It is a short flight from Cleveland to Washington, D.C. - just under an hour. I was supposed to stay longer on the campus, to decide if the money they were offering was worth it. I thought I would be there another night, but around noon my phone had started ringing in the restaurant, over and over.
The man next to me wore a dark blue suit and was powering down his Blackberry.
"It’s not too bad a flight," he said, nudging me with his elbow. I tried to smile, but the corners of my mouth were frozen in a grim line. I stared out the small oval window at the tarmac.
"Do you fly often?" I asked.
"I make this trip a couple times a week," he said, pushing his legs out straight, under the seat in front of him. "Why are you flying to DC?"
"Oh," I said. My brain whirred but I wasn’t sure what to say. No one wants to hear these kinds of things, you know, especially not during small talk, but I settled on the truth.
"My best friend died this morning," I said. "In a car crash."
Senior year of high school, we are in AP physics class for two and a half hours together - an extended block period for advanced science courses. She somehow convinced our teacher to let us go buy ice cream sandwiches - that girl could talk her way into or out of any situation - and we practically skipped down the steps of the school to the front entrance.
We looked like opposites; she wore brightly colored, flowing clothing, and dripped with small accents of jewelry. A bluish-green moonstone necklace embraced her throat. I had given it to her almost two years earlier and she wore it every day. It would be thrown off in the crash, and another friend’s father would walk up and down the highway for hours until he found it, handing it to me in a small white envelope at the wake.
My clothes, on the other hand, were brown and closely tailored – pinstriped pants that a twenty-something would wear to the office, chocolate brown loafers. Her hair was a rich, coffee brown, with hints of red, and lay smooth and flat down her back. My hair was wild, light and curly, twisted up in a clip. We left the classroom together.
“You want to hear something weird?” she asked, as we descended the cement steps in front of the school and began to cross the parking lot.
“You know when we drew that graph and at the top he had labeled ‘Impending Motion’?” I nodded
“Well, I looked down a couple minutes later, and instead of ‘Impending Motion,’ I had written ‘Impending Doom.’” She chuckled to herself, and I sort of shook my head at her. “I just thought that was really funny.”
The cool October air blew our clothes and our hair out in billows, and she unlocked the small white Civic, folding her near-6-foot frame in behind the wheel. As she turned on the ignition, loud rap music blasted from the speakers and she rolled down the windows to the afternoon breeze.
After we’d returned to school and finished our ice cream, the bell rang to end the class and I threw all of my things together, headed out the door to lunch.
"See you on Monday!” she called, and then she was assimilated into the bustle of the hallway, echoes of lockers slamming and students yelling to one another. That one moment, short as a blink or an intake of breath – nonchalant, beautiful – was the last time I ever saw her alive.
I sit to write the eulogy and my brain is full of static. What can you say to other people about the intensity of the bond, the pain of it severed? She was going to Yale in the fall, I could say. Smartest girl I ever knew. Sarcastic; sometimes even cruel. But also loving. Thoughtful. Kind. I’d be sitting in the papasan chair in her room, reading, and she’d notice the goosebumps on my arms and cover me with a fleece blanket.
She was tortured, internally, as was I. We were both seeing shrinks for our “issues”. My parents were so often gone that I spent most of my time at her house, with her family. After the funeral her mother held my head in her lap and stroked my hair. My voice in their house, she said, made it seem like it was only a dream.
We’d been here before, together, almost exactly a year earlier. Our mutual friend’s boyfriend was murdered, beaten in the head by a group of high school boys, died in the middle of the night. She and I had sat, curled against one another, until dawn. Her blue eyes would fill with tears and then spill over. We’d been here, and it had been awful, but she had been with me.
"YOU ARE MY LIFEJACKET," she wrote, the first line of a letter one summer. The letter had come enclosed with a CD she’d made, and I opened it in my tent at summer camp and smiled. I remembered the words after her death and they haunted me at night. I imagined her drowning, her last breath. I imagined her head going through the windshield, hitting the pavement.
I return to school only to retreat into the bathroom, sobs clawing at my throat, tears burning under my eyelids. We should have had more time.The ‘shoulds’ overwhelm and nearly crush me. I can’t shake the image of her casual wave goodbye, the way she was enveloped by the crowd and disappeared. Disappeared, just like that. Gone forever.
I go through all the motions of senior year. I start drinking heavily with friends, taking shots of vodka until the room tilts and I don’t see her face any longer. I take all six of my AP tests, get all of my credits. I get into all of the colleges where I’ve applied, maintain a perfect GPA until graduation. I go to orientation and look at all of the smiling, happy freshmen. I am an outsider. Loss runs through my veins.
Seven years to the day that she died and I meet her mother to run a 5k along the river. We would run here during crew practice, glare at the white caps on the water that meant we could not row. I am still here - now a college graduate, now an adult - but still tethered to her, to her family.
"She loved you, even more than if you’d been her own sister," her mother tells me, her arm around my shoulder. "You two were something special."
I start to cry. I feel small, afraid, alone in a lonely world. The wound she left behind when she died has scabbed over, but it still aches.
I am the half that is left of something special.
I won’t forget.