It’s kind of cool, in a way, to have a 13-year-old when you’re not yet 30. Now that Cheyenne has (almost) successfully gone through middle school, I sometimes wonder if her day-to-day experiences are similar to what mine were. I still vividly remember those years. I remember 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. I remember the house we lived in, the classes I took, and the thoughts that ran through my head. I remember my first real grown-up friend.
I had a lot of friends growing up. We moved around, so it’s not like I had that life-long-next-door-neighbor-tell-everything-to BFF that most girls had. I played Barbies in Virginia with one girl, I went trampling through the woods in Arkansas with another, swapped "Babysitter’s Club" books with my homegirl, Nikki, and got all dolled-up for middle school dances with Kim. I rolled my eyes at my new next-door neighbor Sarah when she wanted to welcome me to the neighborhood with a tea-party. (I was 12. Granted, I was an immature 12, but really? A tea party? Oh, well. I guess it was a nice gesture.)
It was at this tea party that I met Alexis and her family. They had 5 kids, total, and they were all adopted from…Korea? Vietnam? Crap. I should probably know this. Alexis was quiet, like me. Alexis was in her own little world, like me. And every now and then, I swear I saw Alexis rolling her eyes at Sarah, just like me. I liked Alexis.
We weren’t instant best friends, and I’m not even sure you could have called us best friends if you were to go by the traditional definition of what a best friend should be. We didn’t always sit together at lunch. We didn’t stay up late giggling and painting our toenails on Friday nights, and hell, I can’t even remember what the inside of her house looked like.
We lived in Naples, Italy at the time. Alexis played the violin. I could hear her practicing sometimes when it was warm outside and everyone opened up their windows. She played her violin at church, too, and every song, no matter how much I hated it before, sounded absolutely beautiful coming from that violin. She’s the reason I actually grew to like some of those boring Catholic songs. She’s the reason I love "Nuttin’ But Stringz". She’s the reason I wish we had the money for violin lessons–for all the kids. I don’t think I ever told her, but I could. Not. Get. Enough…of listening to Alexis play that violin.
(Here is the only picture I’ve been able to find of our school.)
Every day we had to walk what had to have been just under a mile (true story!) to the bus stop–in the dark, at 6:25 a.m., past creepy empty buildings, fat little Italian boys with silly string and big mean ghost dogs that jumped soundlessly over 6 feet high wrought iron fences. The bus stop itself was on a highway next to this old run-down crackhouse-looking place where African immigrants were always coming and going from on their bicycles. My mom? Apparently didn’t believe in driving me to the bus stop, much less to school…and that’s okay, because even though it would’ve been nice, I wouldn’t be where I am today if she had…plus I got back at her by getting pregnant at 15.
But I digress.
Alexis was always running late. Oh, sure I remember walking with her down that long road–but mostly on the way home. Every morning I’d wait for her, and grumble when she didn’t show up at the corner so we could head out together. I’d face that horrible ghost dog alone–that thing could clear tall buildings in a single bound!–just so he could growl viciously at me for about 10 minutes, or until I started crying and running, whichever came first. I’d pass little cement house after little cement house and big iron gates and empty buildings and chickens and more chickens and I remember freezing my butt off a lot. I’d get to the stop at just the right time, and as I boarded the bus, I could see little Alexis trucking towards me on the horizon. Most days I pointed her out to the bus driver and asked him to wait. One day I was so mad at her for being late again–(that crappy dog must have been particularly aggressive that day) that when I saw her running, I motioned to the bus driver that there was no one else coming. We drove off and I didn’t see her at school that day. I felt so horrible. I never did that again.
She could drive me crazy with questions. She never stopped asking questions. Italian class was the worst. Alexis’s famous last words were: "Wait…what?" Today, I think it’s hysterical. She ended up making it through more years of college than I care to imagine, so she must have learned something from all that asking.
Alexis called all my bluffs. One day I let her listen to a new tape I had gotten–I think it was "Hi Five"–awesome, yes?–and she laughed. She said that music wasn’t my style, and that I had only bought it so I could fit in with everyone else. And she was right. Alexis could always tell when I liked a boy, even when I wouldn’t admit to myself. She would narrow her eyes and smile at me, and laugh at me and tell me how ridiculous I was acting.
But while I was out acting ridiculous, Alexis was studying, or doing homework, or reading, or running. While I was goofing off with my sisters and talking back to my parents, Alexis was dealing with some very serious family issues…and I never once thought to ask her how things were going. Instead I bombarded her with my silly problems and she very rarely talked about the things that went on at her house. I ususally found out about it from my mom and I would try to be extra nice to her over the next week. I can’t say that it was pity I felt for her; it was more respect than anything else.
In the spring of our 8th grade year, tragedy struck Alexis’s family. Without going into detail, what she and her family went through that year made me hug my sisters and my parents a little tighter and a little longer–for a long time afterward. I was a mess over it; I couldn’t begin to understand what it must have been like for Alexis during that difficult time. As a parent, my heart breaks even more for her mom and dad, and to this day I get teary-eyed thinking back.
Our moms arranged for Alexis and I to get together one night afterwards for what they called some "girl time". I think it was so Alexis could talk to someone, but I felt unsure that I’d be a good "someone" to talk to. Back then I didn’t realize the power of a heart-to-heart with a close friend. She opened up, but it might have done more good for me than it did for her.
Being friends with Alexis changed me in a way that I can’t find words to describe. Alexis was the first friend who I could trust with a big secret. She was the first person I could disagree with and still be friends with. She was the first person outside my own family that I felt protective of. It was the first time in my life that I cried for someone other than myself. It was first time in my life that I cried for a friend, in front of a friend.
Our families kept in touch after we both moved away from Italy, but I didn’t write to Alexis. I got into a little trouble once I hit tenth grade and I think I was ashamed to tell her about any of it–and that she’d call bullshit on me, shake her head, and tell me I was being an idiot. Because I was–being an idiot. I regretted not keeping in contact with her for forever–15 years went by before I got the guts to ask her mom for her current address.
Alexis wrote to me before I had a chance to write to her. And these days, through the glory of Facebook, we have been able to catch up a little. Sometime in the future I hope we’ll have time to get together and reminisce about the old days when big mean dogs threatened to eat us on the way to school, and when horrible little Italian boys taunted us with silly string and words we couldn’t understand. Maybe she can convince my kids that, yes, I did indeed walk a mile to the bus stop every morning while it was still dark outside. And about how I went to school in a 4-story horseshoe-shaped un-air-conditioned building that sat next to a sulphur pit and housed all 400 of us 7th through 12th grade American students. And about the time when our dads picked cherries from the tree in their backyard and then locked us out of the kitchen so they could make man-pies. And then maybe she could bust out a violin.
I’ll never forget Alexis and her family.
And that, my friends, is the end of what I consider to be the most serious thing I have written in recent years. I hope you enjoyed it.