Somebody I Used to Know
You know how it is. There are people in your life that you were so close to you were almost sisters, kids you thought you’d know forever. Then real life comes along. You don’t have class together anymore, or you get jobs and can’t hang out watching Real World anymore because you have to pay for the insurance on your car or your mom will snatch the keys. Things change. You meet new people. You get a text from an old friend and suddenly realize you haven’t talked to her in weeks. Maybe you try to stay tight, to find time for each other. Maybe you just accept that sometimes growing up means moving on. Best friends drift and become Facebook friends. If she doesn’t show up in your newsfeed, that girl you snuck out with in high school might not even exist anymore in your world.
That’s how it was with Carrie. We met when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore. She hung out with the Goth kids. I hung out with the kids who swiped cigarettes from their parents. There was an alley about two blocks away from our school where girls would congregate after school to smoke. I walked down one day with my buddy Celia. She wanted to get stoned before her dad picked her up. Carrie was there with a girl from her class. I knew her name but hadn’t ever talked to her. Celia had just enough weed for a bowl sealed in a cellophane wrapper. She ripped at the melted plastic with her teeth, and it ripped right in half. Her pot dropped to the pavement. Everybody in the alley dropped to a crouch and started pressing their fingers onto the concrete, depositing flecks of marijuana into Celia’s open palm.
Crisis averted, she loaded her pipe and took a hit.
After some mandatory theatrical coughing, she passed me the pipe. I didn’t smoke pot, so she called me a square and offered it to Carrie. “Nope. I’m a square, too.”
The pipe made its way around the small circle of girls. Everybody else took a hit. I smoked my Winston almost down to the filter and asked Carrie if she wanted the last drag. She wasn’t smoking, but I was trying to be friendly. Turns out, she didn’t smoke anything at all. I dropped the butt and ground it out with my shoe. Everybody but Carrie was still huddled around Celia. I announced I was walking back so my mom wouldn’t know I was down in the alley, and Carrie said goodbye, too.
We headed up the hill together. I asked, “So, you don’t get high?”
“No. I don’t know why. I just don’t.”
“But like, aren’t you an artist?”
“Yeah, but, you know, I just don’t.”
She asked how I knew she was an artist. I told her I always admired her oils in the art studio. I had Art third period but wasn’t any good. She had Art fifth period and was amazing. I checked the progress of her work every day. She was flattered. She told me so, and seemed surprised that I’d noticed her paintings.
I didn’t know it until later, but Carrie was always surprised when people noticed her. I’m sure you know the type -- talented but unassuming. Pretty, but not vain. Smart, but not a know-it-all. That was Carrie. She painted a winter landscape that won a contest and hung in D.C. for a year, but you’d never know because she’d never brag about it. She just wasn’t that kind of girl.
We became good friends in an instant. She introduced me to grunge rock and I introduced her to my hoodlum friends. Soon, we were inseparable. We passed notes in the hallways. We talked on the phone for hours after class. We hung out every weekend, walking around the Old Market or at her house watching The Crow for the nine-billionth time. In high school, there was always a question floating around about us being “too close.” Like maybe when I spent the night at her house, we shared a bed and the same pillow. It wasn’t true but we liked the idea of people seeing us as best friends and lovers, so we never bothered to dismiss the idea publicly.
As we got older, sometimes we played up the lesbian angle. When Carrie was a senior, we spent a night squirreled away in my bedroom trying on each other’s clothes. We started modeling for each other, and then recruited my sister to take pictures of us posing. One thing led to another and after a midnight run to a 24-hour Walgreen’s for one-hour development, we had a whole roll of fashion photos. The most provocative shot -- me, straddling a chair wearing red Joe Boxer panties and a strategically placed red feather boa, with Carrie leaning into me, face next to mine, breasts pushed up against my shoulders, her hip thrust out to the side, both of us laughing because it was so absurd -- was too good to keep to ourselves. We made copies.
We both kept one, we sent one to a buddy in Marine Boot Camp, and we gave one to a tattoo artist. He traded it for a freehand tattoo of a black sun outline between Carrie’s breasts. To this day, it is the sexiest tattoo I’ve ever seen.
Oh man, the tattoos. Carrie was obsessed with them. By the time she graduated high school, she had sixteen. Her parents were oblivious. She had a Wiccan symbol on her right thigh, a huge tribal dragon on each hip, the Capricorn sign on her left thigh, a couple of tribal designs on her shoulders and the back of her neck, a lizard on her toe, and that sweet little black sun between her boobs. She was careful to always wear sleeves and keep her long brown hair down. I never worried her parents would find out. Her mom didn’t like that I was a half-a-pack-a-day teenager, but she always made sure there was a coffee can full of sand on the back patio and she never called my folks. Carrie could do whatever she wanted. She had a lock on her bedroom door. When her mom found out about her tongue ring, she yelled for a couple of minutes and then it was all over. Plus, Carrie was eighteen. She could leave. She always said she wanted to, that Omaha wasn’t enough for her.
