Wednesday, April 4, 2012

KekahJ Week 98: Everything


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KekahJ's Choice: Both


She was everything I wasn’t; everything I wanted to be, but couldn’t. I remember the first day I met her. I was the new girl, scared, awkward, and completely alone. She’d sauntered up to my empty lunch table, oozing confidence, and plopped right down. She didn’t even ask me if it was okay if she sat there. She must have known I wouldn’t object. Why would I? I’d only gone to that school for half a day, but I could already tell she ruled the school. From that day on we were a matched set. Wherever one went, the other was not far away. It wasn’t hard to see why she was so popular. Her personality was magnetic and her laughter contagious. She was the kind of girl that others, male and female, clamoured to be around. We clicked right away, spending hours talking about anything and everything.

At school, everyone knew her. We’d walk down the hall and people would call out her name or wave at her, and before long, people would call out my name too. It was a strangely powerful feeling that I’d never before experienced, and it was all because of her. She made me feel good about myself, and she was generous almost to a fault. She insisted that we share wardrobes, even though my own was a meager fraction of hers, and not nearly as fashionable. When I tried to explain this she just rolled her eyes and dismissed me with a wave of her hand.

She came from what I thought was the perfect family. I was the only child of a single mother who worked two jobs to pay the bills, so I was fascinated with her family dynamic. Her dad made a ton of money doing something that required him to wear a business suit and work in an office each day. Her mother was a stay at home mom and kept an immaculate home. I was invited to dinner most nights and I’d always marvel at the home-cooked spread that she’d lay out. Her little brother was just as I thought a little brother should be: annoying and always under foot, but ultimately adorable and lovable. The funny thing was, as much as I envied her family, as much as I wished her parents were my parents as I sat alone in our crappy apartment reheating a frozen dinner and waiting for my mom to finish her double shift at the refinery; she couldn’t stand them. She’d catch my eye and make a face whenever her mom or dad spoke, no matter how innocuous the conversation was. Then she’d wrinkle her nose and we’d giggle quietly as if we shared some sort of hilarious private joke. I guess the grass really is greener on the other side.

All through high school she dated the same boy. He was equally as perfect; handsome, football star, came from another wealthy family; and it seemed only natural for them to be together. Looking back, I think he was genuinely good to her. I don’t know if he loved her, but he cared about her deeply. He did all the things a good high school boyfriend is supposed to do: flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, elaborate corsages and limousine rides for all of the big school dances. She never sat home on the weekends. He was always taking her out. Her parents thought the sun rose and set on that boy.

The first few months of being friends with her I thought I’d won some sort of lottery. How could I be so lucky as to have attracted the prettiest, most popular girl in school to be my friend? It seemed like because of her, I was making other friends, and people were definitely beginning to take note of me. I couldn’t remember ever being so happy. One Friday night, like so many others, we went to the football game. Her boyfriend was playing, so she’d dutifully showed up to support him. As we walked across the stands, people called our names, and we found ourselves settled in among a large group of friends. It was loud and crowded, so I’m not sure exactly what happened, but it wasn’t long before I noticed she was no longer sitting next to me. I waited for a while, but she didn’t return. When the second half began and she still wasn’t back, I began to grow concerned and went to go look for her. I found her under the bleachers, skirt hiked up, legs wrapped around some no-named greasy-haired kid in a leather jacket that was two sizes too large.

She saw me, and I’ll never forget the look in her eyes. It wasn’t embarrassment, she didn’t blush and push him away, she just looked at me as if she was daring me to say something or to judge her. Shocked, I stumbled wordlessly back to my seat. The kid hadn’t seen me, and she returned a few minutes later. She never said a word about it, and I was too embarrassed to bring it up. That was the first tiny crack I saw in her carefully crafted facade.

That summer her family took their annual vacation to the shore and invited me to tag along. The prospect of spending the summer alone cooped up in our stuffy little apartment didn’t appeal to me, so I agreed and packed up my swimsuit and sun tan oil.

Her family’s beach house was gigantic and we were free to do pretty much whatever we wanted all summer. We’d throw our bikinis on in the morning and spend most of the day on the beach, either walking up and down the boardwalk, or lying on giant fluffy towels soaking in the sun’s rays. At night we’d talk for hours in the room we shared. We’d discuss our hopes for the future, and I was always puzzled about her lack of concrete plans. We were about to start our senior year, and all she’d ever do when asked about her post high school plans was shrug and say something noncommittal about good colleges out west. When I’d ask her if she’d applied anywhere yet, she’d laugh and assure me that she had plenty of time to get serious about college. Then she’d artfully change the subject.

