My childhood town was so small that you spent most of your school years in class with the same 25 or 30 people. We all did kindergarten together, and then about a fourth of the class disappeared back out into the prairie to the two smaller elementary schools, where their dads could drop them off on their way to the grain elevators or where the buses could more easily run mud routes during thunderstorm season. The High Plains school was barely more than a shed, although the lunches were the envy of all the town kids; the mothers who lived nearby doubled as the school cooks and certainly never would have condescended to anything as lazy as store-bought bread. Marienthal was the German Catholic town: “Marien” as in “Virgin Mary,” and “thal,” a suffix meaning “valley,” despite the radical flatness of the land. The church was next to the grade school, which meant they could attend Mass easily before classes. The Bluebird, the bar on the other side of the block, was the second most-visited building in town, though, of course, not by the children.
My sister told me recently that both schools are now closed, a testimony to the ever-shrinking population of the area. My graduating class was 38; my niece was one of 22. But when I was in junior high, seventh grade marked the return of the country kids to the town school, and that’s when I met Amy.
My mom says that, in kindergarten, she and Amy’s mom watched us play together on the playground and that she had said, “I hope Amy and Bryn are friends. Amy seems brighter than the others.” Amy’s mother, Donna, was a thin, dark woman with the bright blue eyes and wide mouth possessed by all five of her children. Amy was the fifth and last: her oldest sister, Theresa, left for college the year Amy entered kindergarten. Amy’s father, Pete, was an old man; Donna was also old but eerily well preserved. Amy and I joked that her mother slept in ForeverWare, a reference to an episode of a television show we found hysterical, Eerie, Indiana, in which a mother would put her twin sons in human-sized plastic containers to keep them young forever.
We had a joke for everything. For most of junior high, we had the words “ignoramus” and “enigma” confused and called people either with impunity. In high school, we formed the one and only Twin Peaks club in town—indeed, we were the only ones who watched it. We each took on a character name from the show for the club meetings: Amy was Donna, in honor of her mom, and I was Audrey Horne. Donna, the best friend, though not of Audrey Horne—Audrey, forever with her unrequited crushes. We recruited a few additional members, crafting more and more elaborate induction rituals for each. For one full school day, Cynthia had to spin in circles whenever anyone said, “Lucy Lucy Lucy!” A few of our teachers caught on and would shout it at her as she passed down the halls. Together, we were benevolent ringleaders. Each year, in Spanish class, we produced a more and more ridiculous piñata to sell for the class fundraiser: one year, an iguana; the next, a rabid rat, with yellow teeth and strings of blood-red crepe paper hanging from them. We wrote haiku by the pound, mostly in biology class.
We drove miles—the same mile over and over again—in my car, cruising first west to east, then north to south, and again. We walked everywhere one could possibly walk. Once, we walked through all of the alleys to de-familiarize ourselves with our town, long ago mastered. Once, we drove, slowly and carefully, in reverse through the entire town. We lay down in the middle of my street—the last street on the edge of town—and waited to see how long it would be before any car came by. Amy lived so deeply out in the country that she usually spent the whole evening after school at my house until midnight or one, when we would wake up my dad to jumpstart her pick-up, which always needed jumped. One Christmas, my dad wrapped up an old set of jumper cables and presented them to her, as a gift. We continued to wake him up.
And music—music was always and everywhere. We created dance routines for every Erasure song, which we would perform in my car, as we drove. Secretly, we coordinated my Sundays to play piano for Mass with the Sundays on which Amy’s family came into town for church, rather than attend their regular Marienthal service. I could collapse Amy in silent laughter with my choice of the post-homily instrumental music: say, the theme song from Twin Peaks. We went to see our first concert together in the summer after our freshman year of college: Depeche Mode, our favorite band, both agreeing, virgins though we were, that if we had the chance, we would probably sleep with Dave Gahan, even though we’d probably get a disease. We drove around silently, listening to OMD (Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Sugar Tax), after Amy was crowned Homecoming Queen, much to her dismay. Justin Enderton, the king, had had no choice but to follow the hetero-normative tradition that defined so many small town rituals, by which I mean he had to kiss her. It was her first kiss, and, as we stood alone in the teachers’ bathroom afterwards, the first time I’d ever seen her cry.
