Today we begin our first Essay Week, featuring the work of a new writer each day. Enjoy this piece opening the week.
by Jennifer Fliss
Start with the heart. Aorta. Ventricles. Atria.
Now, break it. It’s only broken if you hear the snap. Otherwise it’s only injured.
You may think this is a love story, an anatomy of love story. A break your heart and learn to love again story. And it is. But it’s not over a lover, but a friend. A BFF, as we said in those days. HBD, Girlfriend. We acronymed before Twitter.
Her blond Lutheran hair fell in waves, her smile undisclosed. Later I learned she preferred to hide her teeth. We met in a Communications class, required for all freshmen. Desks were arranged in an elementary school-style horseshoe. She was quiet. Even in college, they threatened to move my seat for all the words I needed to get out of my mouth in that fifty-minute class. Whatever it was, it couldn’t wait. Later, we laughed about our early misconceptions of each other.
When you were nineteen and in college, friendships became something more sustaining, something more than the blood brothers and sisters of your youth. You no longer had to slice your skin or spit and shake on it. The blood, racing through both your young bodies was enough. Bringing blood and life to your farthest reaches. You drank. You laughed. You held each other. You cried at the mailboxes in your dorm. You began to speak of the horrors of your childhood because this was the first time you weren’t living in it. That domestic tragedy was over. The credits ran over the Lifetime T.V. movie still-frame; the one with the cheesy title. The one that made you weep. She told you that she also had a man who broke her when she was young. You marvel at how she put her body back together. And to keep it so lovely. Even though you didn’t break skin, together, you drew the bad blood out.
You ran. In the dusk of a Midwestern town, you both belted out James Taylor’s Whenever I see your smiling face! as you wobbled and believed you were working your muscles, which were still youthful. But if you left them unused for a while, they grew a bit stale. It was the beginning of aging, but you and your friend didn’t know that yet. You just thought you had too many White Russians or melon balls the night before. Or the shots they called blow jobs, where you were supposed to hold your hands behind your back and use only your mouth while the crowd at the bar cheered.
You and your friend became roommates; shared an apartment. Began your own version of domesticity. You fried red onions in soy sauce and called it dinner. You ate chicken wings and pizza and when you were awake at 2 am, it was naturally time for another meal. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight meal. Late night television, before hundreds of channels and DVR – this was around the year 2000 – provided entertainment that children these days could never know. Ron Popeil and his chicken and middle-of-the-night surreal cartoons before Robot Chicken was a thing. You laughed as if your life depended on it. It did. Despite your extra weight, she loved you. She thought her own lanky body took up too much space. You dismissed her worries.
Mount Vesuvius would have been jealous of the mountain range on your face. You figured this was why you’d never been kissed. Your friend may have suspected it was other things, but didn’t say. She was the beautiful one. She was all those other things too, kind, intelligent, hilarious. Loved Mick Jagger.
In out-seasoned Santa Claus pajamas, you turned the music up. Danced in your apartment to OutKast. Knew all the words to Big Pimpin’ and sang about getting it on tonite. You lived on a busy corner, one block from frat row. At least ten people knocked at the door to come to your party; heard from the street, a real rager, they assumed. You turned away the uninvited guests.
Hands and Hair.
You ate meatballs that you formed with your own hands and didn’t put on make-up or brush your hair.
At twenty-two, she got liposuction. Her thighs had been perfect.
It is at her wedding. You say something meant to be funny. It had, in fact, been a joke between you. But in that sensitive moment that is a woman’s wedding, the joke is misread. It is seen as a noxious gas that you’ve breathed out. She is poisoned by it and everything else you will say that weekend, will be seen as toxic. No matter that it was the most beautiful wedding you’ve been to. No matter that, true to your habit, you gushed about how wonderful it was. She didn’t hear any of that. You should have stayed silent.
The Body Breaks Down.
Singe the eyelashes, break the bones. They weren’t brittle – you thought. But one snap, all of a sudden, you were no longer friends. RIP BFF. Your body felt it, the first heartbreak. The only. No lover had done this. No one else ever will.
Five years later, when you think about it, when you write these words, you wish to tell her Congrats on your baby girl! You sob when you see the birth announcement on another friend’s wall. You want to send her gifts, tell her stories that helped you in those early tortuous days of motherhood.
She will, no doubt, nourish the little creature well. Your friend who is not your friend will try to perfect motherhood. Everything will have to be perfect. You will keep the memories of your bodies together in a small compartment in your head. You will occasionally share stories of true, strong friendship with your own daughter, of those ripening years and of the heartache. She will ask what happened, and you will probably say you really don’t know.