I remember the first time I met her. She was 4 years old in this skinny little body with a skinny little neck and whippet legs with long, bony fingers. Her grandmother had just said something and she laughed so hard her whole body shook, her bobble-head went backwards and pot over kettle her body went too. It was a loud, lawless laugh that filled the room – it was amazing that a noise so great and raucous had come from something so small and that’s when I knew that this little girl was going to change something in the world, even if it was just her own.
The next time I saw her she was 7, maybe 8, and she was fierce. Fierce because she had a boy bigger than her, older, in a headlock on the playground floor; the knees of her pink sweatpants were stained with the gray dust from tar and concrete and both of her hands, still long and bony, held tight to keep her opponent properly wrestled to the floor.
10 years old and she was leading her fifth grade elementary class in protest against her school principal; most of them got a suspension or a letter – she became valedictorian.
At 13 she was the leader of her pack of lost boys, trailing the halls of her junior high school in clothing a little too big for her but with heart and head and confidence that made the very walls around her quake.
It’s at 14 that I knew there could be trouble. I hadn’t seen her since she finished junior high school – not even glimpses. But in the spring of her fourteenth year, I did see her and she looked conflicted, torn, and troubled. It was the first time in all of those years that she lacked confidence and while I knew that was the lot of teenagers, I still worried.
The next time I saw her I walked into the kitchen and there she was, only 17, on the phone and sitting sprawled on the floor, back to the table, and it looked like she’d been shot somewhere in the soul. Have you ever been in an airplane bathroom and after you press the lever to flush it opens up, you hear the air rushing through, sucking everything out, and then it closes up, stopped tight, impossible to open? That’s what her eyes looked like – I watched them take everything in, suck it all up, and lock it up, tighter than tight, from soft and warm to smooth and hard as marble.
I quivered in fear.
A few short months later I would see her walk across a stage and accept a diploma but that smile didn’t reach those marbled eyes; those shoulders square and straight as they have always been, body still lithe and slender, but her soul was hard and cold. It was summer and I felt like I was in Greenland in the middle of winter.
I didn’t see her for a long time after – glimpses of her in coffee shops, at concerts, around the city, around town, but I never could keep her in my vision. She was like that thing you see through the corner of your eye and you spin around, you try to see it right straight on, but she was too fast, too quick, gone.
I remember being in a bar one night, late, after hours of boozing and consoling a friend who didn’t need consolation but rather a slap in the head, and she walked in. She walked in and walked right up to me – we looked at each other, eye to eye, nose to nose… 26 now and her face was a little older, she had put on some weight finally, but her eyes were less hard and more tired. Her face was puffy. Her hands shook. I tried to touch her – I reached out and she pulled away. No words, just pulled away, and then turned around and left.
I missed her. I missed who she used to be. I missed that prideful prepubescent adolescent; I missed the laughter; I missed her.
I wouldn’t see her for another three years. Not even glimpses. Nothing. She was a figment of my imagination. She was a ghost. She was one of the disappeared. I started to wonder if she had ever existed – had I made her up? Was this all in my head?
And then I was out at a concert: white man with a beard and a guitar and flower children all about, just the sort of thing we both loved, and suddenly she was there, near the front of the stage, hands in the air, voice strong, loud and singing along. I smiled; she didn’t see me, but I saw her. She looked good, face still rounder than when she was a teenager, but her eyes weren’t tired. They had a sparkle. They had—hope. That’s what it was. It was the first time since she was 17 that I could look at her and see hope.
I started to see her more around town after that. We never sat down for a drink or for a coffee, but she was around. I would see her at parties; I would see her in the park; I would see her at restaurants; I would see her in airports. And always, always, those eyes were getting closer to the ones I remember from years before—this was the girl I knew, the unconquered one. This was the girl.
And then I watched her get hit by a car. I saw it with my own eyes and there was nothing I could do. She got hit by a car; they took her away in an ambulance; I can’t forget the flashing lights, I can’t forget the shouts and the sound of breaking glass, the sound of breaking bones, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t forget.
I was in a hotel room reading emails when a knock came on my door. I opened it and she was there, just a smidge away from 30, eyes tired and sunken again, shoulders slumped, and fingers wrapped tightly around the weekender bag on her shoulder.
“I need… I need something,” she said, her voice as tense as a tightly-strung horsehair bow. “Can I stay with you?”
I just opened the door. I had been waiting years. She could stay. She could stay forever with me. I would never send her away.
And stay she did with me in that hotel room. After we drove back to the city with nothing but white men with guitars and female singer-songwriters playing through the car stereo. She came with me to my apartment and made her space there.
I watched her shoulders straighten up again. I watched her hands grow strong and sure, still long and lithe, but not bony. I watched her smile turn up; saw those eyes crinkle at the edges; a few more fine lines to her face but that just gave her a weightiness, a gravity that only comes from loss and age and maturity and desire.
I watched her desire again. I watched her warm her soul.
And one day, I read something aloud from the paper, and she laughed, she laughed so hard, so heartily, that it filled the room with a noise I hadn’t heard in 26 years – so bright, so pure, so much that I found myself lopping across that same room, kneeling in front of her, holding her face in my hands—
“It’s you, it’s really you,” I whispered and she smiled back, her lips slightly turned at an angle, quirky and there was the spark of mischief and impudence in her eyes.
“It’s me,” she replied. “It’s me. I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere.”
My professor grunted once, twice, and then made a harrumph before taking his glasses off and setting it on the counter. “Lovely story, Abby, but I do believe this was supposed to be a memoir. It was supposed to be about you.”
I smiled. I pointed my finger. And then I said,
“She is me, sir. She is me.”