I first met Jerria Bates* the way I met all of my friends in elementary school: I was sitting alone at a classroom table pretending to do something interesting, and one day she appeared and asked if I wanted to be her friend. It was the fourth grade, and we had all just read “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.” Jerria looked exactly like the cover’s depiction of Charlotte Doyle: auburn curly hair, thick-cheeked and sincere-eyed. Coincidentally, she was also battling pirates, but I wouldn’t learn about that until later.
“Okay,” I said.
We were almost immediately inseparable, sharing a love for books and bouncy balls, and she was the first friend I had that wasn’t usually mean or hurtful to me in some way. Technically speaking, the day that Jerria and I became friends, I was “taken” — claimed as a best friend of another girl, as girls do. But Jerria convinced me that it wasn’t right for alleged best friend to push and hit me, “she’s a bully, and besides, she smells bad” — and so I dropped Treya like a disappointing one-night fling from Senor Frog’s, and Jerria and I commenced with sleep overs, playing with Barbies and her pet hamster. Not to mention jokes about our teacher, Bob — an acronym, we decided, for Body Odor Bob. Smell was a big thing in the fourth grade.
After my little sister got a knife pulled on her by a homeless man during recess, our parents decided it was high time we got the hell out of that neighborhood, and thus ended my brief education by the city of Minneapolis. We moved to the suburbs.
The strange thing is, I don’t remember a single thing about leaving. I don’t remember my last day in Mount Sinai, tearful embraces, goodbyes, nothing. For all I know we never said goodbye, she was out sick that day, it didn’t occur to us. But afterwards we started writing each other letters, back and forth, pages and pages and pages.
What’s new? Where are you right now? I have a cat, this is her name, she is walking all over the stationary. Have you ever ridden a horse? Boys are gross and stupid. I think I like this boy.
And we didn’t stop for five years. I have a box in my mother’s basement of this girl’s life, decorated with Lisa Frank stickers.
Towards the end, they get fewer and far between. I remember the letter that made me aware, for the first time, of the awkwardness of financial differences in society. “I like reading your letters,” Jerria had written, “because they help me imagine a nicer life than mine.” But this is one of the last letters I’d ever get from her. I don’t know who stopped writing first, but whenever I try to recall why we stopped writing, I think of that sentence.
At some point in suburbia, my mother, sister and I became a spiritual family again, having left the Lutherans and their warnings of damnation years ago in fear: we tried a Unitarian church in Uptown. I went to Sunday school there for a time, participated in a few Christmas pageants, and then, around the age of fourteen, I got an invitation in the mail to go rock climbing on the cliffs of Lake Superior for their Coming of Age program.
I spent days planning my sneakers, the comfortable pants, the books and pens and notebooks I’d bring. I’d reinvent myself here, I thought. I’d be the cool one, confident, approachable. This trip would be my blank slate, and when I returned I’d be Prettier, Smarter, Better Dressed and More Admired. The day came, we threw it all in the car and suddenly I was plopped in the church parking lot in front of a van, other teenagers milling about confidently as if they’d lipglossed the soles of their shoes.
I . . . didn’t . . . know . . . what to do, how to start a conversation, who to ask.
It was a moment of desperation, loneliness, awareness of desperation caused by loneliness and the necessity of disguising this cause and effect relationship. I was still the girl sitting alone at the classroom table again, only it was awful now: I was aware, and ashamed. Suddenly my shifting gaze fell upon a girl stuffing her patched backpack on top of the others. Her hair was dyed all the colors of a faded rainbow, frizzed at the ends with her curls and pulled back into an unruly ponytail.
“Jj . . . Jerria?” I squeaked.
I was in my Lilith Fair phase at the time out of necessity: flat-chested, flowy-skirted and often mistaken for the wrong gender, I’d been advised recently by a doctor to never wear eye makeup or my lids would likely swell up like baseballs. Meanwhile, unmistakably-Jerria was all voluptuous curves, hid expertly under an XL Greenday t-shirt and baggy black pants. She turned and her eyes met mine.
“No fucking shit,” she smiled quietly, and crushed a cigarette under her boot.
That rock climbing retreat will remain one of the highlights of my life: I was making new friends, skinny dipping in forty degree weather, backing confidently off the jagged edges of cliffs and lowering myself into the unknown ether, dangling by a dirty rope and cheered on by strangers. We hauled gear up tiny forest trails, climbed all day and then dragged our exhausted bodies back to the car a million miles away. It also didn’t hurt that I was acquiring a very pleasant sort of crush on one of the boys, a fifteen-year-old who had somehow mastered at an early age the art of the casual touch — a brush on the arm, a hand on the knee. (Note to future self: watch out for the confident ones.)
Slowly, however, it was becoming apparent that the reunion portion of the retreat would be no picnic. Jerria and I found ourselves in very different stages of the growing up and rebelling process: so much so that I found myself completely unable to speak to her without sweating. She’d sneak off in the woods to sneak a cigarette, turned her loud obscenity-riddled music up while doing the dishes, talked freely about hand jobs and birth control: I hadn’t even kissed anyone yet, and to be honest the desire to kiss anyone hadn’t even quite kicked in (we call my type the “late bloomer” as if puberty were a slow and beautiful thing, but in reality it just meant that I was incredibly lame for the majority of my adolescence). I stiffened around my former confidante, eyeing her warily. Jerria was trouble now.
And then one morning I woke up and the boy who’d been touching my shoulder was touching hers.
I watched them scamper off together and cried myself to sleep that last pitch black night in Northern Minnesota. She’d taken love away from me, that bitch! Petulant, I ignored and despised her, told myself it was because she was “easy” (no word is easier recourse to the heartbroken). I continued to blame her even months afterwards, long after I’d seen her for the last time, for “stealing” this guy, for “ruining” him. I’d think of her as my face crumpled into sad origami cranes at church group breakfasts, every time this boy leaned into my ear and whispered savagely, “hey Adrianne, guess who I fucked last night?”
Frankly, the kid just had problems, but you aren’t aware of things like therapy at the age of fifteen. You assume everyone’s behavior is a direct result of you or The Other Woman. If John had been kind before and was cruel now, it was obviously due to some kind of corruption, and I hadn’t done it.
It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that I had, in fact, been betrayed by no one. After all, boys lose interest, that’s not a crime (was he ever interested, really?), it was nothing out of the ordinary for two troubled kids to unite at a retreat (were they ever more than friends, really?); in fact, the only real oddity in the situation was in how ready I was to abandon her and all those boxes of letters, to spit upon coincidence or fate or whatever had drawn us back together at some religious rock climbing retreat in the middle of nowhere and say, nah.
We all piled back into the van and drove home at the end of the week. My last memory of her is standing at the end of that cabin’s dirt driveway, smoking a cigarette and staring at something in the sky. She briefly reminded me of Charlotte Doyle again, gazing into the distance like that.
I could have gone up to her then. I could have asked questions, I could have confided, as we had so easily on paper for five crucial years, confessed my obsession, its all-encompassing absurdity.
Instead I squashed the thought at its very moment of tender trespass, and licked my wounds like an animal.