My Best Friend In High School"Home was always paler than I remembered it to be."
Lauren had a CD in her hand when she got in my car. We were in the parking lot of a pizza place after her first day working there. As I drove, she skipped the songs faster and faster, until she couldn’t have heard even the first phrase of any of them. “This CD sucks, I forgot.” I tried to think of anecdotes from the evening before, from my own family’s Thanksgiving dinner. All of it sounded so boring in my head, though. Just that we ate Thanksgiving dinner on the day the rest of the world did sounded boring, even.
Home was always paler than I remembered it to be when I came back from college for the breaks. Lauren always brought me to her family’s Thanksgiving, which was always at a Japanese restaurant. The family consisted of Lauren’s older siblings, Timothy and Tina, and their mother, Sheryl, who always brought someone, or rather, she had someone bring her. This year, it was Pete, who was a large man, with inflated jowls and a deep laugh. He seemed to be well-liked, which probably meant he had money.
When we were in high school, Lauren and I would go to downtown whenever her boyfriends would drive us. One of our first nights out together, Lauren invited Randall, the black-haired boy we had both crushed on. We split a pint of Popov that her sister, Tina had bought us before Randall came to pick us up. I wore a short black dress, white tights and black Converse sneakers, and Lauren wore the stretched-out silver jersey and pointed black boots she always wore. Once we were dancing I felt drunk, and self-conscious. I followed Lauren into the bathroom and pulled my dyed black hair out of its ponytail. Lauren poked herself with her eyeliner. We laughed until we had to sit down on the crusty floor.
When we came out, Randall was standing there waiting for us. He never drank, apparently because, “when he used to, he hated himself even more.” He also hated to see Lauren drunk, because he was so worried about it mixing with the antidepressants. They whispered to each other long enough to make me feel superfluous, and I walked back to the stage, pretending to be impressed by the band. When I turned around to find them I saw Randall’s hand around Lauren’s, his face stern.
“I have to go home,” Lauren said.
“I have to go home,” she repeated.
“You’re freaking out because of your meds,” said Randall.
“I—I—I have to go home,” said Lauren again.
“Fine,” Randall said. “Does she need a ride?” His not using my name made my chest ache. I waited. Lauren didn’t say anything or look at either of us.
“Lauren, I’m still staying at your house right? My parents think—”
“Please take me home?”
“I said okay,” he said. I looked at her and at the girls staring at us, the same girls we were making fun of in the bathroom for wearing platform sneakers and neon belts. I put my hand on her white-blond hair to calm her. I was just getting used to these outbursts then. I knew she would relax when I stroked her head like a cat’s. But other people were around, and Randall was around, and instead of looking up at me and answering with an open-faced pout, she flinched at my touch. I kept repeating my own name in my head, wanting one of them to say it to me. This time, I knew, we were not getting back at Randall for telling her not to drink. We were not giggling after he had to leave her house because there we no boys allowed after nine. She was not kissing me the way she wanted to be kissed herself, and I was not copying her motions with my hands on her body.
I left them huddled on some steps near the pool table to call my mother on a pay phone. I said I had gotten into a fight with Lauren and that we were at the 24-hour diner. I had forgotten that I was drunk until I left the venue. I walked on the side of the street with all the homeless people sleeping in vestibules, imagining starting a new life down under the bridge, chopping off my hair with a razor blade, repairing my worn sneakers with packaging tape ripped off of old boxes. And then, forgetting what I was walking away from, I imagined Lauren by my side.
I parked crookedly and she said I should re-park, but when I started to back up, she said not to bother. We walked towards the restaurant, a short, wide building with orange koi painted on the black wooden doors. Lauren was quiet as we walked, but she took my hand and I squeezed it. I asked how work was and she said, “Stupid.” I asked if she’d really worn sweats to her first day and she said, “Why not?”
Lauren’s mother, Sheryl almost didn’t remember my name, even though I’d known her since I was fourteen. When the waiter arrived, I realized that the restaurant was empty except for the people at the bar and us.
“I’ll have a white wine,” I said.
“You’re old enough to drink already?” asked Sheryl.
“I’m a few months older than Lauren,” I answered.
Sheryl laughed, “Lauren can drink.” Whenever she spoke, she dragged out the last sound of each sentence, which annoyed her children and charmed me. A lot of things about her were like that, like how she was always tan and only wore white. I’d met Lauren our freshman year of high school. The first time I’d been invited to her house, Sheryl offered me a Xanax. She asked how school was going and if I had a boyfriend.
“Well, and no. I just broke up with someone.”
“Oh, good, right? Fuck boys, and all that shit?” said Tina. Tina was the more popular sister. It was a rivalry that hardly existed because of its imbalance. In high school, I know Lauren invited lots of kids over to Sheryl’s house. She’d make them watch one of her old horror films or listen to her mix CDs. But Tina would be there too, and she had a knack for figuring out a person upon arrival. “You look like you’re in a musical,” she’d said to me when I came over for the first time.
“How so?” I blushed.
I saw Lauren recognizing the shift in my expression. Tina almost won me over, but I was too insecure. I had felt like a child being told they were pretty by an adult. So instead I fell for Lauren, whose pull came from the pity she felt for me despite her own tenacious depression. I didn’t mind that she spent most of that night looking into the mirror and throwing books and clothes in my direction, idly asking what I thought of them and of the horrible people in our high school.
