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The End of You & Me
I saw you one day last summer. You were on the other side of the street, waiting to cross and talking on your cell phone. I wondered if my number was still number 1 on Speed Dial. I knew it wasn’t, actually. But it was nice to wonder. It was nice to pretend my way into the idea of you and me, if only for a moment. It was nice to wrap myself back into the soft, friendly feeling of belonging.
At first, I didn’t recognize you. You had gotten a haircut in the two months since school let out, with thick, even bangs across your forehead. It didn’t look so good. It was not you, not you at all. It wasn’t like you to try to hide or disguise yourself like that. You were always genuine, up front and authentic. Unlike the rest of us, you never got highlights or plucked your eyebrows or got the ridiculous futuristic Pumas that the high school girls were wearing. But that haircut. It was straight off the pages of CosmoGirl, and it was what everybody wanted. You wore it well, I guess. Or you would have if you were somebody else. It matched your face, but not your personality. For somebody who knows you like I do, it seemed confusing and mismatched. It seemed like you were a little girl, draping yourself in your mother’s fluttering silky Hermes scarves and dousing yourself in her perfume.
That haircut made me sad for you. It made me wonder what was going on since I had seen you last.
It made me sad for me, too. It made me remember that there was no longer a you and me, that I didn’t know when you got a haircut, that I’m not there to tease you about it. Sometimes I forget these things. It’s easy too. We go about our daily lives, buying shampoo and chewing gum and thinking too often about being happy. So sometimes I forget I ever watched my first R-rated movie with you, that it was me who taught you how to french braid. That there was ever a you and me.
That day I saw you last summer, I was sitting on a bench in the shade by the pizza place. You know the one. (It’s where I went on my first date, when I called you halfway through from behind the counter and asked you to come help me out with, I don’t know, something to say?) I was sitting there; slurping up the separated remains of my strawberry smoothie, and helping a small sister tie her shoe. I was busy forgetting, and then I saw you, and I remembered. As quickly as skinny jeans went out of style, I was sad again. I was sad, with that slightly homesick feeling you get when you pass by a place—or person—that made you happy once. You think about the past, about the empty future, and you wonder what you could have done, how could it have ended differently.
In our case, it was pointless, because nothing could have happened. That’s what I think, anyway. Other people disagree with me. But being best friends with you taught me to disregard what other people think. “In the end,” you used to say to me, “all you know is what you think because you’ve forgotten everything else.” We used to laugh about that, imagining us as little old ladies, the kind with blue-rinsed hair and heavy gold rings on our twisted hands. The kind who drives way past legal, hunched over with only bouffant curls and manicured nails visible above the dashboard. We used to think we’d still be friends then, growing old and tacky together. We used to think we’d be friends forever.
Well, were we ever wrong.
I was sitting there, feeling nostalgic and blue and generally like grey flannel. The small person sitting beside me nudged me, pointing to her shoe.
“Right,” I said, grabbing a worn red shoelace. “Sure. Okay, the bunny goes in the tree and around the hole and then other stuff happens.” I was mumbling, random words so I would appear busy and unavailable. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw you begin to cross the street. You were going to see me, and there was no way around it. I began to feel guilty then, like what happened was my fault. Which it was. Some of it. But some of it was your fault too. I wondered if you were feeling guilty, walking towards me. I wondered if you had seen me yet. I wondered what the sight of me, in my favorite tangerine sundress and big, inscrutable sunglasses would make you feel. Would you be angry? Sad? Would you be ready to accept my presence in the world, that fact that I breathed and bought shampoo and went bowling?
The first time I went shopping after we had that fight, I felt guiltier than I ever had in my life, even about stealing that Barbie from my kindergarten classroom. I remember how much I wanted that Barbie, how it was all I could think about, how I was sure that if I had it my hair would be blonder and I would finally understand subtraction and Ritchie Ramirez would decide that I was prettier than Jenny Woodson. I was positive that my entire life would change. And so one day, when my mom was talking to my teacher, I grabbed the slim plastic leg of the Barbie from the red toy chest and slipped in my purple Dora backpack. It only took a second, and nobody saw. When I got home, I sat on my bed looking at the blonde doll for an hour, and than stuffed at the very bottom of my sock drawer. It’s still there. You’re still the only person I’ve ever told that to.
Whenever something bad happens to me now, I think that it might still be the karma from my brief career as a shoplifter. Still. And feeling guilty over the Barbie was nothing to how I felt about going shopping without you.
I didn’t even buy anything. I walked into the glossy gleaming world of the Macy’s make-up department, and felt like people were watching me. Like people know that only the week before my best-friend-since-forever and I had stopped talking, and here I was shopping. Here I was actually caring about the fact that my mascara had run out. Tentatively, I took a step onto the marble, and was almost scared that it would crack like brittle ice, that I would fall through and get swallowed up in the place wherever bad best friends go to die. I looked all around me, at the racks of pretty lipsticks and rows of pretty girls, and then I turned around and left.
