I wrote this story in 1995 and had it available on my personal web site for many years. Then I lost track of it and only recently found it again via the Wayback Machine on Archive.org. Many thanks to whoever thought to archive it there!
by Amy T. Goodloe
copyright © 1998. 2014. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
do not reproduce without permission
The room was spinning and I gripped the edges of the small cafe table to keep from slipping out of my chair. Everywhere mouths opened slowly and moved in strange shapes, but I heard nothing. Hands gestured across tables, lifting forks, squeezing ketchup bottles, pointing at dishes. Waiters in green aprons crossed the room in slow motion. My mother, across from me, blew on spoonfuls of soup and sipped them, noiselessly. Her eyes were restless, wandering across the crowd, to the other tables, down at the floor, out into the parking lot. Anywhere but in front of her, where I sat, unable to let go of the table long enough to taste my quiche.
“Debbie died today.” The words echoed through my mind, hollow, distant, unreal. She had said it just like that. “Debbie died today.” Matter of fact. A neutral observation, detached, objective. “Debbie died today.” And life goes on?
At 1:00 the phone rang, and I knew it was Mom, in the parking lot outside my Agnes Scott dorm room, calling me on the car phone to tell me she was here. The day was bright and windy, with a touch of warmth in the February air. I wanted to sit outside, to have lunch with Mom, and then maybe sit by the pond and read, or write. Or just daydream, feeling the warmth of the sun on my legs.
“Hi sweetie,” she said, as I sat down in the passenger’s seat. “Ellen, honey, you look great. Have you lost weight?”
“Hi Mom,” I replied, ignoring the all too frequent observation.
“So where would you like to go for lunch? Connie James tells me there’s an adorable little cafe over near Emory. Would you like to try that?” Mom was smiling brightly, one hand on the car phone, the other hand smoothing imaginary wrinkles in her skirt.
“Do you think it has outdoor seating?” I asked, craving fresh air even more as I inhaled the thick cigarette smell of Mom’s car. My left hand instinctively reached into my pocket, checking for my asthma inhalers.
“I’m sure it does, dear. Let’s check it out, OK? Oh, and by the way, Allan Valadori called just a little while ago. Debbie died today. Now tell me, which way do I turn?” Mom craned her neck over the steering wheel, looking both directions before inching the car onto the street.
“Left,” I said. We always turned left out of the parking lot. There wasn’t anything to the right but more parking lots.
I used to tell my mother I was going to the movies, and then my friends and I would call our boyfriends. They took us to parties instead, or to their homes, when the parents were away, and we drank and smoked pot and fooled around. Three times I told my mother I was going to see “Rambo,” and three times she said “OK, dear, but be sure you’re back by 12:00 sharp.” I never saw “Rambo.” For two years, all through tenth and eleventh grade, I never saw a single movie.
One night I told Mom I was going to the movies with Debbie. “Be back at 12:00, OK?”
“Don’t you want to know what we’re seeing?” I asked, used to the drill, the details requested but not recalled.
Mom never saw movies either, so she believed the plots I made up, my reviews of this or that actor’s performance, in all those movies that ended just before 12:00 sharp.
She didn’t answer. “‘Educating Rita,'” I said. “At the Galleria. And I’m spending the night at Debbie’s, OK?”
“Oh, alright, but I wish you had asked me sooner. You call me when y’all get home, OK honey? Before 12:00. And give me her parents’ number before you leave.”
Debbie and I went to the movie. We had popcorn and diet Coke and M & Ms, and afterwards, we went for frozen yogurt. I called Mom at 12:00, from a pay phone outside the yogurt shop, and told her we were home, safe and sound, then we went to the playground and sat on the swings and talked.
“We’re going to dinner and the movies,” we would tell our parents. “And I’m spending the night with Debbie,” I would tell my mother.
“Why doesn’t she stay over here?” Mom would ask. Sometimes she did, but Debbie had a bigger bed, and her own room, separate from the rest of the house.
For dinner we always ate frozen yogurt. At 7:00 or 8:00 we would look at our watches, usually deciding against the movie, going to the playground instead, to talk, and swing, and watch the stars. I practiced back bends in the soft sand around the see saw, while Debbie wobbled back and forth on the miniature balance beam. Sometimes we sat huddled close together at the top of the wooden jungle gym, when the wind was particularly brisk.
We talked about our favorite books, about history and religion and poetry. We talked about our classmates, their petty problems, their childish, silly romances. We talked about serious things, about life, and death and Ideas. What would it mean if you could prove the existence of God? Could there be such a thing as objectivity? Was there more to life than marriage and children, big salaries and expensive toys?
