Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg
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Over vacation, I cried because I missed Jenny so much, a piercing hollow under my ribsâlove! “So it's Jenny,” my mother said. “Jenny's your best friend.” After the holiday here she was again! She didn't die! As Jenny accepted the present I'd chosen for her, a zippered change purse beaded with shiny little shells, her face was passionless, my dawning sense that we might not feel the same strengths in “friend,” but I pretended not to notice.
Gwen's was the first phone number I memorized after my own, her voice a thrill through the receiver, then my voice answering hers, as if we knew much more, had secret power to exchange. Her apartment had two floors, an architectural cocoon of white sectionals, white rugs, white walls. I would attend sleepovers there until I left for high school, depend on them. When we were thirteen, the summer after eighth grade, Gwen and I would go with a student group to France, adoring each other on the flight over, catching each other's eye, because each of us really trusted she knew what the other was thinking, and that the other was the only one who knew back. On the trip, new allegiances sprang up, magnetic twos and threes, and Gwen and I, without knowing we knew this, came to our end. High school would introduce new girls, permanently. But at seven, when we met, and at eight and nine and on until eighth grade, I would sit at the high white counter on a chrome stool as her mother buttered toast for us in the mornings,
or I'd watch Jenny and her sisters tease their dad at dinner, the shared laughter in the same family tone. Each girl was a jewel, a clue that it was possible to have no drama at all. Boredom, they showed me, was an important form of love.
t Walnut Lake, Jessica Ribicoff and I were assigned to the same cabin. The first night, rowdy returning girls bullied each other, and above them on upper bunks Jessica and I made eye contact, confirmed safety. In daytime we walked the trampled grass, the woods and worn dirt paths, her freckled arm threaded through mine, or we laced our fingers into the chain link that fenced the pool, watching the older boys swim and hoist themselves out. We were always talking, crush confessions dovetailing, excited voices that raced and united. She stood next to me and we held in our stomachs when Greg La Rosa ambled by and said, “Hi.” She explained marshmallow spread as we sat down with trays of Fluffernutter sandwiches. After lunches, we walked to the canteen to buy Pop Rocks. She made me a peach-pit ring, and I made her a peach-pit ring.
On my last day we said, “How can I live without you?” over and over. Jessica got to stay for the second session. I was crying, and she was, too, as we embraced by the cars. We were girls, we lived big. Our arms chained around each other's necks, our sobbing was pure. No lovers had been parted so cruelly, no bond had been severed so swiftly.
She wrote to me from camp, prolonging the dramas I'd hated to abandonâMandy kissed Greg!âand I delivered to her my important newsâ“My new passport picture is gross.” “Can you
believe I've seen âStar Wars' THREE TIMES???” We covered our envelope flaps in big-handed hearts and coded acronyms. I didn't think to confess true circumstances or to hide them, because I was unconscious they happened, wouldn't remember and assess them until many years later: in my mother's cocaine-driven rages, she'd grow violent, and she was hitting me; my father, divorcing again, had dismissed my stepmother and my beloved three-year-old half-sister with chilling indifference. In the letters I wrote to Jessica Ribicoff, outsider, I could assure myself I was starring in my ideal life.
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A few days after I activate a Facebook account, the name appears on my laptop screen, so familiar it's almost physical pleasure, the six loping syllables of
She'd looked for me, hadn't forgotten my name either. I'm amazed, peering at her thumbnail photo, by how little she's changedâher crop of tight red curls, her giant smile, her freckled forearm. I'd know her anywhere. I friend her at once, and we trade rapid biography. We've both become artists, and we emphasize the coincidence, gratified by sameness. She's read the memoir I just published, and she sends me a piece of her pottery as a present. I'm startled an eleven-year-old has made such a beautiful, delicate bowl, and given it away. Of course she's not eleven. She's forty-one, has passed the same years I have. Jessica suggests we see each other, insists. She lives in Brooklyn, and I promise to call when I next visit.
She pulls up in front of the brownstone where I'm staying and waves me into her car. I'm deeply pleased to have the virtual representation inhabited, bright reality mixing with image and happy memoryâcurls, smile, vocal intonation. It's odd, though, to see her driving, as if she's kidding.
“Hi! Get in!”
