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When I was four years old, my parents took me to a fair, or carnival, or parade, or some outdoor event. I can't really remember all the details. What I do remember is that I got a balloon, and I almost immediately let go of it.
I cried and cried as I watched it drift upwards. I wanted it back, and refused to believe that I couldn’t have it.
“But that’s what happens,” my mom told me. “When you let go of a balloon, it floats away.”
It’s funny how you remember these things. I think of this day as I look out the airplane window. And then I think of the first day of sixth grade, the day I met Julia. We sat next to each other in some class that I can't remember anything about. Middle school is all kind of a blur in my head. All I really remember is 1) I hated it and 2) I hung out with Julia a lot. Because she was pretty much my only friend.
In that class, I’m sure we bonded over some dumb, eleven-year-old thing that we agreed on, and thus our friendship began.
We did the usual middle school routine: sleepover, candy, PG-13 movies. But in those three otherwise painful years, it seemed like Julia and I would be best friends forever. I imagined us neighbors, married with kinds, dropping them off to kindergarten together, maids of honor at each other’s wedding, going grocery shopping and doing middle-aged mom things together. When you’re thirteen, you can't imagine that your life will ever be any different. At least I couldn’t. I’m pretty sure Julia couldn’t either.
I can't pinpoint the exact moment that out friendship was over. There wasn’t a huge fight, no dramatic breakup. After I realized it happened, I decided it was better this way, painless and easy, the old band-aid method. Now I’m not so sure.
All I know is that when high school started, we both got involved with different things. I joined some sports and made some new friends there. Julia met a boy.
For a while, we still had the same friends, so we talked occasionally. But slowly, those conversations happened less and less often, and eventually stopped altogether.
Honestly, I didn’t even really notice until the end of the school year, when my grandparents stayed with us for my sister’s graduation, and asked who my best friend was.
It was no longer Julia.
I sometimes would wonder when and if she noticed how we grew apart. If she attempted to bring us closer, I had no idea. I wonder if this is something I should feel guilty about.
Halfway through sophomore year, Julia moved away. We weren’t talking at all at this point, just friendly smiles on the rare occasion that we passed each other in hallways. We didn’t even wave.
I never learned why she moved away. I did, however, say goodbye on her last day. We had a short, slightly awkward conversation. We didn’t talk about how we grew apart. Every once in a while, I would think about Julia and wonder how she was doing. But not too often.
Not until Tuesday, when I got back from practice, and my mother had a very serious look on her face. Not until she made me sit down, and told me there had been an accident, a car accident, and Julia was dead.
Julia was dead. Is dead.
So now I’m on a plane, on the way to Julia’s funeral. And I can't stop thinking about how different my life would be if I didn’t just let her slip away like that. If I had made an effort to at least save a bit of out friendship.
True, I might be sadder now that she’s gone. But at least I would know what’s been going on in her life for the past two and a half years. All I can do now is hope that she wasn’t in any way hurt or upset by us growing apart. If she was, I’ll never know. And if she was, I can never fix it.
When you let go of a balloon, it floats away. And once it floats away, you can never get it back.