I stopped making up movie plots for Mom and she became worried. “What are you two girls up to?” she would ask. “A mother always knows where her children are,” she had told me for years. “I will know if you go somewhere other than where you tell me you are going. Remember that.” I had remembered it, when I was at all those parties, drinking and smoking and fooling around with boys. And when I was with Debbie, studying the stars on our backs in the soft, warm sand of the playground.
“My mother has spies out on me,” I told her. “So she can know where I am at all times.” But we just laughed.
Debbie and I were invited to all the parties our senior year. The Lovett School was small, the senior class friendly, non-judgmental, accepting of difference. Everyone was invited to the parties, even those who would be called nerds or geeks or druggies elsewhere. Ours was a laid back class, the class of 1985, called “slack” by our teachers, but we valued our easy attitude, our non chalance. We lacked the ambition of other classes, of our parents, who wanted us to be doctors and lawyers and engineers. We wanted to join the Peace Corps or to teach first grade, to run homeless shelters or become social workers. We had big hearts, and we scorned the big bank accounts that allowed us this luxury.
Sometimes the parties were held at the simple, tasteful homes of Atlanta’s “old money” families, sometimes at the elegant, enormous contemporaries of the nouveau riche. More often than not the alcohol was supplied by the parents, and in some cases worried mothers took our keys, inviting us all to stay over for the night in the massive family rooms. Other nights, a group of students would gather at the end of a new subdivision, parking along the muddy roads, tossing beer cans into the hardening foundations. Or they would gather at Bobby Jone’s golf course, back near the 12th hole, far enough away so that the residents wouldn’t complain of the noise, although the evidence of teenagers twinkled in the daylight.
Our class was social, polite, friendly, always gathering, always mingling, talking and laughing with each other. But Debbie and I felt we were different. By Christmas we stopped going to the parties altogether. Or rather, we stopped going inside, although we would drive to the location and park the car. And talk. We ate our frozen yogurt in the car, and watched Rick walk by holding Linda’s hand, or Leslie and Marianne sharing a lipstick, or Bob and Henry and Walter out-strutting each other. They were nice enough people, but they didn’t see things the way we did, they didn’t ask the same questions.
“Why don’t you drink any more?” my friends sometimes asked me. “You used to be so wild last year. Drinking everyone else under the table.”
“You know why,” I would reply. I had totaled my car at the end of my junior year and had sworn off of alcohol after that. I tried warning my friends about the dangers of drinking and driving, but they would exaggerate yawns, or call me “the nun.” “Sister Ellen, on her one woman crusade against drunk driving,” they would mock, but I never laughed. Dad had taken me to see the mangled remains of my car, and the image was burned into my brain.
“Come on,” they would plead, “I’ll drive. Or what about Debbie. Can’t she drive?” My friends were jealous of the time I spent with Debbie. “Why don’t y’all party with us?”
Debbie had given up drinking when I did. After the accident, I told her I was going to stop drinking altogether. I lived too far away for it to be practical for my friends to drive me around, and my mother wouldn’t let me spend the night out more than three or four times a month, so partly I felt I had no choice. Partly, also, I was tired of the foolish things I did while I was drinking, the boys I kissed, the silly things I said to other girls, the jokes I laughed at even though they were crude and shallow.
Up until the accident, the week after spring break my junior year, Debbie had been just a part of my social circle, one of the friends I would hang out with on the weekends, one of the girls . But when the two of us stopped drinking, we began to look differently at our other friends. We didn’t think we were better than them, but we were different. And we preferred to spend our time together, alone.
I would occasionally accept dates from boys, from the ones Debbie and I thought were cute and interesting, and I would call her up afterwards to tell her what we had done, what we talked about, whether or not he had kissed me. Boys asked her out too, but she never accepted. She said she couldn’t be bothered, that it was too much of an effort to be sociable with boys, to ask questions and act interested, to stroke their adolescent egos. “But it’s the kissing I like,” I confessed to her. “And the affection. Believe me, it isn’t the conversations.”
Mom dropped me off in the parking lot after lunch and I felt nauseous. I fumbled with my keys, trying to get inside the dorm and to the bathroom, not wanting anyone to see me, a cold sweat breaking out across my brow.
Inside I sat on the cold tile floor and started crying, the tears pouring hot and wet onto the edge of the toilet. My friend Charlotte found me, and led me back into my room. She helped me take off my shoes and jacket and together we laid on my bed while she rubbed my shoulders. When the tears finally stopped she put her arm around my waist and asked, “Are you ready to talk about it?”
The warmth of her body pressed into my back and the tickle of her breath on my ear started the tears flowing again, and it was another five minutes before I could speak.
“Debbie died today.”
Charlotte was silent, and she held me tightly against her, rubbing her hand along my arm.
