When I was in 7th grade my dad decided he'd had it with the super judgy small town life and we were going to move where our name didn't matter and blend in with the masses. In the middle of the school year he bought a condo in Indianapolis and away we moved. I moved from a small middle school with people I'd known my whole life to a gargantuan monster of a school that had busing (if you don't know what busing is look up Brown vs. the Board of Education) and more students than it could handle. Teachers were overwhelmed and students were some of the biggest jerks I had ever run in to by and large.
I hated it. I was bullied. I was taunted. I was physially attacked. I was hit so many times by one girl that when I retaliated that the teacher simply looked up from her papers, shuffled them, and went back to reading. It was a middle school nightmare, the stuff sit coms and middle school suicide dramas are made of on Lifetime.
This isn't about all that.
In my art class was a girl who was just a little different. When I joined the class she'd said, unsmilingly, "You can sit here I guess." That was as close to a warm greeting as I had there. We were making batik pillow cases. I didn't know what the hell batik was. She laughed at me for not knowing, but showed me how to use the wax, and helped me pick colors to help me catch up with everyone else.
About a month in to my new life, when I was about as desperate as a 13 year old can be in hating a new school and all the new people, she looked at me across the art table and said "My parents are going out of town this weekend. Can I stay with you?"
I was flabbergasted and also ecstatic - YES YES YES YOU CAN STAY WITH ME.
When Monday came, everything was different. I had a friend. I had a friend who was fierce. She wasn't "fierce" in the way that kids now say it by putting on too much make up and too tight clothes. No, she was fierce like water or wind can be when they go from docile to destructive. She was a force of nature. She was smart. She was funny. She was intense. She burned brightly and joyfully - and beside her I could leech her energy and feel the same. She made me turn back into myself again, and sometimes be more than I was because she didn't accept that I coudln't.
We discovered the mysteries of sex reading Judy Blume, and various porn that came our way and consulted one another incredulously for the veracity of these things. This was before the internet - word of mouth went a long way back then. Unfortunately it was usually wrong, however so is the internet so nothing's new under the sun after all.
If I stood behind her she was like the greatest shield you ever felt. She was impenetrable. No one was going to get through her and to you if she didn't want them to. If you needed her, she was never going to let it happen.
We went through the teenage things together as girls and that's a bond that forges deeply in you, I think. The person who was there when you went from being a child to turning into a woman is someone who probably knows parts of you that you've even forgotten. More than that though, her coming into my life changed it for the better in ways immeasurably. She saved me from terrible days. With her in my life I no longer went home after school and sobbed until dinner. I no longer dreaded waking up.
She made me a part of things, and it didn't even matter if it wasn't the greater whole - it was HER greater whole and it was huge.
People either liked or hated her in school. Usually that had zero to do with the way she treated them but rather their ability to accept her as she was. She didn't care, you see, if they accepted her.As you can imagine that wasn't a popular way to exist at 13-14 years old. She never stopped existing like that. She chose her own path and if you didn't like it you could get the hell out of the way.
She could be vicious, but it was rare. It was more likely that she'd dismiss you with a coldly delivered "All your taste is in your mouth." Taste and style were important. If you didn't have any, that was just an absurd way to be. She'd disregard you quickly if that were the case - unless she loved you despite herself, in that case she'd tease you about it but lovingly.
Complicated. She was complicated.
I got to see her for the first time in probably 20 years or close to it, on Monday.
I took a long layover and made my way up to the home where she is staying so I could see her.
We went out for beers and some food truck food.
Her fire is still there, her passion, her joy. This disease is such bullshit. I was so careful while I was there not to let her see any hint of how much it upset me, to see her so broken. She wasn't broken - she was a broken person who just refused to be broken. Still fierce. Still Eileen.
We both cried when I left. But suddenly, she stopped and took both my hands and asked "Do you remember at high school graduation practice when I showed up with my hair in curlers?" I responded that yes, I did. "Why did I do that?" she asked me. "Because you got into a fight with your mom about what you were going to wear."
This amazing look of calm came over her face and she said "Good, I knew you'd remember. You will always remember for me."
I will always remember for you, as long as I can. I promise.