Even as a young child, I had an inclination to watch people. Not in a bad way; I didn’t gossip or be judgmental, I just observed. The ways of people interested me greatly.
When I was about six, a new family, the Burkes, moved in beside mine. Just watching them carry their things into the big blue house made me curious. I decided that day to be friends with their daughter, who was my age—surely nothing could be better than to have a friend who lived next door! But I had my own friends to be preoccupied with, and as the years passed by the right moment to befriend her never seemed to come.
Mr. Burke was a small, stocky man with a visible harshness and anger toward the world. He would grumble continuously as he stomped up and down the walk, carrying groceries or a briefcase. His wife was a plain, sad woman whose forehead was never free of wrinkles. I rarely saw either of them smile.
Because of what I saw in her parents, I would have expected their daughter Rochelle to be long-faced and sullen herself. And she was . . . sort of. But she was different. It was as if she was a step further away from reality, lost in a world of her own. Something was never present in her face. From what I could see, she never looked sad or angry, just distant. Expressionless.
Rochelle had large, mysterious gray eyes, the color of the sky on a cloudy day. They were like foggy, translucent pools that made her thoughts and the real person she was barely recognizable. It made that inner personality just a blurry silhouette seen through frosted glass.
Rochelle’s stringy, light brown hair had a silver tint to it, and hung limply over her back and shoulders, a shadow around an oval, pale face with no jarring features. She was slender, and moved with a grace I can hardly describe—free and floating, but like a sleepwalker. It was often obvious that she was unaware of the world around her.
I thought she was beautiful, a strange sort of beautiful, yes, but beautiful nonetheless. Not overly proud of my own short, round figure and short, dark hair, brown eyes and freckled face, I decided one day when I was eight that if I could change my looks I’d look like her. Something about Rochelle’s intriguing yet mysterious appearance drew me to wonder about the person it was hiding.
One Saturday in September when I was eleven, I saw Rochelle playing outside in a corner of her yard from our living room window It was one of those drizzly, depressing days when I usually stay inside and read or play solitaire, but Rochelle didn’t seem to care about the weather. I had seen her many times in that corner under the Burkes’ rowan tree, busy at some unknown activity We were still strangers to each other after five years; she went to a different school than me and I think inside I was a little nervous about approaching her. Why did I need her, anyway? As I have said, I had many friends of my own.
But that day the sociable person I was couldn’t be bothered to phone up those friends. Maybe, I thought, staring out at Rochelle, this was my chance to get to know her. And I have to admit I was dying to know what she was doing out in the yard. Tiredly, I pulled myself up off the couch. I found my mom doing laundry in the basement. “I’m going for a walk,” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t question me.
But she looked at me as if I was crazy. “A walk? You? Ida, hon, tell me what mischief you’re going out to do now.”
“I’m going to make friends with the Burke girl,” I said, sighing. My mom would question me less if I told the truth.
“OK, then,” still looking at me curiously.
Ducking around her I mounted the stairs and rushed to the door. Pulling on a sweater, my windbreaker and rubber boots, I raced out of my yard and over to Rochelle’s.
“Hello, there,” I called from the gate.
Startled, she looked up and stared at me.
“Could I come in for a second?”
She didn’t say anything, so I unlatched the gate, went through and walked over to her. For a minute we just stared at each other, and then I said, a little weaker this time, “I’m Ida Kennedy.” My courage was beginning to droop, running out rapidly like sand through a sieve—Rochelle’s stare was penetrating, and a little haunting. “I, uh, live next door.”
“I know that,” uttered Rochelle faintly. “I’ve seen you many times.”
“I was wondering . . .” I swallowed, and continued. “I was wondering if we could be friends.”
“I have no friends,” was the simple response. The girl’s voice was strained and high-pitched, yet the tone was accepting. She glanced down at the ground, and I looked too.
Before her lay rows upon rows of flat little stones. Most were gray—they reminded me somehow of Rochelle’s cold, drawn face—but others were sprinkled with red, purple or green little specks. I estimated that there were one hundred stones there.
Slowly, our eyes met.
“What are those?” I questioned, without thinking.
“They’re stones,” Rochelle informed me coldly.
“I mean, what are they for?” I said quickly.
“I don’t know,” said Rochelle in a faraway voice. “What are you for? What am I for?”
“Oh.” I felt stupid. “Well, I’ll go now” The light pitter-patter of rain roughened slightly.
“OK.” Rochelle turned her head away, and left.
I couldn’t believe it. Never in my whole life had I failed to make friends with someone. I was used to getting along with my peers, if I wanted to. What a nasty shock!
After that, I didn’t bother Rochelle again. I watched her from my bedroom window, though, as she played with those stones. Sometimes I felt angry toward her for treating me the way she had, but mostly it was just pity.
* * *
“Ida! Someone’s at the door for you!” My older brother Simon’s loud voice broke into my thoughts. Quickly, I put down the book I was reading and hurried downstairs. It was April, only days before my twelfth birthday.
“Is it Sarah?” I asked Simon as I went through the kitchen to get to the door.
“No,” he answered. “It’s someone else.”
