I grasped the iron bars with a cold intensity, all of my nerves on edge. I stared at you in terror, not believing I was sitting here beside you, my mind racing.
“Come on, Meridith,” you said. “It’s easy.”
I didn’t blink, frozen, as you slipped yourself fluidly around the bars, landed on your feet on the mulch, untwisted your arms and looked up at me. Your eyes sparkled. “Just do it like I did.”
“But Lacey, I don’t want to.” My voice was tremulous, like I might break down and cry at any moment. It was possible. “I’m scared.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of.” You hefted yourself onto the bar of my swing set and kicked your feet in their pink sneakers to scoot beside me. “It’s an easy trick; I’ll do it with you. Do it just like me.”
You talked me through it again and I drank in every syllable, every movement. Your confidence was all I needed; I was your disciple, and when you looked at me and asked, “Ready?” I had no words to reply. I loved you, and since I did, I trusted you; my love created my devotion. I nodded, just once.
Your voice was cool, and it mocked the nervous anticipation that had replaced the terror I felt somewhere inside my rib cage. I stared down at the mulch beneath us, daring it to let me fall, as you counted down.
“Three . . . two . . . one . . . now.”
Clutching the white and green bar, I felt it slide beneath my hands as I let myself fall backwards. As I kicked my feet over my head, the ground beneath me turned to sky—for one millisecond, what was usually below me was above my head, a green and brown swirl of summer, and the brilliantly blue sky stretched out beneath the toes of my sneakers, like a smooth linoleum floor— and then my feet hit the ground with a dull thud.
“See? Isn’t it fun?” You stood up straight and grinned at me, and I couldn’t help but smile a little.
“Yeah,” I admitted shyly. “That was kinda fun.”
“I told you so.” You grinned wider, and it lit up your face. I noticed with a healthy envy how pretty you were when you smiled. You headed for the swings, and I instinctively followed you. “And now you know how to do it for yourself, as long as you do it just like I did. Remember, you don’t let go of the bar until your feet hit the ground.”
The screen door creaked as my mom stuck her head out of my house, looking to where we sat on the old swings. She called and let us know that they were done talking. Your mother was leaving, and we had better come if we didn’t want to miss dinner at your house.
We both ran up to the house, where your mother was grabbing her keys. My own parents told me to mind my manners while I spent the night, and I agreed. I was always good at your house.
We jumped out of the car as soon as it parked in your driveway and went careening into your little house. You quickly took charge of the situation. “Let’s do something fun!”
“Okay!” I agreed, content with going along.
“Let’s watch a movie before dinner. What do you want to watch?”
“I don’t care. What do you want to watch?”
“Let’s watch Aladdin! I love that movie!”
I saw that every time I came over here. I didn’t like it that much. “Okay!” I agreed, grinning in spite of how I felt inside. It didn’t matter what I wanted, so much as you were happy with your decision, and it was your favorite movie. I wouldn’t complain.
You popped it in the VCR and I went to go sit on the plush plaid couch, knowing you wouldn’t need my help. Your mom stuck her head into the living room and inquired as to what kind of pizza we wanted.
I didn’t think twice. “I don’t care.” I did care. I liked pepperoni the best.
Your mom disappeared back into the kitchen, and you hopped into your regular spot on the couch. I sat in the middle, beside you, and we huddled under a fluffy throw. The big white snowflakes thick on the red fleece, and it kept us warm as the first notes telling of Arabian nights and Arabian days wafted through the living room.
When the pizza delivery guy showed up, we paused the movie and grabbed huge slices of drippy cheese pizza, reveling in the luscious mess. I watched how fast you ate your first piece, and your second, and I matched your pace perfectly. I wanted to be done at the same time as you.
After we finished the movie, we went to your room. “Let’s make a fort!” You decided. Fort-building mostly consisted of you, in all of your ingenuity and endless imagination, draping a canopy of quilts, sheets, and scarves across your little bedroom, transforming it into a different world, while I stood, incompetent, and tried not to touch the blankets lest they fall while grabbing clothespins, safety pins, and hair ties for you.
We sat in the fort and munched on your new favorite snack food while we chatted idly. You talked on and on, and I listened and bolstered everything you said with my comments.
“One day, we’ll have a big huge house,” you told me, popping something cheesy into your mouth.
“Yeah!” I beamed at you. “And it’ll have a big balcony!” I knew you loved balconies.
“Yep.” Your tone was matter-of-fact. “And we’ll have a ten-car garage, because we’ll both have five cars each.”
“And a horse,” I agreed, trying to help you out.
To my dismay, your nose wrinkled as you stared up at the pink and green cotton sheets above you. “Nah. I don’t like horses.”
