She appeared on my front step at 4:38 a.m. on a Saturday in October, dark hair a wild mess of tangles that mimicked the fury of the black autumn wind that raged around the house.
Raindrops slipped like tears from the shoulders of her leather jacket, glistening under the suspicious glare of the porch light. Her hands hung limp at her sides. Her bottom lip, slashed and lopsided in a plump pout, quivered. Her fierce eyes bled a blooming nest of blue and purple. They grazed my face and down my neck to the scars on my collarbone. I tugged my robe tighter to shield them from her unwavering gaze.
She had no suitcase, no purse.
I searched the shadows of the yard behind her and saw no vehicle.
Town was a twenty-minute drive, the airport an hour.
We stood, time suspended, in the cold and dark, staring without speaking, trying to reconcile the ghost we knew with the person we saw.
The Jess of my memory was seventeen and brilliant, a girl who wore her heart on her sleeve and loved without abandon.
I envied the effortless ease with which she embraced people—kids, parents, peers, complete strangers. She found something special in every person, and compelled people like me—shy, cautious, awkward creatures of comfort—to come alive.
I admired her bold quirks and fearless nature. I appreciated her flare for the dramatic and penchant for adventure. She breathed life into my monotonous, anxious existence. Nights that I otherwise would have spent playing Solitaire on my bedroom floor or had my nose buried in a book, she had me sneaking into R-rated movies, belting out Backstreet Boys ballads to the moon, and climbing train trestle bridges with boys who never knew my name.
“Look up!” she would cry suddenly in the middle of a deserted soccer field, pointing to the sky. Clutching sticky long-necked coolers in our hands, we would fling our arms wide and spin in circles with our eyes glued to the stars until we collapsed in a dizzy giggling heap.
On the surface it appeared to be an odd friendship, one in which she gave and I took, where I was the eager puppy and she the generous master. But, when her energy burned out, when her trusting heart was mishandled, when she was crushed by the consequences of crossing the line from carefree to careless, I was her sanctuary. I offered her calm security, a place in which she could talk, cry, or simply be, space in which to recoup her wayward soul.
We spent summer afternoons lazing in the sun, side-by-side on beach towels in my backyard with Teen Vogue, tanning lotion, and endless games of MASH and would-you-rather. We stayed up into the wee hours of the night, whispering secrets, painting our faces with garish blush, and watching romantic movies, windows into the world beyond our tiny town that always ignited a fire of longing in her eyes.
“What do you think it would be like to live in Paris?” she would ask and I would shrug.
“What do you think it would be like to walk a red carpet?” she would ponder and I would smile.
“What do you think it would be like to swim in the ocean?” she would muse and I would shudder.
I knew our time together was limited; I knew one day she would be gone and I would not.
The day I started community college was the day she boarded a plane for Paris.
I thought about her every now and then over the years. What she was doing, where she was, who she was with.
When I graduated, I received a postcard from Rome and pictured Jess scooting through the ancient streets with her arms wrapped around a handsome stranger.
When I got married, I opened a letter from Buenos Aires and thought of Jess dancing salsa in the streets with sultry skill.
When he hit me the first time, I hid in the closet with Tokyo in my mind's eye and imagined Jess lying peacefully under an explosion of pink cherry blossoms.
Imagining her full, free life was a comfort in my darkest moments—on the bathroom floor, in the back of an ambulance, in the sterile sheets of a hospital bed.
Whoever I thought Jess would become, I could never have imagined this hardened woman standing before me.
“Come in,” I finally said and stepped aside.
She slipped off her mud-splattered boots and followed me into the kitchen, past the stairwell that loomed with dark menace as we crept by.
She sat on a barstool and I poured us both a generous tumbler of whiskey, the burning amber a far cry from the cool Bacardi Breezers of our youth. I winced at the clink of glass on granite that pierced the silence. My heart imitated the thunder that shook the house and my ears strained to the floor above.
Her swollen eyes narrowed and I waved away her unspoken questions.
“Are you okay?” I asked softly, though the answer was clear.
Her attempt at a smile warped into a pained grimace. “I did something bad, Bee.”
“Looks like they deserved it.”
“He did. He's dead.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I didn’t know where else to go.”
“You can’t stay.”
“Neither can you.” She reached out to caress my cheek with a familiarity that defied the unspeakable horrors and eighteen years that stretched taut between us. “I heard…I thought you might like to come with me.”
“Away from here.”
I retreated from her fingertips and wrapped my arms around my waist. “I can’t.”
“I’ve never been anywhere.”
“I have no money.”
“He’ll find us.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I’ll make sure.”
It was a split-second decision, made without time for thought or second-guessing, emboldened both by fear and the fierce loyalty that remained with Jess even under the mask of abuse, weary lines of age, and weight of the world. I nodded and closed my eyes.
I felt her slip away, and fell into the turmoil of an internal war.
I blocked sun-kissed memories of white dresses, red roses, and clinking glasses. I parried flashes of warm arms and hard hands, silk sheets and raised voices. I deflected recollections of sharp blows and weeping apologies.
I thought it would take longer, that it would be loud. I started when Jess suddenly clasped my hands, handed over a lightly packed duffle bag, and led me to the door. “Let’s go.”
We vanished from my front porch at 4:58 a.m. on a Saturday in October, disappearing into the mist of an abating storm on a carpet of crimson leaves, heading for the coast.