Carrie always said she’d go, but she never did. When I left Omaha for Basic Training, we stayed up all night a few days before. She cried. I cried. But she was a faithful pen-pal, and she wrote me nearly every day. My Drill Sergeant’s eyebrows went up the first night he did mail call. Carrie’s letter was sealed with a hot-pink lipstick kiss.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell, right Cross?”
“Whatever you say, Drill Sergeant.”
On my Christmas break, Carrie was with my parents when they picked me up from the airport. The next day, we went to get tattoos together. Of course, they matched. (Once, in some dingy apartment bedroom with Marilyn Manson posters on the wall, she meant to say, “Honey, pass me that Mountain Dew.” She said “bunny” instead, and it’s been our nickname for each other ever since.) After a long discussion about the merits and disadvantages of having Bambi’s Thumper permanently inked on our bodies, we both got the Chinese symbol for “rabbit.” Mine was blue, on my spine. Carrie’s was black, on the soft curve of her belly. We told everyone they touched when we slept. She cried when I left after the New Year.
Months later, when I came home for good, things were different. Carrie missed me while I was gone, but she’d started spending more and more time with her friend Julia. They were old enough to go to the bar together. I wasn’t. I missed her, so I convinced her to give me her social security card and her school transcripts. I marched right on down to the DMV and had a state ID made. It meant that we’d have to meet up separately so anyone looking at IDs wouldn’t notice the same name, but we were back. Party on.
When they say, “You can never go home again,” they aren’t lying. Too much had changed in the six months I was gone. Carrie and I still hung out, but we just weren’t the same. One night, we cabbed it back to her apartment and passed out together. The next morning, I was hung over and dehydrated. Instead of dragging myself to the kitchen for a Big Gulp cup of water and then parking on the couch to lounge around, I found myself stuffing my feet into shoes and looking around for my purse. I had things to do, and spending a whole day with Carrie would be a waste of time.
I still loved her and called her my friend, but we just weren’t the same old Carrie and Steph. Gone were the days of me blowing up her pager with 143, the numeric version of “I love you.” No more impromptu afternoons jumping into her dad’s pool in our underwear and driving home bra-less. We were busy with our own lives. I spent all of my free time with my new boyfriend, Chad. Carrie hung out with us once or twice, but she had a boyfriend, too.
Besides, I was restless in Omaha and she was nestling with Reuben in their new apartment. When I decided to leave for active duty, I took Carrie out to lunch at Village Inn to tell her. All of our most important discussions seemed to take place across sticky tables.
“So, like leaving leaving?”
“Yeah, to Texas. Crazy, huh?”
“For how long?”
“Year and a half.”
“Are you scared?”
“Duh. What if nobody likes me?”
“Bunny, you’ll be fine. Everybody loves you.”
We made all the same promises we’d made each other before – we’d write all the time, and call each other after (after 9, when the rates dropped for long distance), and she’d come down to visit the first chance she could. She cried a little, we both did, but they weren’t the same desperate tears we’d cried the year before. This wasn’t the sharp knife of sudden separation that cut us before, but the dull blade of inevitability. We both knew that something had shifted.
She made it to my going away party, but she didn’t stay long. There was a concert that she wanted to go to. I didn’t complain - out loud - but I didn’t write to her when I got to Texas.
The silence on my end was petty. We pinky swore at lunch that we’d be together forever, no matter how far apart we were in miles or friendship. And I knew that it wasn’t all her fault. People grow up. They make new friends. Who were we to defy the natural order of life in your twenties? Still, when I used my calling card to make the long-distance call to my mom, she chided me for not letting Carrie know I was safe and sound, and adapting to life in Fort Hood.
“Like she’s waiting around to hear from me, Ma.”
“Well, she’s called here every day to find out if you have a phone number yet.”
“Whatever. I’ll call her.”
“You know she worries.”
I didn’t call. A week after I had a permanent address in Fort Hood, a perfumed envelope arrived in my mail box.
You made it! How is it? Do you know anybody yet? I miss you. Last week I had to park in Rapeville and walk all by myself to Little King. If anybody messes with me now, I can tell em I’ve got a badass soldier watching my back.
