Her name was Sarah. I loved her absolutely and without condition. She was younger than me by a full year and a half. At a time when such things mattered, I loved her in spite of her age as well as to spite the girls in my class who wouldn’t have me part of their knotted, complicated friendships. At fifteen and a half, Sarah knew things I didn’t; how to drive, how to flirt with boys, how to play Chopin at midnight by candlelight with her head thrown back, her fairy-tale hair glittering like true gold in the dancing light. She knew how to draw herself up and sneer at her father when he tried to set a curfew. She knew how to drink shots of tequila and lick salt off her fist. She knew the shortest shortcut to the Student Union on campus, where we were forbidden to go and so always were.
Sarah taught me to dress in old satin tablecloths we bought for quarters from secondhand stores and tinted the color of emeralds and rubies with boxes of dye. They could become anything; folded on the diagonal, they were shawls. Folded on the diagonal and snipped at the center, they were capes; stitched at the side, they became blouses. Snipped wider at the center and stitched with elastic, they were Gypsy skirts that hung to the ground and lifted alluringly when we spun in wild, barefooted circles. She tried to teach me to shoplift lipsticks, but that didn’t take. I told her I didn’t believe in lipstick; I didn’t tell her I didn’t believe in shoplifting.
What I saw in Sarah was the sun, the moon, and a universe of every star that ever sparkled. What I didn’t see was what too much of our young world saw; as beautiful as I knew she was, her beauty wasn’t physical. Physically, she was what was euphemistically called big-boned by adults, and more accurately, fat, by other girls. Her eyes sat too close to the beak of her nose—although even now, when I picture her I see the saucy snap in her eyes and her nose seems regal rather than hawk-like. Her teeth jutted, and one overlapped. Her chin tucked itself beneath her mouth like a turtle pulling in its head. Her skin was so pale it was nearly transparent and blue; every emotion painted itself across her cheeks in varying shades of blood. I thought the multitude of ever-deepening blushes that stained those ivory cheeks were exquisite. The single dimple that spontaneously appeared when she even thought about smiling and the darling Dumbo ear that parted the glorious curtain of glittering hair made me oddly proud that she was my best friend.
I wasn’t especially beautiful, either, but Sarah’s lessons in flirting had resulted in a steady stream of boys who followed us to the library, to the Student Union, back home. Although I tried to pretend otherwise, including her in conversations, steering the boys’ attention in her direction, it was clear they were following only me, and Sarah knew it. She ate and drank to comfort herself, and she grew bigger and bigger, her small eyes squeezed to slits too close to her reddening nose.
A year passed and I went off to college, promising to write. I did, one letter the minute I got to my cement-block dorm room, lonely for the girl who’d taught me how to live in the world. I wrote again, once or twice, but for the most part I allowed myself to be swept away in the waves of college life; sophisticated East Coast friends with Boston accents who teased my Midwest vowels, a group of serious young writers I fell in with, and a steady stream of boys-no-longer who weren’t either quite men.
I remember trying to write to Sarah late one night by candlelight, the flickering shadows reminding me of how she’d played Chopin with such abandon. I wanted to tell her about the man who’d published a love sonnet in a literary magazine, and dedicated to me; but I could not, because it seemed the same as if I’d slapped her with my open hand. I wanted to tell her about my first poems being accepted for publication, but I feared she would be jealous and hurt. I don’t know why I thought so; she’d never seemed jealous before. Perhaps from the distance of time and several states, I’d begun to see Sarah the way other people did; I’d begun to pity her.
Confused by it, I turned my back and drenched myself in my own life. I heard she’d gone to Israel, I heard she’d married a Palestinian. I heard she’d become pregnant and that her body grew to immense, obese proportions. I heard her husband beat her. I heard she left him. But still I didn’t call or write, because with each new piece of information, I felt guilty.
Eventually, I ran into her mother who told me not to call Sarah. She had had a breakdown; she hated everyone, me most of all. She didn’t speak to her father, whom she claimed had abused her (a claim I don’t doubt; although she’d never directly spoken of it, I had always despised the man and had wanted to protect her, although I didn’t exactly know from what.) She barely spoke to her mother, in monosyllables only. Everything sent her into a rage. Her mother begged me to leave Sarah alone; contacting her would only make things more difficult.
I left her alone for another year, until the morning I answered the phone and was told my brother had drowned. I called Sarah immediately, after all the years still needing her like I had always needed her. Needing her, probably, the way she had needed me, and I had failed. She answered, and when I told her about my brother she began to laugh. She laughed and laughed, a low snicker turning into a chuckle turning into a cascade of giggles turning into a shrill, hollow howl. “I don’t care,” she gasped between chortles, “I don’t care about anything. Don’t you ever, ever call me again.” And then she hung up.
I doubt she’s still alive. A decade later I had a dream that was too vivid, the kind of dream that occupies a physic space that is more-than-dream. It didn’t turn into ephemera upon waking; it seemed to solidify. In the dream, Sarah was a ghost, paler than in life, lighter, lost and drifting. Lonely. Enraged. In the dream, I tried to help her find a door, but there were no doors anywhere. She didn’t want my help; she hated me and she loved me and couldn’t stop following me. In the dream I wanted to bring her back or send her away.
When I woke, I tried to call her mother. The phone had been disconnected. I contacted the university where her father had taught, but he was no longer there. Sarah was gone, and the loss of her was permanent. For nearly 40 years I have missed her, and regretted I wasn’t mature enough to take care of her the way she’d taken care of me. I do see her several times a year; she visits my dreams, always as a ghost, always slipping among shadows, always waiting to be finely and finally loved.
About the author: Cynde Gregory is a poverty-stricken writer/real estate agent/substitute teacher/adjunct college instructor hanging on by her fingernails in Lawrenceville, Ga. She will be having a Pay the Mortgage yard sale in August, which gives you plenty of time to order your plane tickets. She will be selling her past, including her entire collection of Teenage Angst Poetry, her pink high tops, her pride, a partridge in a pear tree, and other things beginning with the letter P. She has been a writer for the last 11 of her lifetimes. Prior to that, (lifetimes 12-17), she was an exotic pole dancer.
Photo Credit: saffy_suppi at Flickr