In seventh grade, Heather was the new girl in school. She was chubby and bookish and wore weird, gaudy clothing—denim hats covered in puff-paint flowers, neon orange skeleton earrings that dangled to her shoulders. During a game of kickball, she sat in the gravel on the sidelines, drawing circles in the dust with her sneaker with her face buried in a huge, hardcover Unabridged Shakespeare. She carried that book with her everywhere. I adored her instantly. I didn’t want to play kickball either. I sat down next to her and we were best friends.
There’s a surprise twist in this story, but I don’t want you to feel waylaid when it comes, so I’ll spoil it now: Heather dies in her sleep, at the age of twenty-five, of an undiagnosed heart condition.
It’s difficult to articulate the process by which two twelve-year-old girls with a lot of things in common—archetypally awkward, voracious readers, intellectually far ahead of their burgeoning social skills—become inseparable. It feels predestined, unfolding with the simplicity of a teen-movie montage: sleepovers, slasher movies, painting each other’s fingernails, singing into hairbrushes. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time I didn’t know her; that there are aspects of my personality that predate Heather. It feels like we created each other from scratch, scribbling in the details and watching ourselves take shape. We like scary movies. We say “fuck” a lot. We write poetry. I learn to think of myself as strong, confident, unaffected by adversity, because that’s how I see Heather. Without her I would be too self-conscious to be the first person on the dance floor. But she is always there beside me, throwing her long hair into my face, and I’m not embarrassed if the two of us are together.
I suspect that the curious personality merging you see in really close young-girl friendships can only be achieved under very particular circumstances. You must be at that point of adolescence where you’re only half-formed, as a person, but you feel fully formed. At twelve, you are so far from who you’re going to be, but in your mind you’re all the way there. Your opinions are intractably strong and you would die for them, but they’ll all be completely different in a month. The entire course of your life can be altered by a movie or a song or a long conversation in the dead of night after you’re supposed to have gone to sleep. Everything you have in common feels magical, as though knowing all the words to “Born to Run” is a sign that your souls are intertwined, instead of a sign that both of your parents came of age in the 1970s. As you begin to sculpt yourself into the person you want to be—the person you believe deep down you have always been, were always destined to be, and have only just now discovered—someone is there to hold your hand. When that happens, there is a part of you that never lets go.
Heather and I have our own language, a creole of euphemisms and inside jokes and shared memories incomprehensible to anyone other than us. When we’re together we never seem to need sleep. We stay up for hours after midnight, watching endless parades of horror movies, or we slip out the back door of her house and make our way to the playground, eerie in the moonlight. We are ageless together, unembarrassed to splash through puddles and jump off swingsets. We drive a lot but we never go much of anywhere. The point is the movement and the radio and the windows rolled down and the night air in our faces. We cut class together, walking with our backs straight and not looking around, as though we have every right to go wherever we want, which we do. When the sun is shining and you’re skipping geography with the one person in the universe who already knows what song is stuck in your head and will start humming it before you do, every door is open and you are a citizen of every street.
As we grow up, as we emerge from the glittering cocoon of our youth, we begin to grow apart. I go to college out-of-state, get really into slam poetry, start sleeping with girls. Heather stays home, drops out of college, gets married at 20, goes to a lot of punk shows. We still talk on the phone for hours at a time—we never run out of things to talk about—but our all-night phone marathons grow farther apart. I still come home every year at Christmastime, though, and I spend every New Year’s Eve with Heather, drinking too much tequila and dancing to Spice Girls-heavy mix tapes we made in eighth grade.
Our friendship begins to seem to me like a place: I don’t visit as often as I used to, but every time I walk through the door it’s like I never left. Our friendship is wallpapered the way we used to decorate our bedrooms, so thick with Scotch-taped detritus you can’t even see the color of the paint: posters, CD liner notes, handwritten poems, set lists from concerts. Photographs of us, camping in jeans and ponytails or dressed up for The Rocky Horror Picture Show in miniskirts and fishnets. The bookshelves are full of diaries and photo albums, and Heather pulls one down, turns to a certain page, and says “Remember the time that homeless guy said I looked like Farrah Fawcett?” And even though I didn’t remember it five minutes ago, it comes rushing back: the melting snow on the sidewalk, the Starbucks hot chocolate I was drinking. Heather holds the keys to my memory, the keys to my childhood.