It turned out to be Rochelle! I gawked at her as she stood in the doorway. Her feet were bare and she was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. She looked more real than she usually did; there was color in her cheeks and her eyes were brighter, almost blue.
“Hello, Ida,” she said quite pleasantly. There was a hint of shyness in her voice but her face didn’t show it. “Come out and play.”
I raised my eyebrows. What did Rochelle mean by “play” exactly?
“All right,” I said, slipping on my rubber boots. After calling to my dad that I was going out I followed her through the door. She led me straight into her yard.
“Look.” Rochelle’s voice was soft and gentle. “It’s spring.”
She was right about that. I could hear Canada geese honking in the sky, announcing their arrival, and the constant drip of water from trees, rooftops, everything.
“Let me show you something.” Rochelle brought me over to the rowan tree. I could smell the fresh, rich soil that squelched beneath her muddy feet.
“Look.” She pointed to the place beneath the tree where she kept her stones.
A snowbank against her house was melting and a tiny creek had been formed down to the tree. It rippled and sparkled in the warm sun. But that wasn’t all. Every stone had been perfectly arranged on either side of the stream, placed in clusters.
Wonderingly, I looked up at Rochelle.
“Those are my pebbles,” she explained. “They are a kingdom. I have had them since I was eight. They are my family.”
Her family? A kingdom of stones?
“They all have names, but I can’t tell you those.”
“You have names for every one of them?” I interrupted, amazed.
“Of course,” she said, and a dreamy smile blossomed over her face. “They’re all different, like people. They all have different personalities, too.”
“This is the queen.” She bent over and held up a small purple one. “She’s kind to the people, and so is the king. They have a daughter.” The princess stone was a tiny white one. “But my favorite is the princess’s best friend. She’s poor, but very nice.” She kissed the stones and returned them.
I had a million questions on my mind, overwhelmed by Rochelle and her world of stones. But the words that escaped were exactly what I didn’t want to say. “Um . . . Rochelle. . . why wouldn’t you be friends with me last fall?”
Rochelle sighed, and her thin shoulders sagged. “I don’t know.” She said no more, but looked sad until I awkwardly asked her something else about her stones.
But from then on, we were friends. I came every day I didn’t have too much homework and we played with the stones. Sometimes we went inside, but Rochelle didn’t seem to want to be near her parents, so most of our time was spent out in the bloomy spring world. Often on cold days I’d invite her over to my house, but she always refused with some feeble excuse. The two of us became close, though, and after some time Rochelle even told me the names of some of her stones.
I continued to see my other friends, but soon began to find them boring. I told Sarah, one of my best friends, about Rochelle, and she wanted to meet her, but Rochelle wouldn’t have anything to do with anyone but me.
Sometimes I found myself thinking it odd that two people like us should be friends. I enjoyed being around people and loved a crowd, but Rochelle was quiet and a loner. We were opposites.
One day in the summer I went over to find her crying and running the stones through her fingers.
“Oh Ida!” she wailed when she saw me. “Normally I’d send you away if I was like this, but . . .”
“It’s OK.” I went over and put an arm around her. Inside I was alarmed, even if my voice was calm. I had never seen her like this.
“Ida,” she wept, “my parents have divorced.”
“Oh . . . I . . .” For a person who watched people I felt very ignorant. “I’m sorry.”
“My father’s been planning on moving out for years. They fight so much. But he only did just now.”
“So. . . where did your father go?”
“To an apartment downtown. I will stay with him for half the time.”
I imagined her trying to play with her stones in an apartment. “I’m sorry,” I repeated.
“You don’t have to be,” sniffed Rochelle. There was a pause. “These stones are just stones. Sometimes lately I’ve gotten so mad at them I think I’ll chuck them down the gutter. I probably will sometime. They’re not as good company as you.”
Her words touched me, and I hugged her tighter.
* * *
The next day Rochelle left to stay with her father for a week. I was bored to death the whole time she was away.
“What’s the matter with you?” demanded an exasperated Sarah at a sleepover at her house. “Ida, what has your friend Rochelle done to you?”
The day after Rochelle came back I went over to see her. I found her sitting by the rowan tree, stock still and staring into space.
“Go home, Ida,” she ordered icily, without turning her head. “Don’t come near me. I’m not in a good mood.” Her eyes were empty, and her mouth was drawn in a thin, tight line.
I stumbled backwards, stunned. I had no idea what to make of this unwelcome reception.
That’s when I noticed that there were no stones arranged painstakingly on the ground. The grass was bare. Rochelle had disposed of her kingdom of stones.
I went back to my house, seeking refuge in my bedroom to think.
I was sure she’d want me back again. She had said not long ago that I was very important to her. Yet, underneath my knowledge, I was hurt.
But Rochelle was Rochelle, and deeper down I didn’t want her to change. In a way, she was like the moon, white and beautiful, but never exactly the same as I’d seen her last. She had so many different phases; she could be a thin sliver, a majestic white globe, or sometimes, I couldn’t even find her in a sea of black. She could be cowering behind the clouds, then gleaming brilliantly, suspended among the stars.
She is, to this day, the queerest person I’ve ever met.