She lived in a small bright green ranch house right across the street from the middle school, which was right next to the high school, which meant that all she had to do was walk out her front door, cross Route 365 –the main street of the town– and there she was, at school.
Unlike you, sitting on that accursed bus, groaning and lurching its way around endless curve after endless curve, down from the foothills, 45 minutes or more to school.
In your memory she is always smiling. She had silky dark brown hair, parted in the middle, falling over her shoulders. Her nose was sharp and red and a bit hooked, and her eyes, in your memory, are blue, blue, blue.
And the smile. A big, merry smile that showed off her high cheekbones. You can picture her in the yearly school class photo. She would have been in the back row, with you, because when you were kids she was tall, too. She would have been smiling that big happy smile.
In middle school the two of you used to escape at lunch and walk across the street to the bright green ranch house. She lived there with her older brothers and her older sisters and her mother, who was, you’re pretty sure, a teacher down in Utica. Her father had died when she was a baby.
Her sisters and brothers were in high school, unimaginably older and cool. They were hippies. You and she were too young, you missed out on that. But often, when you walked into that little house with her, they and their friends would be there. Lying on the old couch, sitting on chairs, laughing and talking and wrestling and making offhand comments and jokes about things like sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.
Had you been alone you would have been stunned and cowed and half-paralyzed by their coolness, their easy laughter. But you weren’t alone. You were with her.
Why did she like you? In retrospect you were quiet and reserved and an observer and not much fun, although maybe you’re not the best judge of that.
But one reason she liked you is easy: she liked nearly everyone. She had a huge and generous heart. She was also unafraid of things that you were afraid of, like saying out loud that which scared you, hurt you, made you angry. She was honest about things. She saw life clearly, and stating the obvious didn’t scare her.
The boy you had a crush on used to ask if he could have a punch off your lunch ticket.
“Sure,” you used to say.
“I’ll pay you back,” he used to say.
You would watch him run across the grass, back into the school. You and she were nearly to Route 365 now, ready to zip across and into the safety of that little green house.
“He won’t, you know,” she observed. “He won’t pay you back. And you’ll give it to him tomorrow if he asks.”
You looked at her. She looked at you and smiled. She was wise. She was honest. She stated things the way they were. And she was unjudging.
Into her house the two of you would go, breaking the school rule, although in retrospect it’s hard to imagine that any number of teachers didn’t see you zipping across that street every day and mentally shrug.
The cool older siblings and their cool older friends might be lounging about. She would greet them all, smiling, and then the two of you would go into the tiny dark kitchen and pour enormous glasses of milk. Stir in the Quik with tall-handled spoons. Dig the knife into the big jar of peanut butter and spread giant swaths of it on slices of Wonder bread.
You’d sit eating and drinking, trying to overhear the conversations in the other room. Trying to get some sense of what life could be like, were you cooler and older and wore tight bell bottoms and peasant shirts.
She was one of the few friends you kept in touch with after high school. She stayed there, in the tiny town, population 300. She went to college, sure, but she never wanted to leave the town.
You? You left at 18 and never went back other than to visit your family. Not that you didn’t, and don’t, love it there, love the way you grew up.
But staying there never felt like a choice. For her, there was no other.
“I love it here,” she said. “I want to live here my whole life.”
She got a degree in gerontology and worked with old people. She loved them too. People on the fringes, people unnoticed, people quiet and shy, she saw them. She noticed them.
Twice that you know of, because she told you, men asked her to marry them.
“I said no,” she said. Smiling that big bright smile.
You asked her why. She shrugged.
“Didn’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m happy just the way I am.”
She was Catholic and that, too, was something she loved. Hers was a happy Catholicism, a big bright generous religion whose God was always with her.
Everyone in the town knew her. At the drugstore, at the one tiny bar, at the church, in the one tiny grocery store, at the bank. She was one of those rarest of creatures, a human being completely comfortable in her own skin.
She’s been gone twelve years now, but you think of her every day. Every morning, you talk to her. Picture her.
When she appears in your mind, it’s always in winter. She’s always brushing up against you, wearing a bright blue nylon parka. That dark hair, those blue blue eyes, that grin.
When you pour a glass of milk and stir in some Quik, you make a toast to her. When you and some of her other friends organize an annual fundraiser in her name, for an annual scholarship in her name given to a high school kid in that little town, you do it for her. When you write your annual check to the food bank in that little town, you fill in the “in honor of” box in her name.
If she were still here, she’d no doubt be running the place.
You wish you could go home and see her again. Walk into that bright green house and have a peanut butter sandwich. You’d go to the bar with her, let her introduce you around.