Before everything went haywire, the fence marked the border of a small paradise. Jenisse lived four blocks away, but her yard was a square cement pad behind their apartment. My mother used to say that travelling five blocks was leaving one country for another. I thought she was being judgmental but I was wrong. She just thought Jenisse had a tough life and wondered how she might change my viewpoint. It should have been the other way around. My best friend wasn’t perfect and maybe took a couple false turns but it was a long way from where I ended up awhile.
We had several things in common back then but the most important were philosophy and fast cars. I read Camus and Kierkegaard in study hall. She found that weird in ninth grade but the thing that impressed me was that she even knew who they were. She liked to think past pink lipstick and white pom-poms, too. We were, contradictorily, cheerleaders that year. We had other friends, but no one liked us as much as we liked each other.
The cars had fascinating, daredevil men attached to them in our imaginings. We also wanted to drive a few of our own. On Friday and Saturday nights we watched them roar down our busy street. I was better at calling the make and year but she was better at waving and smiling if they slowed down to get a better look at us. A perfect team.
We liked to hang out on my parents’–and mine, by default–half-acre. Our overgrown yard. I don’t know why our modest bungalow got the benefit of so much space outdoors–we were at the edge of the city– but it was perfect for me and my two older brothers. There was a little creek–that is, when it rained enough, otherwise it was just an unsightly ditch. Dad, a history teacher who had a passion for making things, built an old-fashioned house like a pioneer homestead. We half-grew up there and used it for all sorts of secret activities, from eating too many chocolate donuts(us) to playing dice and smoking a joint (brothers and sometimes us) to furtive gropings in the dark (all). There were sleepovers there which were popular with everybody. Our parents could see the place from the kitchen window so they felt we were safe.
I guess we were but it was easier to find trouble there. My brothers’ exploits are theirs to give away. Even though it was fifteen years ago, I’d raise my dad’s blood pressure if I told him about the fire Jimmy started that consumed the neighbor’s prize roses and damaged the fence at the property line behind the “homestead”.
Jenisse and I were happy best friends, that’s the thing I need to make clear. We had that innocent, bountiful trust that you look for the rest of your life. Everything that happened or crossed our minds was talked over: breathtaking and annoying family dramas, sapping discouragement when we failed to meet our goals, whether or not slapping Hugh was a strong enough response to his hand on Jenisse’s thigh, the skin cancer scare for my mother. Or just how wine red lipstick and black eyeliner made us look older but not better. And our plans for the future.
“I’m definitely going to be a private investigator,” I told her. “That, or a lawyer. By the way, I want to–no, I will–win the next debate at school.”
“Of course you will, Lola–you out-talk everyone, who wouldn’t cave under all that? But I got you beat. I now think I want a career in designing parks. Isn’t there something like that? Ever since I got to know you and spent time out here I’ve thought about it. More safe outdoor places for people could change neighborhoods, even whole cities.”
I gave her a long look. “See, this is why you are so much smarter than most people. You think about the long tem effect of things, not just your own little desires. You have principles. Me? I just want action!”
She punched my shoulder. “Stupid, you just have to make a show of things, like telling people you gotta have action, when what you want is to save this crappy world, just like me. Well, as long as it involves some risky–or maybe a little risqué?–stuff!”
I gave her a punch back and then a hug, I’m sure. How many people got me like that? So it seemed like we would be friends forever. We even talked about how when we were old we would have houses by each other with a connecting yard for our kids. If we had any time for kids.
It was the following autumn when things changed. September had shaken out the languid vestiges of late summer, edged with the promise of frost. A fire was burning in our corner woodstove. I was in the living making a poster for class when I heard her on the porch. I would know her laugh anywhere, a crescendo of sound sweet but loud like she had just seen or heard the funniest thing ever. When she didn’t come in, I dropped my felt tip pens and looked out the beveled glass window in the door.
It was not to be believed. She was on the porch swing with Arnie, my brother and they were swinging hard, chattering about something that appeared to fully engage Jenisse’s attention. His arm was around her shoulders. I opened the door.
“Jenisse? What are you doing out here?”
The swing kept going but Arnie just looked at her and she looked at me like, what did I mean? I thought it was funny how dumb they acted. Like, were they up to something, like planning a surprise party for my upcoming birthday?
“Why are you out here with my brother instead of inside while I struggle to create a fabulous poster for my speech about Egypt? Come in and help me out.”
“I can’t. Me and Arnie are talking.”
I thought they were both just up to aggravation so I went out and pushed Arnie half off the swing and squeezed in beside her.
“Lola, “she said, hands up, “wait a minute. What’s wrong with me having a conversation with Arnie? I’ll be in later. You’ll do great without me.”
And there it was. I got it instantly. Jenisse liked Arnie more than just her best friend’s older brother. He got up and leaned against the porch railing post, arms folded, feet crossed at the ankles like he was King Tut. It killed me, that look. I knew from others’ feedback that he was good-looking or even better but I didn’t think he was that smart or nice or fascinating. I was closer to Jimmy. Arnie, well, he was arrogant. He was a jock and I thought myself a burgeoning intellectual; he teased me about it. I was not having Jenisse sit with him now or ever. It was cross contamination.
“Get up, Jenisse. You’re blinded by genetically pleasing material. He is not The Man. You and I are best friends. That makes it almost illegal for you to remotely care about my brother!”
Her brown eyes shot me a challenging look. “Lola, you don’t own me! I can be with Arnie if I want. In fact, we’ve been together more and more. You just didn’t notice. Some detective you’ll make!”
That did it. I got up, entered the house and slammed the door. I steamed all night and into the wee hours.
You think you know how this ended. We had a fight, got over it and they got married one day. A love story in which I could play the part of everlasting friend, maid of honor. Sisters-in-law!
None of that. I ended up alone. Too often. I ended up taking rides with a few drivers of those fast cars after school. I felt like I should change, too, or I’d be lost. I was upset and angry every day; I had to see her hang out with Arnie at school or while I sat in my room or avoided them. She greeted me tentatively but I was deaf to her attempts. Watching them from my upstairs bedroom window was shocking. Seeing how he pulled her close, how they whispered things. It was bad enough thinking of my brother kissing at all but my best friend? What was she telling him about her life that she kept from me now?
Jenisse stopped trying to talk to me. She got dumped by him four months later and her grades dropped I heard. But I burrowed into school work but I’d found a group who liked to party. I had instant success, being a little mouthy but witty. But I frightened my family with increasingly grave errors. The last car I got into while in high school accelerated to one hundred twenty mph. A gorgeous Porsche. Before we even hit sixty we bounced off a lamp post and another car. The guy was in the hospital for two months and then in court for a DUII. I broke my nose and right arm.
But I finally figured out what not to do about the misery of loss. You had to just live through it. So, I guess, did she but by then the bond had frayed and split. I returned to my saner self and resolved to pay strict attention to internal and external signs. Do something good.
Despite my initial lack of observational skills as a teen-ager, I am now an investigator. I’ve survived worse things than losing a best friend. But I had to tell someone our story. Today I saw Jenisse’s picture–it was her with more make up, less hair and sleeker–in the newspaper. She won an award for her co-design of a park circling a pond. The name? Homestead Park. I want to see it. Then I may give her a call. We each had our plans. We aimed for the target and finally hit bull’s eye. How many people can say that?