What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s lime green bandannas and pink Goody combs clashed with her red fly-away hair. Her anger surfaced just like her freckles: slapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks without her usual thick 1980s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy teased me once in front of her. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree trunk and asked “You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

The way her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever I opened the drapes left me no choice but to be Lisa’s friend. I helped her with chores after school every day. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms.

Lisa was funny, too. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the utility closet, will ya?” When I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed her finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “It looks just like him!” On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late, she snuck shots of Southern Comfort. I politely abstained while lecturing her on her poor life choices, but it never stopped her. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.

One morning just before Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs ran out and opened the truck’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but I watched until the orange leaves circled up behind the ambulance and settled back down on the quiet street. Lisa wasn’t in school that day or the day after. The rumor around school was that Mrs. Burkhardt had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited a week to climb Lisa’s front porch again. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and tall hairspray cans and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why?” She stared up at me. “You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want me to help you with the bathroom?”

“No. Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?” she huffed. Her red hair reflected in her eyes, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test.

Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallway sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth, blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

— Does he treat you well? she typed.

— He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

— Good. That’s all that matters. The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray. She unfriended me the next day.