by Ilana Garon
There’s a picture of Jenny and me when we have both just turned eight, celebrating our birthdays together. We’re standing side-by-side at the head of a dining room table, eye-level with two matching chocolate cakes whose candles we’re moments from blowing out. Two little heads, one dark and one light; I look expectantly up at the camera, frozen in a baby-toothed smile of unabashed joy, while Jenny smiles serenely, if cryptically, into the distance. In some ways this is how I always think of us: Me, open, my heart on my sleeve; Jenny, mysteriously closed, eyes always just avoiding being known.
I noticed the “missed call” notification on my phone as I walked outside into a snowy January evening. The number wasn’t one I recognized.
“Hey Ilana, it’s Mike, Jenny’s big brother,” said the voice in the message. It had been years since we’d spoken, but the warm, familiar tenor of his voice made that reminder unnecessary: I knew who he was, and—without his even having to say so—I knew why he had gotten in touch, had been expecting this call for a while. “There’s been a terrible …accident, and Jenny is on life support. We’re really praying for a miracle, here. Please, give me a ring when you get this.”
I had known Jenny for the better part of 25 years, since we were seven years old, and for the latter half of those, she’d been in a constant struggle with addiction. Drugs, painkillers, alcohol, abusive boyfriends—same beast, with different faces. I’d gotten used to setting dates to rendezvous with Jenny when I came back to visit our home state of Virginia, only to have her fall off the map when I tried to firm up the plans in the preceding days; to calling her, only to find that whatever latest phone number she’d given to me was no longer in service; to having my emails go unanswered. Then, she would pop up again, usually on Facebook chat, and apologize profusely for falling out of touch. There was always some mitigating circumstance, be it a sudden move, a lost job, a hospital stay or a stint in rehab—and like an eternally hopeful lover, I’d be ecstatic to hear her voice and instantly rekindle the friendship.
“This hot-and-cold nonsense is totally unhealthy for you,” admonished another friend of that era, after the umpteenth date that Jenny had disappeared in advance of one of our get-togethers, causing me to remark—not totally without seriousness—that I feared she’d turn up in a ditch somewhere. “Why do you put up with it?”
When we were seven, Jenny and I rode a yellow cab together every morning, our tiny religious school’s stopgap to a few geographically outlying students’ needs for bus service. I was new, not only to the school, but to the United States, my parents having just moved our family back from five years in France. To most of my classmates, my “Frenchness” was an on-going source of derision: They’d laugh at me when I raised my hand by pointing my index finger in the air, pronounced state capitals like “Des Moines” with a French accent, wrote in cursive—in France I had never learned to print.
Jenny remained aloofly disinterested in most of the teasing I endured, neither participating nor intervening. At school, she was cool: She lived with her grandparents (a source of some insecurity for her, I later realized), which made her seem cool and exotic to those of us in more traditional families. She was a prankster, a note-passer, a secret-whisperer; she was always tantalizingly on the verge of getting in trouble, but never did. Everyone liked her. When we played kickball, she was always the first chosen for a team. She treated me with friendly equanimity in school, giving me some of her time and attention, but proffering it elsewhere just as easily; once in the yellow cab, however, she would ask me to recount what we’d eaten in France, what we wore, or tell her what the French words were for “vanilla” or “diamonds.” She was also a born storyteller, constantly regaling me with sagas I wasn’t entirely sure I believed about secret passageways under her house, or buried treasures she had unearthed in the woods nearby.
Our birthdays were one day apart: She, born on May 9th, 1981, was one day older, a fact that she would lord over me when she wanted to make a point. Until fifth grade, we celebrated had joint parties—we were “birthday twins.” We also had matching black-and-white sailor dresses, which both of our grandmothers had—without knowledge of or consultation with each other—purchased for us, and we’d plan weeks ahead of time to wear them simultaneously, arousing the jealousy of every other girl in our class.
I idolized Jenny in those early years; she was the most captivating person I knew. She was also beautiful, with long dark-blonde hair, olive skin, and startling green eyes; even in late elementary school older boys started taking notice of her, and she, them, styling her hair and experimenting with make-up while I was still climbing trees in overalls. As we got older, it seemed that the extra day she had on me represented a widening gap in life experience and understanding. She knew things I didn’t, and she would explain them to me in whispered conversations between the bunk beds when I slept at her house, or she at mine.
We often ran together. Jenny was a talented runner—as a 6th grader, she broke a 7-minute mile—and would constantly force me to go on long runs with her whenever we spent unstructured time together. I would dread these excursions, because I could never keep up with her. She would patiently coach me, turning her head backwards to where I was struggling a few yards behind her, to offer instructions: “Breathe in a rhythm,” she’d say. Or, “Think of a song, and play it in your head. Follow me…just a little longer.” Near the end of the run, she’d take pity on me, turn back, and come run by my side.
