We met long ago, in middle school. I was the troubled girl with shiny hair and a sneer, she was the thin, tall girl with the gorgeous clothes. We were both smart. We were both funny. I noticed her right away, and in that bullying way I had then I went to her, and pointed to the empty seat next to me. “You? Are sitting there. You’re my new best friend.”
We were in gifted class together. This meant we got to sit in a circle on the floor, on pillows, every week, to discuss the readings our teachers had given us. We participated, outwardly philosophical and engaged. But we also leaned into each other and whispered the sorts of wry, unkind teen girl observations about the teachers and their weaknesses that left us giggling inappropriately, holding the laughter inside until it burst from our noses and closed lips like a bad cough.
Leslie Gallagher. My best friend.
I remember her father’s apartment, and the pet Chinchilla that hopped high enough to hit its own head on the ceiling. Was it unkind that we laughed as it fell back to the bed, shaking its little noggin back and forth as though asking “What the fuck just happened?” Ay, ay, ay.
I remember Leslie’s father, a quiet man, an engineer. He barely looked up when we’d come home, his social awkwardness and shyness feeling, to me then, like disapproval. Children take everything personally. My own father took up so much room, was so boastful and pontificatorial. Leslie’s father, by incredible contrast, was almost invisible.
They moved to Denver from Albuquerque, and I felt the bottom fall out of my world. Who would wander the neighborhood with me, making fun of everything now? My father was kind enough to buy me plane tickets to visit her, and I remember going with her to her new high school in Aurora. It was bigger and nicer than any school in Albuquerque, and the kids had more money than any kids I’d ever known. I loved how it felt, walking the halls with Leslie there. We were young and beautiful and filled with intelligence and potential. After school, we went to the tennis court, but rather than just volleying back and forth we hit the balls and screamed “Wap” the way we imagined the balls might, if they could talk. It annoyed everyone around us, but we didn’t care. We laughed until we couldn’t breathe. That’s just how it always was with Leslie.
This week, Leslie’s quiet, invisible father died.
She texted me from Arizona, having flown there from her home in Minneapolis. Her husband and children stayed behind, the boy being autistic and needing constant specialized care. When did life get so goddamned complicated and painful, Leslie?
She texted me on the day before he died. She and her dad were sitting on his patio overlooking the golf course. They had made a game, she told me, using their iPhones to make fart sounds every time one of the sunburned retirees took a swing at the ball. Invisible father, fading fast, had chuckled then. This is your gift, Leslie, one of many. The funniness. The ability to stare down the worst monster, eye to eye, and crack a joke at its expense.
Some things never change. Nor should they.
Leslie. My God.
Even this, even now, you are still that girl, you are still beautiful, you are still hilarious, you are still the best friend I’ve ever had.
My heart hurts for you.
After he died, in the moments after, she spoke to me. Her quiet, reserved, emotionally unavailable father. He’d been the reason she found men just like him, all her life drawn to those who would not react. But something amazing had happened when she was in college, with the advent of email. Her father, who had difficulty with eye contact and rarely spoke in person, was a thoughtful, compassionate, funny and wise man in email. He offered her advice there, listened to her there. He was born for machines. There were times, she told me, when she would call him with a problem, only to be met by silence, but that he would email later in the day, or the next day, with warmth and kindness. The complexities of the human spirit, Leslie. How blessed, that you found your father’s soul among the zeroes and ones. How beautiful, that you connected there, and how incredible that he, the silent man at the periphery of our adolescences, was more like us than we ever knew then.
I am so sorry, friend. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the many years that have passed like a comet. I am sorry you have had so much pain, so much loss, so many ways in which life has not lived up to its promises to that tall, thin, beautiful girl I first met in middle school. I am sorry I wasn’t there with you, as he took his last breath and you played Etta James for him as he did.
“I’m picking up his ashes,” you texted me yesterday. “I refuse to say cremains.”
“Cremains sounds like a terrible non-dairy liquid foodstuff,” I replied.
“Yes. The cheapest kind.”
Oh, Leslie. How you make me laugh, even when you’re crying. How beautiful you are.
How I love you.