I remember the road trip that summer with intense frozen clarity. Like sitting in a diner on a hot sunny day in the air conditioning, looking out at the melting, wavering asphalt with the cold breeze from the vents making your legs all goosebumps. You’re staring into a glass of soda with ice in it, listening to your friends talking, but not really paying attention. You somehow know exactly what they’re gonna say. As you stare at the condensation on your drink, you can predict how the cubes will shrink and dance and fade. Slow change; a melting you can’t return from. That’s what that summer was like for me. You know what I mean?
It was such fun to pack up and go, just the four of us old friends. I mean, we were still young. It felt like we had been a little friend group forever, though, even if I had only joined the circle three summers earlier, after moving to town. And even if we knew that college would slice us all apart soon, we still clung to each other in that strange desperate way.
Around that time, I was starting to grow into my full self-consciousness. Haha, I’m sure you remember how awkward I was then. I began to wonder if everybody really did ruminate so much about what they said to each other, and about the buried meanings and secret hints all being exchanged, without my really understanding any of it.
Up until that summer, when I think back on it… it feels like I’d only skipped across the top of the lake that everyone was swimming in. That was high school for me. Skimming on the surface tension. Wading, barely, you might say. Except for a brief plunge with Nora before the road trip, earlier that summer, well… I’ll have to come back to that part later.
Anyway, I felt as if I was beginning to discover a secret kingdom of unknown waters with my friends, under the clear blue of normal everyday life, where Joann and Ginny and Nora were talking to each other in multiple layers of meaning. I was sitting on the other side of one of those opaque glass walls, where you can kind of see the shapes on the other side… but only kind of. You know, like… in a dentist’s office waiting room? The world began to speak a language that was not language, and I couldn’t really grasp it.
Or, really, that’s a dumb way for me to say it. People didn’t start doing something, I just started noticing. Sometimes I fooled myself into thinking I was making progress. Understanding it, parts of it. But even now I can barely even hear the first meaning under the surface. Like a refugee in my own country, or some other cruddy metaphor. So that’s why this is going to be so awkward for me to explain.
Ginny always thought she was the slyest with all that, but Joann didn’t have the same bragging nature, and actually was miles above me with all that nuance stuff. Nora too, in her quiet way. Possibly they were all laughing at poor ol’ Kristin. Or wanted me to think that they might be, just to keep me on edge, on my toes. Not in a mean way, but to prepare me. Like, they knew I needed help. That’s how girls are sometimes I guess. I was the baby bird they were trying to convince to fly. But they didn’t know how hard it was for me. To fly, I mean, when I hadn’t fully realized that I even was a bird.
So as I try to remember that trip, and the moments that melted together to make me… I know I was thinking about some of all that back then, with the girls in the car and the sand and the sun. But I was just starting to see it, and I’m thinking about the confusion of it all even more now; these days. You know? After?
A set of weird coincidences, Like everything I guess, drove a wedge right through. I don’t know, you guys. This is so hard to write, but I… I need to get it out to you. Sorry. You’ll have to forgive me if I start blathering and lose my train of thought. It happens more often, lately. I was never a good storyteller anyway. But even though I’m living in town again, I’m too nervous to try to spell it all out to you in person. It’s going to have to be in this long, dumb letter.
Let me start over. We had set out for the Pacific, a long way from home. No real plan in mind, it was just a spontaneous plan Joann came up with in the last weeks of junior year, and, well; we all thought it would be just so much fun. Yes, back a few years ago when road trips were just a fun thing you did with a car. Remember when gas was so cheap, even us kids could afford to gallivant around?
Shopping at grocery stores for cheap food. Slapping together any old ingredients and calling it a sandwich, laughing. When we finally reached the ocean, reveling in the beaches and the surf. Our bodies as shining weapons of youth is how I see it looking back, but at the time, we were so ignorant about why our skin held that shine…
This is so hard, you guys, I know you can tell from how many pages of this letter have gone by without me getting to the point. Sorry. It’s tough to be straightforward about this, when you were practically my adoptive parents growing up.
You know how friends are, they talk about everything? Well, sex was definitely something we talked about nonstop during that trip. Even though I still don’t know which of us had actually… well, done it, and we would all brag and boast about messing around with boys, I felt like they all somehow knew I hadn’t really done it. But that’s probably not true. We just lied to ourselves so much, like… I couldn’t figure out what the norms were.
So, as you can imagine, we inevitably kept talking about boys as the sun set over the interstate. And there was this thing where Nora was losing all her eyelashes. Do you remember that, when we came back? I think she had to go to the doctor, even. Because they were worried she would get dust in her eyes?
Maybe it was the diet, or all the sun. Or the ocean. Or the stress.
We were all just idiot kids, so we were of course poking fun at her. Nora got an eyelash in her eye and we were all laughing about them falling out. Then I joked, said something… something that must have cut her deeper than I meant to.
Anxiety undercurrents must have been weaving together, joining forces. As they do. I wish I remember what I said. Everything after is so clear, and that’s so blurry.
“Screw you, Kristy,” she said. “We all know you’re secretly the biggest bitch here.”
