Stick in hand, I was scrawling outlines of flowers in the dirt outside our new brick house on “R” Street. I was heartsick for my old school and friends, and feeling lost.
Suddenly I felt a presence. As I peered up from my drawings and brushed the straggles from my eyes, I saw her – this little girl about my age. She was crossing the street and headed straight toward me.
“Whatcha doing over there?” she asked, strutting up like she’d just won some beauty pageant – like she was the little Ms. Universe of our middle-class neighborhood.
As I stood up and brushed dirt from my knobby knees, her questions flew at me. “What’s your name?” “Where’d you come from?” “Got any friends?” “Do you like Barbie dolls?” And then she flashed this perfect white-tooth smile that lit up her round, dimpled face.
From the very beginning, Mom had disapproved of our friendship. “I don’t like that girl,” she’d say. “She acts like she’s better than you.” Well, Mom never got me so why would she get my best friend?
“Here, let me show you how to draw a real flower,” little Linda said, quickly tucking her thick, nutmeg hair behind her ears before grabbing the stick from my hand. “Geez, she’s like – real bossy,” I thought. “I like her.”
Of course, I couldn’t know it then, but as we grew up together – from grade school, to junior high, then high school and freshman college year – through all the boys and other friendships, through stupid fights (hey, she never did return my favorite Neil Diamond album), laughing till we peed our pants, crying and consoling one another, through all the heartbreaks and confusion of teenage angst – I’d always ached to have more of what Linda had: straight-up hutzpah.
Have you ever watched that Meghan Trainor music video, “Me Too?” That song reminds me of Linda. “I thank God every day…I woke up feelin’ this way…and I can’t help lovin’ myself…”
I mean, come on! Who doesn’t want to wake up every morning feeling like THAT!? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do yourself a favor and check it out. I can easily see Linda singing into her toothbrush, shaking her booty and winking in the mirror. Then I remembered: Oh yeah, hell, I actually caught her doing that once!
“I live over there,” little Linda proudly pointed to her house across the street. “Come by anytime. How ‘bout today?”
Even at age seven she was one ballsy soul. We had a connection. If you’re into astrology, you’ll get this: she was an Aries and I’m a Libra. They say exact opposites of the zodiac make for good friends. Who knows? All I know for sure is that she became my very best, longest friend ever. Sure, later we’d have other besties who’d come and go, but she and I were close for many, many years – from first grade into our early twenties that is, until our roads diverged for good.
When you grow up that close to someone, you learn hidden stuff. You share a lot. Things that no one else ever knows about you. Back in grade school, I’d been a super-extroverted child, starring in school plays, hamming it up in class and at times, even matching Linda’s own special breed of brashness.
By age twelve however, the terrorism in my home had elevated to “intense,” and by seventh grade my personality had changed. I was no longer an outgoing, confident girl. Instead I’d become withdrawn, frightened, anxious. They have a name for it now: social anxiety disorder.
One by one, even my closest pals began to ditch me. But not Linda. Through all my suffering she remained my “Stick with me, kid and I’ll get you in the coolest doors,” kind of friend.
Fast-forward to my freshman year at college when I unexpectedly got pregnant. I was only nineteen. Linda was the maid of honor at my shotgun wedding to a cute stoner biker dude with long blonde hair. (Hell no, that one didn’t last!) This was never part of my plan. I was going to be a journalist and a famous writer someday, maybe even a wartime correspondent. Instead, after I had the baby I dropped out of college and started selling Avon door-to-door.
I remember the last time I saw Linda. I was going through something that only she knew about. You see, after my divorce at age twenty-two I’d been struggling to support two young babies on $9,000 a year. With zero financial or emotional support from what was left of my family I was lonely and overwhelmed. It was my “dark night of the soul” (in other words, I was losing my shit). One night, I blurted out to Linda through shameful tears: “I don’t think I can do this anymore – be a mom. Maybe their father should take them.”
Linda never judged me for thinking like this. To test the waters, she and I explored getting a place together, just two young women (sans kids). We walked around the duplex-for-rent, chattering like two delighted squirrels about our new furniture, the parties we’d have and the young-adult life we’d soon share together. This would be the next chapter of our friendship. But even as we fantasized about this path before us, we both knew the truth: I could never leave my children. This was just a “try on” moment between close friends – and exactly what I needed to get the notion out of my head.
Eventually Linda and I drifted apart and I left Lincoln, Nebraska. As the years passed, now and then, I’d imagine her married to some real estate developer or blossoming as an interior designer. I’d sometimes wonder if she ever had any children and if she ever thought about me.
So, when I opened the mail box last month and found the letter about our 40th high school reunion, I was surprised. The thought of seeing my old friend again made me a bit giddy.
But when I clicked on Linda’s profile, a brick hit my stomach. There above her name two words stared back: “In Memory.” I had no idea that she’d died back in 2005. There was so much left that I wanted to say to her “someday” and to her parents who’d given me a brief respite from the horrors of my childhood many, many times.
I’m still in shock that she’s gone. I guess I expected to show up on her doorstep when the time was “right” and we’d just reconnect like when we were young. I foolishly thought we had so much damn time.
And really, isn’t this the letter we all should be writing to someone out there? What soul stands out in the mosaic of your life, if only in the background? Does that person even know how you feel and what a difference he or she made to you?
And so, to my bold, courageous friend, there’s something I need to say: “Thank you for being my friend, little Linda. Thank you for holding me whenever I cried and for not judging me because of my parents’ craziness. Thank you for paying attention to me when no one else did. For that, I’ll always love you.
But little Linda, what I really want to know is, “Whatcha doing over there?”