Back in Oakland, in the of winter 2018, I was feeling like hell on account of some disasters of my own making. And I had been spending a lot of time with my friend, who was in a bad way too on account of things that were not her fault. Our combined misery lead to us hanging out pretty much every single day as a way of driving off those darknesses both real and imagined. That and, more importantly, we just plain liked being around one another.
So we’d make dinner, and have little fires in my backyard, and go on walks, and hang out beneath the heat lamps in the back of Missouri Lounge, back when it was still open. I hoped that sort of thing could go on indefinitely, and it did seem like that was possible for a little while.
One night, on our way to Missouri Lounge, some monstrous dude lurched out from the shadow of a parked RV and started taunting us. We were on the sidewalk and he was walking parallel to us at the same pace in the middle of San Pablo Ave, about ten feet away. I took my friend’s shoulder and pulled her around to the other side of me so she was closer to the side streets and I was closer to him. I did this because she had a disorder which made it so she couldn’t run. The man kept saying scary stuff to us, and I really did think he might attack us. He certainly wanted us to think he was going to do that.
I said to my friend: “If this guy gets any closer to us, you need to turn right at the next street and keep walking.” I figured it really was OK if this guy killed me. I didn’t especially want to be alive just then, and the worst that could have happened was I lost my life . . . and I’d gotten that for free!
He slowly started to get closer to the sidewalk, to my friend and me, and almost automatically, I did something I never do, which is to yell at someone. I told him to get the fuck away from us. I had never heard my own Angry Yelling Voice before, so it surprised even me. Somehow this worked! He stopped walking, as if on command, and we took a right at the next street to get off the main throughway, little more than a linear path littered with night psychos, to cut through the quiet Berkeley neighborhoods there. (I have wondered why he stopped. The guy had like eight inches on me. Maybe it just stopped being fun for him.)
We made it to Missouri Lounge alive, and sat down beneath one of the heat lamps out back and drank Tecates and tequila. At last call we took the long way home to avoid the rest of the freaks and creeps who haunt San Pablo at night.
BACK OUTSIDE MY FORTIFIED COMPOUND: my friend said good-bye and hugged me. And when she hugged me, I looked up at the sky and saw two shooting stars flame out in the sky, one after the other. I said: “Wow! Two shooting stars in a row!” and she pulled back and kissed me.
I said, “Whoa. Yeah?” and she said, “Yeah.”
Well: She told me, in essence, that she loved me. I had not at all anticipated this happening and I said as much. She said also that we should stick together, that she’d come with me to Berlin whenever it was I was going there. I told her I would have to think about all this. In my mind, it made me feel a fear that someone else’s destiny would be anchored to my own, and I wondered at it. I did not want to be in a relationship with anyone, and I didn’t know what it would mean to her if she tagged along in some other capacity. Maybe it would mean she’d just be waiting around to hear a thing she wanted me to say. It made me sad to think about that. In the present moment we said good-bye and she got in her car and drove away.
Weeks later, my friend had to have surgery on her legs, on account of her permanent affliction, which meant she would be bedridden for six weeks. She had asked me if I’d help take care of her and spend time with her. After her surgery, I went over to her place in West Oakland a few times to keep her company. She’d gotten a little black kitten in the interim, and mostly she hung out in bed with her. I told her I was going to the Midwest, to Detroit and Chicago, to see my friends Logan and Jess. This girl was from Detroit, so she told me what I should do while I was there, and said she’d put me in touch with her two childhood friends who still lived there.
A week later was Valentine’s Day. I drove my Datsun to a flower shop and got her a bouquet. I left it outside her front door and texted her and told her to check outside. She sent me a picture of the flowers in a vase on her kitchen table. I drove home in the dark. Next day I left for Detroit. I never saw her again after that.
I know now that I had been a coward and had abandoned her when she needed me, when she had reliably shown up for me and slept over whenever I asked her to that winter. Back then I didn’t want to be alone. And now she didn’t want to be alone either, and I always found a reason not to come over. I stayed away because I was afraid that my continued presence would mean something else to her than it would for me. She had said the opposite to me: that she was OK with whatever I decided to do with the secret she had told me, and that she didn’t want to force anything upon me. Instead I selfishly pushed her away out of some misguided notion that I was protecting myself, and at her expense. It was cruel. She didn’t deserve it.
The very last night I ever saw her, she asked me to hold her because she was very sad, and no one had held her in a long time. I didn’t say so, but I was reluctant to do so. I did it anyway. It seemed like this was the very least I could do for her. In the dark she put her head on my shoulder and her arm around my chest and we lay there not saying anything. Her leg was in a cast and her cat was sleeping nearby.
And now I remember this line:
. . . The young woman smiled dreamily as she went on about the storm, and he looked at her in amazement and something akin to shame: she had experienced something beautiful, and he had failed to experience it with her. The two ways in which their memories reacted to the evening storm sharply delimit love and nonlove.
. . . He was not the one who behaved shamefully towards her; it was his memory, for it was his memory that, unbeknown to him, had excluded her from the sphere of love.
Something like that was true of the end of our friendship. For some time, I felt ashamed of myself . . . but I became obsessed with my own failure instead of removing myself from the equation and considering her feelings. I pitied myself instead of thinking about my friend and how this had all affected her. It felt doubly bad that I had never really communicated this to her. I just left. She spent the rest of the winter in bed with a body that was failing her and with no one to talk to or hold her.
And then, during the first summer of the pandemic, a year and a half after we’d last spoken, I figured I ought to do something about it. I had been spending a lot of time alone walking around El Cerrito and Berkeley and Oakland at night, having nothing else to do, what with everything being shut down, and I kept thinking about her and how I owed her an apology.
I got home late one night and wrote her a short email. I said that there was no excuse for how I had treated her, and that I was genuinely sorry for what I had done. I signed it by saying I did not expect a reply and that I wouldn’t bother her again. I took a passion flower capsule and fell asleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of my sister’s office, which was where I lived at the time, having gotten trapped there during the pandemic.
I knew she had left California shortly after that winter ended, and had gone home to Detroit. It would have been six in the morning when that email went out. When I woke up at noon, she had replied. She said a few things, and ended by saying she forgave me and wished me well. There was zero disdain in her writing. It was generous of her to be so kind to me when I deserved and had expected dead air.
Why did I think of her again? I went out walking through my new neighborhood in Berlin the other night, and I put on a song I had listened to so many times that it had become a little room I went to. I stopped hearing the words a long time ago because I already knew them so well. And I remembered that, back when we were still hanging out, I had somehow found her little website . . . and on it, she had posted some of the lyrics from this same song. She must have heard me play it in the car because I played it all the time.
She and I were both in high school at more or less the same time, and of course BACK THEN people used to do this sort of thing, which was to post the lyrics from songs that described how they felt, generally about someone they had a crush on but were too shy to tell them so. When I was 16 I had an awful haircut and wore girl jeans so of course I am guilty of this as well, though I reckon it’s cute to think about that sort of thing now.
The song in question is called GET BUMMED OUT. It’s about a girl who is lovesick over this guy who doesn’t seem to reciprocate her feelings. She drives around a place she does not like and daydreams about being with him, knowing with certainty that her feelings for him will push him away, and that his indifference will eventually crush her. It is very much a universal experience. And in this case I guess it doesn’t get any more prophetic than that.
As my website is a sort of lone outpost for what the internet used to be, and for what people used it for, I will end this very long and sad story with the song itself. Make of it what you will. Out of respect I will not name my friend. She was a good friend to me and probably one of the best I’ve ever had. I miss and love her very much. That’s all I really wanted to say.