I left convinced that I would bike over to your house, and knock on your door, and stand out on your step in a puddle of contrition as I told you that I was sorry, that I hadn’t meant it, that I wanted everything to be the same. But the thing was, I knew that it couldn’t. I knew that the things we had said were too big to be swallowed back, too loud to be swept quietly away, too strong to be forced out the door. And I knew that while I hadn’t completely meant the things I had said, there had been some truth lurking behind the anger. I thought it was probably the same for you, too.
And so by the time I had gotten home and discovered that the bike had a flat tire, I didn’t go find the bicycle pump. I didn’t ask my mom to drive me to your house. I didn’t even pick up the phone, and dial those familiar digits that had been dialed so much the numbers were a little faded. Instead, I curled up on the couch and watched Dirty Dancing for the 100th time.
We’d never watched it together, as much as I loved it. You hated musicals. And so by the time Baby and her family arrived in the Catskills, I convinced myself that we were more different than we were the same.
And I did nothing. And then I heard you had applied to the private school, and I knew you would get in. And so when you did, and when I went through ninth grade without you passing me notes and gum in Algebra, I wasn’t surprised at all.
This summer day, with you walking towards me, I thought about the last time I had seen you. Our eighth graduation night. We hadn’t gotten our hair done together, like I’d always thought we would. You were wearing a dress that I recognized as one that I had looked at, but hadn’t bought. Famously picky and indecisive, it had taken me three months to find My Dress, The Perfect Dress. I wore it that night, but it didn’t help me feel less alone as I saw somebody I didn’t know clap for you as the principal read aloud your name. “Who’s that?” I whispered to the girl next to me, a friend that I’d put in your place to last me until high school started. “That’s her boyfriend,” she said. “He goes to Churchill. Didn’t you know?” And I didn’t know, but I wanted to.
I wanted to know what you what do, what would happen, and I would find out soon. I stopped pretending to be busy, and instead pretended to be happy and carefree. I pretended I hadn’t seen you, and I looked straight ahead of me at the sidewalk. It had to happen sometime, I thought. This is a small town. I was fascinated by the unexpected intersection of our days, like it was some T.V show.
My sunglasses made the world seem slow-moving, thick and brown and syrupy. As if in slow motion, I saw you pass by. I saw you recognize me. I saw you stop, standing there, motionless and letting other people’s worlds go on. For a moment, our lives were staring straight at each other like they hadn’t been for a year.
I had been so busy thinking about what you would do that I had forgotten to decide on what I would do. What I still felt about the end of you and me. Was I mad about it? Had I any right to be? What was the okay thing to do here?
Obviously, I couldn’t pretend nothing had happened between us—ever. I couldn’t wave, like you were somebody I saw every day and didn’t think about after I walked past them.
You were more important than that. You are, I guess. Even after we ended, after the tumultuous break-up of our best friendship, one that had everyone taking sides and finding new places to eat, you were still important. Important enough for me to care when I wasn’t invited on your family’s camping trip. Important enough for me to hide all the dozens of pictures of us. Us together, us laughing, us eating ice cream, putting on make up, listening to music, dancing. So many fragmented moments, “Smile, Okay…1..2…3, and SNAP!” and then blinding flash, and we are frozen in silver-and-white film forever, time passing by, years floating away from us, a touchstone of how we used to be. Back when we were happy.
You never knew this, but after I heard about your parents divorce, I watched you. That entire month, I skulked behind you in the halls as you walked from class to class. I analyzed your behavior at lunch, what you were eating and who you were with, if you bought ice cream at the school store, if you glanced up at the sky or down at the toes of your Converse. I listened to conversations about you, how you were holding up, and I said nothing. Everyone said that you were doing fine. Everyone said that you would be one hundred percent okay. I said nothing. I searched your face for clues of sadness, of depression, of even suicide (though that was, of course, a stretch). If you killed yourself, I thought grimly one night, it would be like you had killed me too. My old self, at least. The self that I was when you knew me, the self of mine that I never let anybody else know.
I wondered what I would say as you walked towards me that summer day, and I started acting out scenarios in my head like a movie. And I was so busy wondering that I forgot to say anything at all. Instead, I watched you, as you paused on the sidewalk a few feet away. We were separated by nothing more than a Nissan Sentra, a few picnic tables and a weedy oak tree. There was time to say something, time to speak up and move my mouth, but I didn’t say anything at all.