Our lives are different, our living situations are different, our interests are different, but she is still the person I turn to when I need to turn to someone. When her husband has surgery, I am in the waiting room holding her hand. She is the maid of honor at my wedding. Her toast is goofy and rambling and unlikely to make sense to anyone but the two of us. We dance to Queen and Beyonce and, as always, the Spice Girls. She leaves early because her husband feels sick. This is the last time I ever see her.
After finishing grad school, I am unemployed and depressed. Heather is overwhelmed by her work schedule and her husband’s chronic illness. Her social withdrawal mirrors my own. We talk on the phone every few weeks, agreeing that sometime soon things will get easier, and we’ll have the time and energy to get together again. When she calls, I sit on my front porch in the sunlight, roll my head back on my shoulders and close my eyes. The words still come easily whenever I hear her voice, like slipping back into your mother tongue after months of living in a second language.
Heather’s death is astonishing, unanticipated, unimaginable. It happens before dawn on a Friday in December. Her husband finds her lying on the couch. When he calls me several hours later, the sky is gray-white, and I watch a ragged line of geese flying aimlessly, not migrating, just wandering. I think clearly, before the crying starts: There is nowhere to go.
As I write this, Heather has been gone for one hundred and four days. Some of those days I’ve woken up cheerful and clear-eyed, remembering the best times: road tripping to Glenwood Springs, cutting class to sit in line for a concert all day. Other days, it guts me. I sit on the floor and cry until my nose bleeds. I look through my photo album—the real one she made me for my eighteenth birthday, covered in stickers and scrawled with her absurdly girly handwriting, the i’s dotted with stars—and feel terribly, terribly old. I regret the cute haircut I got last week, because Heather never saw me with my hair like this, so now I am a person she has never seen, and the distance between us gets a little bigger.
My youth feels like a ghost town, an abandoned and dilapidated house I don’t have the keys to anymore. I stand at the window looking in, and I can make out some of the pictures on the walls, and I can see the photo albums on the shelves, but I can’t see what’s inside them. I can’t see the details. Our special language of coded facial expressions and inside jokes is useless. Our favorite movies to stay up all night watching are just embarrassing, low-budget, and trashy, now that I have no one to watch them with. No one else will ever do the dances we made up to “I’m a Believer” and “Look Sharp.” Heather—the part of me that is Heather—curls inside me like an unused and atrophying organ.
I wish I could tell you how to live through a loss like this. I wish I could tell you how to pull yourself up off the floor and wipe your nose and brush your hair and keep going. I wish I could tell you how to not cry when “Living on a Prayer” comes on the radio, because that was one of her favorite songs, and they played it at her funeral, and “we’ve got each other and that’s a lot” is suddenly incredibly fucking poignant songwriting. I wish I could tell you, but honest to God, I have no idea. All I can tell you is that it really, really hurts.
I am still trying to put myself back together, like a puzzle with some of the pieces missing. I won’t be the same as I was before. I will be much older than these few months can account for. I’ll be less carefree, less reckless, less willing to be the only person on the dance floor. I’ll move a little slower and talk a little quieter, and sometimes I’ll look like I want to say something, but I won’t, because the person I would say it to is gone. I’ll tear up when I hear Bon Jovi, and belligerently refuse to explain myself. Some of my puzzle pieces will fit together weird, because they were never supposed to overlap, so I’ll have strange jagged edges and be fragile in places you wouldn’t expect. I suppose I’ll be wiser, if that’s the kind of silver lining you’re interested in. Mostly, I think, I’ll be lonelier.
But I’ll still watch trashy horror movies and listen to the Knack, even if I have to do it on my own. I’ll still swear too much and read Stephen King and dance foolishly and drive fast and get lots of tattoos and wear sexy clothes even though I’m fat and not apologize for falling in love young. Those are some of the things that I learned from Heather or she learned from me or we both learned in unison. They aren’t things that make me feel young, not really, not anymore—they’re just part of who I am. Heather is part of me. It’s not enough. It doesn’t make me miss her less. But it’s something.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.