Below is a short story, not related in any way to the homestead or the house, I’ve been working on for half a year. It’s a memory, flushed out into a larger story, about a crucial moment in a friendship. It’s part of my continued commitment to work on different writing styles. This excerpt below is based on a true story. Names, identifying features, and some locations have been changed to obscure the true identity of those involved. But the characters are all based on real people, or are several real people put into one character or, in some cases, are real people.
If you are here to read about the homestead, feel free to skip this short story. It does contain brief descriptions of violence.
Her name was Emily. She was taller than me by about an inch. I was still quite lanky and thin at that age, and felt like the quirky redhead that was the main character’s less attractive best friend in a teen romcom. I was 5’7, barely 120lbs, had a huge gap between my front two teeth, and a face full of freckles. She had dark brown hair, curly. She hated the curls; but I thought they were wonderful. They reminded me of the red curls my cousins are all blessed with but had somehow genetically skipped over me, leaving me with stick straight hair. Her eyes were a dark brown and her teeth were already straight, from the braces she had earlier in middle school. She also had pale skin, but after a week of summer sun, her skin turned a dark, golden brown. The golden dream all of us white girls were sold as the ideal skin color in the late 90s and early 2000s.
It was the summer of 1999. None of us could drive and we would soon be starting high school. I had moved across town during the previous school year, and could no longer walk or bike to Emily’s house. We saw each other less and less without viable transportation. In the fall, she would start at O’Gorman, the Catholic high school I had always dreamed of attending during my elementary years at St. Mary’s Catholic School. Instead, I would be heading to one of the three public high schools, Lincoln Senior High; after a tumultuous few years at it’s funnel, Patrick Henry Middle School. At the time, I didn’t realize that everyone has a tumultuous time in middle school. Trying out different images, different friends, deciding what kind of a student you are. But in the throws of those pesky middle school years, you always feel lonely and left-out of the mainstream, and as if the only person experiencing difficult situations in the whole school.
We were sitting in a booth at Applebee’s, where the air conditioning was so intense you needed to wear a sweatshirt. The restaurant was one of a few of remaining businesses in the dying Empire East Mall. Our friend, Anne, had joined us for lunch on a particularly hot Saturday afternoon.
Lunch, when you are 14 in 1999, usually consists of drinking a Shirley Temple and eating over-salted fries. Maybe if you have enough money you split a caramel fudge brownie three ways. Which is a nightmare, if you are the type of person who wants to cut the brownie into thirds. But your friend is the type of person who wants to keep the brownie intact and have each person take bites with their fork at their leisure, mixing all of your spit together on the plate. I was the first kind of person. Emily….well, she was the latter.
I had wrongly assumed we would stroll through JoAnn’s fabrics after lunch before Emily’s mom or dad came to pick us up. The fabrics use to line the walls and the center of the aisles. We had spent hours on many Saturdays looking at sewing patterns we wished we could create into real outfits with outlandish sequin and glitter fabrics.
Instead, after eating, Emily took us out to the parking lot.
Within moments a beat up forest green car, that looked like it was built during WWII and perhaps survived a bombing during the War, whizzed by. The driver swerved through the parking lot and played a song though the loudspeaker attached to the roof-it was a car horn tune like you would hear in a cartoon.
I was about to rip into this ridiculous display of poor driving and male attention-seeking behavior, when the car zipped around and pulled up alongside us.
“Hop in!” A lanky redheaded boy, equally as pale as me and not looking much older than myself said to the three of us standing in the median of the parking lot. There was a shorter boy with dark hair in the passenger seat and a third boy, that didn’t look much different, leaning on the front seats with his arms wrapped over the head rest.
“No way!” I yelled and turned to walk back inside the Applebees. Who randomly asks you to hop in their car?
“Jenna!” Hissed Emily. “Pleeeease.” I turned in surprise and was regaled with a very hushed, and very quickly spoken story. Emily had arranged the whole meeting. One of those non-distinct brown-haired boys was the boy she liked. The boy. The one she thought could be her boyfriend. They chatted on AOL Instant Messenger and he was going to public high school and they wouldn’t have many chances to meet up once the summer was over. She was adamant, I had to go with her; because he would only meet up with her if she brought friends to be with “his friends.” This was her last chance to enter high school with a boyfriend. To seal her reputation and image for four years. And she had to use me and Anne as a cover, her parents wouldn’t allow her to date until she was 16. A real friend would be cool about all of this.
One summer when I was home visiting from college, I found a binder type scrapbook that I had made in middle school and in it were several letters. One was a recommendation letter from Emily’s mom, still sealed. I had asked her if she would write a letter for me to apply to travel with a program called “People to People.” It was a way students from the US could go stay with host families in other countries and experience different cultures. I had applied and was accepted to the program that was traveling to Australia and New Zealand; but ended up not going. I was disappointed and sad I didn’t travel with the program, and had kept the recommendation letter as a souvenir for future me to read.
I opened her recommendation letter that summer day and read what she wrote. Emily’s mom had highly recommended me to attend the program but stated in her hand written letter that I was “a bit shy, not very smart and a little naive.” I laughed when I read this description of myself and thought back to what it was like to be standing in the parking lot with Emily, her pleading me to get into a car with older boys and lie to her parents about it.
Emily was a force a nature. There was no subtlety in how she presented her emotions. When she laughed, it was full and almost cartoonish. She would get so excited she would sometimes shake. You always knew where you stood with her. If she was mad or upset, she practically howled.
During eighth grade, she had stopped speaking to me for a week after a shopping trip to the Empire West Mall. She had gotten upset that I fit into a smaller size skirt than she did at The Limited. That summer I had also traveled with her family to their cabin in the Black Hills. She spent one evening chastising me for making her look bad to her parents, because I offered to help her mom with dishes every night after supper. And back home, when I would sneak into the sanctuary of St. Mary’s to pray by the tabernacle and light a candle in silence; she couldn’t contain her voice and would squeal as she ducked between the pews and tried to sneak behind the altar.