“Yeah, we don’t need horses,” I said quickly. I was hesitant to say anything else, but that was no problem, because just then you finished your snack. I snatched the last few pieces from my bowl and stuffed them in my mouth, looking nonchalant when you rolled over to look at me, grinning with excitement.
“Let’s play a game now.”
“Okay,” I agreed, swallowing quickly. “What kind?”
“We can be princesses . . . ” You started, about to take off on a long narrative filled with knights, princesses, and dragons, winding with twists and surprises that no one could imagine but the brilliancy that was you.
“Sister princesses, right?” I broke in. I had to know. In my lap, my fists clenched as my stomach did, and I tried to relax. I failed. My mind raced—what if you made me your inferior? What if you made me your enemy?
With two simple words, you restored my seven-year-old happiness. “Of course! Now…” You lapsed into your story, eager to share what just took over your mind, and I let out a contented sigh and relaxed. You never did let me down in anything that you planned. I was the happiest best friend on the planet.
Two months was all it took to murder the happiness I had built up around you. I remember the day that I came home from meeting you at the park, when my mom stabbed my loyal heart with one offhand comment.
I stared at her. “Moving? You mean, like, out of the state?”
She assured me it would just be to a different part of the city.
“So we won’t live in the same neighborhood as Lacey anymore?”
She had the audacity to smile as she quipped that we wouldn’t live by you unless you moved just like we did. As the corners of her lips lifted, I felt my chest shrink and it was hard for me to breathe. I sat down hard on the couch. She moved on, oblivious.
I snatched up the phone with shaking hands. Punching in your number, I clutched the phone to my ear. “Lacey?” I tried, but my voice came out as a breath as I struggled to fill my lungs.
“What’s up?” You were oblivious too, pathetically so. I fled to the safety of my closet before going on. Once I slid to the floor amidst fallen clothes, lonely shoes, and dolls from ages ago, I poured out the story to you. You were nonplussed, and it relieved me. I was afraid that you wouldn’t care as I did.
“You should just come to live with me,” you said, voice strong. You paused, thinking, and I absorbed the silence, comforted just by knowing you were trying to help. “How far away?”
“I don’t know.” I blushed at the confession. Why didn’t I ask my mother before I went and called you? Stupid. “Nothing’s for sure yet.”
We went on talking for a few minutes. Nothing would change, you assured me. Everything would be the same. We would still be best friends. We would be best friends forever, absolutely, no matter what. Nothing could ever change that. We were seven and ten.
I stared at the phone, my stomach doing flips. The shiny white plastic mocked me just enough to make me want to look away, but I was stubborn enough not to. Just call her, I told myself. Just pick up the phone, call, ask her to do something with you. No big deal.
I recited your number to myself, under my breath. Yep, I still had it. I hadn’t used it in weeks, but that didn’t matter. We were still best friends. We were still best friends, even though I hadn’t spoken to you in more than a month. Our mothers still spoke—that counted for something, right? We were still best friends, I told myself frantically. Even now.
So why can’t I call her?
I grabbed the phone with ferocity. I could call you—I would call you. There wasn’t anything to fear.
I wrapped my fingers in the phone’s cord as shivers went up and down my spine. The ringing tone sounded empty. It’s just Lacey. Chill. You’re thirteen. You’re a big girl. You can do this.
I laughed nervously. “Hey, Lacey! It’s Meridith.” Why did I tell you? You should know.
“Oh, hi!” You sounded excited, and I could have melted into a puddle of happy relief. The color returned to my knuckles as I relaxed my grip on the phone, and you went on easily. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m good.”
“I haven’t spoken to you in forever,” you said, and I could have cried. I know, I wanted to tell you. I know, and I miss you. It’s like my backbone was sucked out of me when I stopped seeing you, and I don’t know what to do. I need you to be my best friend again. No one is like you, Lacey. No one gets me like you. We’re inseparable—we’re supposed to be inseparable. What happened?
I coughed. I wasn’t about to say any of it. You had to think I was confident, competent. Perfect, like you were. “Yeah, I guess we haven’t. What’s been going on?”
You laughed. “Oh my gosh, so much. You have no clue—just the other day I was at the mall with Megan, and we were trying to remember what happened since the first of the year, and I can’t even remember! It’s the funniest thing. And my sophomore year is almost over! What is up?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I tried to call a few nights ago, but your mom said you were out.” It was a question.
“Oh, yeah, Friday.” You said it like it was forever ago. “She told me. Yeah, I went out to dinner with Isaac and then I went to a sleepover at Megan’s with a bunch of our other friends. I didn’t even get home until Monday. It was great.”
On Friday I had sat at home, trying to find something to do besides reread a history book for the third time. “Oh really?” I asked, trying to feign interest. Instead I felt like I had just swallowed rocks. I was happy you were having fun, but the fact that you were having fun without me hurt me somewhere, a physical pain.