One night I’d gone to bed early with a cold. I was awoken a few hours later to her scrambling clumsily through our bedroom window. She reeked of alcohol and something else I couldn’t quite identify, and her eyes were glazed and unfocused as she smiled vaguely at me. I jumped up and helped her into bed. As I pulled off her sandals, she began to cry. When I asked her what was wrong, she covered her face with her hands and rolled onto her side. No amount of cajoling would get her to open up to me. Just as I was about to give up, she rolled back over and looked at me. Her eyes were wide and I could tell she was struggling to focus on my face. Wordlessly she pressed something into my hand. I opened my palm to find a tiny, perfect dried seahorse. I tried to ask her what it was and why she’d given it to me, but she was gone again. Soon she was snoring softly and I never asked her about it again. As she slept, I placed the mysterious little seahorse in the side pocket of my bag.

Our senior year passed in sort of a blur. Things were pretty quiet and I had settled nicely into my new life. She still wouldn’t talk about colleges, so I quietly submitted my applications to local community colleges. My grades weren’t stellar enough to expect any scholarships, and there was no way my mom could afford to send me to a four year university. Though I never mentioned it, I was secretly frustrated and even angry that my friend was throwing away her chance to go to college. I felt sure that her parents would have supported her if she’d shown any interest at all.

There were a few more strange incidents that year, but nothing too big. I caught her with another nameless boy; this time in the backseat of her car, and there were a few times that she showed up at my apartment late at night, that same strange odor clinging to her. Luckily my mom was always working when she came over. She’d curl up in my bed while I’d lay a blanket on the floor, and in the morning, she’d always act as if nothing had happened, as if this was just a normal teenage girl sleepover. Then, one Saturday afternoon she showed up at my door. It was one of the rare days when my mom was actually home. She’d seemed almost frantic as she’d pulled me into my bedroom and quickly closed the door. She tossed her car keys at me and I looked at her questioningly. She had an almost new car, a senior gift from her parents, but I’d never driven it before. She told me she needed a ride, but refused to tell me where to, or why she couldn’t drive herself. Finally, I shrugged and agreed. I called to my mom on the way out, and soon we were buckled into her car, me in the driver’s seat, her looking slightly sick on the passenger’s side.

As we started to drive, she finally told me where she needed to go, and I’m fairly certain I turned a similar shade of green as her. Since then, I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d refused on that day; if I’d simply gotten out of the car and walked back upstairs to my apartment. Most likely she’d have found someone else. She had no shortage of people wanting to earn her favor. But I didn’t say no. I took a deep breath, grabbed her hand, and I drove. I didn’t let go of her hand the entire time. I helped her fill out the paperwork, I walked her back into that tiny room. They tried to make me wait outside, but I refused. She cried, I cried, but I never let go of her hand. Afterward, I helped her home and into bed. She was weak and trembling, her cheeks pale and tear stained, her eyes red-rimmed. Her mom was worried, but I assured her that she’d probably just caught some sort of bug. She didn’t come back to school for three days.

Graduation came and went, and she invited me back to her parents’ beach house. I still don’t know what made me decline, exactly, but I invented some excuse about having to get ready for college. I knew as she eyed me she knew it was a lie, but she just shrugged and nodded. The summer flew by, and before I knew it, college started. I immersed myself in my classes, and suddenly I realized that it no longer mattered if I was popular or pretty. It mattered that I was smart and hard-working. I found myself excelling in this new world of professors and lectures in ways I’d never known possible. College was a whole new experience, so different from high school, and I loved it.

We saw less and less of each other until one day I realized I hadn’t seen or talked to her in over a month. Part of me felt like I should call her, but part of me couldn’t bring myself to care. I remember sitting on my bed, textbooks spread out around me, phone in hand as I tried to think of what we could possibly talk about.

I didn’t call her, and it was another few months before we happened to run into each other at a party. She looked like hell. She was hanging on the arm of some guy with greased back hair and eyes that never seemed to stay in one place for very long. Her hair was matted and disheveled, her makeup smudged, and it looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Our greeting was stumbling and awkward and I don’t think either of us were disappointed when the crowd moved us in opposite directions and we lost sight of each other.

That was the last time I saw her. Time marched on and I thought about her occasionally; wondered how she was, especially when I hit big milestones like when I graduated from college and my wedding, but I had no idea how to get in contact with her. I ran into her little brother a few years later at a local coffee shop, all grown up and just as charming as ever. I asked about her, and he ducked his head and shrugged. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who’d lost contact with her. No one in their family had seen or heard from her for a couple of years. I hugged him and gave him my number and assured him that I’d love to see him or his parents anytime. He grinned almost shyly and thanked me. He seemed genuine and I felt sorry for them.

Later that night I pulled a small shoebox off the top shelf of my closet. I fished around inside until my fingers closed around the tiny dried seahorse. As I turned it over in my hand I felt a sad sort of nostalgia as memories of her came flooding back to me. She was the girl who had everything, and somehow she’d managed to throw it all away.