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The Last Time I Had a Best Friend I Was 11
On the growing pains of girl friendships
B E | S T
F R I | E N D S
I lost my childhood best friend twice.
We met in the third grade and became instant friends.
We grew up alongside Bridge to Terabithia. I remember how tragic it was when (spoiler alert) Leslie dies. I remember urgently flipping to the back of the book to read the ending, and then, line by line, skimming the pages backwards to find out how she died.
I didn’t lose my best friend that way.
We used to sit and play in front of my house on the sidewalk, our goldenrod-walled elementary school in view, the din of the after-school program vibrating up the hill. We were always listening to a hand-me-down stereo, tuned into the local short-lived radio station dedicated to “today’s hit music.” If we were lucky, we would hear the fruits of our labor, of repeated phone calls to the DJ to request the Dawson’s Creek theme song, and would get to sing along.
Occasionally, a sliver of sun would slice and then retreat through the fog. We would eagerly snack on chocolate-enrobed marshmallow pinwheels, the milk chocolate melting into a pool of pure oily sugar in our mouths. The afternoons stretched endlessly, chased by bubbly orange soda.
We loved to talk on the phone, hogging the phone line so much that my siblings nicknamed her “Duck Girl” behind her back. It didn’t help she had gifted me a singing duck with a minute-long tune in different gradations of quacks.
Her mom, a teller at the local bank, knew my mom. She and her mom weren’t that close. One time, she got into an earthquake-erupting fight with her mom and called me, asking if she could come over. It didn’t matter that we lived a half mile apart and it was night. She walked over by herself.
She let me in on one of her deepest secrets: she was born with a congenital heart issue and had had surgery to correct it when she was younger. She hid the scar beneath the gold pendant necklace she always wore. The height of her neckline always glazed above the pendant, the scar a zipper of flesh that jutted from her light tan skin tone.
She was protected. She was precious. She was loved. Affirmations.
I dared not tell a soul about her fragile heart. If we talked about it, it was always in hushed tones, like trading stickers from our sticker books during silent sustained reading.
When we were old enough to go out alone, we took the bus to the mall and of course went to Claire’s. Over a mandatory store soundtrack of the Backstreet Boys, we splurged our allowance money on those split-heart best friend necklaces with the nickel ball chains, the type you couldn’t read unless you meshed the hearts together. I took the left half while she took the right.
Upon reaching middle school, however, I began to crave the need for space. By the time I learned to use my voice, it croaked like a hoarse frog when the teacher would call on me. I don’t know if it was about the weather, or what another friend said, or about borrowing money for the bus. I don’t think there was really even an argument, or even a non-argument, but suddenly we weren’t talking anymore.
Over Lisa Frank stationery, I probably scrawled out her name and then etched a big “x” over it. I probably scribbled, in cruel curled cursive, how I hated her. The rainbow bright ombre of cushy blue, idyllic magenta, and sunset yellow, sweetened by the golden retriever puppies peeking out of a violet-softened sand castle, juxtaposed the heartless discontents of the letter.
One day at the bank, her mom asked my mom what had happened. Maybe we’d drifted apart and were on separate paths, my mom offered simply. I’m sure that was an awkward conversation for my mom to have while discussing her financial information.
I snapped off the necklace and chucked it away in the closet. I pried away the sticky pics we took from those novelty photo booths. I tossed the annoying singing duck that was her nickname-sake into the donation box.
It was really over.
We went through middle and high school ignoring each other, averting eyes if we even happened to catch one another’s gaze. I probably took a different route to class avoid her, even if it meant zig-zagging out of breath through the entire school. I probably pretended she was a vacuum of dust if we happened to fall into conversation with the same social group. Because I didn’t dare look at her, I could only see this blank stare in my periphery. I was unapologetic, a reed as hollow outside as inside.
After college, we both moved home. I wondered if maybe we would somehow understand each other now, after college, with a little more life experience. I changed, and I’m sure she changed. Knowing we still had mutual friends, I had the inkling in my heart that I should reach out.
One morning, I woke to a buzz from the nightstand. I fumbled with the sticky hinge of my flip phone to a text from a mutual friend:
I don’t know if
you heard, but
The scar she hid on her chest, behind the golden pendant. Her heart hid behind that scar. Her emotional core. The beating of her being. Her heart, and soul.
I found out that she passed away during a routine heart surgery. It was supposed to be routine, normal. But something happened during the surgery that wasn’t normal. It suddenly became the opposite of routine. A mistake had been made. She was gone.
Quietly, I attended her funeral. What right did I have to be there, as her former best friend? How could I reconcile with her now, with her passed on?
As it turns out, all the stories her family shared about her reminded me that even though we’d drifted on our separate paths, we were still at our cores the same people. They talked about her love for singing and expression, her love and compassion for the world and helping others. Elementally, we were still the same.
Still the same even though I hurt her feelings, still the same as our 11-year-old selves.
Her family closed the service with a recording of her playing the piano while singing the aria from Phantom of the Opera. Her soprano voice, so delicate, so kind, her voice closing out her own funeral. The last time we would hear her, singing, full of life. A beat. Her image dissolved into forever black. Silence.
Nervously, I waited in line to pay my respects to her family, wanting to shrink into a breathless void. What would I say once I saw her parents? What could I even say?
I’m sorry… for breaking her heart?
I’m sorry, but “I’m sorry” wouldn’t be good enough.
When it came to my turn to pay respects to her family, it just took one look at her parents, and we all started to cry.
Ten years after her death, I still have survivor’s guilt. I still feel bad that I lived, and continue to live, knowing she may have never forgiven me for what I did and said.
Recently, her mom asked about me. My mom told her that I had gotten married, moved away, had a kid. I’m sure it was hard for her mom to silently admit her daughter would never get to do the same.
I recently found my half of the friendship necklace. The metal is almost rusty, faded with 20 years’ time. The chalky purple inlay is dull gray, but I can still read the tarnished letters:
B E |
F R I |
If extrapolating the vowels, the message from my half of the necklace could be read as bē freē. I didn’t know it at that age, but maybe that was all I really wanted. Freedom to express my own individuality.
In tweenhood, you’re discovering who you are. Your sense of self is yanked into a turbine of social pressures and hormones. The only way I knew I could express my freedom—and set boundaries—was to split apart.
Yeah, it was ugly, and awkward, but so is the era of catchy boy bands, of girls growing up a little too quickly.
It would never be enough to tell her that I’m sorry. I have to forgive myself, too.
Ten years after her death and twenty years after our friendship, I simmer with all that has transpired, the shifts and sands of the fog.
In my heart and the stars, I hope we could still be friends.
Diann Leo-Omine (she/her) is a creative nonfiction writer born and raised in San Francisco (Ramaytush Ohlone land) and the colorfully boisterous Southern Chinese-Toisanese diaspora. To combat the recent swell of hate crimes against Asian Americans, she co-curated and edited the charity food zine Lunchbox Moments. Her essay “The Hawk,” published in Yellow Arrow Journal’s Peregrine edition, has been nominated for a 2023 Pushcart Prize. A grateful alum of Tin House and Rooted & Written, she is currently devising a manuscript centering her maternal grandmother. Instagram/Twitter: @sweetleoomine | sweetleoomine.com
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