“Debbie died today,” I said again, as though those were the only three words I knew.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, suppressing tears of her own.
Charlotte and I had been friends since the second week of school, when we sat next to each other in one of the Freshman reading groups. We were going to discuss Clyde Egerton’s novel, Raney, which we were supposed to have read over the summer.
“It was a wonderful read, don’t you think?” Charlotte had asked.
I confessed that I hadn’t had time to read it yet. In truth I hadn’t even bought the book. I resented any school that would require summer reading. And of only one novel.
“Stick with me,” she had said.
Charlotte and my roommate, Margaret, knew all about Debbie, or almost all. They knew about our friendship, about our plans to go to Vanderbilt together, about Debbie’s leukemia and her long stays in the hospital. I would write her long letters and Charlotte and Margaret would make cards for her, out of colored pens and magazine clippings and bits of poetry. They wanted to come with me to the hospital to meet her, to hang out with her and talk to her about the college life she would be able to enjoy the next year, after she went back into remission. But I never let them come with me. I could hardly bring myself to visit her as often as she wanted me to, and I eased my guilty conscience by writing stories about the adventures of two angels who traveled through Scotland on horseback, inspecting churches, which I sent along with long letters and the homemade cards.
I spent long hours looking through the photo album I had put together, of Debbie and me at the beach, at my house, by her pool, in the park, trying to put the image of Debbie in the hospital out of my mind, Debbie with tubes and needles in both arms, her face ashen and waxy, what little hair she had left clinging to her pale skull.
“Let it go, ” Charlotte said, loosening her grip around my waist and reaching up under my long hair, to rub my neck. “Just let it go. Let yourself feel all the pain now. There’s no point in holding it in.”
But suddenly there were no tears, and I felt hollow inside. It wasn’t real, I decided. Mom didn’t know what she was talking about. Debbie’s brother Allan had never called her, and Debbie was just fine, sitting up in her hospital bed, waiting for me to call. It was cruel of Mom to lie to me like that. I felt anger, a growing sense of rage. How dare she! I should call Debbie right now, just to prove Mom wrong.
I fell asleep staring at the phone, with Charlotte still curled up behind me. When we woke up, it was dark outside, and time for dinner. I turned on the light and Charlotte blinked and rubbed her eyes.
“Are you OK now?” she asked. “Feel any better?”
“No,” I replied, but seeing the concern on her face I quickly added, “but thank you for being here for me. I needed that.”
I laced up my shoes while Charlotte brushed her hair. Margaret cracked the door open a few inches and knocked softly. “Ellen, are you awake?”
“Come in, ” I told her. “I’m up now.”
She came in and put down her books. “Hey Charlotte. How are you? I see you two have been studying hard for that exam tomorrow,” she said nervously, eyeing my narrow twin bed, the comforter wrinkled in the outline of two bodies.
“Debbie died today,” Charlotte said.
At the end of my Freshman year in college, Debbie’s doctors told her she was back in remission and could go through with making her debut if she wanted. If her progress continued into the fall, she would be able to start her Freshman year at Vanderbilt in January. I couldn’t understand why she would want to make her debut, but I didn’t push the issue. I was glad to see her smiling again, enjoying “real food” in “real places,” walking through the park with me in the evenings, adjusting the perfect shape of her new wig so that it looked slightly mussed, as her natural hair always had.
We saw each other a couple of times a week, but she was often busy going to this luncheon or that cocktail party, making new friends among her fellow debutantes, deciding which boy to ask to which event. It was all so foreign to me, and to her I would have thought, but she assured me she was having a great time. My father offered me a check for $2,500 if I would agree not to make my debut, and I gladly accepted it, depositing it in the savings account I had started when Debbie and I first started planning our trip to Scotland, the trip we had wanted to take the summer after our Freshman year. It had always been mostly a dream, something we would fantasize about late at night, but I had saved nearly $4,000 nonetheless.
In July I met William, and we began dating, at first only a few times a week, but soon we were seeing each other almost every day. At lunch I would tell Debbie how much I liked him, what sweet things he had said to me the night before, how passionately he kissed me, unlike the boys from high school. She would tell me about the parties she was going to, the guys from our class that she asked to be her dates, the ridiculous expense that some parents went to for a simple tea or dessert party. She showed me pictures from the parties, her with her new friends, wearing a succession of white outfits. The group always looked bright, happy, beautiful, like they belonged in an ad for Laura Ashley.
Sometimes I would go over to her parent’s house and she would cook me dinner, and then we would watch movies or lie on her bed and talk. In her room she would take off her wig, because it itched, she said, and I would stroke the soft fuzz on her scalp. She smelled faintly of medicine, although she had been off chemotherapy for several months. Her skin was yellow and tender and I was afraid to touch it, afraid of how small and bony she had become. She told me she had stopped having periods.
