Were you my first mean friend? Why did I go over and sit with you? You, when you were still mousy and wearing handmade buttons with atheist slogans to school, and me, fat, callused, just after pretty much everyone figured out the gay thing. I sat across from you one day at lunch, and then I never stopped. You didn’t make me go away. You tolerated how weird I thought I was, but really wasn’t.
You’re smarter than me, I still somehow hope you know that. Probably both of us could have been anything, but instead we are what we are. I don’t really know what you are. Your mom told me and that ex that you were seeing some guy who had kids. That seemed weird to me, but after 10 years I didn’t really have any context. You were ectoplasmic glue holding relationships together on the other side of the country, and then you weren’t anymore.
I know you weren’t trying to be mean. How many times have I said that now? You weren’t being mean, it was just hard on me that you were always right. You were probably the first person I ever met who was substantially smarter, brighter than me. Sure, other kids might have a greater mathematical faculty or something, but you understood things at a level that made it hard to compete with you as a sixth grader.
We gave back-to-back explanations of the symbolism in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” on a fall day in 1998, and I still remember how bad I felt about my answer after you had finished yours. I had gotten away with some bullshit paint-by-numbers social justice answer I was used to using for everything, whereas you seemed to have actually read and thought about the text. It was a stupid moment in class about a story we all have to read, but it was the first time I became aware of being intellectually challenged.
It was nice to be in the habitable zone of your light. You didn’t let anyone else in, so I felt very special, even if also sad. You had the energy to be actually different through trial and error, and you had the intellectual prowess and inborn creativity to back it up.
I played the flashier instrument (violin), and you the more soulful (cello). I grew up to be concertmaster, and you grew up not to give a toss.
And your photography. You took absolutely beautiful, saturated, wet black and white images that made everyday things look new again. Then I gave them names in misspelled French. All my ideas were derivative ‘cause all I did was read. Excuse me, ‘cos, ‘cos that’s how we spelled it.
You were cool because you were the source of ideas. Probably if my family had had the internet it would have been a moot point. But gosh, I don’t like thinking of it that way. Albums felt so special when you handed them to me, burned on your computer and labeled in Sharpie. You taught me that Doc Martens are cool, and Joy Division and getting it. You could get it or not, and not getting it was so bad, whatever it was. You taught me that I could aim higher, and that I could find people like me, if I just became like them.
It never occurred to either of us that maybe some people just like some things and other people just like other things. There were correct things to like, and one could learn. Taste was a moral good…or a moral failing, depending.
I got a whole snootful of wasabi when you and your mom took me to sushi for the first time because I didn’t know what it was. Your mom took me to my first ‘real’ Mexican restaurant, and I said the cheese was the wrong color. I got mole sauce on the tie I was wearing. I had already jizzed on the tie a little earlier that day while losing my virginity. I called you at art school in London to tell you I was having sex, but I was so scared of my mom hearing that I started the call in French: “L’homme avec qui je dorme…” That’s the only part I can remember, it’s what I knew I needed to say for you to get the point. I don’t at all remember you telling me when you lost your virginity, although we were definitely friends whenever that happened. It’s just not the kind of thing I think you’d make a big deal about and need to tell someone.
Somehow none of my close friends ever really share things with me, only the people in my outer circles. They can unload any number of things on me no matter how much time has gone by, and I honestly think that’s just fine. It’s one of things things I think I’m good at, and good for. Honestly, listening to people doesn’t hurt me at all, and sometimes I can think of something sage to say. You know, advice is really 99% listening. Anyway, my close friends don’t share with me, and I only share with them.
I just noticed that, honestly. It creates weird gaps. The people who are close to me seem better because they don’t have to talk about their problems (even if they’re just sublimating them into something else), whereas I come off as needy and socially intrusive because I do like to tell my friends what’s going on with me. I always thought that’s what friendship should be like, but I’ve picked friends who think of friendship more like slipping past each other in a crowded hallway packed with allusions and clear liquor.
Was I a pet? Proof that you had it? A project to make sure you had sometime to talk to when the stupid got too much? And did I apply, or was I chosen?
See, I know I’m a fucking weirdo because you would never even ask these questions. You moved to California, but the cool mountain part. You don’t talk about yourself on the internet, and when you change your profile picture on Facebook, strangers come out of the woodwork to say weird, fawning things to you. You’re pretty in that way, where even your family seems to fetishize you sometimes. Not sexually even, necessarily, just more like you’re a thing for affection to land upon. You did it right the first time: you disappeared and kept the mystery pristine.
I so envy this in some of my friends. The ones who never once put their relationship status on the internet, and the ones who would never even think of doing an earnest one-person show. The ones who might have serious relationships for years on end with people I never met, or who delivered masterful minimal music into an eager ether I could barely perceive.
