Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Here...Hold This Jump-Rope

St. Joseph church and school as I remember it.
I took organ lessons in the convent; the nuns would
make a sandwich for anyone who forgot her lunch.
(ahem) Birds routinely flew into the second-story
windows, the janitor was scary, and I got to carry
the Baby Jesus in a Mass procession once.

In 2004, my son's dad acquired a girlfriend, broke our financial agreement, broke our emotional agreement, took me to court for custody and basically turned my life upside down. For some reason, I'd trusted him to at least try to rebuild our relationship after I moved 100 miles away from my family to be near him; my bad, I guess. He showed me the last scrap of his true colors and I began to think the Universe had a message for me it had been trying to deliver for the past four years; it just took something this extreme for me to finally get it.

I got it, all right—right between the eyes. I began scrambling for cash, trying to avoid running into my son's dad and his girlfriend around town and seriously grieving for my dreams of family.

During most of 2004—from late January to early November—I felt like my life was on hold. I felt alone despite my having a couple of acquaintances in the area and one good friend about 22 miles away (can you tell I look at my odometer a lot?), and wished I could be near my family. In the months leading up to the hearing, I felt as though I couldn't make any new friends, although I certainly tried, because no one wanted to be near my pain. I wondered if they thought it was contagious, or if I was too much of a downer when I answered their questions about whether I was married or where my son's dad was. I might have imagined their mindset, but who could blame them if they didn't want to hang around? I had stuff to work out and a hearing to get through, and it's a lot to ask of a new friend to listen to me hash everything out again and again.

As a result, I spent a lot of time with my son, or alone, or on the phone with my family, and it was only recently that I started to reach out to people who "knew me when." Something about the idea comforted me, although I couldn't put my finger on it. On a whim, I went down to my garage to search for the last newsletter sent to me by an old college roommate—I found it, sent her an email (she lives in England now) and we're in touch today. I called the lovely parents of my college boyfriend (his parents live 40 miles from me) and had a long, wonderful conversation with his mother. I snagged the email address of an old college friend from one of my former roommate's emails, sent him a note and possibly inspired him (maybe a little?) to join Flickr. I sent a Christmas card to my best friend from grade school, with whom I hadn't talked for about 16 years.

There's something very reassuring to me about touching base with people who knew me in other phases of my life. I like the fact that they knew me when I was more...optimistic. It gives me the sense of living on the continuum—feeling like it's possible to swing back toward hope again.

My grade school pal and I were fast friends from grades one to five. She'd sent me cards in the past, but I'd been too busy or too preoccupied with life's events to get organized and respond. Finally I sent her a little card that I'd painted, and included my email address with my greeting...and she responded. I didn't recognize the email address and thought it was spam at first, so it's a good thing I read it anyway!

I was six years old when I met K. in first grade at St. Joseph school in Addison, Illinois, in Sr. Aquinata's class. The particulars of our meeting escape me (!) but I remember we used to walk around on the playground during recess, arm in arm, physically leaning into each other as we wandered. This will sound corny, but it was a pure and innocent kind of closeness that I've never experienced again since. The kind of closeness kids should have.

She was the fifth child of seven, I was the first of four, and she always seemed much more worldly than I because of this. We used to jump rope with other girls, and chase boys. One time we caught Michael K., tied him to a tree with a jump rope and smeared dandelions on his face. Poor Michael. The bell rang and we left him out there to untangle himself. When he slunk into class a bit late, he didn't even rat us out, as I recall. Maybe K. remembers differently.

Once I invited her to my slumber party, but she had a pint-sized anxiety attack and wanted to go home, so I just slept at her house a lot after that. A couple of times we slept in the bedroom she shared with two sisters and her gazillion horse figurines; we slept on the living room floor where I was awakened by one of her formerly stray cats licking my feet; we slept on a sofabed in the basement, where she kicked me off the bed in my sleep. She introduced me to MAD magazine; we sat on her brothers' bunk beds and read a stack of issues. I remember my mother being a little bit surprised when I relayed some of the jokes to her after I came home.