“You know what I miss about high school?” she said once, her eyes closed as I twirled soft wisps of brown fuzz in my fingers.
“Those nights when you and I would lie in here, with the candles, reading poetry from that big book.”
Our senior English class had used the Norton Anthology of English Literature. It was the same text they used for sophomore English at Agnes Scott, a fact I was forever pointing out to my classmates, much to their annoyance.
“I told Vicky about that once, and she said it was weird, two girls reading poetry to each other like that. I thought she was just jealous, but I don’t know, maybe it was weird. I miss it.”
Vicky Childs had been Debbie’s best friend since ninth grade, and remained so until after I totaled my car, when Debbie and I started spending more time together. The three of us would occasionally go out together, to dinner or to the mall, but Vicky had a way of talking down about everyone else around her, of flaunting her assumption of superiority, that I didn’t much care for. “Vicky has such a mean streak,” I told Debbie, and she agreed, although she insisted that it wasn’t Vicky’s fault, that it was hard to go through life only 4’10”.
“So what’s up with Vicky these days?” I asked her. Last I had heard Vicky was backpacking through Canada with an artist she was madly in love with. She had only come down from Richmond once during Freshman year, to see Debbie, and only then when Debbie was at home. She said she couldn’t tolerate the smell of a hospital.
“Oh she’s spending the summer in Portland, I think. Working for some art gallery. I got a postcard from her a while back. She said she was living with that guy, Antonio, but I can’t imagine that her mother would allow that.”
“Maybe her mother doesn’t know.”
“A mother always knows where her children are,” Debbie said, mocking my mother’s serious tone.
“I forgot. Vicky’s mom probably has the same spies working for her as my Mom. Not very good spies, I should say.”
Only once during that summer did I spend the night at her house, while her parents were away at their cabin in North Georgia. We lay in her bed, me on my side, my head resting on one arm, Debbie on her back, her hands playing with long strands of my hair, and I told her about the boys I had dated before William, and how different he was from them.
“Does he like poetry?” she asked. William was an engineering student at Georgia Tech. I had reason to believe he had never read a poem.
“I bet he doesn’t know any of your favorite lines,” she taunted, poking her finger in my arm. “‘She looked at me as she did love / And made sweet moan.'”
Debbie pulled on a strand of my hair and I moaned quietly. She sat up and touched her fingers softly to my eyes. “‘And there I shut her wild wild eyes / With kisses four.'”
For years I would wonder why my mother chose to tell me about Debbie’s death the way she did, and for years I would be unable to ask her.
For as long as my sister and I could remember, Mom’s best friend was our Aunt Christine. She and Uncle Darron, my Dad’s brother, had divorced when I was about five, but we continued to visit her and her three children, our older cousins, regularly. Mom had divorced Dad several years before that, so the two Harcourt ex-wives would compare notes and complain to each other in soft voices, in the kitchen. They spent hours in the kitchen, the doors closed, talking quietly, drinking coffee and playing backgammon until well past midnight.
Being blessed, or cursed according to my mother, with exceptional hearing, I would occasionally wander into the kitchen late at night, kept awake by the clank of dishes and click of dice against the backgammon board. They gave me warm milk and ginger snaps and told me stories, of the beautiful princess who went on adventures with her sister, of massive, white horses that had magical powers and could carry you through time (specifically to the late Victorian period, Christine said), of angels whose wings would burn you if you came too close. I would lose interest, and wander back to my room, but Mom and Christine would continue telling the stories, whispering and giggling and sipping coffee.
My sister, Joanna, and I spent almost every Saturday playing with our cousins, especially with the youngest, Barbara, who was three years older than me and who knew all the words to the songs on the radio. The other girl, Leslie, wanted to do nothing but play with Barbies, which held some interest for my sister, but I preferred to hang out in Barbara’s room, reading her teen novels and trying on her clothes. The oldest cousin, Philip, was never home, and we weren’t allowed to play in his room.
Our favorite game was hide and seek, but sometimes I would hide so well that they would never find me, and would go off to start another game outside. I would creep down to the living room in Aunt Christine’s house, which was always dark and dusty, and tiptoe up to the door that led into the kitchen. The door was made of slanted pieces of wood, so that it wasn’t as substantial as a regular door, and I could hear words and phrases through it easily. I would crouch down near my aunt’s complete collection of Elvis records and listen, only half comprehending the mysterious language of women. Their voices blended together, and I picked out bits and pieces of conversations.
“But he’s barely sixteen! Are you sure? Haven’t you talked to him about this?”
