When we were fourteen years old, my best friend's mother died of cancer.
Becca* and I became friends at the beginning of seventh grade, when her family returned to Louisville from her father's year-long sabbatical at the Sorbonne. In our relentlessly bourgeois environment, the fact that Becca's father was a chemistry professor seemed exotic. Her mother was an artist, which was a jaw-dropping anomaly. There were stay-at-home moms and there were divorced moms who were real estate agents. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the general tendency.
My own mother was also one of the exceptions. She had just finished her PhD in religion and was doing some college teaching. But even so, she felt required to keep an immaculate house and spend her summer days making chit chat at the country club pool.
Becca's mom's never cleaned the refrigerator or mopped the floor. Her paintings were stacked all over the house. She was not trying to accommodate bourgeois expectations; she seemed, from my perspective, to be rejecting them. It was a breathtaking if somewhat terrifying model. Didn't she care what people thought?
Of course, maybe she didn't clean the refrigerator because she was doing chemo and the smell made her sick. Maybe what I imagined to be her freewheeling bohemianism was a function of illness. But there was a forthright, no bullshit quality to her that made me believe she was exactly what she appeared to be: an artist with her mind on her work, not on the decomposing vegetables in the crisper.
Sometimes Becca's mom sat with us at the kitchen table while we ate Little Debbie brownies straight from the freezer. She laughed at some of the things I said, which embarrassed me. Most of what Becca and I did, though, occurred in a space in which our parents didn't exist. When we became friends Becca's mother must have been pregnant with her sister. I remember discussing amniocentesis on the bus to school. Was the cancer diagnosed while she was pregnant, or afterward? Did continuing the pregnancy cost Becca's mother her life?
This was not the kind of thing we talked about. We made each other friendship bracelets and collages with pictures and phrases cut from fashion magazines. We got perms. We rode our bikes to the pool and let older boys with muscles throw us around the bull pen. We went behind the bushes outside her house and taught ourselves to smoke because she said we would need to, for high school.
The fall that her mother died, Becca and I had just started ninth grade at a new school. It was clear within the first few weeks that she was succeeding socially in a spectacular way, and I was not. Maybe I had thought that since my mother had been the homecoming queen at that very high school, that it would come easily. Maybe after three years at a small, nurturing private school I misjudged what a big public high school would be like. What I was like.
I had chosen to go to that school because of Becca. On that basis alone the friendship was probably doomed. Becca was collecting her homecoming accolades and handsome, soccer-playing boyfriends and older friends who would sponsor her for the citywide high school sorority, while I stood awkwardly off to the side hoping she would carry me with her.
One night that fall, when I was spending the night at Becca's house, her father had to call an ambulance. My father came over in the middle of the night to pick me up. That was very close to the end.
Becca's mother died in the early morning. Becca passed me a note in homeroom to tell me the news. All that day people kept coming up to me and asking me about her, because I was her best friend, but I felt like a fraud because already she was moving farther and farther away from me. At the funeral she sat with another girl, a girl I disapproved of, because she was loud and got bad grades and was repeating ninth grade. I also hated her, volcanically, because she was taking my place.
When you are fourteen it's hard to accept that you are collateral damage in someone else's tragedy. It's hard to be a grownup about it. She had lost her mother. How could anything I needed, or wanted, matter at all? A part of me understood that, but another part of me continued to need and want just the same. Grief and jealousy, love and hurt were all mixed up together and I couldn't tease out the strands. Because of course I loved her. But it was a narcissistic kind of love, and she deserved better.
We were at an age where we desperately needed our mothers. Becca's mother was dead, and mine was not. Even if my mother was, in the deepest, most fundamental way, not able to be the mother I needed, there she still was, making macaroni and cheese that was chock-full of Velveeta, picking me up from swim practice, sewing buttons back onto things. But she was not the kind of woman who would enfold another woman's bereaved child into her arms. It didn't even occur to me until just now that she could have done so.
Years later I ran into Becca's old boyfriend Peter at a party. This was when I was back in Louisville for a couple of years between college and grad school. Peter and Becca had dated just before her mother died, nine years before. I hadn't really known him during that time, and I left in the eleventh grade to go to a different school, fleeing the aftermath of what I perceived to be my utter social collapse. I would not have gone up to speak to him, but he came to me.
He barely made it through the obligatory questions about my life before he asked me what I thought had happened, why Becca had broken up with him. In his mind, apparently, we shared a crucial connection, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. We were the people Becca had dumped.
I said I thought that her loss was so great, so excruciating, that she couldn't stand to be with anyone she'd been close to, before. She had to get rid of everything and start over. I felt very wise when I said it, even though I'm sure I was parroting something that someone, probably my mother, had told me. Peter seemed comforted, absolved. Maybe, like me, he had spent all of those years wondering how he had failed her. As he walked away I wondered if I would ever reach a point in my life when men would approach me for a reason other than to ask me what had happened with Becca.
I have wanted to write about Becca for years. In fact, one of the first short stories I ever wrote, imaginatively entitled Her Mom, was about a Becca-like character and a me-like character locked in some kind of battle over her mother's legacy. I couldn't understand why it was so important. I just knew that there was more, much more to the story than a lost friendship, sad as that can be. I knew, in some inchoate way, that the story was not even about us, but about our mothers.
There are a lot of people right now whom I never want to see again. Not because of anything they've said or done, necessarily, but just because. My therapist tells me this is normal. In fact, she says, if I'm not having dramatic fallings out left and right then I am doing better than most. Which is why I've been thinking of Becca a lot these days. Maybe I won't always feel this way. Maybe a year will pass, or two, and because a friend occupies a different place when you're an adult, and a year when you're forty is a shorter period of time than a year when you're fourteen, we can pick things up again. Maybe not. We'll see.
*Names in this story have been changed.