I remember this day every year as it approaches as much as I would like to forget. Bittersweet remnants of my journey from an innocent child to a bruised adult pass through my already rattled brain. It is the birthday of my closest childhood friend, Chelsey. Although she was not the cause of my life tragedies, she was present in some form… whether in person, in spirit, or the nagging voice between my ears. Sometimes her absence spoke louder than her presence. It continues to do so.
I remember the first day of elementary school vividly. Chelsey and I were like two magnets drawn together despite the annoying clatter of silver spoons running wild in the classroom. This is surprising to me in hind sight since she was just as privileged as the rest of the school. Her father was a big wig at Boeing and her mother was a registered nurse at a highly respected hospital.
We attended a small Christian school. In the 1980’s, not many kids like me were in a private school. When I say “like me,” I am referring to only having one parent. Of course I have a dad because I am breathing and writing. However, he disappeared during my infancy never to be seen again. At least not by me.
My mom forced her way into the Naval Industry to get us off state assistance. After school, the stay at home moms arrived in their expensive cars, wearing nice dresses, garnished with styled hair and flawless makeup. In contrast, and to my embarrassment, my mom was leaning on the door of our grey Datsun 800 wagon in her orange overalls reeking of Diesel fuel. I approached the car hoping to God she wasn’t smoking a cigarette. However, 30 years later, I am proud of that juxtapose. My mother stood tall and proud, and damn she was beautiful! The moms with the caked make up didn’t hold a candle to her bare beauty. If I could only have seen the significance of that as a child, but my awkwardness was what reeked, drawing attention to the the veil I wore which gave away my pain of being different.
Standing apart from the crowd was not on my compass as a child. It is still not a strength I claim, although I wish I could harness that power I so often envy in others. I have always been this way. A quiet observer. An introvert. Awkward and anxious.
Chelsey, however, stood out whether she intended to or not. I laugh to myself as I remember our personality differences. She had a laugh that echoed throughout our apartment complex in college. She was goofy and didn’t care who noticed. She made me laugh. I made her laugh because I was somehow allowed to be free when it was just the two of us. I could only dream of laughing as freely as she. Chelsey rarely thought before she spoke. I seldom talked, and when I did my face turned bright red. The color of her hair, in fact. Like Little Orphan Annie, Chelsey had a head full of short, think, curly red hair. Quite the contrast from my dull brown, straight as a board, paper fine hair. She also towered a good 6 inches over me. I have no idea what force bonded us, but there we were. Best friends. A friendship that withstood almost 30 years.
Just her and me? We could argue for hours. We could laugh for hours. In the 6th grade, we had library duty together. We argued over music lyrics quite frequently. One day in particular, it turned into a hard-back book throwing brawl. One book after the other, rather than being re-shelved, flew across our tiny library as we ducked and dodged to avoid the fierce catapults of rage. I do not remember if I was given the opportunity to, as usual, prove I was right. But, I imagine after doing so, she realized music was my strong suit, not hers. I remember a song popular at the time… “Nobody gonna break my stride, no body gonna slow me down”… Chelsey insisted it went, “No body gonna break my stripes, no body gonna slow me down…” Honestly? I just couldn’t let that one go.
When we were young, Chelsey spent most of the weekends at my house. Although her house and home life appeared perfect from the outside, she was the happiest at my house… an old, run-down small home I grew to be ashamed of in my teenage years. My house was the exact opposite of what my classmates lived in… It wasn’t pristine and it was missing a farther, but it was Chelsey’s second home. Her mother kept a spotless house. In fact, she was not allowed to have sleepovers, even me. If Chelsey sat on her Duvet or messed up the pillows on her perfectly made bed, she would be yelled at and shamed. I was visiting her after school one day until my mom could pick me up, I went to sit down on her bed while she opened her closet to lay out the next day’s school clothes as instructed by her mother, and I nearly hit sit the ceiling as Chelsey told me I could not sit on her bed. The look on her face clutched a fear no child should have to wear. She panicked as she smoothed her Duvet with herb hands just as mom had made it. I walked over to the bay window, perched by her boom box, and watched as she carefully constructed the next days outfit. Much to my visual dismay, the ensemble included a red and white striped long sleeve shirt, a navy blue corduroy jumpsuit, thick white tights, and brown penny loafers (with shiny pennies of course). I was content in my over sized tee shirts, jeans, black converse, and a flannel. Not only had I never heard the word “Duvet,” I was mortified when my mother suggested taking me to The Brass Plum at Nordstrom for nicer clothes like Chelsey wore and those god awful penny loafers. I refused. It suited Chelsey fine. But not me. Just another one of our monumental differences that meant nothing to us. We didn’t match, yet we did.
