Traversing Female Friendship

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It’s fall of 1982. The grass hasn’t started to crunch yet, but you can feel that Cheyenne Winter is sitting on his suitcase full of snow in a vain attempt to secure the latches. His flight is booked. His car is waiting to take him to the airport. I’m wearing ginormous brown glasses with a butterfly decal in the corner, but I can’t see anything because I’m crying tears that won’t stop. There’s a moving van, semi more-like, out front, and I’m in my bedroom that’s been stripped of all its Holly Hobbie decor. The cheery yellow walls look like rancid butter. My best friend Monica is there with me. She’s crying too. Our parents think we’re being melodramatic. They think we’ll forget each other. Make new friends. Get over it.

I don’t. Not really. Not for a long time.

Our moving van drops us off on Rodeo Drive, and I start 7th grade. Gillette Winter hefts a steamer trunk and five suitcases. He uses a valet. I sport a Dorothy Hamill haircut, a gaping overbite, and freckles too numerous to count. I’ve replaced the ginormous brown glasses with even bigger blue ones. I make friends with the most popular girl in school. Being with her feels like bright sunshine and extra sprinkles. We have countless sleepovers. We take trips in her folk’s RV to watch motocross. We write pale pencil letters to each other with hearts and BFF4Ever sign-offs. I love her more than Ms. Pacman and the fistful of spare change I’ve collected to go hog wild on sour candy at the gas station. Our friendship lasts just over a year until a new girl moves to our school. Jane…

Jane sweeps in as Gillette Winter is bidding us adieu. She’s full of energy and gumption, but must know intuitively to ease in between us slow—like a worm wiggling to the surface after the thaw. She includes me in plans and adventures, but it isn’t long before I’m eating greasy, lukewarm tator tots alone at a lunch table. The BFF4Ever notes fade, but the school yearbooks come and I write in my own copy the things I wish they’d say, and then I sign their names. I attempt to write them all differently so they’ll look real. I even use different colored pencils. Some I sign in cursive, others in print. I write things like: You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. BFF4Ever is penned in dark blue ink under the ones I longed to be friends with the most.

I looked at it the other day. Most of the autographs are variations of my juvenile handwriting. The BFF4Ever hasn’t faded all that much though.

We move to our next spot at the start of 9th. I don’t care about Denver Winter—whether it has suitcases or trunks. How much snow it packs. My glasses have been replaced with contact lenses, which I babysat a whole year to earn the money for. Mostly the kid slept while I watched Porky’s over and over and over. Yep. The beginning of my sexual revolution included Beulah Balbricker. I digress. Pimples sprout up, but I deftly cover them with orange foundation that I’ve stolen from the corner store. My face looks like an Oompa Loompa, but the makeup ends sharply under my chin, so from the neck down I am a nice, normal color. I make a lot of friends. A LOT. We start out the school year snorting crushed up Smarties in the bathroom. But then we graduate to smoking pot in the parking lot during Home Economics. Every day. I have a source that buys me bottles of Bacardi 151, which I pass around at the football games. I carry it in a crinkled brown paper bag. At the time, I don’t see the irony. I’m popular. The multitude of yearbook signatures are all real. I want nothing more than that $100 sweater, so I get a job sweeping up hair at a salon and I buy it. I get fired for doing cocaine with my boss in the backroom. I’m fourteen. My mom sees my decline, and we hightail it out of there. I’m so devastated over leaving my tribe that I forget to pick up my beloved cat of ten years at a friend’s house. We’re a few hundred miles out of town, when I lift my snot-covered face and remember her. My mom won’t go back.

We arrive in Utah. I start 10th grade at my new school because I was held back in Denver for missing 64 days in one semester. My gangliness is abating, but my face is still orange. I sew the legs of my Levi’s so tight that they leave ruts like the Oregon Trail down the sides of my thighs and calves. I have to stand on the cuffs to pull out of them. One leg at a time. Homemade skinny jeans. It’s a small town, and I feel worldly. I can drink my new friends under the table. I still smoke a bit of pot. I’m popular once more. It’s not hard. I learned a lot from Jane.

I had become the worm.

Salt Lake, West Valley, Taylorsville, Mt. Pleasant, Fairview, 2,000 miles to Cleveland, other places I don’t recall due to the brevity of my stay…

Twenty, twenty-five, thirty-two, forty years old…

Sweet friends, loyal friends, fucked-up friends, mean friends, friends for a time, not really my friends…

My guy told me recently that as we get older we realize we really only have a few friends. I didn’t want to believe it. I thought about it for days. I had gotten used to having a whole lot of friends because I thought it would make up for the one I’d had to leave. It didn’t. I thought it would give me a cushion for the ones I’d lost from move to move. It didn’t.

I’m no longer the worm.

I’m 45 and content. Back in the place I was born. Utah Winter is bipolar. Sometimes it packs a steamer trunk. Sometimes just a duffel. My glasses are much, much smaller. Stylish, really. And they’re red. I spend 99% of my time in my pajamas with no makeup on at all, while doing work I adore. I’m a perfectly normal color. I no longer steal, or do drugs, or drink. The wild ways of my first, (and my second,) childhoods are gone. But Monica isn’t. Our parents were wrong. We’re meeting up in Atlanta this year. I’ve visited her in Germany, Colorado, Austin… she became a nomad like me, though she didn’t imbibe all the substance and strife that I did. These days when we talk on the phone, I can see her beautiful 12-year old face. Her freckles were lighter than mine, but she too sported glasses. I don’t remember what kind of decal she had. She’s holding up a dollar, luring me to go play Ms. Pacman. Her smile is wide.

Countless friendships. An abundance of amazing people, but only three or four have stuck like beautiful burs that latched on to me and dug in their spiny spurs.

I’m okay with that now.

6 replies
  1. Monica Wilcox says:

    I never told you that 8 months after you moved away we went camping with my grandmother. I told her that we were still writing letters to one another almost every week. She told me our friendship would eventually die like all childhood relationships do. I got mad, started crying and stomped off into the trees. I sat on a dead log and cried for along time, swearing to God that ours would not. They were wrong. Oh girl, were they wrong.

    I wore a silver M in the bottom corner of my oversize gray glasses. I got it because I wanted to be as cool as my best friend.

    You know I believe those burs stick to us because we need them for the long haul. By the grace of God, you are my bur.

    With tears, laughs and love, M

    Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      Tears indeed.

      I remember the “M” now! Did you remember that the day we moved from Denver and I left Charlie, we stopped in Cheyenne and had lunch with you and your Dad?

      Every day I’m grateful they were wrong.

      Love you,
      Mel

      Reply
  2. Catherine says:

    Love this Melanie Bates! Friends are precious like diamonds. I can’t think of a story for myself but I do know one that my sister has. Her best friend was also her sister in law. They raised the kids together and then both got divorced. They ended up with different partners but living in the same area so they get to spend quality time together. It’s my sis’s 60th coming up in a few days. I have to say I was pretty jealous when they all went away together on a holiday to celebrate their birthdays! I recovered and it just made me think how lucky they are to have this long lasting, incredible friendship! Thanks for writing this! Cheers!

    Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      I love that story, Catherine. My mom is still friends with her ex sister-in-law too. We always joke that no one ever gets out of our family once we bring them in. Friends are precious diamonds indeed. Thank you so much for sharing.

      Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      LOL. Yes. Here’s to sticky burs. After I posted this, of course, I thought… hmmm…. I wonder if sticky burs are the right metaphor.

      Reply

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