The car is battered, the floor scratchy with leaflets and pebbles. My foot kicks aside an empty Sprite bottle. Before I click the seat belt we're moving, and there can be no gravity to the reunion, no ceremony. Maybe it's as it should be, instant and girlish. We'll pick up from camp's last day. Jessica chatters as she jams the car down narrow streets and finally into a parking spot, unconsciously good at it. She's talking about her stomach problems. I've had some, too, I tell her. We both have! At the restaurant, which we glide into, I want for us each to know where the other likes to sit, but we don't, we can't. We're shown to a back garden. “Is this okay?” Jessica asks me. I ask her, “Would you rather be inside?” Then, before the waiter comes, she launches her daily storyâa litany of phone calls from her mother, boyfriend woes, creative endeavors and the attendant money anxiety. She leans across the table, puts feeling into each detail, as if I'm conversant in her temperatures, her high and low, as if I know by nostalgic telepathy what's happened to her and what hasn't. I begin to feel I'm at the center of some imposter's mistake, and I'm embarrassed. “Why tell
?” I wonder. Who does she see opposite her? Quickly, I learn every rumination of her recent weeks. We both act like we
to know. For my turn she's nodding as I recount significant events, a checklist: know me. I mean to like this woman, the grown result of the girl I adored, but there's no room for the build, no interplay, as if we each stare at a posted video ad, projecting hungry wishes for a perfect friend. I watch her eyebrows, her mouth, trying to find the link between a random lunch partner and the precious memory-girl. We were friends, but the ancient, amber friendship has dictated nothing, left nothing behind but itself. We cannot bust out beyond this, trapped by a season's accident.
She starts to talk about camp, and my interest picks up, maybe because I will appearâthe two of us will come back. Jessica has no memories of the pool, the sandwiches, Greg La Rosa. She tells how her parents left her there and she begged to come home. She had terrors at night and cried in the dark, trying not to wake the sleeping girls. No one wrote to her, she remembers, even though she pleaded in every letter home to be picked up. She remembers my mother, so fabulous and pretty, coming to get me and taking me away. She remembers I left her.
After the lunch, tired with performance, an act that isn't gelling, I'm eager to part. We say good-bye on the sidewalk. I don't cross to the car with her, but we're both promising more visits, longer reunions. Isn't she feigning interest in me by now? Hasn't she, too, admitted that arbitrary overlap is all there is to us? Beyond the noted preferences and exclamation points of Facebook, we share only name recognition, and when I return to Montana I won't know what to write to the tiny thumbnail photo, smiling online. It's puzzling.
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Back home I remember that after camp there was a last time we got together. In the early fall, when Jessica and I had missed each other for an eternity, our parents let us plan a visit on our own, and I went to Port Authority to meet her bus from New Jersey. My stomach was knotted with excitement until we were jumping up and down in the gate area. Then some mysterious, empty feeling arose, an unnameable not-there. We tried to whip up the bigness again, but school and real friends had filled the spots we'd briefly held, and we turned reticent.
“Want to go to the movies?”
“I don't know. Do you?”
“Or we could go to Bloomingdale's?”
“What do you want to do?”
At my apartment, with extra sheets, pillow, and blanket in my room, Jessica talked about her best friend in New Jerseyâthey took gymnastics together and liked to stage scenes from Judy Blume booksâwhich made me jealous and bored. When my phone rang, Jessica looked at
on my bed while I talked to Gwen and gripped the tether to immediate life. I knew this was rude but didn't know what else a person did when she didn't feel connected anymore. We never saw each other again, until lunch in Brooklyn, after which I realized that Jessica Ribicoff mattered so much, will always, because with her I got to be a girl again in a time of seasoned fear. I can't leave this as a post on her Facebook page. I will write her something else instead.
chose boarding school. My room filled up with neat stacks of applications. In our apartment, the phone's clamor, the television hum, the delivered boxes from the liquor store in the hallway, I felt erased by my mother, adolescence my violation. Anyway, she was moving to New Mexico, beautiful skies, better cocaine. She would sublet our apartment. I craved order and imagined that if I conceived of it, I'd have it. I would be glad to no longer monitor her druggy comrades splayed on our couch cushions for too many hours, their crumbs and empty glasses on the floor. I wouldn't have to assess for threat her charming frenzies or oblivious sleeps. I was twelve when I toured my first campusâthe lawns edged, the library hours posted, the controlled bustle of the dining hallâand I wanted in.
