I remember when the great oak tree on my elementary school campus was felled. The district said the tree was diseased, that it was rotting at the root, and they brought in monstrous yellow machinery to remedy the situation. First, they cut away all of the naked branches, then they ripped the trunk straight out of the ground, leaving nothing but a patch of dust behind. I was eight, and the loss of that tree was the biggest tragedy I could imagine.
I remember, a week before, I sat beneath that tree with the girl who would eventually teach me the true meaning of the word tragedy. Our Razor scooters lay long abandoned in a summer-wilted patch of grass, and time slipped through our fingers like the pinched waist of an hourglass. Earlier that day, my parents had told me they were getting a divorce. She asked me if I was sad, if it hurt, if I wanted to cry.
I remember saying no.
I remember, years later, when her lesson in tragedy came swift and sudden, unexpected as a slap in the face. We had become freshmen in high school, thirteen and beautiful, and I had believed that our friendship would be durable enough to survive the transition. I approached her one day in the auditorium, hoping to join the nebulous cloud of newfound friends she had accumulated, and greeted her as I would have any other day.
I remember she glanced at me, over the ridge of her shoulder that seemed like a mountain range.
I remember she returned my greeting in kind. (Not in kind, the words were cold. Not even cold, unfeeling. Tepid.)
I remember she turned to her friends, all of them fresh out the box and shiny with the last dredges of preteen innocence, and didn’t look at me again.
I remember it had been many years since she and I had had that conversation beneath the tree, its wooden veins rotting beneath us.
I remember the last day we met, just the two of us. Summer was coming, ushering in the end of freshman year, and she had barely managed to fit me into her schedule; right in that sweet spot between color guard practice and more important people, and we had lunch at a Panera. I never liked Panera, but I liked her, and I did not complain. We talked like acquaintances who said “it’s nice to see you” and “we should do this more often” and lied and lied and lied, only I didn’t know a lie when I tasted it. She asked me if there were any boys in my life, if I had any crushes, if I wanted a boyfriend.
I remember saying no.
I remember, later that very same week, when I first realized there was more to life than what they had once shown me on Disney Channel. More to people. When the girl who sat at my table in art class spent the period fighting with a boy who used the word queer like a shotgun, I realized the world was wide. It was like peering through a bullet hole in the wall to find blue skies and birdsong on the other side.
I remember when the thought first crossed my mind that I might like girls. It was a long time after freshman year, a long time since I’d heard that first shotgun blast. I’d learned so much about people in between, but nothing about myself.
I remember when the thought first crossed my mind, years after its predecessor, that I was a lesbian. I thought about her then, how we didn’t talk anymore, and I wondered if she had always known. She knew me better than I knew myself, once.
I remember when the thought first crossed my mind that I had loved her, but we had a tangled, splintered history like the roots of a tree, small knots emerging from their living graves in the earth, sustained by conversations that I could no longer recall, and I thought that if I’d loved her, I would have held on tighter, I wouldn’t have let her get away from me, I would have grabbed her by the shoulder that night when we were thirteen and stupid and whimsical and I would have made her look at me.
I remember that I had never been very good at holding on. I was always more willing to let go and take the next thing than keep hold of what was already in my hands. It was less of a struggle.
I remember a few months ago when one of those I let go had returned to me. He had been a mutual friend of mine and hers, before, and it had been years since we had spoken, too. But he fit in my life like an old cork in an old bottle. I wondered if she would have fit just as neatly.
I remember when he told me how she’s doing now. He’d lost contact with her, too, but he saw her around. He said she had taken to partying in Seattle, to the joint and the bottle and the lines and the dots on those lines and the men that supplied them. That she’d been on this path since we were seniors, and he remarked that if only her parents knew…
I remember her parents. They were strict, but they were good people. Her mom always made an extra bowl of mac and cheese for me, and she always asked me questions to keep me from losing myself in my own silence. Her dad used to take our whole trio to school when he wasn’t drowning himself in his 9-5.
I remember her old house, and when she left it. She’d gone only five minutes away, but I was in middle school at the time and her old house stood empty at the end of my court and minutes seemed like eternities.
I remember her new house, and I remember the big backyard with the hill and the puppy who had all this life in her eyes. Our friend showed me a picture when we reunited, and that puppy has gray fur around her muzzle now. It reminds me of empty patches of dust and the ash of dead, burnt roots.
I remember walking by that house recently, the wind pushing at my back as if to usher me forward. I walked the gentle slope toward her house, and I remembered which window looked in on her bedroom, and I saw the light on inside. I thought that she must have come home, just like me, and I thought about how she must be feeling like an inmate in that house, the shuttering blinds on her window like the bars of a prison cell. She’d never liked San Ramon. She’d always wanted something more than this sunny suburbia and the people that live here. Something like Seattle, I guess.
I remember, when I passed her lit-up bedroom window, I pulled up my hood and my disposable blue mask and picked up my pace because I didn’t want her to chance a glance outside and recognize me. Not that I genuinely thought she would.
I remember listening to a new Taylor Swift song on Spotify as I passed by, and it made me think of her. And though I can’t recall your face, I still got love for you. But the thing is, I do recall her face.
I remember always thinking she was beautiful.
And now I wonder if she remembers me, too.