She Was a Friend of Mine

My friend Brooke died right before Covid took over. She was killed in a car accident the details of which only serve to pour salt on it all. She’s gone: too soon, unexpectedly, undeservedly. She died alone in the hospital, in my mind. Maybe someone she knew was there, but she didn’t die after preparation – she didn’t know it was coming. I became very concerned about this – it’s one thing for me to be shocked by such an accident, but what about her? How was she experiencing it? Could she quickly adapt? I felt confident in her ability for I knew she had done so much work on herself that if anyone was capable, it was she. 

As for me, I had to come to grips with the fact that I had left our friendship hanging in the air, shoved to the back of the closet, something I’d get to when I got a reprieve from the Mothership. Our last interaction was muddled and not ideal. Heavy with unspoken tokens and old feelings surfacing amid new veneers. Did we each hold something the other wanted? Wasn’t this always the case? I was so knee deep in my own waters that I couldn’t begin to see my life from her perspective. All I really remember was how nice she looked in her new dress and how satisfied she seemed with a similar direction. My direction was circular and monotonous and none of my dresses allowed for breastfeeding. 

I wanted her to reach out or pop back into town like she always did, but I moved a few hours away and into obscurity. Nobody inquired about me, my Mothership had sailed into strange waters. I lived in a haunted house, near murderous Ponderosa groves that seemed to spill the trauma into the present. Brooke knew this haunt and was the only person I knew who saw the ghost. It felt hard to escape – and I did – but I never got to share my saga with her over a future cup of coffee amid a circuitous conversation that always formed between us. Always. 

Why are we humans so dumb? We live life with one eye in retrospect thinking that we are aware of what’s going on when, really, we’re constantly distracted by feelings and duties. When do we catch up to ourselves: before bed, in dreamtime, during that quickie at the piano? What spirits are dancing about us, pining for communion while we stare right through, trapped in our momentary quibble? I think of Brooke visiting like she always did, yet now she can do it through things like raptors and rainbows and songs on the radio. Am I ready for each visit? Did I blow it yesterday and space out during our date? Does she hear me calling? Can she be both here and in another incarnation?

When inimitable people die they leave more than their impression pressed into us, they leave a need to include them in your reality, to keep the memory alive. I’ve always noticed this and now it’s happening to me. ‘Patience’ comes on the radio, “Brooke had a lighter she named Patience once.” An ad with Golden Retrievers flicks on the screen, “Brooke drove her family’s Golden Retrievers around in her Blazer hoping to socialize them.” I turn on the radio right at the moment that ‘Little Wing’ snaps into place with that unmistakable start, “Brooke loved this song in high school.” A camp song surfaces from the deep and accompanies me through the morning dishes… ‘Bill Grogin’s goat was doomed to die…’ I can feel us sitting on the benches by the evening campfire at GnawBone. 11:11 shines on the clock, I see her kissing each hand 11 times. 

These are little things, but Brooke did big things. Brooke had a spirit that could cut through the grime and get that giggle to creep out of you. She took over Greyhound busses and Waffle Houses with her charm and love of Aretha Franklin. She taught us the meaning of the word Namaste in the 6th grade. She could capture the heart of any child and lead them anywhere she wished like a Pied Piper. She chased floating thistle seeds into city streets pretending they were fairies. She was good at giving and nurturing and noticing – she would buy a vintage dress that didn’t fit and pass it on to me. She would always get the Dean to laugh outside in the hall when he came to talk about chronic tardiness. She could assuage like no other. Did she get this in return? 

I know a lot of secrets about Brooke’s life – her childhood, her family, her parents. So much trauma, so much guise. Two other sisters of equal beauty and charisma, a mom who worked at the school and captivated students with her storytelling abilities, an ‘it’ girl who begat three ‘it’ girls. Everyone wanted to be them and curated hefty amounts of jealousy because of their looks and personalities. When you learn the secrets, you rue any moment you spent in envy: this was nothing to covet. It made sense why Brooke always got an invitation to go on other families vacations: get this girl out of there. I understood her need to command the group in that third child, insurrectionist kind of way came from her lack of control over her home life. 

But she didn’t just cope and survive: she thrived, in a scrappy, shifty, and gypsy kind of way. She lived all over the place, learned all kinds of things: rehabilitated an owl, studied bodywork and midwifery, covert cared for cannabis in California, traveled the US with an ayahuasca troupe… nothing really surprised anyone who knew her, and I always promised her that I would write about her, her stories were too good to be true. Her self doubt could cloud but her command of magic always came through to right her on her unconventional path. 