When we graduated, I started college and Lauren started cocaine. She overdosed, and her mother sent her to live with her father. He treated the overdose the same way he’d treated her 16-year-old suicide attempts, by sending her to a mental institution. She was released after three months, and it was around the time I was coming home from my freshmen year of college for the summer. I picked her up in my mother’s car. I asked her what it was like and her eyes wouldn’t meet mine while she talked. The adult ward was much different from juvenile, she said. I guess she was telling me that she was scared straight but she no longer looked scared to me.
Her dad’s loft smelled like her. It surprised me that Lauren could take that smell to a new location, and that it could linger without her. This smell was my idea of femininity and youth: not vanilla-lavender-rose-lace Victoria’s Secret sprays, and not kiwi-strawberry-coconut Lip Smackers in glittery plastic Caboodles. It was saltine crackers, acrylic paint, canned tomato soup, cigarettes, and Tina’s Nag Champa incense (which Lauren said she hated), and a sour note, like the fluids we used in the school dark room. All of her stuff was placed into a new context. We put on old satin nightgowns and sat in front of her little white TV. Her father wasn’t home yet. “I have to tell you something,” she said into a pillow, “about the institution.” She laughed, and then stopped. “I thought about you all the time. When I went to sleep, I masturbated under the covers. I think the night staff liked that, those sick fucks. I only thought about us, though.”
I was telling Tina about the guy I’d dated the first half of my sophomore year of college. She asked if we broke up because he was mean.
“No, just kind of boring,” I said.
“Pete’s not bo-reeng,” interjected Sheryl.
“No one said he was, Mom,” said Lauren.
“Look at these pictures I took of him,” she giggled, and passed her cell phone around the table. “They’re really cute. He looks like Bruce Springsteen.”
“Mom,” said Tina. “Are these pictures of Pete naked?”
She was brushing her hair again, and taking a pen out of her purse.
Timothy passed the phone back to Pete without looking at it.
“Pete,” said Tina. “Did you want my mom to show us those?”
“He doesn’t cay-er,” said Sheryl. “Hey Chrissy, now that you’re not dating anyone, you should date Timothy.” This had happened before, which is why Timothy and I had never had a conversation. We each stared at our plates.
“I’m going to pee,” suggested Lauren. “Come with me.” Once inside the handicapped stall, we talked about comparing our vaginas, since we hadn’t in a while. I said I didn’t want to shave mine anymore because it wasn’t worth it if I didn’t have a boyfriend, and she said she always shaved hers just in case. She showed me before she sat on the toilet to pee and I said it looked like she’d never had any hair there. I only flashed mine before I sat down.
“I didn’t even see it!”
“It looks gross right now.”
“So?” A lady in the stall next to ours flushed. “Show me now.”
“Show me!” She pushed my torso back so my pee streamed forward and hit the seat and part of my thighs. The lady was still washing her hands.
“I saw it,” said Lauren. She turned to leave and I had to remind her that she had to wait until I was done because the door only locked from the inside. We walked back to the table, Lauren in front of me. When we sat down, Lauren told everyone there what had happened and that we didn’t wash our hands, but no one was listening.
In high school, I knew I wanted to be with Lauren. I’d kissed boys but never really had a boyfriend, and didn’t think I would ever start wanting one. Lauren was really beautiful then. Her hair got whiter with every bleach job and mine was always “black-on-the-outside-because-black-is-the-way-I-feel-on-the-inside.” She had broken up with Randall for me—or so she said. We decided that we would go on a real date after having been friends for almost two years.
At 3pm on a Sunday, I drove to Sheryl’s house in a tight black dress with mesh sleeves. I pictured her wearing the white cotton dress with eyelets and green rosettes around the neck she usually hung up on her closet door. I imagined that this was a special enough occasion to finally put it on. I was let in by Tina, who wrinkled her brow when I asked where Lauren was. “She’s in our room,” she sighed.
Framed prints from furniture stores, the watercolors of rivers near barns and tree-lined Parisian streets decorated the walls. I climbed past them, smelling my own citrus-y perfume mix with the Smith smells, admiring my freshly painted nails clutching the staircase’s railing that led to the sisters’ loft. Without thinking, I threw back the sheets that hung around her mattress and box spring. I found Lauren there, naked, although I couldn’t immediately discern this, seeing first a flexing, sweaty male body covered her. I heard a girlish moan and turned away in disgust, meaning to run out of the house. Before I could, though, I heard Lauren’s voice again. “Hey,” she squealed. “Yay, you’re here!”
I spent the next hour sobbing into a pillow on her bed, listening to Morrissey’s Vauxhall and I on repeat, waiting for Lauren to say the right words as she pet my head and searched for excuses. The boy lived just down the street, and left without much need for an explanation from anyone. I think I might have been more in love with Lauren then than I was ever in love with anyone. I could not be anywhere, even there, that she wouldn’t have made better.
On the Greyhound heading back to school, I called my favorite college friend.
“How’s the fam?” he asked.
“It’s so nice to hear your voice,” I exhaled dramatically.
“How’s Lauren?” Of course he’d only heard about her.
“She’s exactly the same,” I said.
“Good. I don’t want her to get all sane before I even meet her.” Poor Josh. I was sure Lauren would hate him. He met me at the station and we carried my bags down the street to my house, crunching fresh snow that had turned everything bluish white or wet black. “So, is she going to visit anytime soon?” Lauren had asked me several times if she could come see me, to check out the school, and to meet my new friends. I’d always managed to find ways of coming to her first.
“You know, she’s never left the state?”
“How is that possible?” Josh asked. “Her family never went on vacation?”
“No.” Now I could never introduce Lauren to Josh because he would bring that up to her.
“That’s insane,” he said, and I felt like he was talking about my own family, but I agreed, and started listing the places my family had taken me as a kid.