This story started with such an artful bang, and now I don’t even know where it is. The truth is that you can’t talk in impenetrable references forever, and sometimes you just have to say in words what you’re thinking, or what is happening. But you wouldn’t. You’d shit out this story about our unequal expectations with a kind of flimsy green charm that would make me cry and cry.
You know, ‘cos it’s not like I minded you being smarter than me, I minded being dumber than you. I did try, you know. We both got those big French review books, and I listened to all your castoff music and saw all of David Lynch’s movies. I caught up on the classical world by proxy, and eventually I even got into The Beatles.
Some of my favorite records are things you burned then said you couldn’t stand. Chicks on Speed. Stereo Total. You didn’t get me into Tori Amos, but you did burn me all the records I didn’t have, even the B-sides. Those B-sides records! I took the Little Earthquakes B-sides record with me to Tennessee on vacation and listened to “Upside Down” and “Flying Dutchman” face down on a bed in a chalet in the mountains after chasing off a bear. That’s a good story, I guess, at least. 15 years later the special edition of Little Earthquakes came out and it had the B-sides in almost the exact same order you had put them.
You undeniably had it. If anyone we went to school with was going to be the next Madonna or Louise Bourgeois, it would have been you. Maybe you hid yourself away because people tried to turn you into a muse. Maybe you just didn’t feel like being famous. Even though I feel like you would have been really good at it. I think you could have thought of really insightful things to say to Terry Gross, which is, in the end, all I’ve really wanted for myself.
I was worried your mom wasn’t going to let us see each other anymore after you got bit by that dog. Honestly, I don’t know what was even kind of going on. We had decided to have an art show in my mom’s front lawn, and then you went off to flyer? But we were straight up in the middle of nowhere, and I mean, come on, what the fuck. We made a special burned CD to sell, I think the one with ‘vague sympathetic poems about she.’ The biology teacher’s cool older daughter came and got one of the CDs. She was the only person who came at all.
It’s not like people should have been trying harder to make sure you weren’t getting bit by dogs, because, I mean, you were a 16-year-old who wandered off in a strange neighborhood on her own. But why were you alone? What did we tell ourselves that was good for? God, and you just had to walk back to my house, blood running down your leg. That dog just fucking went for your calf. Your mom seemed like a real mom that day. Just a big ol’ fuck you, you broke my daughter, even though I didn’t do it, even though it was just some dog. I get it now. It scared me then.
She probably pitied me more than she needed to, your mom. Maybe she liked me because you weren’t the kind of person who had a lot of friends. It’s not like she found me intellectually stimulating or anything!
Your mom and I stayed in touch after you went to school because you are a haunt. That’s the only way I can think of to say it. We stayed near each other to keep you close. Your perfume, your laugh, your hip-rolling walk. The way you were never afraid of being contrary, and how you never got flustered or lost your train of thought. The gap you left filled up with the person we felt you to be, and it was like we were setting a place at the table for you in all we did.
I don’t know what became of you. I mean, I could find out. We didn’t stop speaking, not all the way, not even after you fucked my boyfriend. And somehow this isn’t all about that – although believe me, it’s about that, too. But even after that I was so scared of losing you that I said I would put it in a vault and we wouldn’t have to talk about it. And then we stopped talking. Not on purpose, it just happens. You were in Cali, I was here. Then your mom moved away and you don’t really have any reason to come to Michigan anymore. I mean, I wouldn’t be blowing my travel budget on Michigan, no way, no how.
The whole story really is behind us, I guess. Anything I want to say to you now I really want to say to the person you were in 2003. Or like 2007 at the latest, but by then we were already only seeing each other maybe twice a year.
I don’t know who art school made you. I don’t know who pretending to be somewhere else made you. I don’t know what you’ve read or what you’ve done, and I really don’t know who you’ve become. Maybe you got a drunken tattoo of a Chinese pictograph, or maybe you’re really into sustainable shopping. Maybe you’re going to adopt those kids, or maybe your mom was concerned about nothing and you stopped seeing that man years ago.
Truth is, I could find out, but I don’t want to. I don’t feel bad anymore about too much, really, but I don’t need to make you a person again. I can have this conversation with you without your ego getting in the way. You’re a real person with a real life, but I don’t need to think of you that way, at least not especially. I don’t wonder what happened because people aren’t books. I’ll finish Little Women someday, but I don’t need to see how this turned out. It won’t mean anything to me. You’re a whole life away, and the life we shared is over. I’ll still want to tell you things sometimes, though, because time can do things in our minds it just can’t do out there. Part of me hopes you never read it. Part of me still thinks you wouldn’t even think it was about you.