Oh, readers. Today’s post will set you alight. Kate has written what, on the surface, is a Friend That Made Me Me post. But she’s taken the concept and done things with it that you could never imagine. The flip side of loving someone that much. The darkness in the brightest friendship. Colour and anger and love and happy Monday to you all:
I was 12; a new school in a new town and I was a fish out of water. I hadn’t yet leaned the chameleon skills to warm up the colour of Acceptable (nonchalant, careless, shaven legs and underarms, not bothering with schoolwork) and cool off the colour of Unacceptable (participating, eager, getting good marks, polished school shoes). Hurt and rejection are fast teachers though, and I quickly learned the survival skills of adaption and camouflage and spent a friendless year waiting for secondary school.
I met Kerry the first week of secondary school. She had bright gold cropped hair, a huge gappy grin that took up half her face, and crinkly, Duch-blue eyes. She was in perpetual motion. Energy bounced off her. She talked fast, laughed loudly, ate fast, ate loads (once she at 12 pieces of toast – not the crusts - in one sitting. I counted.) and stayed irritatingly skinny. We clicked instantly. With her I could be just ME – unrestrained, reciprocal, secure in myself, my polished shoes and good marks and big boobs and very clean shaven legs. What a gift that was to my lonely self. I sucked in the all the joy and energy and pure friendship through those fierce and intense and banal and pale-washed days of school. I’m sure we fought, bickered, disagreed and gossiped behind each-other’s backs, but nothing dulled the shine or excitement; we just got each-other.
Once we manhandled, sweating and laughing, a double mattresses up a wobbling long ladder onto to the garage roof to sleep under the stars and woke up at the edge of the roof having slid down the steep pitch in our sleep. Getting the latest fashions out on her mum’s store card, and setting up our own “model shoot”, posing and taking photos of our overdressed and fashionably (garishly) made up selves while dancing madly around the room to the top 40. Our first and last (humiliating) foray into drama. Playing inter-school hockey and not realising until too late that the wing had to, well, run quite so much. Drooling over movie stars and kissing boys in the back row in the cinema in between trips to buy chewing gum. Dying our hair red. Making up “synchronized routines” in the pool with Fern the Border collie barking madly over our disappearing heads. Slumber parties with horror movies and enough junk food to keep us awake all night. Kerry caught malaria and shrank to toothpick skinny. Visiting her in white hospital, heart pounding with relief to see her sitting up in bed, energy pulsating – albeit weakly – and choking down her medication stuffed in oranges. A cold wintry day when the trees were spindly out the window and the sky was the colour of the underside of an iceberg, we “discovered” the aching beauty of the Beatles on vinyl. Endless, endless phone conversations the minute we got home from school about He Said, She Said, We’ll Do, Oh No, You Lie, Oh Isn’t He DIVINE.
Two years of electric, vibrant friendship before we had to move towns again. Leaving - especially leaving Kerry – was gut wrenching. It was before email or mobile phones, and long distance phoning was expensive. The gap between us became not only geographical. The fast paced teenage years meant we couldn’t quite close the distance when we talked. Instead we wrote rambling fat snail-mail letters to each other; Kerry’s littered with brilliant cartoon sketches. She came to visit me for my 15th birthday, and we both listened in curious growing horror to my mum answering the call saying that her mum, our beloved Gorko, had committed suicide. We drove the 9 never-ending hours to Gorko and the car broke down on the way. Photos of Kerry trying to lighten the atmosphere by pretending to fix stuff under the bonnet while we waited for help. It bonded us yet closer, life wasn’t all boys and music and travel plans.
Kerry was sharp, witty, fun, open, generous, and clever. She wasn’t able to get into her chosen university but undeterred, she decided to join me in my Uni town and got a part time job at the Uni whilst studying by correspondence. We each had a room in a strange yet retrospectively awesome B.E. that housed a small band of Uni students, pensioners, and halfway house people from the local psychiatric hospital. It was brilliant. Hanging out together and living our free, adult lives was something we’d waited for and talked about for years. We sweet talked the kitchen matron for extra bacon as we both disliked eggs, drank cheap wine in crowded bedrooms, went to gigs, got addicted to playing contract bridge, worked on our papers together, wrote bad poetry and had earnest conversations about literature, history and social injustice.
