I admired your freckles and your straight, dark hair. Your bangs, cut blunt across your forehead, hung perfectly, like synthetic hair on a doll. You were happy to spend an afternoon digging through my costume truck, trying on satin dresses and floppy hats. You were happy to stage photo shoots on the front porch of our house. A few of those photos still exist. In one you are wearing a pale blue dress and too large shoes. You are sitting on a stool my dad made from an old tractor seat and you hold a paper parasol over your head. Despite the tractor seat and the gravel driveway and the rattle-trap pick-up truck parked behind you, you look elegant.
In the photo that you took of me, my eyes are shut against a bright sun that lights my paper parasol with an almost nuclear fury. My hair is long and stringy, my buck-toothed smile prominent.
I'm glad I have these photos. Glad they exist in their stiff, round cornered way. Glad that they are not lost on some hard drive somewhere and glad, too, that we did not have the luxury of taking dozens of shots on a disposable camera that surely my mother would have deleted as I do the hundreds of photos taken by my own children. Two photos out of a roll of twenty-four. That's all we took.
Your dad owned a drug store with an actual soda fountain. He would let us sit at the counter and think of crazy flavors for sundaes, shakes and delectable egg creams. When he was too busy to talk, he would let us choose a toy from the shelves and take it to the apartment above the store where he stayed part time. This apartment was dimly lit and sparsely furnished. Really just a place to drop off to sleep at the place where one day ended and another began. This place wasn't really your father's home so we could imagine it was our own.
For my birthday, you presented me with a big, shiny green box tied with satin ribbon. Inside was a stuffed hippopotamus wearing a pink polka-dot skirt. I named the hippo, Bernice, and took to sleeping with her in the crook of my arm. When you left for another school just before the beginning of fifth grade, I cried.
"We'll still see each other," you said. And we did. But not very often.
And then you moved away.
I think of you now and wonder if grey has begun to thread through your dark hair the way it has in mine. Do you powder over your freckles? Did you inherit the powder blue Mercedes driven by your parents or do you pilot a mini-van filled with your own family?
I still have Bernice. She is missing an ear and her skirt is faded. Once, just after my parents divorced, I accidentally left her in a hotel in Florida. Two hundred miles later, when I realized my mistake, I couldn't stop crying. My Dad called the hotel from a pay phone and returned to the car, victorious.
"They knew she was special," he said. "She's sitting on the front desk right now, ready to come home."
I was trying to figure out why, after all this time, I still think about you. We knew each other so briefly. And then I thought about my current circle of women friends and how precious each of them is to me. I thought about how hard it is to make a solid connection with another person and how a shared homeroom or Mommy and Me class isn't often enough to ignite the spark of real friendship. You and I looked into each other and saw something familiar. That was the first time I felt that kind of girlfriend connection.
I watch my children now, as they make friends. They are transitioning from the early friends of convenience to friends of choice. You and I chose each other.
While our friendship didn't survive distance and time, my ability to seek a kindred spirit did and I owe that, in part, to you.