I wouldn’t say we were friends. It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued. We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat. We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.
She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats. In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’. She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell. Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.
But not Caro. This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe. No shit. Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.
When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland. It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.
“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”
“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job. Wouldn’t that help?”
“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…” Mom was washing dishes. Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky. The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again. I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.
“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school. We’re going to Perryville and that’s that. It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”
“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”
And so we did.
The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream. A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand. I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy. I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out. When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm. And not just watching Mom fight for her life. My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.
I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed. High school wasn’t when we started talking. It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition. I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.
“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once. “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option. My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”
I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers. I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that. It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough. She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.
“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.
We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us. Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off. I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft. She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.
“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.
Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.
“You’ve heard stories,” I added.
She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game. Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll. These girls didn’t talk smack. That’s why we’d never really be friends. I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself. Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.
The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby. She smiled into the distance.
“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”
“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”
“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.
I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not. It was her right. It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart. Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara. She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes. I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence. I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.
“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”
I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting. Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.