I met her around the time I learned to use contractions instead of formal negations, which is to say I was young, but still old enough to know that cutting corners was my thing. She was mousey, the stereotypical new girl, and tentative, and I loathed her for those qualities under the guise of my own confidence. I loathed her because she was me. It wasn’t her, but myself I despised.
She helped me with some spelling words one day in class(I wanted to spell “distinct” with a “k”), and I thanked her. She must have taken that as a sign that I wanted her to tag along, and from that moment on, I couldn’t shake her. Not on the playground, not in the cafeteria, not even at home. She called me there, and my mom remarked that my new friend “seems very good”.
She is, I told my mom. She’s good, but I’m good, too.
I brought her home on the bus one day, and some of the high school kids grabbed her – pulled her into the seats at the back of the aisle and teased her. I yelled for them to give her back. The diver threatened to kick us off. One kid brought her back to my seat and said she was very good, my new friend, if a little worse for wear. I know she is, I told the kid.
My little sister said she was going to tell on me for bringing home a friend, but I told her to shut up. Our teacher sent a note, I said, and I could tell that really, my sister just wanted to play with us, so we let her.
I made the new girl do my English homework. She didn’t want to, but I told her she had to. I wouldn’t be her friend. So she wrote my essay and I got an A. From then on, I used her every day. Sometimes she liked it – she went along easily where I led her. Other times she was stubborn, wanted me to do the work by myself, she was tired of writing. Mostly she did what I said, and all of the adults began telling me how good I was at English, that I was going to grow up to be a writer some day.
I’m good because of her, I thought. I felt like a phony because it wasn’t me who wrote: it was her. I liked the attention she brought, but I didn’t give her credit for anything. She only did what she wanted to do, I told myself.
There was this boy in my class that I chased at recess. I wanted to write him a love note so he would be my boyfriend, but I knew it wouldn’t be any good, so I made her write it instead. She liked this job, got really excited and drew lots of hearts in the margins. When she was finished, she passed the note to him.
He snickered. Said he was going to throw up. He asked who wrote the note.
She did, I told him. I pointed at the new girl. I told everyone in class that she wrote the note because she liked him. She just watched me with big eyes and didn’t say anything. I blamed her. And later, she forgave me.
She kept doing my homework and following me around. Eventually I got used to her and I started to miss her when she didn’t show up to class. Mostly she was there, though. We were always in the same class, every year, and then we’d spend all summer curled up together in the woods on a blanket, reading, or sometimes playing Haunted Horse Barn with my sister, who always had to get trampled (because she was littler) by the horse ghost that only appeared when the moon was full.
Once, I found a stack of Playboys hidden in the bottom drawer of my mom’s dresser, and I showed them to the new girl and made her look at the pictures, made her look at them together. She didn’t want to, but she always did what I told her to do. I made her touch me like in the pictures, and I touched her back. We never told anyone because we knew that what we had done was Bad. We just didn’t know why.
As we got older, she consoled me, nursed me through heartaches, kept me company during the nights when I couldn’t sleep. She told me stories that she made up just for me. As my conscious, she saved my life (or at least parts of my life) on many occasions, but neither of us knew it at the time. She was adopted into my family. She sent newsletters to my grandparents.
She was what people liked about me.
I decided to take a year off after high school. We applied to all of the same colleges, but I told her I wanted to leave without her. I wanted to know if people liked me without her. She didn’t cry, just packed and left and sometimes she sent me letters. After a year, I enrolled in a college where I experimented with other women: technical writing, history, small business management, psychology. I wanted to know all of my options. I wanted to pretend I didn’t want her because there was something better. She isn’t good enough for me, I told myself.
Later, when I realized my mistake, she came to me and we picked up right where we’d left off, as if the flow of time had never widened the banks between us. She is the kind of friend that everyone deserves to recognize inside of themselves. She is not good. I am not good. Instead, she is what I am good at.
I am learning how to respect her, how to work along side her, how to pull an equal load of the weight and sharing the credit for what we make together. This class has been like couples counseling for us: We are learning to communicate more openly with each other, more freely expressing what we want from each other, spending more time together. I am learning how to give her the respect she deserves and she is learning to give me the space that I need when life is pressing against my eyelids and I am tired. Just as we labor together, we rest.
We are two halves of a pear, juices flowing between us. We surround the pit, one on either side, and together, we chip away the bitter core and fill the void with sweetness.