I met Ginny the summer before boys became more interesting to me than girls. I must have been ten, and she about nine and three inches shorter. She spoke and smiled like soft sunshine, amber eyes aglow. How I envied her honey-blonde hair braided in long, thick pigtails on either side of her pretty, tanned face.
Without realizing it, I'd been lonely most of my life. My only sister, ten years older, married and left home long before. I seldom had cousins or friends to play with as I grew up on our isolated farm. Chubby and uncoordinated with stunted social skills, I made an easy target for ridicule from most children at school.
Ginny had never met those other kids to know they labeled me a loser. She treated me as an equal, someone whose company she enjoyed. She'd never heard my corny jokes, so she threw her head back with unrestrained laughter, heavy braids tossing as her eyes crinkled.
After days of riding our bikes up and down the oiled road between us, we asked our moms to invite each into the other's home. Mine was a brick ranch with plush carpeting and all the modern conveniences. Hers was an old farmhouse with scuffed bare wood floors and oil-burning heaters that took up a third of each room.
Either I didn't notice the peeling wallpaper and crumbling concrete porch, or it didn't matter to me in the suspended judgment of childhood. I had more fun there working flimsy puzzles and drinking watery Flavor-Ade than playing Atari alone.
She had a sweet older sister in a wheelchair and younger stepbrother neither of us could stand. The nastier he got at throwing insults (and other things), the better we got at thwarting him, and the tighter our bond grew.
One afternoon, Ginny and I ventured deeper than before into the woods, finding the creek that marked the boundary of my family's land. Pulling off our tennis shoes, we perched on the sandy bank, enjoying cool water rushing over our feet and calves. It seemed we lazed for hours, talking and giggling. We shared the deepest secrets pre-teens have, relatively inconsequential but of dire importance to us. I'd never felt happier, and nothing surpassed the joy of that day till long after.
When we rose to go, we noticed a muddy patch near the water and giggled at the way it oozed between our toes. Ginny splashed her feet in the creek to wash them off, but I went on playing in the mire. Soon it crept over my ankles and toward my knees. I could pull one leg out, but not both at the same time. Much as I enjoyed the gooey sensation, I started to panic.
Ginny grabbed a thick branch and reached it toward me. By grasping and leveraging with her help, I worked free. Had she not been with me, who knows how long I might have been stuck? We hadn't told anyone where we were going, so possibly she saved my life.
By the end of summer, we were best friends and dreading school because we wouldn't be in the same class. Sure, I'd see her at breaks and lunch hour, but we'd become inseparable. At least we could sit together on the bus and play an hour or two in the evening.
I couldn't wait to show off my beautiful new friend to all the kids who'd spurned and mistreated me. I doubted they'd reject Ginny when she was cute and thin and adapted well to circumstances, radiating confidence I'd never know.
As I predicted, the others liked Ginny as much as I did, and a few were kinder to me than before. At recess, I saw Cammie, a notorious bully who'd once pushed me down in front of everyone in the cafeteria, making my bare knees bleed. She was talking to Ginny on the playground, and a surge of jealousy narrowed my eyes and flared my nostrils as I haughtily approached.
"Oh look, there's your fat friend now," Cammie jeered.
Who knew the laughter I'd loved to conjure in Ginny's warm eyes could turn back on me? I searched her face for a hint of loyalty and came back numb.
"She does like cookies," she said, giggling the same way she did when I told my lame jokes. Was it possible she liked to laugh more than she liked me? My chest tightened, my chin trembled, and I couldn't feel the ground beneath my feet.
Shame and fury burned inside me. Next thing I knew, I'd reached out and made a fist, pulling one of her braids--hard. Ginny yelped and burst into tears.
I instantly regretted it, but Cammie was still staring at me. I knew from long experience that showing weakness in front of her only invited more cruelty.
"You're stupid and poor, and I hate you!" I screeched, running back inside the school. Bracing myself in a bathroom stall, I hiccupped with sobs till I could barely stand. How could I have said those terrible things? On some level, I knew there'd be no "takesies-backsies" for a transgression so serious.
I saw Ginny on the bus home, and she walked past the seat I'd saved for her with nary a glance my way. Another girl, a friend of Cammie's who occasionally ganged up on me, patted the space next to her, and Ginny plopped down. All the way home, she avoided looking my way.
I rode my bike past her house often in the coming days, but she never seemed to be outside. I thought about cranking their old-fashioned doorbell, but I feared they'd turn me away.
By winter, Ginny had become too popular for me to even consider approaching. She took up playing basketball after school, so I never saw her on the bus anymore. Sometimes, when she was having an especially good time with her gaggle of other girls, she'd shoot me a glance full of pain and venom.
I longed to apologize but never got a chance. The day I saw a "for sale" sign in front of her house, panic and grief tore my heart. Now I could never set things right. Why did I have to shoot off my stupid mouth?
At the end of March, her house was empty, and I wandered through it to mourn. I could hear her uproarious laughter, see her friendly mom and sister smiling, recapture a shred of the joy I'd felt there. I'd loved their homemade cookies, and they never failed to give me all I wanted. What did it matter if the wallpaper was dingy or the kitchen had no garbage disposal or shiny linoleum?
"I found happiness here," I whispered, empty rooms echoing my fragile, solitary voice. "I loved her and wronged her. May never find a friend like her again."
For the record, I didn't. Oh, I had girls in high school and college I could hang out with to commiserate about boys. But the pure exhilaration of someone liking me just for me, content to do silly things as long as we're together, has eluded me.
Maybe that's a fitting prize for a moment of senseless violence. Fate delivered me a true friend, and I proved myself unworthy. I've been trying to make up for it all my life. It's easy for the abused to become an abuser, lashing out in a moment of stored, thoughtless rage. It's so much harder to contain the pain or make sure your wrath touches only those who deserve it.
Like an oil spill, anger knows no bounds and poisons all it touches. The evil done to me exploded against the last one I wanted to lose. You always hurt the one you love, so the song goes, and I shouldn't have hurt Ginny at all. Wherever she may be, I hope she found better friends than me.