The senior on my hall was called the proctor, the word sturdy with earned clout. Abigail lived with the freshman girls, in charge of answers. She had a cast on her leg and crutches for the first weeks. Her door stayed ajar, her mild music seeping out as she tapped the end of her yellow highlighter on her open chemistry textbook, from which she'd look up, on call for us and our logistical problems. By day two, drawn to the most obscure promise of motherly indulgence, I flopped on her bed and fingered the lacy edges of her pillows. On her desk she had a photo, her family standing as a wall, many people gathered, and Abigail's floor-length
dress matched those of the other women and girls. “That's my brother, that's my new sister-in-law, that's my mom, my nieces,” she said, and named a dozen others. Her mother was “my mom,” neither an event nor a burr. Abigail's voice betrayed no tiny spike, no tinge of buried trouble. I knew difficulties might be dressed up and disguised, and when a girl didn't reveal problems, I suspected her. But I hung around to hear her say “my mother” like that, “my mom,” to inspect the support she presumed.
Abigail was my friend. That's what I called her. She didn't mind, if she gave it a thought. She talked to me, liked me. To be with her when she was hobbled, I stepped slowly, too, as we trickled down the stairwell. Other girls, her charges, passed us and called, “Hi, Abigail! Hi, Abbs!” She was game for my intimacy, the way I insisted on it, as she was game for squash and senior prank day, the way she captained other girls, able to direct and exhort everyone in the friendliest way, but her attention came to a stop. I couldn't penetrate her barrier, get more from Abigail, special treatment. She didn't hug. She stayed in her chair, drumming her pen on her thigh, as I cried, homesick on her bed or mad at a mean teacher. She'd been trained in peer counseling for a few days and could say, “You should see if there's a study hall,” or “Why don't you sign up for swimming?” I marveled at her quick speech, its mimicry of the pep talks given to us by anyone in charge. I asked after her volleyball and her acned boyfriend. She was discreet but allusive, mature jokes about his body, his energy, which may have been about sex, but may have been about the sex that was not to be had because of youth and rules. When my mother spoke to me about sex, as she had since I was eight or seven, she headed into it, used wet, direct terms and elongated her anecdotes. Abigail would say, “We made out,” a big grin, and that was it. She knew the dark places before curfew, damp grass and empty auditoriums.
Something more was up, and I wanted her to know I could handle it, but she had Yankee distaste for explicits. In a state of peculiar gratitude and relief, I worshipped her.
I had closer, better friends that year, equalsâcynical Jackie from the UK with her Cure poster, and studious Nell, whose brilliance was made clear the day she brought to English class her own Canterbury Tale in iambic pentameter. Like me, they were fourteen years old, occupied the east hall of the dorm, and attended third-form classes. We roamed campus together, discussed the same boys. But I tried Abigail on like her pea coat, which I coveted. I pretended to be concerned with her concerns. I took note of her Clearasil, her boiled-wool slippers, her tuck of books between crooked wrist and outer thigh, and, after the cast came off, her square walk, a product of multiple sports, cross-disciplines. My crush, fierce and devoted, was on her blond hair, carelessly flyaway, on her pink Fair Isle sweater with the white yoke. I had a crush on her competence, her busy fingers as she laced her lacrosse stick. She could make up a nickname for anybody on the spot, spout it in good humor. With Abigail, what
. She wasn't sarcastic, hid no dark agenda. She laughed her same phlegmy giggle at everythingâembarrassments, tragedies, coaches' names, final exams. Still laughing, she pulled her inhaler from the hip pocket of her wide-wale cords and sucked. Most afternoons, dressed in a sweat suit and track shoes, she returned to our hall in need of a shower. She'd pass my room, where I was stalling the taxing rigors of assignments or being careful with my LPs as I pressed them down to the turntable and calibrated volume, dorm etiquette, not too loud, but an anthem anyway:
I'm here, I have something to add.
Sometimes she tapped on my doorâstrawberry shampoo, plastic caddy. “Want to go to dinner when I'm done?” She protected me, I decided, especially in the first days, when I was at a loss, lost. The school had picked reliable
Abigail for this job, had spread a dozen such seniors through the girls' dorms, and it was the right place for her but indifferent to me. I was perpetually unlaced, unmet, always crashing into my blunders. You
challenge the bitchy teacher, you
miss practice or skip out on study hall, you
masturbate in your single room with the door locked and your breath held. At least, Abigail never did, ordinariness her emblem.