When you grow up in a small town, it’s hard to have only one best friend. Instead, it's more like being part of a big, rowdy, slightly dysfunctional family that’s filled with lots of brothers, sisters and cousins who gently and sometimes not so gently bump into each other. You take risks, soar and fall, jump into messes you have no business being in, and get into arguments and make up, mostly because you know the whole time that you have friends who will always be there to save you. I was saved, countless times, by my friends.
When you grow up in a small town, time means nothing, especially as you get older. You go for days, months and years without speaking to each other. When you finally hear that familiar voice over the phone, time bends back. Maybe it’s because we’ve peered into each other’s hearts and seen the deepest darkest places that even our spouses don’t know. Maybe it’s because we know where each tender and broken part of ourselves originiated. Or maybe it’s because we’re each other’s memory keepers, tucking away the bruises and triumphs of our childhood in the most careful, loving way.
Yesterday morning, my phone rang, and I saw the number started with the area code of my hometown. I froze, knowing the news would not be good, and waited to hear the voicemail. Before I could listen, though, I received a text from the same number. “When you get a chance to talk privately call me. It’s important!” It was from one of my memory keepers, Cindi. I tried to needle it out of her over text but she wouldn’t budge. I called and she shared the horrible news: our friend Nicole had passed away, apparently from flu complications.
In the seconds that followed, a newsreel started playing in fast-forward in my head. First meeting Nicole when she moved to the Poconos from New Jersey in junior high school, begging her not to throw up in the backseat of my mom’s car after we’d had too much to drink, walking down Fish Hill Road in dark plastic ponchos to eat French fries drenched in gravy and cheese, sneaking cigarettes in the back back back of her backyard, helping her get her maniacal dog Baron more acclimated to humans (unsuccessfully), watching her fall in love for the first time, her first job at Nine West, her other first time, finding her every year on her birthday no matter where the hell in the world she or I was, her yelling at me when I became a vegetarian because she was worried I wasn't getting enough protein, the asshole renters who caused her family to lose their home, her voice when she told me that she had met her future husband, when told me she was pregnant, and when her dear sweet daughter was born. The only time I cried at my wedding was when she and Cindi spoke. Countless cherished moments.
There was something so indescribably precious about being friends with a person as honest, fun, caring, brave, supportive, loving, loyal, and sincere as Nicole. I'd call her in the middle of the night when I'd reached a new height or had tumbled down so far I thought I'd never be able to get up. She did the same. I went through much of my life feeling a little bit safer, like someone out there was looking out for me, because of Nicole.
And then, in what seemed like an instant, everything changed. We got together shortly after I got married, and I broke the cardinal rule of small town friendships. I got hurt and ran away. After that moment, time – which had always been irrelevant – became everything. Years of aching silence passed. Years of stubborn silence filled with celebrations, failures, successes, children, and heartbreaks that we didn’t share. I had lost my memory keeper, my touchstone, and the laugh that would lighten up the darkness that often seeped into the raggedy edges of my mind.
Slowly, we reconnected. There was hurt and there was a reluctance to dredge up the past. Unlike me, who liked to hide behind fancy words and highfalutin psychological theories based on a bunch of bullshit, Nicole was real and true. We had no deep conversations about our pain. There was just her laughter, a little more tentative but still there, the most magical music to my ears.
Then came the call from Cindi yesterday. And along with the call came the realization that I was too late. When you grow up in a small town, sure, you may have a falling out, you may lose touch for a while, but you’re still part of each other’s DNA. I guess I thought – wrongly, it turns out – that this difficult era of our friendship was temporary and that we’d inevitably find our way back. Now she’s gone, leaving behind a loving husband and beautiful 11-year-old girl, and our story is over.
When you grow up in a small town and someone you've loved from the time you were so very young, hopeful and naïve passes away, a hole in your heart suddenly appears and you discover that there is no going back. Time will move forward, sometimes tenderly, sometimes cruelly. Oh, how I wish I could tell my old friend how sorry I am and how much I love her. Instead, I make a vow to be her memory keeper for as long as I can, and to cherish each and every moment we had together. Though woefully inadequate, I am painfully aware that from this day forward, it’s all I can do.
Goodbye, my beautiful, wonderful friend Nicole. My life has been forever changed from knowing you. May the laughter, love and honesty you brought into this world serve as a beacon of light and goodness for now and all time.