I haven’t kept up with my college friends. Although I adored them at the time, they represented a painful epoch in my life. Sometimes I’d google their names just to see where they were and how they were doing. But like viewing old photographs in an album, I’d soon turn the page. It’s not a time period I enjoy revisiting. However, I got a Facebook message from an old friend, alerting me of the sudden death of one of our old gang: Her former lover and my former friend. I was shocked at the level of my grief on hearing the news. It cut me deeply and made me draw my breath sharply. As if I had never really made peace with that time period and this was now a sharp reminder of how quickly life goes by.
She was amazingly talented — graphic designer, artist, majoring in the arts department of our university. A physical composite of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe meets hand-me-down LL Bean, but she forged her own fashion way. We all ran together back in that small college town. I was in awe. She was adorably blond in a white bread manner. I couldn’t relate through the lens of my ethnic background. So, I just admired her from afar. Until one day I got my marching orders:
“Take care of her for me.” Her long distance girlfriend commanded. “Sleep there with her if you have to, but she gets squirrelly if she’s left alone too long.”
So I obliged. It wasn’t arousing to sleep next to her. We cuddled in sisterly fashion. Neither of us were attracted. I was more in awe of her and her artistic way. She was masterful. She could make any doodle come alive. There wasn’t an idle moment she wasn’t creating something whimsical and fun using a pen or even a styrofoam cup. I didn’t understand it. I was way too right brained, analytical and square. I just watched her animate life with her creations and her matter of fact narration about what she was creating.
Having an excuse to sleep next to her at her apartment got me off campus. Dorm life was so constricting. To stay in a drafty, rented abode miles from campus transported me to another world. I was accepted somewhere. Although I was there under the guise of. babysitting her, I’m not sure it wasn’t a mutual thing. I was dealing with my own demons. And having her to focus on helped quell my own anxiety. She and her girlfriend trusted me to be appropriate, which I was. Ironic for that time. I knew she was off-limits. She was way out of my league.
I was allowed to tag along with her and her artistic friends from the art and theater department. Even though I was an outsider. I didn’t think I had an artistic bone in my body. As I was square, they were colorful and exotic. I’d sit with them at the artists lunch table. I’d buy her food on my parentally, pre-paid food plan. They’d smoke and swirl their cigarettes in demonstrative gestures as they told of their escapades and I’d sit there in nerdy awe.
We’d grace the gay scene together. Drowning our demons and loneliness in underage booze. Drunken dance floor dancing with other same-sex co-eds and local townees. Parties after art show expo’s to celebrate life and drink to obliteration. I had to make sure she made it home safely, so I could only drink half as much. Sometimes I’m not sure how we made it home. Our friendship flowed on a river of coffee and alcohol.
I drove her home from college one afternoon to her funky, Greenwich Village apartment. I met her polite but dismissive father, saw the circa 1970 furniture. I had never been inside an apartment such as hers. I understood her passion for art even if I couldn’t relate. The way she made angles and other shapes connect and blend through color. I admired her sketch books which she’d share with me on coffee with cream mornings on our way to school. Her world was a blend of shapes, color and beauty.
I was in awe of her college relationship. They called one another “Fa” and drove around in a green, Pontiac Bonneville. Their faces pinned against one another in codependent eros. To me, they were magical together. Like a child with my faced pressed against a window pane, I watched them. No, I studied their every move, trying to learn how to have a successful relationship with another woman. I imitated the way they drank endless cups of coffee, how they wore their hair and clothes. There were no role models back then. There was no,“ Ellen” or “internet” to use for research. I had a card catalogue which returned few books on the topic. Thus, they were my subjects of study.
We marched together at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. I didn’t much care what we were marching for. All I knew is, that they were going on a 2am bus, and I was invited, so I went too. I was delirious from lack of sleep. It was a chilly and wet day. We marched and carried signs. And took photos of that moment. But, I was alive, doing something important, with them. For me, it wasn’t about the cause. It was about belonging. And she always included me in her world, in her quiet fashion. We were like parallel lines running along a page, only intersecting for brief moments in time.
“What do you want?” She bluntly asked one day as we walked through campus on another endlessly gray day.
“What?” I dumbly responded.
What I really wanted to answer was to say, “I want to be like you. Free to create, to be unencumbered by anxiety.” But I didn’t say that. Because I knew she had her own ghosts. All artists do. It is what inspires greatness. I was so lost, directionless and spiritually empty. Perhaps the gloom was finally too much for even her to ignore. I wasn’t much fun to be with at that time. And in my despair, I guess I had been leaning on her and following her a little too closely. She finally challenged me.
“What do you want out of life.” She implored.
“I don’t know.” I confessed in a mumbling fashion.
“Okay.” She answered, matter of factly, and we continued walking. But I knew the gig was up. I couldn’t continue the way I was on. She knew it too. I got sober soon after and left school. We lost touch. Our friendship had mostly been predicated on my availability to take care of her. But, I think she was just fine on her own. We just liked the excuse that I had a role in her life. Because when we hung out together, for a little while, it helped quell the pain and emptiness. She went off after graduation to become an immensely successful artist.
The memory of our brief friendship demanded to be written and honored. In some way, because of her, I had the courage to become a musician and writer — an artist in my own right. She modeled for me how to embrace and truly live the artist life. For her to have allowed me to walk with her for a moment in time was enough. I walked next to greatness. I got to admire her from afar with tremendous gratitude and awe. For the world to have lost such a precious soul is shocking in itself. But what would have been worse, is if I had never known her at all.