“No.” I said strongly.
“Nooo?!” She said unable to keep her cool.
“Who the hell are these boys? How old are they? They’re driving! They’ve got to be older than us. I’m not an idiot. I’m not getting into a car with people I don’t know. I’m not lying to my parents-or yours for that matter-about doing something dumb like this.” I was practically lecturing her and I could tell this maybe wasn’t going to be very affective.
She begged. She screamed. She started calling me names.
I had always envied Emily. I had no idea what her parents did for a living, but they spent a lot of time together as a family. Her dad made silver dollar pancakes every Saturday morning. They ate breakfast together at the bar counter before going to school. Her little sister made her birthday cards and drew pictures for her to hang in her room.
She was also an amazing pianist. She studied with a professor at Augustana College and traveled to piano competitions. Once I was invited to attend a local competition and I sat next to her mom. Afterwards, I told Emily she had done a great job and that she was an amazing piano player. Her mom asked if I had ever played any of the pieces we heard during the competition. They knew I took piano lessons, but I never talked about what I played. I laughed and said I didn’t play that type of music. They both looked at me, curious, and when we arrived back at their house, I played “Imagine” by John Lennon on their family piano in the living room. I turned around, proud that I hadn’t been too nervous to play for my friend and her mom; and Emily burst into laughter. “That’s not a real piano piece! I thought you took piano lessons?” When Emily left the room, still chuckling to herself, her mom conceded that Emily’s teacher was a very serious pianist who only taught students serious piano music. But that everyone has different musical tastes and that shouldn’t stop me from enjoying my pop songs.
“I’ll never talk to you again if you take away this chance for me to have a boyfriend!” She whispered in my ear, in a threatening tone. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes as she crossed her arms, satisfied her threat would change my mind.
A bit shy, not very smart, a little naive.
My home life was different than Emily’s. In the early part of my childhood, my dad was gone a lot. He worked long hours, and when I was 4, he joined the Sioux Falls Police Department. By the time he left the P.D. to work full time in his start-up electronic company in the mid-nineties, my mom was in college studying to become a nurse. His rotating day and night shifts as a cop swapped into her rotating night and day shifts at the hospital.
And in the in-between? At home I was constantly trying to avoid rage from my older sibling. I was choked more times than I can remember, I was thrown over the side rail of the stairs and landed on the bench press, I was hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, and I had boiling water from macaroni noodles poured over my hands while I held the noodle strainer after begging them to be careful and not spill the water on my hands. Once my winter coat got caught in my sibling’s car door as I exited the passenger seat, and when I knocked on the window to alert them to how I was stuck to the car, my sibling looked at me and pushed the lock button on the car door and then took off driving. I was dragged by the car a couple of feet before I managed to roll out of my coat. I had road rash over a large part of my back and had to wear a bandage across it as the wound bled and then oozed puss as it began to heal.
A bit shy, not very smart, a little naive.
“Here’s what I’m going to do.” I said, without any hesitation in my voice. “I’m going to go inside Applebees and call for a ride from the payphone and go home. You can come with me and go home yourself, if you want, but I’m not lying to my parents or your parents about what you are doing or who you are with. It’s up to you.”
Emily screamed at me. She started crying. She said she hated me and that our friendship was over.
And, it truly was.
She relented to avoid being grounded all summer and I called home for a ride.
My older sibling showed up in their sports car to pick me up, since no one else was home when I called. We had to fold the seat forward to fit myself and Anne in the back because Emily called shotgun. The car had been worked over with a huge audio system and big sub woofers in the back. My sibling liked to listen to heavy, driving rock music that sometimes bordered on goth undertones. The bass would make the whole back seat vibrate and shake. But the car was always well taken care of. It was vacuumed, washed by hand and towel dried whenever the weather would allow it.
Emily and Anne were dropped off at their respective houses and when I finally got in the front passenger seat, I apologized to my sibling for interrupting their Saturday plans. And then I thanked them for picking me up. I kept my head down while I did so. For the past year, I hadn’t been hit or mocked or touched by my sibling. My sibling was constantly in trouble when we were growing up. And despite nearly murdering me with their car and a million other incidents, I still felt protective over them. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to break the cycle of flopping between trying to protect or trying not to incite them.
“Is that your friend Emily?” My sibling asked when we were alone in the car after I had apologized.
“It was.” I said, because using the past tense seemed more appropriate considering her threat of ending our friendship.
“There’s something wrong with that girl.” My sibling said seriously. “Find some new friends.”
And we rode in silence the rest of the way home.
Yes, I really had a friend like Emily who was wildly emotional and ended our friendship over the exact situation as described above the summer prior to freshman year. I never heard from her again after that day. The physical description of Emily and the additional stories of the friendship is a combination of several occurrences from friendships I had during middle school and high school. I would probably classify these friendships as toxic now. None of the people who made up the character of Emily are currently my friends or even people I’m in contact with.
Yes, all of the things described above that my sibling did or said did really happen. No, it wasn’t all just sibling rivalry. Some, may have indeed been accidents by a careless kid (the baseball bat I’m pretty sure was an accident)….but enough were not that it has colored my memories and now makes it hard to distinguish the regular foils of childhood from actions purposely meant to harm me.
The writing prompt I was trying to follow was to write a story that jumps back and forth in time.
And finally, Emily’s mom is a real person and not made up of several different people. She is the mother of the girl who ended our friendship over the events described above. Her words from the recommendation letter (that were the inspiration for this story) were copied verbatim.