She went on for a page and a half about life and boys and concerts, all neatly swirled together with her lovely, looping cursive on stationary I’d bought for her at a gift shop in Wisconsin. She never mentioned that I didn’t call, or that she had to get the address from my mom. That night, when she answered her cell phone I promised I’d never be such a shit again. She laughed and told me it was okay, she shouldn’t have skipped out on me to go to the Ranch Bowl, anyway.
When I moved home from Texas, we made an effort to stay better friends. Maybe our phone calls didn’t last for three hours anymore, but we talked a couple times a week. We had separate lives but still carved time out for each other. Every other month we had a girls’ night. Carrie and I, and whoever else wanted to join us, would get all dolled up and go out someplace fancy (minimum wage and paying rent fancy, at least) for dinner. Then we’d go out for drinks and flirt like we didn’t both have live-in boyfriends. We always ended up at Village Inn, drinking iced-tea and eating pancakes, swapping stories about the good ol’ days.
One night, many hours and several cocktails after a dinner at Vincenzo’s (the first place either of us ever ate a pine nut) we went to a 24-hour Village Inn to keep our night going. We ran into some guys we used to know from the Old Market. For a couple hours, it was just like back then. Carrie laughed at my foul mouth when somebody arched an ice-cube precisely into my cleavage. The guys told us all about how stoned they were and stabbed at our pancakes. Somebody told a terrible joke and we all told him he wasn’t funny, but Carrie laughed anyway, head back, shoulders shaking, mouth wide.
Maybe we weren’t as close as we were before, but there was still a real friendship between us. It didn’t matter that our relationship changed shape as long as we still loved each other. And we did. When she caught her boyfriend on the phone with a girl at 3 am, she kicked him out for the night and I talked to her until she the sun came up. When my little white cat, Jupiter, vanished from my life, Carrie drove to my apartment and helped me put up posters.
Right before I left for my first deployment, Carrie took me out to Village Inn. She told me that she was pregnant. I asked her if she’d told Rueben yet, and if she wanted to be stuck with him forever. It wasn’t the best direction to steer the conversation, and she was furious.
“What the fuck does that even mean, do I want to be stuck with him?”
“He’s a dick to you all the time. Nobody ever sees you anymore.”
“I just like hanging out with him. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal.”
“Every time you call me you tell me something awful he’s said, and he cheated on you with that chick from Doug’s band. He’s a dick”
“Whatever. I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“I’ll be happy for you if you want, but you don’t have to do this. He’s not going to suddenly be Mr. Wonderful. It doesn’t work like that. I know money’s tight. If you need some help, I’ll pay for an abortion.”
She didn’t want to make a scene, so she didn’t yell. She just tipped her glass ever so slightly, pouring her cup of water all over my food. It puddled on my plate and spilled over. I let it run across the table and run into my lap. When my crotch was icey-cold and soaked, I looked up and she was grinning. I grinned back.
Six months later I was in Iraq. I ordered her all of the bedding on her baby registry and had it shipped to her mom’s house. I didn’t meet Zooey until she was seven.
I found out I was deploying again right after my 28th birthday. I had to bump my wedding up six months. Carrie wasn’t even an afterthought on the guest list. I didn’t talk to her again until she got a FaceBook account and I was living in Kuwait. Her life had grown smaller. She worked and hung out with her kids. That was pretty much it.
When I came home, we were back on the semi-regular schedule of phone calls and occasional lunches. I bet if you totaled all the hours we spent with each other at home in high school, it would turn into months – maybe even years. It seems almost impossible, but I don’t think Carrie ever came to the house Chad and I bought together. I went over to her place a couple of times. It was smelly, like too many cats lived there, but I pretended not to notice.
On the phone, I could hear the familiar despondent notes in her voice and asked her if she was doing okay. Was she on any meds? Had she talked to her counselor lately?
“Honestly, everything’s alright.”
“I know it’s not.”
“Rueben cheated on me. Like, the whole time I was pregnant with Jade.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. You don’t have to stay.”
“Where else am I going to go? Listen, the kids are home. I’ll talk to you later.”
“You know you can call me anytime, right? Love you.”
“Yeah, yeah, gotta go.”
She killed herself in the dumpy bathroom of the house she rented. Rueben came home and found her. He called to tell me but I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t want to talk to him. The next morning, a mutual friend called. When she asked me if I’d heard the news, I thought for a second she was going to tell me Carrie was pregnant again. I couldn’t make sense of what she was saying. I cried for days and days and days. I’m crying right now.
About the author:
Stephanie J. Cleary is a Writer's Workshop student at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The 13th Floor, The Metropolitan, Nature's Companion, NEBRASKAland Magazine, Gravel, and These Fragile Lilacs. She reads books like an addict, loves the Fourth of July, and makes the best egg-salad sandwiches on the planet.