I first noticed her name before I noticed her. It was the first day of kindergarten, and I was already reading books by the score, so when I saw her name on the cubby next to mine I wondered if she was a boy or a girl. Her first name was spelled like a boy’s (Michael) and her middle name was spelled like a girl’s (Jean) and I couldn’t wait to see what this unusual name mashup person looked like.
She turned out to be a flaming redhead, with sparkling green eyes and freckles. Tall and lean at age five, her body already knew what it would look like in adult format and foretold it in the long bones of her legs and fingers. “I’m double-jointed!” she told me once, and showed me her freakish ability to bend her fingers and elbows backward. We were fast friends. I slept over at their trailer while her family built their new house; she had a little brother and a baby sister while I only had Lissa. At five she was maternal, caring for her siblings as much as her baby dolls. We stayed close through elementary school even after I skipped second grade, and I think she was jealous of my precocity while I longed for her easy ability to know exactly the right thing to say in any situation. She was in every birthday photo through elementary school, even the years where she was only one of a few guests because I had such a rough time socially in my new grade. She was there.
My first exposure to religion was through the times I stayed over on Saturday night and went to church with her family on Sunday. They couldn’t decide on a place, I don’t think, because I remember going to four or five different churches. I honestly thought it was pretty boring and that Sunday School was dumb, but it was important to her so I went along.
We played barbies at her house because I didn’t have any; we pulled stuffed animals and my sister in the wagon at my house calling it an Easter parade. We had Pooh-themed parties and got each other My Little Ponies and I grieved along with her family when her little sister contracted meningitis and lost her hearing. I learned the sign for my name, signifying not only the letters in the name but also that I was Emily-with-long-hair for her little sister, and she gave me fierce hugs as I tried to learn enough signs to communicate. We stayed up until 4 AM one new year’s just to see if we could (consume enough sugar to fell an ox, and it’s do-able). She supported me, she stayed my friend. I was afraid when she got a training bra at age nine, afraid she would grow up and leave me behind. And insanely jealous, because I wanted one as well.
And then we moved to a new town, and I started middle school, and it was far more difficult to arrange sleepovers and get-togethers. But still we managed; she came for a visit and told me she had gotten her period (I wouldn’t get mine for another 3 years, but it was just one more thing that made us different – I wasn’t a model, I didn’t have a deaf sister, my parents were still together). We gossiped about boys we knew and confessed crushes and played with each other’s hair and experimented with makeup, all the things that 10 and 11 and 12 year old girls do, and I realized that without the day-to-day mutual experiences and sitting together in the lunchroom, we had less and less to talk about. I told her about problems I was having with friends in the new town, at the new school, and she advised as best she could but really I was on my own and then I made friends with someone new and her mom got a new boyfriend and she had a new sibling and things became so different that neither of us made the effort to hang out anymore.
The last time I saw her was when she graduated high school. I didn’t attend to see her. I attended the graduation to see another good friend, and just happened to run into her. We hugged, I told her I was at UC Berkeley, she told me she was doing ROTC. And just like that, the last bit of similarity between us washed away and there was nothing more to say.
Last week we became Facebook friends. She’s divorced, with two little boys, living in the same area where we grew up. She is every bit as beautiful as she was when we were five. And I don’t know what to say, other than I’m glad she’s doing well.