We Were 16
I met her on the sidelines of a high school football game on a sunny Friday afternoon. I’d just returned to my neighborhood school after 3 years of being bussed to another one. She’d just moved from the city to the suburbs. I was trying to figure out high school and rekindle friendships that had gone cold in three years. She had already been welcomed into a group that included some of my old friends from grade school. I was average height, skinny and flat-chested with dark straight hair. She was tall and voluptuous with a tumble of wheat-colored curls. Her wry smile was my favorite. She lived in an old farmhouse on a country road. Her bedroom seemed huge and bright compared to my small room in our townhouse. A four-poster bed sat in the middle with a pair of ballet slippers dangling from one post. She didn’t dance anymore, she’d explained. But she liked the ballet slippers hanging there. She introduced me to the Violent Femmes and the Thompson Twins. I introduced her to the country roads where we partied next to cornfields.
A few weeks later, she and I had the opportunity to bond further. A bunch of us girls had thrown a party at her house while her parents were away. She and I had been caught. She had a strict dad and I had a strict mom. While our new friends were out partying every weekend, she and I talked for hours on our landlines. We shared the stories of our lives. We shared our hopes and dreams. Our fears. Our firsts.
She’d had a crush bordering on obsession with one of the senior lacrosse boys. When he picked me from our gaggle of giggling sophomores, her friends hissed at my betrayal. But she said she was glad he’d chosen one of us instead of that blond senior captain of the cheerleaders. And when he tossed me aside to return to the blond senior captain of the cheerleaders, she was there.
Then tenth grade was over and she invited me to Ocean City for a week where her parents had rented a condo that walked right out onto the boardwalk. All day, we lay on the beach, lathered in baby oil, blaring Madonna from tinny speakers. At night we flirted with boys, testing out the high wire between girl and woman.
By senior year, we were mostly moving in different social crowds, but still good friends. We thought we might end up at college together, but I decided to go north to Philadelphia and she headed south to Richmond. We saw each other here and there through college. I'd gotten into the Grateful Dead. She'd gotten into photography.
After college, our lives diverged. One night, while I was living in New Jersey, she woke me with a phone call. I can’t remember if it was very early in the morning or very late at night. She shared that she was facing a difficult decision. She wasn’t sure what to do. I was newly married and my grandmother had recently died. Looking back, my sleepy response had more to do with where I was in my life than where she was in hers. I don’t know what she decided to do. That was the last time we spoke.
We became Facebook friends, so I knew she’d had a son. I was happy for her. Having children was one of the fears of her 16-year old self - and one of her dreams too. Last week, I learned that she’d died in her sleep. We hadn’t seen one another in decades, but immediately, those sparkling eyes, that wry smile, and those wild curls filled my mind. A lovely soul is gone too soon. I’m grateful to have known her.