30 days of songs: Day 5
day 05 – a song that reminds you of someone: Dire Straits: “Twisting by the Pool”
Somewhere on my computer, I have a file of notes on a novel I have thought about writing. It’s a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of middle age, when a woman realizes she something that happened a long time ago is more important than she realized.
Here are my notes on the plot:
Here’s a story for you. It’s mostly about four people. Two boys, two girls. They met in college. The girls went to one college, the boys to another, about an hour apart. They met in a political activity that brought them together regularly for several years. They were all very close then. Alliances formed and reforged. Now, twenty-five years later, one girl is dead; one boy is the head of a major international agency and lives in Paris, married late to an artist, no kids; the other boy is near the top of the food chain at a prominent investment banking firm in New York, married with two small children. The remaining girl? She’s floated around trying to figure it all out, an underachiever from overthinking everything, a musician married to a writer, one child. She’s starting to feel like the key to getting her life back and figuring herself out is to go back to this story of four people who didn’t know how to be together, but couldn’t let each other go.
One girl was dynamic and wild, intelligent and funny but undisciplined. She was a sophomore scholarship student at a prestigious women’s college, a transplant to a cold New England climate from her native Hawaii. She met the second girl — smart, law-abiding, naïve, idealistic, tentative and a bit shy — when the second girl first set foot on campus. The older girl was an orientation chair, along with her roommate, who is also a player in the story, although not as directly. The older girl took the younger girl under her wing showed her the ways of the college. Introduced her to the political club that would dominate her social life for the next four years. Took her to parties at nearby colleges, to Rocky Horror, which the younger girl had never even heard of before, to clubs. She dyed the younger girl’s hair blonde, something that girl had never considered before.
The two girls spent weekends away together at political conferences, sometimes with other students, sometimes not. They met the two boys at a conference early in the younger girl’s first year of college. The older girl began an affair with one of the boys. The two of them kept trying to set the younger girl up with the other boy, but the other boy and the younger girl were not interested in each other. They had their roles to play as acolytes and had a friendly understanding with each other. The secret? The younger girl knew that the other boy was secretly in love with the older girl, something the other two seemed not to notice. And the other boy knew that the younger girl had a crush on the older girl’s boyfriend. But the younger girl would never say or do anything. Female friendships were sacred and not worth sacrificing for romance. And the other boy wouldn’t say a word.
The older girl and the younger girl began to fight. The older girl was tangled in her relationship and bailing out on her responsibilities, leaving the younger girl to clean up after her. She would snap at the younger girl and say critical things that were hurtful because they were so true. The younger girl was gaining confidence and maturity and was less and less willing to take on the role of acolyte. She was watching her hero fall. But most of all, the fights stemmed from their relationship. More than anyone in the younger girl’s life before or since, the older girl really got the younger girl, even the parts she tended to hide from the world. The older girl knew just where, when and how to twist the knife to cause the most damage. The fights were over quickly, but they got meaner and more frequent until the older girl skipped one too many tests and got put on academic suspension for a year.
With the older girl gone, those around her realized how much of a force of nature she was and struggled to realign their lives without her presence, like a solar system without a sun. The two boys and the younger girl clung together, as did the younger girl and the older girl’s roommate. One weekend, the younger girl went to visit the boys at their college to plan a conference they were hosting. She stayed with the older girl’s boyfriend. Without the older girl there, the two realized they were attracted to each other. Both struggled to remain faithful to the older girl, but they very nearly didn’t. After a not-so-innocent backrub turned into a kiss, the girl went home early, guilty and ashamed, and wondered for a long time what would have happened if she hadn’t. She had never had a real boyfriend before and was wondering, after this, if she ever would.
