I scanned the black and white senior pictures on the “In Memorium” page of my high school reunion website. I clicked on one, moved closer to the screen, and peered at it over the top of my glasses. I studied her solid smile, the trim glasses, and her short hair with its ghost imprints from the pink plastic rollers she’d probably slept on the night before.
“How many?” Barb asked. It was 1969, a Sunday afternoon in late September. As usual, we sat at the counter at Webb Pharmacy, hunched over our soft drinks.
“How many what? Is this some kind of riddle?”
“How many books that weren’t assigned did you read this month?”
Barb knew I spent hours in my bedroom, with the door shut, reading. I never did very well with the texts or even the novels we had to read for school, but I couldn’t stop reading for pleasure. Recently, with the faded-red covered, sixty-cent paperback that held the collected sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, I was discovering the joy of rereading. In fact, the pages were turning stiff and fragile from frequent handling.
“I don’t know. I don’t keep track.” I said. We sipped our vanilla phosphates in silence for a while.
“Any ideas about what you’re going to do next year?” Barb finally asked.
I stared into my drink and swirled my straw. “I’m going to do that fashion merchandising program. It’s only nine months, so by the time you start your sophomore year of college, I’ll be a women’s clothing buyer for Halle’s. That’s if you’re still planning to go?”
To Barb’s credit, she did not snort soda from her nose and poke holes in my ambitious career plan, the one in which I would start at the top. She did take a minute before answering. “That’s still the plan. I’m working on figuring out how to pay for it.”
“That’s great,” I said. “But it’s not for me. We can’t afford it, I’m not smart enough, I hate school, and I love my retail job.”
Again, Barb did not argue with me. It wasn’t her style. I was drawn to her calm persona. I worked for spending money; she worked to help pay her family’s bills. I was an only child, from a two-parent home. Barb had three brothers and a sister, and her dad died when she was in the eighth grade. I was baffled by and slightly hysterical about my future. Barb knew she wanted to be a nurse.
Friday nights we went to football games. Saturdays we double-dated with two best friends from the football team. Sundays, Barb went to mass in the morning. I slept in, because I had stopped going to the Methodist Church soon after my confirmation. Afternoons, we met at Webb’s for those syrupy, bubbly vanilla phosphates.
Finally, sufficiently fizzed up, we walked to one of our houses, to do homework and talk some more. Detroit Avenue is always sunny and cool in my memories of our walks that fall. We passed Roman Fountain Pizza, shuttered so early in the day, but the scent of pepperoni and Parmesan lingered in the air. On the other side of the street was the unlit marquee of the Detroit Theater where, in the days before movie ratings, I saw The Graduate against my dad’s wishes. It was a vista of small businesses we’d known for years, and took for granted. Nothing ever changed, and we remained mostly oblivious to all that was going on in the rest of the world.
I have conveniently forgotten exactly what led to the end of my friendship with Barb, but I’m almost sure it happened after I abruptly and gracelessly changed boyfriends. I broke up our foursome and, back then, dating relationships often altered female friendships, even close ones. I don’t think I ever saw Barb again after we graduated.
The accident took place 2.9 miles—six minutes—from where I am sitting in my home office, writing this essay. At the time, I lived forty-one miles away, but I might have been sitting at the same large teak desk I’m using now. A car hit Barb while she was running, in the rain, across Route 20. She was trying to get help for her husband, who had been injured in a traffic accident. He survived; Barb died in the intensive care unit where she worked as a nurse. She was twenty-seven.
I was too young to notice newspaper obituaries at the time, so I never knew. What would I have done, though? Barb and I were no longer friends and, in my twenties, I was unforgiving and my decisions were final. Also, I was both terrified of and angry about death. While I like to think I’d have gone to visit Barb in the hospital and attended her funeral, I can’t be sure.
It’s an Ohio-humid August evening, so the sudden rain is a relief. Soon enough, though, the pavement is slick. I’m glad I’m not driving, because rain and reflections are making it difficult to see. I brace my hands against the dashboard when I see a figure move into the lane of traffic. A horn blasts, glass shatters, and there is the dull thud of body against metal.
I wake with my hand on my throat; I’m trying to scream, but no sound comes out. This is not the first time I’ve had this dream. As I stumble to the kitchen for a glass of water, I repeat to myself, “I wasn’t there.”
I wasn’t there.
Here’s what I wish I could say to Barb: I’m thrilled that you became a nurse and got married (I’m not sure of the order of those events), and I wish you’d had a much longer life. I’ve already lived more than twice as long as you did, and I hope I haven’t wasted too much of that time. I finally went to college. I got married, had a daughter, and spent my career working with children, adolescents and young adults. I still read all the time and, for the last twenty-seven years, I’ve kept a list of the titles. I have no idea why, and I don’t really tell people about it, but now I would be able to answer your question about how many books I’ve read in the last month. I know now that friendships sometimes end, or just run their course, but I like to think I’d now be more thoughtful about letting ours go than I once was. I’m sorry.
I’d like to be telling Barb this at Webb’s, but it is now a dry cleaners. Still, I can taste the sweet fizz of those vanilla phosphates and see their golden color inside the sweating, old-fashioned Coca-Cola glasses. I remember being too old to use a straw to blow bubbles in a soft drink, but doing it anyway, and laughing and choking when liquid came out my nose. I remember being too old to twirl on a soda fountain stool until I felt giggly and light-headed, but doing it anyway.
And, I still remember talking about everything and nothing, with the friend who made me feel as though I might, one day, be capable of figuring out my life. Our heads were bent close to each other, just in case someone else was listening. But nobody ever was.
Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor. Her personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Gravel, Inside Higher Ed, and other publications.