“Yeah!” Now your excitement sounded fake even though your tone hadn’t changed. “Oh, and we went to the mall. Megan bought me—oh my gosh, Megan is always buying me stuff, even when I tell her not to—so Megan bought me this bracelet that’s so cute, and it’s got these little birds on it, you know? They’re holding this banner in their beaks, and it says best friends forever in this really pretty script. And when she got it for me, I couldn’t help but think of you. I’m really happy you called.”
Happy I called? Happy I called? You had new friends now, and one that thought she was your best friend. And even if you didn’t consider her your best friend, you did things with her, and you never wanted to hang out with me anymore. Did you consider her your best friend? Did you say one way or another? What if she was?
“Yeah,” I said again. “That sounds really pretty.”
You took a breath to continue, but the bedspread before me was swimming in salty tears. “You know, Lacey, I actually have to go now. But I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“Oh.” This took you by surprise. “Are you sure? Is there a reason you called?”
“No, I just called to talk for a little while.” I kept the tears out of my voice and lied blatantly. I should have been proud with the dignity with which I hung up. Instead I collapsed into a mess of tears.
“Of course you’re fine,” I whispered into my pillow. “You’re beautiful, you’re talented, you’re funny; everyone loves you. It’s easy for you to get along with people. But what about me, Lacey? What about the quiet one that isn’t pretty, that isn’t funny, that can’t do anything? What am I supposed to do? I don’t even have any friends anymore.”
Sobs shook my body. So that was it. You didn’t want to be with me because I wasn’t like you. Not only was I three years younger than you, I was ugly, I was awkward, and I wasn’t anywhere as charismatic as you. Birds of a feather fly together, I thought bitterly, and the worst get left behind.
Well, I don’t need you. Venom laced my words, even though I knew it was a lie. I can do things on my own. It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect and I’m ugly and nasty and mean. I don’t care. I don’t need you, anymore, Lacey. Take that.
I was the only one taking anything. I didn’t call you again; I was thirteen, and you were sixteen.
I looked up at my mom in surprise and asked again, just to make sure. “Who did you say it was?”
She replied that it was Lacey for perhaps the third time.
“Okay.” I blinked as I took the phone. You hadn’t called me in ages—what I had heard of you was what your mother told mine, which wasn’t much. I knew you had broken up with your boyfriend of a few years, and you had to go to a special facility to help you with some emotional stuff you were going through last summer. I figured you didn’t want to talk about it now, since you hadn’t ever brought it up. “Hey, Lacey. What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” you said easily. “Hey, I was just wondering if you wanted to go out for coffee somewhere.”
“Sure,” I replied, rolling over on the bed and sitting up. “But it depends when. I’m busy every evening with my job, so it would have to be some afternoon.”
We went back and forth trying to decide when worked for both of us, and we settled on an afternoon in a few days.
I stepped out of my car and started heading up to the mall entrance when I heard you call from behind me. I waited up for you. “Hey,” I said, falling into step beside you. “How are you? What’s up?”
“Nothing really.” Your high-heels clicked as you walked, and you looked sophisticated, having just got out of school. I didn’t feel inferior next to you, though—just young. I listened to your voice and thought about how we grew up. “I just wanted to hang out.”
“I know how that is,” I replied, swinging my keys.
Conversation was awkward at first, but then it started to get easier as I strove to just be myself. I had a personality now that I wasn’t working to be just like you at everything.
The air grew light. We laughed as we sipped our coffees and walked through the stores. You were as vibrant as I remember, but now I matched you in vivacity.
“Ooh, let’s go in there!” You said, pointing. I looked up, and it was a store I wasn’t really into.
“I guess, if we have to.” I wrinkled my nose. Then I spotted the store next door, a weird coffee-shop and bookstore with obscure indie-band posters on the front door, bands that my brother listened to. I needed to get him a gift for his birthday—why not now? Laughing, I tapped your arm. “If you make me go in there, then we’re going in there,” I pointed, “next.”
“Fine.” You stuck your tongue out at me. I just grinned and you dragged me into your store with a smile.
We kept talking as we meandered through the mall. It was almost empty, the tiles echoing our footsteps and the footsteps of the few other shoppers that weekday afternoon. I felt like I knew you a little better when we stopped by the mall entrance.
“It was nice seeing you again,” I told you. “Really.” Neither of us said it aloud, but we were both thinking of our time apart.
“Yeah,” you said. “We should do this again sometime.”
We hugged, and we started to head for our cars; I was seventeen, and you were twenty. Right before you disappeared behind a sedan, though, I called to you.
I paused. “I’ve missed you.”
Surprise lit your blue eyes and you paused—after a moment, they closed with your smile. “Hey Meridith? Me too.”