I went to private, christian school for the first 7 grades. My father, who was a public education executive, was required by the board of education to move me to public school. I was moved from a school populated with the children of well to do fathers and stay at home mothers who wore tennis skirts and held tupperware parties to something completely different. I still remember my private school friends cornering me on my last day telling me the public school girls were going to beat me up and cut off my hair. That is, they said, how they initiate you into public schol.
Riding a public school bus was something I'd never done. I stood with a group of strange kids who wore clothes in a style that made what I was wearing look almost like I had come out of a cult. Having worn uniforms for seven years, picking out stylish clothes were not my forte. Needless to say it was a lonely bus ride for several weeks. That is why I was so thankful when a girl named Debby took the perpetually empty seat next to mine.
She brought me into the large group of kids. My hair got bigger (it was the 80s), my jeans got tighter, I got a boyfriend, wore makeup, drank beer for the first time,it was a lot to get and I felt that it wouldn't all be there without Debby. It was like I was in a tent being part of the coolest show in the world and Debby was holding up the poles. I owed her. It was also around this time Debby let me come home with her after school.
At first the door wouldn't open. Debby pushed hard and it gave way to a room full of stuff. It wasn't like hoarding, it was more like things that should be in a drawer or on a shelf never quite made it there.This is where I found out Debby had lost her mother a year earlier, had no father that was present, no relatives and lived with a family friend. A man named 'Bob' took care of her and her pregnant teen sister. I pretended like all this was nothing new, that worldly me had seen it all. Inside I felt scared for my friend. This is when the late night calls started coming.
It was only once in a while, Debby would call saying she was depressed about her mother and would cry. I felt so grown up giving her advice and calming her down. Then it was more often and Debby would tell me she had some pills and was going to swallow them. This time I didn't feel so grown up. I felt worried, what if I gave her the wrong advice and couldn't calm her down and she took the pills? Then it was almost nightly and she would say she had taken the pills and would act strangely and when I would threaten to call 911 she would tell me to 'hold on' and then she would come back and say she threw up the pills and acted fine. This went on for a year. I started to dread the calls. I owed Debby. I lost sleep. I started to feel, what I realized later was, depression.
The last night Debby and I were friends we were going to a teen club. We stopped at Popeye's, drank cokes with vodka we had hidden in perfume bottles, talked but really didn't say anything. We had to cross a four lane highway and as we walked toward the road she started talking about wanting to die. I walked faster as if I could outpace her words. I could hear her over the traffic talking about pills, dying, hating her life. A break in the cars, I shouted for her to follow me. We ran. Then I saw a car and Debby did too. But where I made it to the sidewalk, Debby stopped. She stood willfully in front of the moving car. The headlights lit her up like a Christmas tree.
She was ending it right there and then something odd happened. It was like time slowed down to a crawl as Debby was struck by the car. She flew over the hood and landed head first on a curb. And then time spun out of control as the driver, a young mother, lept out of the car. Debby, to my shock, stood up and told the woman it was OK and to leave. Despite Debby's insistence an ambulance was called and then Bob came and it was a hive of people swarming Debby. I realized then, how little adult attention Debby got. It was the first and only time I witnessed a grown person touching her in a caring way. And then they were loading her in the ambulance and Bob and Debby were asking me to get in. I backed away. Slowly at first but then I ran. I ran away, fast, until I could hear the sirens of the ambulance leaving. I went into the club and danced with friends until it was late and I had to walk back home.
Late that night, alone, with a phone that for the first time in over a year didn't ring,all I could see was Debby's face. Her face as she was being touched by the EMTs, as Bob stood by as I stood at the door of the ambulance. And her face was smiling. And my phone didn't ring that night, or the next.
School was Monday. I avoided her. In a large public school this is easier than one would believe. But I could feel her on campus, as if she were just around that line of lockers. That she would come out of the girls bathroom stall as I was walking in. I learned then that friendships of the young can be dramatic, fast to start and fast to end. Standing in line at the teen club with new friends Debby finally came around and in full view she stood. Drunk and angry she demanded to know if these were my 'new' friends. I told her yes and she looked over at a girl next to me. Debby made a face at me, disgusted, she said I'm lucky she's so drunk or she'd be beating up my 'new' friends. There was no more talking, the silence was like a curtain falling. Summer was coming and my pennance with Debby being here but yet not here was ending as Debby did not return to school that following year.
Years later I sat in front of my house on a hot day when I saw a girl walking down the street. She came closer, it was Debby. She walked up to me, stopped. Almost like that time when she stopped in front of that moving car, she was willfully doing something you're not supposed to do. Stop in front of a moving car, face a friendship that ended years ago. Still she stood there like that night. Only this time, the sun lit her face and not headlights and I felt the past flooding around us like cars on a busy highway. She squinted her eyes and tilted her head as if she were going to say something. I steadied myself for what was coming there was ringing in my head like the phone late in the night years ago. Except nothing came. Debby simply smiled,nodded,then stepped back, turned and walked out of sight. And the ringing in my head faded and I saw her face again on that night years ago and it was the face I saw at that moment. Smiling.
As an adult I think of my actions during my friendship with Debby with a mix of regret and understanding. The private school girls were wrong about my initiation into public school. I was initiated into the life of another person and their experiences were mine to know. Experiences not on country club tennis courts or birthday parties with rented ponies. But experiences in real life where not everything is clean and friendship is not easily defined. She took something from me but gave me something equally valuable. She cleared the way for me to grow up, make tough choices, experience regret, love, fear, anger and real friendship. To learn about the lives of others that cannot afford to put a pretty veneer over their troubles and challenge us to love them anyway. Even though my efforts were faulty, I'm glad I accepted Debby's challenge to love her anyway and in that smile years later I see she loved me once anyway as well.