“That bastard! My lawyer will help you with this, don’t worry about the cost.”
“I told her it wasn’t normal. She said she could almost touch it with her fingertips, but that it didn’t hurt. She’s scared.”
“No, like this. If it goes in there you’ll end up with a yellow line all the way up the side. Here, let me show you. Move your needle like this, like mine.”
When I was twelve, I came home from school to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table, crying. She had taken Christine to the doctor earlier that day, and the doctor had told my aunt that she had breast cancer, and needed immediate treatment. Radiation was scheduled for the next week, with chemotherapy to follow shortly after. The doctor had mentioned that surgery might be necessary.
My sister and I stood still, absorbing the news, but unable to comprehend its meaning. My grandfather had died of cancer, but he was an old man and it had made sense. Christine was my mother’s age, and she could stay up later and play more rounds of tennis than Mom. She was always cooking “low fat recipes” for us, and she made Mom buy vitamins, which we all took faithfully each morning. “I don’t know,” Mom said, when we asked if there was anything we could do. She laid her face down on her arms, and Joanna and I left the kitchen.
The night after high school graduation Andrew Hayworth’s parents threw a party for the whole senior class, all ninety-eight of us. Nearly everyone came, and we exchanged little trinkets and memories and sips from plastic flasks in our purses and suit jackets. I found myself talking at length to students I had barely known in my fourteen years at the school, discovering common interests and shared goals, and together we lamented the petty reasons we had not gotten to know each other better. I didn’t talk to Debbie for most of the evening, but I could see that she was enjoying herself, comparing notes with the others who had entered our school late, in ninth or tenth grade, discussing college plans with the Hayworths and the other Lovett parents who were there.
Towards midnight, the Hayworths called us into the garden area along side the house and announced that they had a special project they wanted our help on. Stretched along the brick pathway, through the garden, was a large sheet of heavy brown paper, with the words: “In ten years I will be…” written across the middle in beautiful calligraphy. Evenly spaced over the paper were about a dozen black markers.
“I want everyone here to take a moment to write out a short paragraph explaining what you see yourself doing in the next ten years,” Mrs. Hayworth said. “We will hold onto this banner for the next ten years, and then you can all look at it at your ten year reunion and see how far you’ve come towards your goals. So go ahead, start writing, but you’ll have to take turns.”
In groups of ten or twelve, we knelt down on the banner and wrote out our futures. I was among the last to approach the banner, and the pen I took was warm with use. I tried to spot Debbie’s handwriting among the paragraphs of all shapes and sizes, but Mrs. Hayworth looked impatient, so I finally just found a blank space and wrote something in, about how I would be a famous writer, married and divorced three times, with two beautiful daughters and a summer house in Scotland.
Later I asked Debbie what she had written. “Oh, just something about the beach,” she replied. “You know how much I love it.”
Two days after the Hayworth’s graduation party a group of us packed into Ed Fagan’s Jeep Cherokee and headed towards Destin, Florida, where Debbie’s parents had a condo. They offered it to us as a graduation present, to Debbie, me, Vicky, Christa and Kathryn, although we invited a group of boys to stay with us as well. Over the week we saw almost everyone we had graduated with. It was a Lovett tradition, for the senior class to take over Destin the last week in June, throwing parties on the beach and in each other’s hotel rooms, and occasionally in someone’s parent’s condo or beach home, although never the Valadori’s. Because we could walk everywhere Debbie and I decided to drink again that week, and in my memory the parties all run together. I kissed Marty and Jake, two boys who had been at Lovett as long as I had, and we laughed about it later, referring to the act as incestuous. I let Ed touch my firm, flat stomach, which I had been working on all year, and we passed out together in his Jeep.
In the mornings, while the others snored and tossed and turned, working up to early afternoon hangovers, Debbie and I would sneak out of the condo, sharing a giant cup of Kool Aid and a box of Pop Tarts. We walked down the beach, smiling at the elderly couples collecting sand dollars and shark’s teeth, and recounted stories from the day before, mismatched couplings, petty arguments, the embarrassing behavior of seniors fresh out of high school.
“This is my favorite time of day,” Debbie said. “When the rest of the world is quiet, and the sky is a soft gray. It seems so peaceful.”
“I’m more partial to nighttime myself,” I said. “And the absolute quiet of 2. a.m. But I have to admit, the smell of the beach in the morning is incredible.” I took a deep breath and inhaled a piece of Pop Tart by mistake, which set off a fit of coughing. Debbie handed me one of my inhalers, which I hadn’t seen her put in her pocket.
“I like the night too,” she said. “But 2 a.m. isn’t very quiet here, with all the kids partying all over the place.”