Neither did you. It was unfair, I admit, but I considered it your job to speak first. You were always less complicated than me. You never second-guessed yourself, or hesitated, or waited a second longer than you should have. You, tall and tan and tennis star you, always went for it. I don’t know why that was, why you were you and I was me, but so it is. That’s how it’s always been, and so I expected you to breach the silence. You to jump forward, with your trademark smile. But you didn’t. All that I had practiced saying began with your smile, so without it I said nothing. You wavered there on the sidewalk, standing on the side of your foot, as though you were afraid to plant yourself firmly on the ground. I saw your mouth open and then close like a little girl with a secret
that she can never tell. I recognized that motion, that wanting to say something and then stopping, because it is what I have done many times before.
Especially where you are concerned.
But that gesture, like that haircut, doesn’t fit you. It’s not who you are. Perhaps it’s who you are becoming. Maybe the end of you and me changed you for the worse. Maybe it made you that different person who stood questioning before me, waiting for me to make the next move.
My heart broke as I remembered that I was not the only person in you and me. There was you, too, and you were hurt and you were changed. I want to explain it all to you, why I did what I did, why the stuff happened. I wanted you to know that it wasn’t you, it was me. And I sounded like an old country ballad about a break-up, but it was true. It still is. We broke up, I guess, in the conventional sense.
One month there was us, there was us together, there was you and me sharing secrets and riding bikes and laughing with our heads thrown back. One month we were trading sandwiches, walking home, ditching fourth period (I had Spanish, you had Algebra) for five minutes to meet in the bathroom for gossip and gum. Everybody knew about that, about us. How long we had been friends, our Sunday night Danish-and-Desperate Housewives tradition, the time I turned down a guy just because you liked him. They knew that we shared more than jeans and ring sizes. I like to think that we made people believe that friendship was more than what was shown on Laguna Beach. Maybe we made them smile, at how you finished my sentences, how we passed notes, how we double-dated, how during lunch we were always at the center, always relaxed, knowing that if everyone else left to go watch the boys play football, drifting from place to place until they found somebody to flirt with, we would still be together here, leaning against our backpacks, our hair soaking up the California sun.
When you’ve known someone for as long as I knew you, you memorize their little quirks, their personality traits, their pet peeves. You knew about the mild OCD that caused me to count steps, sidewalk cracks, the number of times a teacher said ‘Um.’ I knew that your mother had an affair. We knew the surface stuff about each other too: you loved tennis and Zac Efron, I liked Adam Brody better. You chewed the skin around your thumb during History tests, and secretly dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star although you couldn’t act at all. You knew that I wanted to live in New York, that I wrote poetry sometimes at night, that I sang Kelly Clarkson songs to myself when I did math homework. You knew stuff about me that nobody else does: for instance, I have fallen in love with every single James Bond. I can’t help it. Those jaunty English accents, those biting one liners.
We watched the Bond movies together, on the big, squashy couch in your living room during rainy days and foggy nights. Then we quoted them, back and forth, making one two-and-a-half-hour movie last for days.
(You once told me that I am the only person you ever knew that could talk about an hour-and-a-half long movie for three hours, and still be interesting.)
I guess you once told me many things, though. And I guess I used to listen.
On that summer day, you turned and began to walk away. The sunlight shifted gold around you, casting your shadow a beat ahead of your footsteps. I studied it, the long black extension of you, and decided it didn’t look like you at all. It looked like somebody else, somebody I might pass on the street and never remember to recognize. I looked at my own shadow, long and lean and just as black as yours, and thought that maybe we all are unrecognizable after a time. Maybe after we grow, and learn, and hurt and cry we change into something different, something that we never really wanted to be. Such is life, I thought, mournfully delighting in my profound wisdom. Such is life that we end up miles away from where we thought we wanted to go.
“Wait!” My sister beside me said. She squinted into the sun; her own shadow crouched along beside mine. “Wasn’t that—?” she had recognized you, after all these years, and now she was off the bench and running after you, running into the fierce glare of the sunlight and calling your name. I followed, until you turned around and saw us, one small girl and one taller one.
But you didn’t look at the eager, smiling seven-year-old face. You looked into the older one, the face that was hesitantly looking back into your own. Our shadows pooled together at our feet, in tangled black arms and legs and hair, as close as anything could possibly get. I thought that it might make a cool picture. I was into photography now. I hadn’t been when I had known you.
“Hi,” I said, and the word sat thick and heavy on my tongue. For a moment I thought that it had never left my mouth.
But then you began to smile, your old smile, the smile that looks up at me in the thousands of pictures that I’ve stuffed in my desk drawer. I started to smile back, before I remembered to stop myself, and then I realized that maybe I didn’t want to stop myself now. Maybe I never should have.
Such is life, I had been thinking just a few moments ago, that we end up far away, far from the people we’ve known and the people we’ve wanted to be.
But now, seeing your smile, I was thinking something else.
Maybe such isn’t life after all. Maybe, when we’re headed somewhere, even if we make a few detours, we find ourselves together there in the end.