Emily and I were the best of friends.
I remember those times when we were four, licking melted ice cream off our fingers in the burning sun. I remember fifth-grade days spent frolicking in the pool in hot and freezing water alike. I remember the seventh-grade blues, where the sorrow of both of our failed romantic endeavors were shared equally and sympathized upon by the other. I remember that we were inseparable.
Our birthdays were within a week of one another's. Instead of holding one big party, as it seemed to be the tradition for friends like us, we held two huge ones. The sun smiled for us on our parties always. We were shocked the year that clouds sneaked up on us and hid the sky; it went against everything we had always believed in. Soon, it had us under the sheets for cover.
"Hey," I whispered in the barest scratch, pointing at the sky outside the window, "do you think that someone up there is mad at us?" I was afraid that whoever that someone was, he wouldn't think twice before thunder-bolting a little girl who affronted him.
"I dunno," she replied, revealing a profound secret, "but the Rainy Day Man isn't mad. Mommy told me that he's an old man who gives good girls presents on rainy days to cheer them up. She said not to tell anyone, 'cause if everyone knew, then everyone would be good on rainy days and he would become all overworked like Santa." I nodded at this wisdom. Most kids were whiny on rainy days, and Emily certainly was a whiner. It was with hope and wonder that we waited for our gift until sleep arrived to harness us into her land of dreams.
But moment passed with time and memory faded with moment. Seven, eight, nine, ten . . . We were still together, like I always knew we would be. Eleven, twelve, thirteen . . . We remained the best of friends in spite of everything life threw at us.
* * *
In our eighth-grade year, Emily caught a crush on Chris Hubbic, a black-haired, pale-skinned, pierced-eared Goth. For the life of me I could never figure out why, and she admitted that she didn't know either. The very fact that the attraction existed was to be the most sacred of secrets. I, being the faithful friend that I was, swore to never tell. Alas, I should have known better. My mouth was never really good at following the instructions my brain gave it.
"Really, I only told one person!" I whimpered, trying in vain to explain it to Emily the next day. "I really have no clue why everyone seems to know!" But what can words do to mend trust once ripped? I watched as she turned a deaf ear to my pleas, instead stomping off to weave through the crowds in the hallway until she was lost in the sea of students.
The first day after, I almost wondered if she was playing some sort of twisted game. She avoided me on the bus, and moved to the opposite side of the room when I walked into my classroom first hour. And soon, I realized it was much, much more than a game. Our long-held belief that we would be companions until the end of creation had crumbled into dust beneath our feet.
We gradually drifted apart, each adopting a new set of friends. Our mutual friends learned to never talk about one in front of the other. When Emily's birthday arrived, I watched as all the members of our former set of friends were invited to her birthday party. All except for me.
The day of the party, my rebellious feet carried me to a store, where I bought a small gift and some wrapping paper. I wrapped it up with surprising care—after all, why should I care if the present turned out messy?—and had my mother drive me to Emily's home. Inside, music was blasting so heavily that it seemed to weigh down the house. I heard voices, and one by one I identified them. Jenny, Kelly, Shelly, and Erin. Julie, Megan, and Melanie . . .
I paused there at the door for an eternity, wavering, deciding. Then, with a sudden burst of adrenaline, I realized that I might as well do what I came to do.
Ding! The sound of the doorbell was faint to my ears and drowned out by the screams of laughter and music within. I waited, my nervousness rushing back and forming a knot in my throat. One minute, then two, then three. No reply. In a surge of rage, I dug my heels into the cement so heavily that I left a dirt mark with my shoe when I turned and left. If she hated me enough to not open the door, then fine. She wasn't going to get a present either.
The next week, for my birthday, I didn't have a party at all. Perhaps it just wasn't the same without Emily. Perhaps I wanted to show her that some people had the decency to not just go ahead and invite everyone but one person. In a way, the incident at her birthday party was like a final seal to a truth that way back somewhere in my heart I had refused to admit: Our friendship had been blown away by the wind, and it was not about to fly back.