We walked by some of the kids on the beach, passed out on a giant towel, their clothes wrinkled and twisted. It was unclear whether they had fallen asleep while getting dressed or undressed, but we knew from all the beer cans nearby that they couldn’t have gotten very far either way.
“So what are you going to do for the rest of the summer?” I asked her, wondering if she’d made up her mind about taking a summer job. I would be working part time for a women’s clothing store in the mall, saving up money to spend in college.
“I wish I could just stay up here, at the beach, but I don’t think my parents would let me. They want me to take a class or two at Georgia State, to get a head start on Vanderbilt, but I’d rather look for a job like yours. So I don’t know. I’ll figure it out later.”
Nearly half of our graduating class attended Debbie’s funeral, It was held in the same church we had graduated in nearly two years earlier, the same church my father had been married in three out of four times, I recalled with some bitterness. Dad had also missed that high school graduation ceremony, for a date with a young, hot blonde in Mexico City, and the anger of that memory mixed with my grief over Debbie produced a fresh flow of tears as I entered the building.
Mom, Joanna and I sat in the row behind the family, my mother handing tissues to Mrs. Valadori as needed. Joanna and Debbie’s brother, Allan, were friends, and she reached forward and squeezed his shoulder. Allan was crying loudly, occasionally choking on his tears. Mr. Valadori patted his son’s knee reassuringly, and stared blankly at his hands.
Nothing in my life thus far had prepared me for the moment when the coffin was wheeled down the center aisle, past the pews and into the foreground, directly in front of the family. Nothing had prepared me for the certainty of that long wooden box, covered in white flowers, rolling by me in slow motion, so close I could almost touch it. The dark golden wood had been polished to a high gloss, and the brass handles glistened in the dim cathedral lights. For a second I was lost in the reflection, in the unnatural twinkling of the light; the air stood still, I held my breath, and the moment passed. “Debbie died today.” The phrase echoed through my head, and I bit my lip in a desperate attempt to choke back a sob. The woman sitting behind me leaned forward and put her hand on my shoulder. “A stranger shares your pain,” she whispered in my ear, and leaned back.
The eulogy was delivered by one of the chaplains from Lovett, who had known Debbie from the many volunteer projects she had been involved with in high school. Her parents had also called him in when she came down with pneumonia, and he had been in the room when she died. But the portrait he drew of Debbie’s life seemed remote and unfamiliar to me, only vaguely associated with the life of the friend I had known, the friend I had failed and then lost, without even saying goodbye.
He talked about the friends that had been close to her the past year, about the parties she went to as part of her debut, the boys she dated, the volunteer work she had done. He told us about Debbie’s dream, to go skydiving, to fall freely through the air like an angel. He didn’t mention that she wanted to spend the summer in Scotland, that she could quote poetry from memory, that she loved old church buildings and stained glass art, that mornings on the beach were her favorite time or that she didn’t like blueberry Pop Tarts, that she had wanted us to pledge a sorority together at Vanderbilt. If the girl he had known was in the coffin in front of us, I thought, then the Debbie I knew was still alive.
It was only later that I found out that there had been a viewing of the body, the night before the funeral. Many of our friends had gone, and they told me how beautiful Debbie looked in her white debutante gown. “How did you know about it?” I asked, and they told me that Vicky Childs had called them. Vicky, who had never once been to see Debbie in the hospital, who hadn’t come into town until two days before the funeral, who made fun of Debbie’s mother behind her back. Vicky had been chosen to play the role of the grieving best friend, by some logic that escaped me, but which made sense in light of the larger illogic of Debbie’s death. It was unfair. It was all unfair, and I had no reason to expect that life would ever be otherwise.
In the beginning of the Spring semester of our senior year, students began getting letters from the colleges and universities they had applied to. The woman who would be our valedictorian had been accepted on early admission to Wellesley College, and several of the brightest students had gotten into Yale, Duke and Stanford, as predicted. In March, an overstuffed envelope arrived in the mail, addressed to me, from Vanderbilt University. I called Debbie as soon as I got inside.
“Did you get it ?” I asked her, without even saying hello.
“Yes, ” she answered.
“So? Have you opened it?” We had agreed to wait and open our letters together.
“No, but it’s fat. Is yours fat?”
“I’ll be over at your house in twenty minutes. Wait until I get there, OK?”
I raced back out to the car, still warm from the drive home, and headed over to Debbie’s. We sat on the floor in her room and traded envelopes.
“You open mine and I’ll open yours,” she said.
We tore into the paper. She read the letter addressed to me in just a few seconds but it took me longer. I had to read and re-read the paragraph, especially the last line. “We are pleased to inform you, Deborah Ann Valadori, that you have been accepted for undergraduate study at Vanderbilt University.”
