Come with us, if you want. You can carry the bag of groceries, camping food – a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jelly, potato chips, eggs and butter, graham crackers and marshmallows and bars of Hershey’s chocolate. We’d be happy to have some help with the groceries, because we already have our sleeping bags and our pillows and our notebooks and pens and matches and toothbrushes.
Cross the road where no cars go, and follow us on the tractor path straight through the cornfield. Are you surprised that the corn is above your head? That’s how it is with un-sweet cow corn: it’s tall, much taller than you would think.
Into the woods we go, on the old logging road that’s now more of a trail than anything else. You’ve heard that there are coyotes living in here? You’re right. But they won’t hurt you, and later tonight – later every night – you can sit by the campfire and listen to them howl.
There’s nothing like that sound, of coyotes howling at the moon, or whatever it is that they howl at, unless it’s the call of a loon across a lake.
You can stay if you want, but you will be the silent camper, the one we don’t see, the one we don’t need, because we are sufficient unto ourselves. We are two girls, one very tall and scrawny, with long dark hair, one very short, with crayon-blue eyes and silky blonde hair.
That’s her up there in that photo, the short blue-eyed one. I think about her so often these days, that girl you see there, running beside her horse. She used to do that – hold the reins and run across the grass, the horse trotting beside her. Sometimes she’d put the saddle on and ride through the fields and woods.
She was my best friend, back then. When did I meet her? I don’t even know. Until I did meet her, I would’ve said, had you asked, that I had many friends but that I wasn’t a best friend type.
And then she came along.
She lived in a trailer on Round Barn Road, an unwalkable and unbikable distance away, back when we were little girls. But she was always at my house, or I was always at hers, the trailer with the framed-up-with-2×4’s never-finished addition where her bedroom was.
We were inseparable in the way that you can only be when you’re that age. We had all our classes together. We walked down the halls together. We met at her locker or my locker before school. We talked on the phone at night. She rode the bus to my house and I rode the bus to her house.
We played a game that we called the Word Game, a game that someone else told me, when I was a grownup, is actually called Jotto. All we needed for the game was paper and pencil. We were exactly evenly matched, and we played that game for years, everywhere we were.
There was the summer she had a stomach ache every night after dinner, which, because we were children, we accepted without thinking. We used to sit quietly until the stomach ache got better, and then we swung on the swings, or played the Word Game, or lay in the treehouse talking.
But the stomach ache turned into those long days and weeks – was it months? – of chemo and radiation. I would go with her to the hospital, more than an hour away. Long gray halls. Fluorescent overhead lighting. Gray doors. Polished speckled floors. A tall dark door with a chickenwire window and one of those nuclear-radiation-triangle-warning things: don’t go in there. Stay away. Fear. Disfigurement. A power beyond your control.
But she was in there, lying still.
And then back at her trailer, where she lay still on the couch and I sat next to her, talking, telling her about the days. I once had a new pair of hiphuggers, white with fake graffitti all over them – Kilroy was here, Darwin failed – and I waited for her to admire them, but she closed her eyes and tried to hold back the nausea until she had to sit up and use the bucket.
And then it was over, the radiation and chemo were done, and her growing was done, and her ability to bear children was done, but I, being a child, didn’t think about that. Did she? Back we went, to school, to the hallways, to the classes where we were the ones always to raise our hands, to our notebooks and our pencils and our endless, endless Word Game.
Then she moved to Florida.
I can only write it like that: Then she moved to Florida.
I can’t feel what it felt like, I can’t remember. I can’t remember what it was like for me to go to seventh grade without her, to walk those long hallways without her, to climb into my treehouse without her. Did I go camping down through the woods again? I don’t remember.
I don’t remember how it felt when Mr. D the science teacher looked at me that fall and said, “What are you going to do now, without your leaning post?”
I remember those words, though: my leaning post.
There were the years of the endless letters. Letters of many pages, flying back and forth from my mailbox with its red flag to hers on that dusty dirt road, letters written over days, a line here, three pages there, illustrated, written on yellow legal paper or torn-out notebook paper or tiny scraps of paper numbered up to the hundreds, or toilet paper, unspooling and unspooling, so easily torn, each envelope also containing the Word Game, sent back and forth between us, one move per letter.
There was the single trip to Florida to visit her. The smell of orange blossoms brings me back there, to the orange groves that surrounded the trailer where she lived with her mother and her sisters and her brothers. There were seashells, a school where the hallways were outside and uncovered, where shorts were worn year round. There was a can of Florida sunshine, and sponges from a place called Tarpon Springs.
Where are you now, first best friend, girl who showed me how it could feel to have a kindred spirit, a boon companion, someone to see you through your days, no matter what comes?
Look at you up there in that old photo, running beside your horse. You were the magnificent companion of my childhood. Beautiful girl, where are you now?