Yet, being so close to, but excluded from actually being part of lectures, papers, clubs, social activities and day to day Uni minutia was frustrating for her and she became more withdrawn from the group situations in the B.E., not-so-humorously mocking our friends out of repressed jealousy. We spoke about it at length and I understood how difficult it was for her, but eventually it drove a wedge between us and I felt that I couldn’t talk about any of my studies or day to day happenings because it made her sad, mad, frustrated or depressed.
After her first set of exams, she dropped most of her courses and began to spend more time with non Uni friends including some musicians she’d met at a gig. She wanted to be called by her full name, Keryn, she was no longer “childish Kerry”. I saw even less of her, but felt a guilty relief. I didn’t have to keep changing the topic when Uni stuff came up, didn’t have to justify or explain my choices to her and was able to spend the time I needed to on my papers and prep. I realised how far we’d grown apart when I saw her at midnight down the hallway after a night out. She was high, and shivering. It was winter and she had nothing on but jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt. No bra, no shoes, her feet filthy and scabbed, and her hands and face red from cold. I invited her to into my room for a coffee and to warm up, but she was on her way out again, and just looked at me scornfully when I asked where her shoes and coat were.
Kerry moved out of the B.E. but there were still letters between us, hers with even better cartoons depicting snapshots of her life. I think we both knew the increasing distance was because we were growing in different directions, neither agreeing with the others’ choices, neither allowed to be our unrestrained, unguarded selves and clinging on, both so afraid of the changes happening but unable to deal with them. After our meet ups, frequently full of niggles and passive aggressive comments, I’d feel angry and sad and desperately anxious. Wondering what I would say, what she would say the next time we saw each other, could we build a bridge – we had before. Did I want to, did she want to?
I can’t remember what caused it, even now years after, but I clearly remember walking in to my room after lectures one Friday afternoon, and time stretched elastically. Dust motes danced up and down in the warm winter sunshine to the thump of my heart and my lush fern turned lazily on its hook off the high book shelf. The mirror over my basin glared sharp sunlight and Dali-esque dripping red. I thought it was blood but it wasn’t. Scrawled in my own best red lipstick in Kerry’s handwriting: Go to Hell.
Friends crowed into my room to see the spectacle. No doubt there was much gossip. I didn’t cry. I was mostly numb. Kerry wrote me a fat, rambling letter. No funny cartoons. I ripped it up before finishing it, the pages I read were a diatribe on my faults, my weaknesses, my looks, my choices, my clothes and how people were laughing at me; no apology for her lipstick message, no explanation of why she’d done it. Funny thing about lipstick on a mirror, it’s very hard to wipe off completely. For weeks afterwards despite scrubbing, sunlight would light up the grease from the lipstick, rounding out those 3 short, yet world-shattering words. The message destroyed our friendship, but the letter destroyed me. So many secrets, spoken and unspoken vulnerabilities, 6 years of confidences had all been exposed and judged out loud on those blue pages. I felt burnt raw with betrayal.
I pretended to be fine. Inside, in the place in my heart that Kerry used to live, grew a monster who breathed fiery conflicting emotions throughout my very pores. Deepest red hatred. Blackest love. Anger. Regret. Self-pity. Aching bruised loneliness. Brazen fuck you. Fear as sharp as mustard. Clouds of loss, in softest pearly grey. It took me over a year before I could write anything. 2 years, 10 years, before I believed that I wasn’t all the things in the letter. I learned that people can be as cruel as they are kind, as weak as they strong, fearful as they are courageous, proud as they are vulnerable. We were both all of these things.
I’m truly blessed that I have a handful of beautiful, delightful friends who have since (and still do) enriched my life immeasurably. I could have written this post so differently about any of them. But Kerry made me me, because she carved me up and forced me to live through multi-colour emotions; which are both my weakness and my strength. That fire breathing monster is now part of me and although I sometimes still reel from it’s breathing, it’s what makes me consciously live, drives me forward, makes me aware of myself, my actions, my responsibility; my outrageous luck at all that I have. Without it, without her, I wouldn’t know the infinite depth of colour.