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The door stubbornly creaked as Mr. Cadigan dragged it against the grain of the bland beige carpet and clicked it shut. He tugged on it one more time as if to assure us that no one could trespass, even if they tried. I quickly scanned around the office, making sure there weren’t any windows or air vents that I hadn’t been aware of. After all, I’d never actually been in this office, only heard stories about it that circulated around the middle school like head lice.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” Mr. Cadigan invited from the other side of his desk, gesturing with his eyes to the two chairs sitting perfectly parallel to each other. These weren’t normal, classroom chairs with the wobbly legs and the cement-like seats. These were fancy chairs, like the ones that were put on stage for guests during our school assemblies. These chairs had a cushion seat, and legs that were connected so instability was not even possible. I sat down in my uncomfortably comfortable chair, wishing that I could inch it closer to Olivia, who was sitting down into the chair only inches away.
I couldn’t help but feel as though I was doing something wrong by sitting in this room, even though I knew I had been invited in. I looked around at the posters and pamphlets that acted as wallpaper would in a normal room. “Abuse: Do YOU Know What It Looks Like?” “How Much Is Too Much?” and “Secondhand Smoke KILLS” were staring at me from the cold cement walls that seemed to be getting smaller and smaller as each second passed. Mr. Cadigan cleared his throat, smoothed his checkered tie, and eased into his chair. Olivia shot me a sharp look of distress, begging me with her big green eyes to break the silence. I almost shot her the same look back, but then remembered that this was my idea in the first place.
“Mr. Cadigan…it’s about Zoe.”
Zoe and I were neighbors before we were even born, and our mothers made sure that we were friends too. The two bulging pregnant women would walk up and down our dead-end road in the sticky August heat, lemonade in hand, laughing loud enough to make sure that Zoe and I got in on the joke as well. On the first day of kindergarten we dressed in matching purple dresses and white sneakers and sat together in the first seat on the school bus. We spent scorching summer days in the shallow waters of White’s Pond catching minnows, constructing regal sandcastles, and dreaming about the day we might venture into the deep water together. We created our own magical kingdoms in our back yards, transforming bushes into palaces and a mulch patch into a forbidden forest. We always had something interesting in store for anyone who encountered us while we were on out adventures…like the time we covered our bodies in band-aids and cried while Zoe’s poor babysitter ripper them off, one by one. The summer before we entered middle school we held a car wash together in her front yard, and we were much more successful at dancing on the street and yelling with our neon posters than we were at actually cleaning the cars that dared to use our service. That night we laid on her trampoline talking until the crickets had stopped chirping and gone to bed, dreaming about what we were going to do with our fortune of twenty dollars.
Zoe didn’t care what anyone thought about her, and I’m convinced she couldn’t have even if she tried. She stood up for herself in any situation, no matter who or what the circumstances involved. I always hung back and let her take the reins, and I relied on her strength and confidence to make up for where I lacked it. One spring night in fourth grade we pooled our allowance money to buy frappes at Bedford Farms, which we agreed was the best ice cream vendor in town. We patiently waited in the line that overflowed out the door, whispering about how mature we felt that we were on this adventure without our parents. As we approached the cashier, a rowdy group of teenage boys cut in front of us, arguing and yelling about who got to order their ice cream first. Zoe and I exchanged looks of panic, and as angry as I was, I decided that waiting a few more minutes wouldn’t be the worst thing. Zoe, however, marched up to the tallest of the boys and tapped him persistently on the forearm.
“Excuse me, but did you know that you just cut my friend and I in line? We were actually here before you.” Zoe had her arms crossed across her chest, and there was not a hint of a smile across her usually goofy composition. I tried to shrink as small as I possibly could behind her, even though I was considerably taller.
“Uh….no?” The boy stuttered, clearly bewildered by the blunt authority of the ten year old staring up at him.
“Well, now you know. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we are going to order our frappes.” Zoe grabbed my arm and pulled me past the pack of boys, and scattered our quarters loudly onto the counter as if to accentuate her point one last time.
Our inseparability continued right into middle school, one of the only things that stayed constant in our lives as everything seemed to be changing. As the rest of our middle school class conformed and synchronized, Zoe floated above us. Bellbottoms, Juicy Fruit, and Backstreet Boys were nothing but words to her; to the rest of us they were trends to be enslaved to. Zoe styled her hair based on her mood on our walk to the school bus, and it usually always ended up falling freely in front of her piercing almond brown eyes. The idea of trends didn’t register in that mind of hers, and she would ask me occasionally what the point was of liking the same things that everyone else did. I would usually try to make up an excuse, but she knew me well enough to know that I didn’t have an answer. She never once called my bluff. Zoe always knew how to make people laugh, but the best was when I got her laughing, especially when it was just the two of us. Her laugh was so pure and infectious that it reaffirmed to me why people even laugh in the first place. Her joy found laughter in the most peculiar of places, but she always brought some with her just incase she couldn’t find any.
Being different isn’t always easy, which is probably why I sometimes took the easy way out. Zoe couldn’t do that though, and there were some times I believe she almost wished that she could. Normalcy was missing from Zoe’s DNA, just like a Y chromosome was. As much as Zoe loved to walk the train tracks behind her house after school, I knew she wondered why she wasn’t squealing over the latest gossip magazine with the rest of us. Zoe slowly started to see her unique beauty as a deformity, rather than a gift. To everyone else she was still wacky, unpredictable Zoe, but she couldn’t fool me. She stopped yelling at random people on the sidewalk from the school bus every morning, and she started to occasionally ask me about the gossip that she usually laughed at. It hurt me every day that I saw these subtle alterations, because I knew she was trying to suppress something that was crying to run free again. I tried to let it go, and told myself that I should just let her do whatever she claimed it was that made her happy, considering I had never questioned it before. This tactic was working well, and for a while I let Zoe’s faint modifications slip to the back of my mind. Until that day in eight grade that I saw the bandages peeking out from behind her tattered black sweatshirt.