I got to see this magic in action on a trip to the south of France once. We had gotten there via Paris via the Hague where I was stationed for adventure. She got the dispatch of my coordinates, and through the grace of her father’s accrued air miles, she arrived in the first week of December – just in time to light my fire. Holland is dreadful in the winter, so much so that they don’t even talk about it. Our lived experience in the PNW and our shared knowledge of midwestern winters put us at an advantage to weathering this season in the Netherlands, but I was dying to get out. Going south was important, we knew that much. What led us to Aix-En-Provence I’m not sure. I think she tried calling an acquaintance she met while traveling in India – Jerome – but his parents’ lack of English on the phone put her at a disadvantage. If we get close, she reasoned, maybe he’ll find us and show us around. We got on a bus headed for Paris.

Paris was boring; we were happy to take the fast train down to A-en-P and arrive in the cloak of night, walking to the hostel by the signs alone. With our backpacks and dresses and pockets stuffed with charm, we certainly were like gypsies. We hung out in the town center the next day, drinking coffee, soaking up the sun and engaging in spare conversations with old men. We passed by a theatre playing some Bridget Jones’ bs and decided to watch it even though we just weren’t those kind of chicks. I confided to her that I was watching Sex in the City daily back in the Hague just for the American feels. BJ was like Paris. Found an Indian restaurant for dinner and headed back to the hostel. She couldn’t get through to Jerome, but we still opted to take a bus to a westerly town that came through her broken attempts at conversation with his parents. I didn’t doubt this guy existed but it seemed like a long shot that he would materialize. Given her experience traveling in India and sporadically bumping into him, she believed he would. 

We deboarded the bus in Nimes, wondering where the hell to start walking and picked a direction and went for it. We both decided that a cigarette would be nice and bargained who would ask a stranger for one. Since she had to do the struggle with the phone, I spoke up. Some old man was excited to help. We changed directions, compelled by what I’m not sure and up drives Jerome. It was all “oooh lala”, “magnifique!”, “I can’t believe it” and a few “but of course!” Yes, of course this woman could be found because she had a beacon so bright, all you had to do was put yourself out there to find her, to engage in the search, and her magnetism would do the rest. 

Jerome was head over heels – how could he not be? He got this catch not once but twice and she came all this way. Plus, she was Brooke and if she smiled at you, it was like the opposite of Medusa: you were reborn by the breath of spring and set free under the lilt of her silent song, the faint smell of eucalyptus.  After a charming drive through French villages we arrived at Uzes. We took a little nature stroll amid thyme. We collectively philosophized. His parents took us in for the night. They fed us. Jerome made us thyme tea. We slept content. 

The next day, Jerome took us on a drive all the way to the Mediterranean. We saw flamingoes and smelled warm salt air. I took pictures while he and Brooke chatted. We ate a lot of goat cheese wrapped in paper with bread. He drove us back to a train station and we had about five minutes to say goodbye. I snapped a picture of him and Brooke together – the look in his eyes says it all. The speed train beckoned and we nearly got nipped by the doors – it was hard leaving the south of France.

I don’t know how we got from the train station in Paris to the bus that would take us back to the Netherlands, but we did. It was dark, and we were stuffed in like sardines – not a seat empty or so it seemed. Brooke took out her chocolate for a late night treat – my kinda lady – and some eyes light up near us. Brooke offers some chocolate to our neighbors who have exchanged smiles with us and short words of shared humanity. They are shocked by her generosity to which she’s like, ‘please!’ They take the open bar she is holding and start breaking it up, handing it out to their posse. Our smiles turn hard – I’m disappointed to see all our chocolate go but I know that it’s important to be generous – I marvel at her ability to give freely. She keeps smiling and whispers in my ear, “I wasn’t like, ‘take the whole thing’ but oh well.” We giggle so hard we shake and sweat and maybe even cry a bit. What gets lost in translation is funny and endearing, especially when it’s about something sweet like chocolate.

When I first met Brooke, she was a new student in our fourth grade class. Of course, I noticed her right away and was excited that her desk was behind mine. As we sat at our desks eating a morning snack, I heard my inner voices tell me to offer my packet of Fruit Wrinkles. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t” they warned. I was so shy it could be painful, but I knew these voices were coming from my higher self. I knew I had to listen. I really liked the Fruit Wrinkles – maybe she would share if I gave it to her. I felt awkward but, fuck it! I turned around and blurted out, “Do you want some Fruit Wrinkles?” and wave the pinkish pack by its corner. She smiles instantly and I am set free, reborn by the charm of a 9 year old goddess in the making and loose on her wild wind.