We traveled with her mom in their family station wagon. It was fun to fold down the back seats and bounce around in the open space. This was before wearing seatbelts became a law. We used to bother her younger sisters until they whined and tattled on us, and we feigned innocence.

She was left-handed and I was fascinated by the way she wrote with her hand impossibly curled around over her paper. I bet she still writes like that. She did a spot-on and delightfully irreverent impression of our fourth-grade teacher, Sr. Angelora: "Get in ranks! Get in ranks!" I can still hear it.

In fifth grade we were required to attend a sex education night at our school. The boys went into one classroom and the girls filed into the other. I think our parents were there, but I sat next to K. as always, and listened to the instructor (a nurse?) explain where the vagina was. I didn't quite understand the logistics of sex, so K. whispered an explanation to me and demonstrated to me with her hands. We tried so hard not to giggle, and that explanation has stayed with me ever since.

Also in fifth grade, the two of us sat directly in front of John G. and John O. I'd had a crush on John G. since first grade (I'm telling you—I've either got a very strong loyalty gene or I'm just very persistent), so it was distracting and thrilling to sit in front of him in Sr. Cynthia's class. K. was my partner in crime as we secretly ate Smarties that we both hid in our desks, and we flirted and fought as John O. and John G. yanked our chairs with their feet during lessons.

She lived close enough to school that she walked every day, and sometimes I'd get to go home with her. For some reason I found that unusual to the point of being exotic. Such independence! In the summertime we'd hang out in her above-ground pool and pretend sharks were after us—or pretend to be sharks ourselves. She was into suntanning, and sometimes she'd slather herself in baby oil and hang out on the redwood deck next to the pool while I tried to squeeze in a few more minutes of swimming before I had to return to my pool-less home.

I remember some talk of UFOs or planets in the news at one point, and K. and I and a couple of other friends gathered at K.'s house to research UFOs. This consisted mainly of copying information about planets from our textbooks to looseleaf paper. We thought we were doing something important, and I suppose our parents were just glad we had something to do.

K. had style; she wore halter tops in the summertime, and once she let me borrow her super-cool faded bell-bottom jeans that had no hems and were all raggedy where they'd been stepped on a lot. That was the epitome of hipness for me.

She continued to be more worldly than I, and after my family moved to California and returned to Illinois for a visit when I was about 12 or 13, the two of us swiped a carton of cigarettes from her older sister's room, hung out in the park all week and smoked them all. Of course, she'd been smoking for a while, and I felt like a nerd as she effortlessly inhaled. We invited another classmate over, and she scored more cigs for us when we ran out.

(As I type this, I imagine K. reading it—she has the URL—and thinking it somewhat silly or overly sentimental, but that's where I am right now and I'm probably projecting my crap onto her anyway.) ;-)

Amazingly, she came to California to visit me once. I'd remembered her anxiety about spending the night away from home, so I really appreciated her traveling so far. We went to Disneyland, I remember, and the rest of the trip was a blur. In her recent email she said she remembered my youngest sister being five years old and carrying our pet hamster ("Hammy") around.

Now she's married and has three kids—all boys!—and I have my son. It's hard to believe we're grownups. We walked about 18 or 19 miles in a Walkathon once. In a picture of us taken back then, she had her hair in braids and I had mine in barrettes. We posed with another classmate, J., who committed suicide several years later. How could we have known then what would become of us?

At times I feel like my life is compartmentalized. K. is from my cognizant years in Illinois, mainly. The rest of my life is split up into sections in a way, and my other friends figure prominently in these, but I think K. stands out to me because she was part of my early childhood, before life got too complicated. We didn't question our friendship. We didn't question most things, I think. We just were.

Although I don't necessarily wish to go back to that time, I do yearn for that kind of simplicity in relationships, at least a little. The idea of just being appeals to me, and my challenge now lies in finding a way to be in the moment while taking care of grownup concerns like making money, putting dinner on the table, teaching my son how to be a good man and finding someone to share my life with. Someone with whom I can walk arm in arm and pick dandelions.

I promise not to smear them in anyone's face. ;-)