Something in me clicked that day. Somehow, I became the one who tried to stay as far away as possible on the bus and in the classrooms. After we graduated from middle school, we both departed to different high schools. Emily simply disappeared from my life.
* * *
High school was amazingly busy. So many clubs; so little time! I was a member of Future Problem Solving, Young Writers, Spanish Club, and Math Club. I joined our school's volunteer organizations, SADD and Project LEAD. I was in a constant race for volunteer points so that I could become a prestigious member of one of these two clubs.
By my tenth-grade year, doing odd jobs here and there for the volunteer organizations had become habitual. On a dark, rainy Friday about two weeks before my birthday, my mother drove me to a high school in another town to supervise mentally retarded kids at a football game.
I sat with my friend on paper bags on the bleachers in ice-cold rain that stung our cheeks and soaked into our clothing. In front of us, the three mentally retarded kids were shielded by huge umbrellas, comfortably sipping hot chocolate and wolfing down popcorn. Large raindrops rolled from the sides of the umbrellas onto our laps. My fingers were frozen numb, and I couldn't move them. From somewhere that seemed far, far away came the scream, "There's eleven naked guys over there with GO ADAMS HIGH painted on them!"
"Aren't they cold?" was my only reaction. The night drew on slowly and painfully. My friends and I watched silently as the mentally challenged kids departed one by one in their heated cars. A certain part of my brain that was only partly awake wondered why I hadn't gotten frostbite. Indeed, there was no sensation in my digits. I clumsily removed my cell phone from a pocket and called my mother to pick me up. The high school was far from my house, and it was difficult to find in the dark. I waited until all my friends had gone. There was no one else there.
I had always been afraid of the dark. The night was black and lonely, an unwelcome stranger that I wished I could chase away. I wanted to sit down right there and cry forever, not even knowing why.
"Sharon? Are you all right? You look terrible."
I gasped, turning to meet a face that had all but vanished from memory. "Emily?" Suddenly, the night wasn't so dark.
"Hey," she replied softly. We stared at one another for a while, unmoving. "Waiting for a ride?" she asked.
"Mind if I wait with you? I mean, you look so lonely and all, and it's so dark and cold . . . "
Mind? Please stay with me . . . "What . . . what are you doing here?" I asked uncertainly.
"I was working at the concession stands," she replied, not unkindly.
At her tone, I gained courage. "Really? I . . . I was supervising some mentally challenged kids." I laughed nervously. It evolved into a laugh of heartfelt joy. Like a snowball, I started talking slowly and apprehensively and picked up speed and energy on the way until I burst into a torrent of words that jumbled up with each other and made little sense to even my ears. ''And wow, is that your car? You can drive? I'm so jealous! You mean you actually don't mind talking to me? I mean, with you not wanting me at your party and all, and I guess I have too much stupid pride . . . "
She looked up, and began speaking very, very softly. "You know, it's dumb of me, but during that last birthday party in eighth grade, I was hoping the whole time that you would show up anyway, and then everything would be OK again. I should have just invited you in the first place . . . "
If she had been hoping for me, then why . . . ? Could it possibly be that the music was so loud that she didn't even hear me? The doorbell had sounded faint even to my ears. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Don't blame it on yourself," I suddenly said with a smile. I now knew what had broken our friendship. "Blame it on . . . "
"Stupid pride." We both said it at the same time. And we laughed.
"Do you think that the Rainy Day Man will give us a present today?" I asked in a five-year-old voice, reminiscent of the way we talked way back when. I had first asked that question. Thinking back to the time that we had waited a whole night for our gift from the Rainy Day Man, we both burst into more bubbles of laughter. Finally, Emily was able to recover her breath. She looked at me, and I looked at her. "I think he already did," she said.
The next week, in the mail, I received an invitation to a birthday party.