We were girls who met on the playground, at Girl Scout camp, at gifted kid camp, usually in early June, with enough summer left for pool parties, phone calls that lasted until bedtime, our fingers curling around the cord. Whispered sleepovers. Future distance cleaving compelled us to frantically formed friendships between girls who had sprouted legs or hips, or who were desperately trying to cover up acne with pancake Cover Girl makeup, or who had smuggled black eyeliner from their mother’s vanity to put on during bathroom breaks. Many were all braces, wire-rimmed glasses, sunburned skin, oversized t-shirts from previous camp years. Best friends outside of best friends.
Andrea and I were at the cusp of middle school, too old for elementary school games, too young for a first cigarette. At Girl Scout retreats, I giggled with the troop members, guessing at who fingered who. What fingering was. What cum tasted like. (Bananas? Something terrible.)
I was a girl who spent summer outdoors. Andrea was a girl who stayed indoors, closely watched by her mother. The girls I befriended were always inside.
Andrea and I operated together for the entire week of environmental science camp. On a field trip, we swung side by side on a neglected swing set near the creek. Our group had taken a break for lunch so we could air out our water shoes and lick potato chip salt from our fingers. Andrea’s long, straight brown hair was slicked back into a ponytail that whipped around her as she swung from the unsteady metal pole overhead. We were deep in conversation, but the group had already begun to descend back down the stream banks. Our frustrated instructor called our names.
We were each other’s mutual distraction. At camp, we did not have the pressure of straight A’s to keep us focused on our work, although we both loved instructions. But I loved instructions more than her. She could deviate.
Andrea went to the county’s Catholic school. She lived with her mother in an apartment complex, a twenty-minute drive from my house, although the direction was meaningless. I only forced myself to pay attention to directions and road signs once I learned how to drive at the tail-end of high school, memorizing what a friend would whisper into my ear after school.
We wore one-piece bathing suits—mine patterned, hers dark green and plain—and swam in the complex’s unsupervised swimming pool. Any suburban girl worth her weight in gossip would know how to tread water an hour at a time to stay out of earshot of adults. We craved the illusion of being alone, even if Andrea’s mother was watching us through the window.
I was good at being a person’s only close friend. I was good at listening on the phone for hours, interjecting at silences so the other person could continue the conversation. At the turn of the century, Andrea and I tried to be mutual witnesses over the phone. Fearing a Y2K electrical shutdown, our mothers made us hang up before midnight.
I can barely remember a single thing we talked about. Much of it was silence, an implicit understanding: her loneliness, my fear of loneliness. I have a hard time keeping friends, she admitted once, after a long pause. We both already knew this. You have to talk sometime, I advised. You have to keep at it. She sighed. It’s not that easy.
In sixth grade, Andrea began to flicker on and off. She sometimes returned my phone calls. Many of my friends were excellent at not picking up the phone, letting it go to voicemail, where I filled their inboxes with my hopeful pleas, asking them to call me back. I always persisted.
One time her mother answered the phone and said Andrea was having trouble at school, and could I not call anymore? She would call me back. I tried to be good, calling only once a week.
In one of the photographs I have of her, Andrea is emerging from the complex pool, smiling more than her usual tight-lipped smile, her braces glinting through. The one-piece attempts to hide her curves, smash down her chest so she becomes one streamlined girl’s body.
A year later, I saw on the local news that a student at the Catholic school had been arrested after making threats toward other students. I imagined that she was Andrea. Long dark brown hair obscured the girl’s face. The sun glinted off her glasses.
I attended camp exploring the Chesapeake Bay—mangrove swamps, museums, pollution, an overnight stay in a hotel room. In my group was a small, short girl with long black hair and eyeliner-rimmed eyes. She kept to herself. The other boys thought she was pretty.
We posed as another camper snapped our disposable Kodak cameras given to us by our parents. In one photograph, I look impossibly tall next to her, and blonde and tanned, a contrast to her pale, round face. My oval wire-rimmed glasses glare off the flash. We were birds, arms outstretched, flapping aimlessly.
Instead of hopping between hotel rooms for co-ed parties with Mountain Dew and Cheetos and berry lip gloss, I snuck over to Kelly’s room. She was reading comic books and lent me her favorite one. We were in full makeup and party clothes, so we briefly visited the other rooms. I took the book back to my room and finished it underneath the covers with a flashlight.
After camp, we both wanted to make it work. Kelly lived nearly an hour away, the next county over, past apple orchards and down a long road populated by attack geese. The house was isolated. Her father was tall and always working on his Acura, and her mother was short like her but rounder and always on a diet. We inhabited her house for sleepovers, drank whatever soda we wanted, ate whatever snacks we wanted, went to bed whenever we wanted. We painted our eyelids black.
We bought matching ankh necklaces at the mall. At one of her family reunions, we walked from the park to the mall, where Kelly shoplifted buttons from Hot Topic.
In high school, we were each other’s dates when we didn’t have one. We dated each other’s friends. I dated a friend and passed him off to her because I knew they were better suited for each other, although I had no idea how true that assessment would be. Our separate worlds bristled up against each other. The more our schoolyear friends infiltrated, the more we fractured.
She knew I drank cheap vodka and watched cartoons with her friends. She decided that if you drink cheap vodka, you are a sinner.
In college, I drank more vodka, wine coolers. She was vegan and hardcore straight-edge. I am still the same, she said. She drank only water. She went to the gym every day. Her mother had lost weight, but Kelly had no weight to lose. She unfriended me, deleted my number.
She loved cars. She loved guns. She loved freedom. None of us were good enough for her.
I gained weight: twenty, thirty, forty pounds. Although she would not speak to me, I ate for the two of us. My best friend in college was also her same size, weight, complexion. She was disappearing, too. I could not lose them both.
All I have of Kelly are photographs. High school birthday parties. Prom photos. When her friend swallowed a live goldfish out of the centerpiece on our prom dinner table, she looked sick.
She was always right. The rest of us wrong, gluttonous, sloth-like, every deadly sin. Her friend kissed me in a hot tub and I kissed her back because she was beautiful. I knew that friend knew we were all sinners, would call us all sinners at her church in daylight.
The summer friends either came back, or they didn’t, although I tried to force it one way or another. I had a terrible time forgetting. Or I forgot the wrong things, vital conversations.
When I became a camp counselor for gifted kid camp—a fancier, more expensive one, where the children left their parents for two weeks—a girl told me how beautiful I was. Oh, no, I am fat, very fat, I corrected her, Kelly’s voice filling my head. Somehow my size made me unlovable. Sometimes this was spoken aloud. More often it was a passing look. The camper looked devastated, like I had predicted the end of the world. I am still ashamed of that loathing.
We were lack. We dissected our bodies, trading what the other craved like paper cut-out dolls. I wanted Kelly’s wide eyes. She wanted my height, my ease at conversation. I wanted us outside in the sun, away from mirrors, where no one else could see us.
Alyse Bensel is a PhD candidate in Literary Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Kansas. Her recent poems have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Quarterly West, New South, Bone Bouquet, and elsewhere. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not of Their Own Making (dancing girl press) and Shift (Plan B Press), and serves as the Book Reviews Editor at The Los Angeles Review.