That’s when I went too far. “Yeah, Nora… and we all know you’re full of shit.” I looked up to the front seat. “You guys, she admitted to me that she never even kissed Jacob. She doesn’t even like him.”
Joann laughed. Gina did a fake gasp. “Your lashes are falling out cuz you’re a lesbian!”
I laughed too, but even in the twilight I could see tears in Nora’s eyes. We stared at each other, and something broke. I didn’t understand it then, I didn’t assemble the puzzle pieces. But I intuited that I had just betrayed her in the worst way. My face flushed, and Nora looked quickly away from me then, as we sat there frozen in the back seat. Joann shot a sharp look over, saying “Jeez you guys, lay off,” but nothing could be done to un-say the accusation.
Ginny just put on a proud it-had-to-be-said sort of face and waved her arm lazily out the window in the warm evening wind. You know those times with good friends in the car, where conversation dies and everyone just stares out the window, listening to the music, all together but apart? Comfortable silence? We all tried to pretend it was one of those times.
Ginny cracked a dumb joke about a passing billboard from time to time. I could see the pinched look in Joann’s eyes in the rearview mirror, worry clear. But I looked away quickly and couldn’t meet Nora’s gaze again. When I talked with her about that moment years later, she told me how close she came to saying something. Letting it all out in the open. And how I wish I, or Ginny, had apologized. But nobody said anything at all.
Then the worst thing happened. I couldn’t stop the ice inside me from shifting, and I began to sob. No real reason. Sitting there in the back seat, quietly crying, as the other girls tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t the one who should have been crying. That was really Nora’s place. She should have been angry at me, or sad, or anything. But somehow just her stoicism pushed me over the edge.
When you’re in a car, you can’t get away. For some reason Joann wouldn’t just pull over and let us all walk around and blow off the steam of the confrontation. And that’s how my friendship with your daughter kind of kerploded. That’s why you never saw me come over after that, during that whole senior year. We were supposed to be besties, and I totally failed Nora.
Eventually my sobs slowed. The wheels hummed, and the silence in the car was like a nonstop wave of sleet blowing in my face. I had to stop myself from breaking down, again. All I could muster to say out loud was, “I’m hungry.” Even though I was sick to my stomach, and food was the last thing on my mind.
Joann and Ginny were always confused, that senior year, why Nora had kind of retreated. We didn’t see much of her any more. She kept to herself. She didn’t even do any of the choir events that used to knit us all together so tightly. I didn’t understand, then, either, really. But thinking back, with the benefit of hindsight to analyze the hidden language, I think I understand why the ice formed now.
It all goes back to the conversation Nora and I had, a few weeks before the road trip. I didn’t think much of it at the time, or at least I thought I didn’t. But I must have cared more, deep down, subconsciously, than I thought. Because I can remember it with a sharpness, again, like the trip itself. I didn’t add them together until much later.
We were at your house, hanging out in the basement, watching some terrible rom-com. It’s true that I remember a lot of it really clearly. But I don’t remember how Nora and I ended up spending a night by ourselves at your house when you guys were gone. All I remember is sitting on the couch with her, the quavering in her voice alerting even dense ol’ me that a storm was inside her.
“Kristy. I have to admit something,” she said.
I waited, expecting a joke.
“I’ve never kissed Jacob. I don’t even like him. I’m just dating him because… my parents expect it, I guess? Everyone… expects me to.”
I shrugged and shoveled more popcorn in my mouth. “Doesn’t matter to me if you kiss him,” I said. “I’m still a total virgin.” (Again, the master of oblivious awkward.)
Then Nora turned to me, looked me in the eye, and asked: “Have you ever wanted to kiss a girl?”
I kind of giggled nervously, and said “No,” but I didn’t prompt her. I didn’t really understand that she was trying to open up. In a secret language.
My “no” probably hung there in the air there in front of her, but at the time, I just went back to watching the dumb movie.
So much later, I put it together. My betrayal of her trust on the road trip was an accident. And it cut into her anxiety about coming out. She took it hard, like she had every right to. I’m sorry, still. I wasn’t the friend she needed.
I guess I just wanted you guys to know the story, as clear as I can remember it. So now it’s time to tell you that we’ve become friends again, finally, after revisiting that awful night and working through it.
That’s when I found out that you two disowned her, when she came out. That is… so harsh. I don’t even know what to think about that. But when she told me, I knew right then I would have to write you.
You know that ice isn’t actually “cold”, right? How it’s more a lack of heat? So when you touch an ice cube, the heat travels out of your finger into the ice, transforming it in the process… Cold is a void that heat moves into. It’s not a real thing. A real anything at all.
My point is, hate is kind of a void like that. Or at least, I hope it is. Love moves into the void. I don’t want to be angry at you guys for cutting Nora out of your lives, but I can’t help it. I am. This is a mistake that you can undo. Please.
Icebergs aren’t permanent. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I hope our lack in understanding is filled with love again, someday. That’s why I had to write this. I’m sorry.
P.S. Let me know if you want come over for a casserole dinner sometime. I don’t know if that would be weird, but I think it would be great. We don’t have to talk about Nora if you don’t want.