so many summers in our 20s.

She died Friday.

I see her. Her eyes were the most beautiful, deep green with flecks of gold like a cat’s. I hear her voice saying my name, teasing me about something. I see her laughing and dancing. I see her small hands and I see a sweater she wore in the high school library that looked like cashmere but wasn’t because we lived in south Jersey.

I loved her. The way only young close friends can love each other — with that intensity that’s maybe born of the “only you really get me” feeling.

The rift didn’t kill the love I had for her. And it doesn’t blunt the gaping loss I feel having lost her this time for good.