When the girl came back to school the following year, things were different. The younger girl was now in charge of the political club the older girl had introduced her to. She had been recognized as a campus leader. She had moved on with her life. The older girl was now in the younger girl’s class. She’d moved backwards. She went back to her relationship with the boy, and the foursome continued to meet regularly. They ran a conference of their own together, but things were falling apart. There were no longer clear boundaries about who was in charge and who wasn’t and power struggles ensued. The other boy could no longer hide his love for the older girl. Amid the strife, the older girl and the boy broke up. The boys graduated and moved away, and the younger girl and the older girl stopped speaking to one another. The younger girl became real friends with the older girl’s former roommate and, after the roommate graduated, shared an apartment with her for a summer. They are still friends. Their friendship was maybe cemented by the time, that summer, when their next door neighbor’s ex-boyfriend tried to burn down their apartment building. Another shared trauma, one more manageable and definable than the temporary loss of the older girl. The roommate was a talented artist on the brink of a real career, when she decided she couldn’t handle the art world and left it behind. She doesn’t paint anymore. She trains dogs and listens to music. She is happy. The younger girl is glad to know her. But that is another story.
The older and younger girl graduated together, but said only the congratulations of passing acquaintances. Nearly a year later, when the younger girl was working a tedious entry-level job as a group sales coordinator for a Boston theater company, the older girl called her. She was ostensibly looking for a contact about a job, but really, the younger girl suspected, she was reaching out, trying to start the conversation again. The older girl told the younger girl that she was now in a relationship with the other boy. They were living together. The younger girl told her she was happy for her and she meant it. But she no longer felt close to the older girl. She was done with the drama. She was kind but not affectionate. They never spoke again.
Ten years later, the younger girl had held responsible jobs and gone to graduate school. She was recently married and pregnant with her first child and was feeling nostalgic. She was thinking about the older girl and went to search her email address on the internet. She was shocked instead to find her obituary from just a few days earlier. The older girl had died in her early 30s of aggressive breast cancer. The younger girl wept.
Another ten years went by and the younger girl read in the paper about the appointment of the older girl’s first boyfriend to a very important government position. She contacted him and they talked about the older girl, about their relationship, about the four of them, about things lost and wisdom gained. The younger girl donates money to breast cancer charities every year in the older girl’s honor.
There’s only one problem with this: it’s not fiction. Every bit of it is true. I am the younger girl. So even though I think this story would make a great novel, I’m not sure I can ever write it as such. But every now and then I think about how it would work.
I met B in almost the first minute I arrived at college. She and her roommate J were helping freshmen move into the dorm. My parents and I had just pulled up in front of the house. My father was bringing bags to the lobby and B, J and I each grabbed a bag or a box and started up for the second floor. Almost immediately, I slipped on the step and fell down the stairs. Because that is how graceful I am. I saw J a few years ago and she said she still remembers that moment, because she felt so bad for me and wanted to erase it so I didn’t feel embarrassed. But B picked me up and charged me up the stairs and I forgot all about it. Or mostly.
If someone were to ask me to name someone who changed my life, B would be the first name on my tongue. B taught me how to grow up, both by guiding me and by fighting with me. Her charismatic gregariousness helped draw me out of my shell and give me confidence. She pushed me to work harder, to be better, to trust in my assets and speak up for my needs. I was probably on the road to all of those things, but she challenged me regularly, and I think I needed that at that moment.
B was a wonderful combination of brilliance and outright silliness. One of her favorite songs was Dire Straits’ “Twisting by the Pool.” I first remember hearing the song in a car on the way to a Model U.N. conference. B was driving one of the college cars that we got to check out for weekend conference trips, and before we left, she jammed a cassette into the player and cranked up the volume. But one of my favorite memories of B was one evening, when we put the LP on the turntable in the dorm living room (yes, I am ancient – this was in the relatively early days of CDs and we didn’t have a player), turned the volume to 11, and started an impromptu dance party. I was very self-conscious about dancing in those days, but B was not. She did what she called her “crazy Hawaiian dance,” twisting and waving her arms, her unruly hair flying in her face, occasionally singing along to the music off-key. No one could resist the crazy Hawaiian dance. Pretty soon everyone in the dorm was in the living room dancing. This song and this memory of her always makes me smile. Right before it makes me cry:
There are few days that go by when I don’t think of B. She wasn’t just a friend. She was the junction between my childhood and my adult life. I think I’m a better person for having known her. And I wish I’d had the chance to tell her that.