I’ve written before about my aversion to some social media. Besides the conspicuous consumption of time, Facebook is how I found out that my best friend from 5th grade had lost the use of both her legs and arms in a car accident. Which led me to a search where I found out that another classmate and her brother were both dead in their early 40s. It was jarring and traumatic. These faces, frozen in my mind’s eye, were young and healthy and living happy lives in some far off world. Anything beyond that failed to reach my imagination.
When I was in my teens, we moved to a house, town and school far away from where I’d grown up. It was, in reality, only about 40 miles away, but rural miles. No public transportation or extra family car or cell phone plans to keep in touch with old friends. We wrote letters. It seems quaint now, as if we’d moved by covered wagon.
The year before the move, on a parental whim, I had been pulled from the public school where I’d been since Kindergarten and plopped into a church school, where, as a girl, I was not allowed to wear pants with pockets. The culture shock led to a series of uncharacteristic pranks and mild hooliganism, including pouring unholy amounts of pepper into the school’s soup and some minor brawling during flag football. It was the same year in which the pastor of the church got caught embezzling and a teacher at the school molested my best friend. The following summer, we moved.
The student population at the new school was drawn from four rural towns and still my eighth grade class only had some 50 students. I settled in awkwardly, made friends at the fringes and envied the popular kids. With a deteriorating home situation, I got involved in everything: track, editor of the school paper, speech, plays, musicals, band, choir. I felt like a constant outsider, but pictures of my unwieldy teenage self are sprinkled liberally about yearbooks.
I worked, bought a car, started to drink, got high a few times, and went to frat parties in the nearest college town. Wherever I was, I felt, as so many teenagers do, that I did not belong. I had two best friends, one who was a parent’s dream and another, two steps from rehab and/or juvie. The three of us didn’t hang out together. I led distinctly separate lives. One had me competing in band and speech contests, the other got me acquainted with the police in two cities.
At home, being tuned into every vibration of other people’s moods was self-preservation. It could mean the difference between being screamed at and hit or currying favor at just the right moment so that I could hang out with a friend. Sometimes it meant determining whether or not I would sleep in my bed or if the five of us, my mom, two brothers and sister would be staying in a dingy hotel room that night.
Living on eggshells and developing survival empathy made me weird. Other people became cults of personality in my head. I watched and listened keenly to what they liked and didn’t like, who their crush of the week was, what they wore and how they walked. I wanted to be them, but they seemed like these marvelous, otherworldly creatures to me – ethereal and unreachable. I was small.
It’s a particular kind of body schema to look out at the world, seeing and admiring other humans as big and important and full of life. It took me well into my late twenties to gain perspective in that rear view mirror, and years of living alone to step into my own life and take up space.
Which brings me to the other people. There were two friends. I have a picture of them together in front of the place where we all worked during the summer. They’re pretty girls with stylish hair and clothes I could never afford. Clear skin, beautiful eyes, casual in their bodies, bodies that had been admired and felt up by boys on whom I had revolving crushes. In my eyes, they had and were everything.
Our junior year, they were driving home from a game on one of those winding rural highways, cut into the earth, the pavement laid out four inches higher than the gravel. The driver over-adjusted when the tire slipped off the edge of the road. The car flipped and rolled, sending the two girls through the windshield. One of them died.
Teenagers grieve loudly and visibly or they shutter themselves in dark corners and write bad poetry. We mourned that whole year, gossiping in righteous indignation when the dead girl’s boyfriend began to date someone new. By the next year, life had found a semblance of normal. The friend who lived was still enviable, made more alluring by her survival of a tragic accident.
In a story of fiction, she’d go on to live a happy life, a joyful existence in honor of her friend, never forgotten. In real life, she was dead at 41 from cancer, leaving behind several children. A few years later, her older brother, the quarterback with a quiet smile and gentle demeanor, was crushed to death by industrial equipment.
If I ever needed a reason to read and write stories, it is this: they explode the moments, magnify the minutiae and put some meat on the bones of our lives. Between youth and endings, tragic or not, we are more than our milestones, births, marriages, deaths. These lives, so full of promise, take up space. To see only the milestones and the end of their story has all the depth of a deflated balloon. I missed all the meaning in the middle and it feels like cheap voyeurism.