I looked up at her, and she smiled back at me. “Yes!” we both screamed and leaned over to hug each other. I stood up and jumped around the room, grabbing her stuffed animals and dancing with them in circles, pausing only to suck in my stomach before the mirror. It was a habit I had developed earlier in the year, one that Debbie found annoying and unnecessary.
“Would you stop!” she said, “You are beautiful, exactly like you are.” I threw a giant pink turtle at her.
“‘If you get simple beauty and naught else, / You get about the best thing God invents, ‘” I said, quoting our least favorite poem by Browning.
“‘That’s somewhat: and you’ll find the soul you have missed, / Within yourself, when you return him thanks,'” she replied.
We had applied to all the same colleges and universities, but Vanderbilt was our first choice. We had already planned out how we would decorate our dorm room, what classes we would take, what we would major in, and how we would handle sorority rush. Debbie wanted to pledge a sorority and I was indifferent about it, but I agreed to give it a shot, if she would agree to take a creative writing class with me. She loved poetry but had never thought about writing any herself.
Neither of us would make it to Vanderbilt in the Fall, however. I had a serious asthma attack in April, so severe that my doctors at Emory University decided I needed to undergo at least a years’ worth of testing before I would be stabilized again, and ready for such a major life change as going away to college. My options were to take a year off and go to Vanderbilt as a Freshman the following Fall, or to take classes for a year at local college and enter Vanderbilt as a sophomore. There were a number of good schools to choose from in the Atlanta area, so I opted for a year at Agnes Scott, a women’s college just outside the city and not far from Emory.
“It’ll be OK,” Debbie reassured me, as I lay on her bed crying. “I’ll write you all the time, and you can come up on the weekends for visits. I’ll probably have to come home a lot too, for doctor’s appointments and stuff like that. I bet you’ll like Agnes Scott. It’ll give you a good start on your education.”
The first week in August , just two weeks before she was scheduled to leave for college, Debbie went in for a routine exam and found out that she was no longer in remission. The doctors told her that she would have to postpone her plans for college for at least a year. She was admitted almost immediately to Eggleston hospital, the children’s branch of Emory, and was scheduled to begin chemotherapy treatment and radiation. I went to see her every day in August, to keep her company in the middle of the day while her mother went home to take care of the family. Some days the pain was too much for us to do more than watch TV or play checkers, but on other days we cut pictures out of travel magazines and planned our trip to Scotland.
“I want you to have the curtains and comforter we bought, for your roommate at Agnes Scott,” Debbie said one afternoon, as I wheeled her through the hospital garden.
We had planned out the color scheme for our room and bought all the accessories before I found out that I wouldn’t be going to Vanderbilt. I had wanted to keep them in their boxes, fresh for the next year when we would share a dorm room, but Debbie insisted I use them now.
“You should decorate the room just like we talked about, so that I can come see it.”
“But what about my new roommate, ” I asked, hesitant to bring up the subject of living with someone else. “What if she doesn’t like it, or has her own stuff.”
“Then just set up your half like we talked about.”
I agreed to try, but made no promises.
The first week of September I began the tedious process of deciding what to take with me to college and what to leave behind in my room at home. My mother lived in Marietta, north of Atlanta, and Agnes Scott was less than an hour away, southeast of the city. But I didn’t plan on coming home very often that first year, so I wanted to be sure to take everything essential: my books, tapes, pictures, radio, clothes, and especially my journals. I trusted my mother not to go through my things, but I wanted to protect myself anyway, just in case she gave in to the temptation.
For the first couple of weeks of school I would call Debbie almost daily, filling her in on the details of college life, telling her about my roommate, the girls on my hall, my classes. I wanted to go to Egleston to see her more often, but my weekdays were full with schoolwork and on-campus activities, my weekends with fraternity boys and parties and hang-overs. I had started drinking again, although I made it clear to my friends that I would not drive after I’d been drinking, nor would I ride in the car with a drunk driver. We became buddies with some of the guys from one of the fraternities at Georgia Tech, and they let us crash in one of the rooms until we were sober enough to drive. Or sometimes we would stay with the guys we were dating, if we felt that we could trust them, and we trusted most of them.
I dated more boys that first semester than I had the whole time I was in high school, and went to more parties in one month than Debbie and I had actually entered our senior year. I worked hard at my school work during the week, and worked hard at forgetting it on the weekends. For the first time in twelve years I was able to choose what I wanted to wear to classes, after a lifetime of private school uniforms, and I experimented with different looks, putting the money I had earned over the summer into mini skirts and blue jeans, dangly earrings and belts without buckles, sheer black stockings and dark green combat boots. I wore my long, straight hair a different way every day, and dyed it dark red.
