Have you ever wished you could find the right words? That you could verbalize pain, or describe loss? That you could string together sentences that describe love in its essence? The truth is, no one can. You can enunciate and articulate, verbalize and vocalize, throw words around, but in the end, that's all that they are--words. And a million words could never sum up what it feels like to lose your only escape from the harsh reality that is life.
I’ve never claimed to have a horrible family. They’re fine, for the most part. But with six siblings, a dad who works full time, and a mom who has to care for those seven kids, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. It’s not a big deal, I’m used to it. I’m sixteen, I know how things work by now.
I remember the night I figured it out. I was eight or so, and I had aced a spelling quiz that day. I came home, proud as punch, ready to present my paper with its shiny gold star at the top to my mother. I burst through the door waving the test and shouting for the family to hear. (I wasn’t a subtle kid.) Baby Josie was sitting in her bouncy chair, howling, and Graham was watching TV. Neither one of them so much as glanced my way as I ran by. My mother was in the kitchen, cooking dinner, balancing Addie on one hip, and talking in a high-pitched, anxious voice to someone on the phone. I ran up to her and waved my paper in her face. She brushed it aside with an apologetic murmur.
And so I just stood there in the kitchen, my hands hanging pathetically at my sides. I just wanted her to look my way.
After my mom tucked me in with a swift kiss later that night, I snuck out of bed in my dinosaur P.J’s to wait for my dad. I had to show him my gold star.
I don’t know what I wanted to prove. That I was important? Worth noticing?
When he finally came home, it was late. He stumbled in, put down his bag, and sat heavily on the couch next to me, pulling out his phone. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his breath smelled bitter. I shoved my paper under his nose and shook it around.
I should have known better.
I don’t have any scars from that night, or from any of the other nights my dad hit me in anger; at least not on the outside. But I learned a lesson. ‘Keep your head down, and don’t try to draw attention to yourself.’
As I got older, I never raised my hand in school. I was an average student. I probably could have gotten better grades, but there wasn’t really a point in trying to get attention that I didn’t need. I stuck to the back of the pack, blended right in. No one noticed my existence, and that was cool with me.
She noticed me right away. I was sitting in English, waiting for Mr. Lebesky to come and start the class; when he walked in with this girl I didn’t recognize. She had long blonde hair and these piercing bright green eyes.
And as the teacher was introducing her as Leslie, telling the class that she moved to Tacoma, Washington from New York, her eyes scanned the room and settled on me. She smiled.
When the teacher let her go sit, she came and plopped down in an empty chair next to me. “Hi,” she said as she unpacked her stuff, “You must be the mysterious loner.”
“And you must be the preppy New York girl, ” I muttered without looking at her.
She laughed. “You know,” she said, “I bet you’re a lot funnier than people realize, loner.”
I shrugged, but a smile was tugging at my lips.
After that, we just sort of clicked. She saw me like nobody else ever had. We were never boyfriend and girlfriend. More like best friends; not that I would expect anyone to understand that.
We went to the school dance together, snuck into the movie theater, and tried our first ( and last ) cigarettes in her old treehouse. And when my dad had been drinking, I stayed at her house for the night. She didn’t ask questions whenever I showed up at her door with a sleeping bag, and neither did her parents. I think I liked her family better than I liked my own. It was pretty perfect.
One night, we were sitting with our legs dangling over the sides of her treehouse, enjoying ice creams in comfortable quietude. “Hey, Joey?” Leslie asked, breaking the silence.
“We’re moving again.”
My mouth froze on its way to take another bite of Mint Chip. “You’re kidding,” I said. She shook her head.
“When?” I asked her quietly.
“ Next month. To Massachusetts.”
“But I…” my voice broke off. I need you, a voice in my head whispered.
Leslie turned to look at me, and there was a startling fierceness in her eyes. “I’ll come back,” she said determinedly, “every summer. And we can stay in a cottage, just the two of us.”
“Ok,” was all I could manage, “ok.” And she leaned into me and cried.
Every summer, Leslie came back. She bought a ticket across the country and came to stay with me in Tacoma, just like she promised. It was my one bright spot in the year.
The year we turned 18, her mother got sick with cancer. Really sick. It lasted for two years, and Leslie couldn’t spare any time to come visit. I wanted to go to Boston to check on her and her family. I knew they would have done the same for me. But my dad wouldn’t have it, and I was left to sit in Tacoma and worry for them. I’m not religious, but I prayed every day for them anyway. I missed her so much.
The months dragged by, and then in October, the year we turned 20, Leslie texted me. Her moms’ treatment had worked, and she was cancer-free at last. And so she was finally crossing the country again, to rent our little cottage on Blueberry Lane.
When I went to pick her up at the airport, I saw her standing there with all these suitcases, gazing over the crowd for me. And then her green eyes locked on mine, and she smiled, just like that first day I met her.
I pushed through the throng of people to reach her, and she collapsed into my arms. “Hi, Loner,” I heard her whisper.
I pulled back and smiled “Hey, Preppy.”
The weekend we spent in that cottage were some of the best days of my life. I don’t even know how to describe them. It was a tiny place, with only one floor and two bedrooms. It had a little kitchenette, decorated with blue patterned tiles, and rustic wooden floors. One night, we tried roasting marshmallows over the little potbelly stove. We charred the outside of all of them and melted the insides to oblivion, but that was what made that made the night so perfect. As we popped the bundles of sticky sweetness into our mouths and laughed under the starry sky, it felt like we were living in our own perfect world.
On our last afternoon at the cottage, we went swimming in the local pool and stayed in the clear blue water until our eyes were burning from the chlorine and the setting sun turned the water to fire. I didn’t ever want it to end.
As I dried off, Leslie sat on the edge of the pool, looking at her feet. I could tell something was wrong. Something about her had been off the entire trip, and though she smiled, it didn't reach her eyes.
“Hey,” I said, throwing down my towel and sitting down next to her, “What’s up?”
Keeping her voice low and starting determinedly ahead, she said the worst three words I have ever heard in my life. It felt like someone had wound up and punched my stomach as hard as they could.
“I have cancer," she said.
That year, Leslie passed away. Her leukemia slowly took her fire, her joy, and her spirit, until it finally took her life. I didn’t understand why she had to go. I still don’t. It was all so sudden. Elderly people can survive cancer, but she couldn’t. She was young and strong, and she fought it with all she had. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Cancer doesn’t care. And I’ll never see her again.
Have you ever wished you could find the right words? That you could verbalize pain, or describe loss? That you could string together sentences that describe love in its essence? The truth is, no one can. You can enunciate and articulate, verbalize and vocalize, throw words around, but in the end, that's all that they are--words. And a million words could never sum up what it feels like to lose your Best Friend. Never.