Mr. Cadigan’s eyes narrowed, and he wrung his hands together as I went back to staring at the posters on the wall.
“Zoe, Zoe, Zoe…such a character. What about her?” I could hear by the tone of his voice that he was anticipating a conversation about a stolen boyfriend or an instant messaging conversation gone sour. To be fair, I didn’t see this coming either, but the sight was painfully impossible to ignore.
“Well…” My voice started to shake, and I wondered in that moment if this was even the right thing to do. Was this any of my business, let alone the guidance counselors? Would she hate me forever? Was I going to lose my best friend? But before I could tackle this mountain of questions, the words erupted like a volcano I was powerless to stop.
“Well…have you seen her wrists lately?”
I watched from my Social Studies classroom as she got escorted into Mr. Cadigan’s office. Her head hung as if it was being pulled down by the weight of a boulder, and her feet dragged on the carpet that mine did moments before. Zoe didn’t take the bus home with me that day. I sat in our back row alone, staring silently at sights that would have normally brought us to tears of laughter. That was the first time since kindergarten that we didn’t start a day by climbing on the bus together, and end it by filing off. No matter what was going on in our lives that day, that month, that year, I always knew that no matter what, we would be together from start to finish. As I got off at our bus stop that day, the bus driver waited an extra minute for Zoe to follow me, but she never did.
When I got to Zoe’s house the next morning so we could walk to the bus stop, her mother informed me she had already left. I looked down the road and saw her tiny figure running thumping away from me on the pavement, faster than I’d ever seen her do in gym class. The broken strap of her keychain adorned backpack flailing in the wind that she had created. I ran as fast as I could to catch up with her, not caring that my perfectly smoothed ponytail was turning into a mess of curls and frizz. My ears were ringing and throbbing at the same time from the nipping cold that was only intensified by my speed, but I didn’t even think of slowing down.
“Zo...I’m sorry.” I whispered in between frantic gasps for air. She didn’t look at me, just stared straight into the ground from underneath her hood. Usually I knew what was going on under that hood while everyone else was blocked out, but on this day I was completely stranded on the outside of her world that we so often shared. I heard murmurs of other voices at the bus stop speculating what was going on between Zoe and I, and for the first time I caught a glimpse of what it felt like to truly not care about how other people perceived me. I wanted tell this to Zoe, to show her I cared about her enough that I had abandoned the rules I had been passively living my life by. In that moment I caught a glimpse of what Zoe’s life felt like, but it was also a moment that I could not share with her.
“Zo?” All I wanted was a look, a nod, any confirmation that my efforts to save my best friend hadn’t taken her away from me forever. I tentatively reached out and touched her cold shoulder, but she shuddered and moved further away from me, which at that point I didn’t think was possible. Then, slowly, she looked at me. When our eyes met it felt almost as if we hadn’t even made eye contact at all. The fire and life that normally burned in her eyes was so faint that I had to convince myself it was even there at all.
“Why” She asked, and the sound of her voice relieved me and scared me all at the same time. She stared blankly into my eyes, waiting for an answer we both knew wouldn’t satisfy her.
“I just didn’t know what to do, and I got so scared and I didn’t want anything to happen to you and I know Mr. Cadigan is there for that kind of stuff and I thought maybe he could have helped me, or you, or something, I didn’t know he was even going to talk to you, or I mean…” My non-stop jibberish trailed off as she looked away again, completely isolating herself from me even though we were inches apart. She glanced back at me one more time, but this time there was something behind her eyes. Sometimes I like to think it was some sort of thanks, other times I know better.
When I started high school the next fall, a lot of things had changed. Zoe and I didn’t ride the bus to and from school together every day, because we lived close enough to the high school that a bus was not provided to our neighborhood. However even if they had, I still would have been riding alone, because Zoe went to a specialized boarding school instead of coming on the journey to the local high school like the rest of us. It didn’t surprise me that she turned left with we all turned right, but that doesn’t mean it hurt any less. I sometimes let myself think that the action that I took with Mr. Cadigan led to Zoe attending a school where she could get the attention she needed, other times I still believe I broke the trust of my most treasured friendship. I try to remember that what I did came from a place of love, but sometimes not hearing her laugh everyday makes it too hard to find comfort in that.
When I walk to school and see the buses full of kids heading to the elementary school, I look for the two who sit in the farthest back seat. I wonder if they are making goofy faces to the cars behind the bus, just like we did. When I see a puddle, I think of her, because I know she would be jumping in it and begging me to join her, even if just for one splash. When I get the wrong salad dressing at a restaurant I make sure to let the waiter know, and I haven’t been cut in an ice cream line for a very long time. Sometimes when I walk through the crowded hallways of a school, I like to walk in the opposite direction as the flow of people, wondering if maybe, just maybe, it resembles how she felt sometimes. And when I see someone in an oversized sweatshirt walking the train tracks as the sun goes down, I always remember that under that hood could be the most beautiful thing in the world.