My new friends, Charlotte, Margaret, Anne, Kiva, and I spent hours in each others’ rooms, discussing everything our young minds could think of: the first time we had sex, our favorite books and songs, when we discovered masturbation, which boys we liked, which professors we liked, what we were writing our papers about, how long we’d had our periods, what we wanted to major in, our goals and dreams for the future. We talked about our best friends from high school, and our new best friends in college. We ate our meals together, studied together, took walks together, and promised each other to be friends even after we graduated and moved on.
These were the conversations I tried to recapture for Debbie, although I knew well what a poor substitute they were for the real thing.
One afternoon, in late October, I walked with her through the hospital garden so that she could see how the leaves had changed. She walked slowly, pulling a tall metal stand with an IV bag behind her.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland,” she said, breathing heavily. “To climb the hills and see the old buildings. Especially the churches. I love old churches.”
“We can do a tour of the churches, ” I assured her, “when we take our trip. Maybe we can go next summer?”
Debbie stood still for a moment and adjusted the needle in her arm. With some effort she reached up and plucked an orange leaf from a maple tree and studied it.
“That would be nice,” she said.
For most of Christmas break Debbie was home from the hospital, and I was able to spend more time with her. On New Year’s Eve we went to a party hosted by some friends of ours from high school, where we all swapped tales of Freshman adventures and drank beer by the fireplace. Debbie was quiet for most of the evening, but everyone tried to include her in the conversation, to ask her questions or explain to her things she wouldn’t understand, not having been a Freshman herself. At midnight, we all cheered and toasted each other and gave hugs and kisses all around.
Later that night, as we stretched out in her bed, I hugged Debbie again, and whispered “Happy New Year” in her ear. “I hope this year your dreams finally come true.”
She rolled over to face me and cupped my chin in her hand. Softly, quickly, her lips pressed into mine, and they were gone. She rolled over, and within minutes we were both asleep.
For several years I believed that I had only dreamed that kiss.
My sister and I were not prepared to deal with my mother’s grief after Aunt Christine died. She shut herself up in her room for days at a time, coming out only to give me money for meals, to send us out of the house, for cigarettes, coffee, dog food. She gave me the keys to the car, although I was only fifteen, and I went to the grocery store, ran errands, drove to school. Joanna and I took care of the laundry and kept the kitchen spotless, we vacuumed our rooms and scrubbed the bathroom floor, we took turns answering the phone, writing down long messages on pink scraps of paper and slipping them under Mom’s bedroom door.
There was no one she could turn to in her pain, no support system for the grief she felt, one woman for another, without the bonds of family to account for it. They had been so close for so long that they had alienated their other friends, leaving Joanna and I no one to call. Christine’s family offered no support, making it clear that they had not approved of the intensity of Christine’s friendship with my mother.
“Unnatural,” Christine’s mother said, explaining to my Uncle why Mom wasn’t allowed to attend the viewing. My sister and I were allowed in, because we were “family,” she said, but Mom had as much right to be there as we did. Mrs. Evans had been jealous of her daughter’s friendship with my mother, and wanted nothing more to do with her.
Late at night I could hear my mother crying, sometimes talking in her sleep, and I knew she was dreaming about Christine. The week that Christine died Mom had only been able to go to the hospital twice, and she had argued with her both times, about when she was coming home, about the treatments she had received and the possibilities for new pain medication, about Christine’s lack of will to continue living. In her dreams Mom apologized to Christine, for her selfishness, for not understanding how much pain there had been, for not being there that last Tuesday. Every night she wept, begging for forgiveness and the chance to say goodbye.
For eight years after Debbie died I, too, dreamed for one more chance to see her, to say goodbye. But more often I would dream that Debbie was still alive, that she had gone back into remission and we had gone to college together. In these dreams I could hear her voice clearly, but I could never see her face.
I dreamed once that we made love, but I could only feel the sand on my back, the water from the ocean tickling our feet, the salty taste of her lips against mine. I wanted to look in her eyes, but the effort of trying lifted me out of the dream and I awoke, my pillow wet with tears.
At our high school reunion, the Hayworths brought out the dark brown banner and stretched it out on the deck for us to read. I found my own paragraph quickly, and began searching for Debbie’s, knowing that I would recognize her handwriting even after all the years. I had a vague memory that she had written something about the beach, but nothing more. I found it, and inched closer to read it, biting my lip and breathing deeply.
She had written:
“In ten years I hope to be walking down the beach at Destin, my lover’s hand in mine, reciting our favorite poems from memory. I hope I am as happy then as I am right now.”
After that day, the dreams stopped.