Near the end of high school, Amy put Jimmy Dean’s “Skip a Rope” on a tape for me, recorded from a scratchy old record, belonging to her dad. It’s true old country: social critique, rather than the blindly patriotic schlock of today’s country:
Stab ’em in the back / that’s the name of the game
And mama and daddy are the ones to blame
Skip a rope / skip a rope / listen to the children while they play
It’s not really funny what the children say / skip a rope
“You know?” one of us would say to the other, more of a statement than a question. “Yeah, I know,” the other would reply, the agreement implied, the rationale unspoken.
Life really mattered to Amy and to me, and maybe that’s why her sudden rejection of our friendship hurts me with a pain undimmed by time, incomprehensible, despite my best efforts to understand. Our schools initially close enough to permit occasional visits, we stayed friends through college and early graduate school, though it was usually me going to see her. Then I moved to Seattle to finish my Ph.D.; she stayed at the University of Kansas for several more years in the sociology program before transferring to UC Davis. But before she also moved west, she attended a conference in Seattle, and, of course, she stayed with me. It was not a fun visit. I asked her questions about her project; she implied that I couldn’t really understand it. I referenced a critic who crossed disciplinary boundaries; she frowned and argued that the literary use of that theory was inadequate. On the last night, she told me that I was treating her like we were still in high school and that I had to know we weren’t best friends anymore.
This is all I can tell you of this night—this and that I cried. I cannot remember more details, despite my unusually strong memory for them: I, who can remember what jacket you wore in kindergarten, the names of your first five kittens, although I could never remember the name of your dog. But I can remember that I thought it was, still think it is, unfair, still think that it was unfair—that she was unfair. Even now, I want to say bitter things to fill in the blanks of that evening. I want to say I had always known we were different and never expected us to stay exactly the same, that I had always been the more flexible of us, anyway, in terms of understanding life, that if she felt like I had never changed how I treated her, it was because she never shared how she was changing. That if we were not friends anymore, it was not because of me. It was because of her.
Amy didn’t stab me in the back; she stabbed me squarely in the front, and even though she once sent me an email apologizing for telling me in the way that she did, she asserts to this day that I was treating her like we were in high school. What could that possibly mean, I wonder? Treating her like life was important and funny and beautiful? As if we still had important things to say to one another that the other would value and understand? She emails me once in awhile, to explain why I’m not invited to her wedding (they’re eloping), to tell me that she and her husband are moving to my state this year (the other side). But I don’t feel like I can really tell her anything anymore, you know? Do you? Because I don’t. I don’t know.
All I still ever need is one best friend, one person with whom to create and share a private world. But a best friend can be like uranium: an unstable but powerful element, with as much destructive capability as a lover and a half-life that will linger on well past its seeming disappearance. Of course, I am speaking of best friends who are no longer one’s best friends. I have had other best friends more affectionate, more responsive, even, in the grander scope of things, more important. My remaining best friends are bound to me in compounds that change form without ever changing content, hydrogen and oxygen moving through our happy cycles indefinitely. But a best friend who is no longer . . . there is no sadness, no jagged hole like that created by such a loss. Time does not mitigate it, and Nostalgia cannot stitch it back together into a simple, non-reactive chain that remains unaffected by the violence done. It is unsurprising, then, confused as I still am, that I find myself mixing my metaphors, those last resorts. The tissue around the wound thickens, a raised map of injury that refuses to blend into my skin, a sensitive place that remains volatile, a half-life still active, although it seems as benevolently dormant as an empty nuclear factory.