Osius column: Friends you cannot see
In ninth grade Kim and I were both new to a small, alternative school, having just left an overcrowded school with split sessions 20 miles north. From a first smile of recognition, we walked to classes together and very soon learned to laugh together. Kim was a quiet and constrained, though perceptive, person. Her laughs were silent but long and mirthful.
One night last week I was stunned to see, shared online, an obituary for Kim. I read it five times, found a photo, stared; and still mourn — though we hadn’t seen each other since age 18. The chaotic, vulnerable teen years create intense bonds.
Recently I read a funny, deeply apt article on why most lifelong friendships arise in high school and college.
Tim Urban writes in Elephant Journal: “For a bunch of years … none of you have that much on your plates, so friendships inevitably form” in an environment “that hits all three ingredients sociologists consider necessary for close friendships to develop: ‘proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.’”
He means the hundreds of hours of hang time we once had.
Through 11th grade in Annapolis, Maryland, Kim and I did homework together, smoked cigs, confided and cracked up. Lingered by rivers, in party barns, on bales of hay in a horse trailer. I stayed over at her house, barely daring to talk to her good-looking, silent older brother Mike. Kim was slight, with dark blonde hair and chiseled features, her chin tucked under; I can see her in her brown coat, laboring along with her light-green book bag.
One summer our friend Clem got me a job scooping ice cream, I brought Kim in, and we all traded shifts, including with a youth whose name I have forgotten but whom Kim eventually dated. I remember well two other of her boyfriends, including nice Chase, with his long coat and long hair.
Senior year, Kim transferred to another school. I don’t know why. I don’t know if I ever knew.
I remember and rue something I said once. The issue of same-sex marriage had just barely become a topic in an era of taboos. Someone asked if such marriage should be legal, and I, in a bratty snap decision, said, “No!” Kim, normally unobtrusive, challenged me, dragging on a cigarette, “Sure it should. Why shouldn’t it?” I was taken aback, and later came to agree with her completely. I never got to tell her that.
I last saw Kim by chance, before I went away to college. My cousin Debra, like Kim an animal lover, still saw her for some years when Kim worked at a vet’s. Once, visiting home, I called the office and left Kim a message, but that was all.
Another close high school friend, Leslie, told me at some point that Kim was living with a woman in a lesbian relationship. I was surprised. I wonder if that was one reason she disappeared. Did she think we wouldn’t understand? Was she right?
I go home to Annapolis every year or two to see family, and three years ago visited twice, once hastily, when Leslie was in the last stages of breast cancer. I thought then of calling Kim, because we all had shared so much; but it seemed too late in every way. For some reason I thought of Kim just last week, remembered algebra class. Kim was good at every subject.
She’d gone on and had a whole life that I knew nothing about, which yet rang true. Kim had, I read, many “well-trained” dogs and cats. She worked as a software tester, and was — I loved this — nicknamed “The Shark” for her “attention to detail, organizational skills and determined focus [that] enabled her to corral a team of engineers.” She learned painting, weaving, caning, basketry, mosaics and leatherwork. She’d been with her partner, later wife, for over 30 years.
She had also been fighting lung cancer; and died after a fall at home. Her parents are gone now, I was sad to read, as was her brother.
Maybe I thought sometime I’d see her again. Now there is no chance. All I could do, as that evening I learned the news stretched past midnight, was to find her spouse, Elizabeth, on Facebook, and write her a note of sympathy and regret.
“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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