Life at my house was a lot more relaxed. My mom didn’t yell if we broke a dish or spilled milk on the floor. We could sit on any surface. I am uncertain if we owned a Duvet, but if we did, my mom certainly would let us wrinkle it. Sometimes we slept in my bed, giggling and talking about New Kids on The Block. Chelsey was not allowed to mark her walls with posters, however my walls were filled. Sometimes we slept in the living room. My mom would make us a big comfy bed consisting of every blanket and pillow she could find. We would watch movies and eat Oreo cookies until we passed out. Upon rising, we would sneak into the kitchen to make breakfast. It was an intended surprise for my mom, but our fighting usual woke her up before the smell of the bacon. We would bicker over who would make what to the point of hitting each other with our towels, chasing one another out of the kitchen. At least my mom’s cook books were out of reach. And still, my mother never got mad. She would walk into the kitchen, assess the mess, and somehow laughed because she knew we were fighting with the intent to bring her breakfast in bed. She knew what Chelsey’s mother was like and wanted her be free at my house. She just smiled and enjoyed her hand crafted breakfast of over cooked bacon and under cooked pancakes. Maybe the Valium had something to do with her ease, but at least from our eyes, everything was okay. We were still pissed at each other, but knew we were still best friends.
I was often jealous when Chelsey came over. She would curl up in my mother’s lap. My mom would hold her. It was just an unspoken awareness that Chelsey needed a mom. Coincidentally, I needed a dad. And Chelsey’s dad was the coolest. He took us everywhere. I remember being in his always- new BMW, enjoying the smell of clean leather and our favorite radio station. Chelsey would be talking, and her dad would catch a glimpse of me in his rear view mirror. He told Chelsey to quiet down. He sensed I was experiencing something wonderfully foreign. New leather seats and a dad. He took us to the movies. He took us to Shakey’s Pizza. The restaurant where each table top had a glass covering holding in place the old black and white newspaper. I’ll never forget those unique tables, the smell our town’s best pizza, or the taste of drinking Root Beer from a pitcher. But most importantly, I will never forget being in the presence of the world’s greatest dad. The dad who knew I needed him. The same dad who knew his daughter needed my mom. I often drive by the Taco Time that took the place of Shakey’s Pizza many years ago and am instantly transported back in time.
After high school, we attended different Universities. I ended up working a regular job upon the completion of my Freshman year. I needed to decide what I wanted. I missed Chelsey. I couldn’t focus on anything. I called her in Eastern Washington shrieking with joy that I was making the trip over the mountains to attend school with her. We were so excited. We arranged to share an apartment off campus. She had already made so many new friends. But that was okay. We were still us.
During my years at WSU, my mom called me every night. A gesture parents should avoid when their adult child moves away to college. Chelsey’s dad came to visit on Dad’s weekend. He went to pub crawls with us and he bought me a new tennis racket so we could all play. It was comforting when he came to visit. My mom made the drive over on Mom’s weekend. She partied with us as well, but she was not as comforting to me as she used to be. I hope she was for Chelsey though.
Life took Chelsey and I down completely different paths. I think she may have ended up a little too much like her mother. When her marriage failed, I tried to reach out to her. She ignored my messages and never returned my calls. My gut tells me that was her pride. I married before her and had 2 children. Although my marriage proved to be a disaster, I don’t think she could handle the fact that hers ended before mine. She had a great husband. I think her mom’s personality reared it’s head in her like a bomb that just could not be stopped. It changed her. She resented and despised my husband. I do not blame her. He was ugly to me and slowly isolated me from my friends. I went years without seeing Chelsey. And when I tried, he would control when and for how long, making me feel guilty and anxiety ridden to the point where I just stopped trying.
After my failed attempts to reach Chelsey, it became clear to me that life’s circumstances were more important to her than our friendship. We had a bond so strong as children, I believed nothing could break it. No man, no parent, no tragedy. I was wrong. During the last 5 years, I have tried to forget her. I went through all of the feelings and processes of grief. Overall, I feel anger and betrayal the most. It is what it is. If I could have seen the future, would I have been her friend for nearly 3 decades? Yes. I wouldn’t change our time together. I wouldn’t take back the fights or the late nights. I especially wouldn’t take back the time we had to pull her car over so she could take a shit in the wheat fields. I’ll never forget her red head poking up through the wheat that went on for miles. I nearly peed from laughing so hard.
But if I could go back, I would want to know the exact moment she changed her mind. I would do what ever I could to stop it, and we would still be friends. We would be us.