It began with us sitting across from one another in a doctor’s busy waiting room, two complete strangers not knowing we were about to start seventh grade at the same school. Maybe we even became friends in that long, silent gazing while some child screamed in a nearby room. Why were we even there? It was nothing life threatening, or we would remember. The life-threatening things would come later.
It began when we discovered that we were both crushing on George Michael and we were eldest children and we were born in countries on the other side of the world and spoke another language besides English. It began when we underscored our eyes and ratted our hair and donned acid-washed denim to step into a photo booth.
It began the day we tore a supermarket sheet cake apart with our hands in the parking lot and smashed it into each other’s hair and face and clothes because suddenly we had become feral girls, and then we flew into the pizzeria bathroom where we clogged the sink with pink frosting and used up all the towels and toilet paper trying to clean ourselves up. We trashed the bathroom, but we couldn’t clean ourselves up.
Actually, it began when we started cruising for men at the strip mall outside the pizzeria. We were in ninth grade now, fourteen years old, and we were done being good girls, model big sisters. We were so good at being so good for so long. Now we would be so good at being bad, so bad. Overachievers, the both of us.
It began with your father, or rather, your fear of him, how you would flinch when he appeared in your doorway, when he barked at you in Hebrew. Your father was a plant scientist who studied avocados, which is how you ended up in Riverside. He was doing research at the university. It began with an uneasy feeling in my gut that he was brutal, though he did nothing in my presence that could be called brutality.
It began with my own parents—my mother, really, whose love was cold and intellectual and judgmental. It began with academic success and social failure. It began in self-doubt that bloomed into self-loathing.
It began with discarding our old selves, taking on new ones: Shilah and Camille. Bad girl names. We found men who would relieve us of the burden of virginity. Stoners in their early twenties, blue collar, high school dropouts. They listened to metal bands and drank cheap beer and smoked weed, speaking in the slow, raspy drawl of heavy pot users. We were smarter, destined for greater things, but first we were destined for them. We would use them, then discard them.
It ended with a phone call I missed. You were calling from the airport in New York to tell me your parents were sending you back to Israel forever. By the time you called, I was already with the stoners. By the time you called, I already knew you were gone. Tony was there—the stoner you had claimed—and he was weeping. He knew you were only fourteen, but he wanted a life with you. I never liked him, but we drank together to oblivion because we had both lost you. We would never see you again. It was like you had ceased to be. Remember, it was 1990. I was still years away from sending my first email, decades from social media.
It ended with further disintegration—harder drugs, razor-shredded skin, blackouts, quitting school, running away. It ended when I decided it had to end. Either that, or I would die. I picked an ending over death. Goodbye, Camille.
It ended with my six-page letter to you, only your parents wouldn’t give me your address. It was better for us both, they said, if we never communicated again. They believed I was the bad influence—so bad that you were sent halfway around the world to get away from me. That was March, and by summer your whole family was gone, back to Israel for good. By summer, my mother tried to save me also by taking me out of the country, back to Russia, the deep gloaming of the Soviet Union, where I became witness to the end of my grandparents’ long brutal Soviet lives. It ended in a place where my suffering looked like petty self-indulgence.
It actually ended so many years later, when I sometimes looked for you on the internet. I found your siblings, your mother, but not you. Dead, I thought, or married. Either way, unreachable.
It ended when I messaged your mom, who then forwarded my email address to you, and finally you sent out tentative feelers across decades. It’s Tammi. . . . How are you? Long time. . . . Twenty-seven years later, I placed those six yellowing pages on a flatbed scanner and sent them to you—All your favorite stoners say “high.” Write back, you bitch!!—and we discovered that we were both married, had two children, were teachers. Our families were mostly fine—except your father, who was ten years dead.
It ended with sixteen emails—left home very young, you wrote, wandered around and got expelled from school. It took me a long time to find myself—before we ran out of things to say, before we discovered the chasm was too great, the silence too long, the stolen years irretrievable. Before we discovered we were strangers.
It ended with an email: it’s midnight in Israel, I just remembered the first time I saw you, it was before I went to school in the U.S., we were both waiting for some doctor’s appointment or something, and some kid was screaming from inside the room. I remember sitting in front of you and looking at your face. do you remember? everything happened to us together.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque (University of New Mexico Press), and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.