In the politics of middle school, I was far too un-cool for Jenny to be friends with publicly. In the parlance of Cher in “Clueless” (one of our favorite movies of that time), her stock would have plummeted. I understood this as some immutable of law of nature, and made no efforts to impinge on her social circle. While I sat at lunch with the other “nerds,” or—when they were unavailable, or too far geeked-out on video games for me to join in—resignedly alone, reviewing my history notes, Jenny seemed to have been absorbed by any number of popular cliques.
Yet, despite her polished, carefree exterior, she was unhappy and lonely. One Saturday afternoon, she called me crying, telling me how much she hated our school. The girls were all mean and catty, she said, and I was the only one who understood her. She wished she could transfer to a local public school where she knew a bunch of people; there, she said, she would have “real friends.” (I thought it likely that, come Monday, she’d ignore me again; however, I was happy enough to be temporarily in her confidence that I made sympathetic noises and listened.)
Soon after, she began skipping school. In our rigid parochial school, almost no one “cut.” But, she had an older boyfriend at another high school. I met him a few times. He had a ponytail, an easy smile, and a car.
Over the next few years, I’d feel simultaneously jealous of the life I imagined she led outside of school, and worried for her that she would get in trouble. Once, after a noticeable stretch of absences, the guidance counselors to come to my math class asking if I knew where she was. I did; she had just had an abortion, and was recovering at her boyfriend’s place. But I followed Jenny’s instructions to me, and told the counselors she had the flu.
In all the clichéd ways defined through the after-school specials we watched on TV, Jenny and I led perpendicular lives throughout our teens: me, taking the Honors courses, staying in studying on weekends, awkward and nervous around peer groups; Jenny—though no less smart—social, free-spirited, and minimally engaged by the structure of coursework and extra-curricular activities that our high school provided. Even her participation in things like Cross-Country, which she professed to love, was always half-hearted. She’d begin a strong season, do well in a couple of races and impress everyone, and then lose interest; her attendance to practices would gradually taper off. The coach would mutter furiously under his breath at the loss of one of his most promising female runners, and I’d ruefully congratulate myself for having predicted this would happen yet again.
Oddly, this didn’t undermine the strange intimacy we’d always had, the sense of twinning, of being the darker and lighter halves of the same whole. Whenever we talked—be it in swift conversations by our lockers, or on the phone late at night—the differences between us would instantly melt, and it was as though we were seven years old again, laughing and whispering in the back of the yellow cab. She memorized my locker combination; sometimes she would “borrow” books or supplies and forget to return them—my stuff was her stuff, she reasoned, and vice-versa, though I rarely took her up on it. I would complain when things went missing, but secretly I loved for the weird unity it implied.
We graduated and went off to separate colleges. She transferred schools three times. Through this, we kept in touch. There’d be long stretches of absence, wherein we drifted and we didn’t speak; then she’d suddenly pop up again one night on Instant Messenger (the ubiquitous chat platform of our college years), or call my dorm phone, and we’d pick up where we had left off.
Our conversations were often sad. We each experienced some losses in the college years and in our 20’s, mine pretty typical, hers more profound.
She once called me late at night. “Ilana,” she told me. “I found my boyfriend hanging.”
I didn’t understand. “Hanging…with whom?”
“No, hanging. He hung himself. What do I do?”
I told her she must call the police. I asked if there was a way for her to call from a different phone, so she stay on the line with me while she did so. I’m not sure she heard. “Ilana, do you believe in the afterlife?” she asked. “Is there something that happens after we die?”
I didn’t know how to answer. “Yes…?” I finally said tentatively, hoping that was what she wanted to hear.
She said she had to go. I made her swear to call me back, which I knew she wouldn’t do, so I made her give me a number to reach her. But when I called it twenty minutes later, the phone rang and rang. No one answered. I tried every number I knew for her, but couldn’t get ahold of her.
I found out days later that she had gone on a bender and ended up hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. When we finally spoke, she told me, ominously, “This isn’t the first time this has happened.” Then she changed the subject, rebuffing my attempts to discuss it further.
There were perpetual disappearances. So many times, I’d try to make plans to see her, or just to call her, and be unable to get in touch. It seemed as though she changed phone numbers more often than I changed my pants. She would be totally unreachable for days or weeks. Eventually she’d resurface, charming as ever, and casually rebuff offers of help or concerns; then, she’d go back into hiding again.
Why did I “put up with it,” as our concerned friend asked? Because—despite Jenny’s drastic unreliability—in various crucial ways she was brilliant at being a friend. For instance, she remained unfailingly empathetic to whatever I was going through. Whenever I incurred even the most minor disappointment—a broken heart, a professional setback—she offered a type of warmth I never found elsewhere, maybe because it only comes from people having known each other for a particularly long time. “Oh, Ilana. I feel sooooo bad for you,” she’d tell me. And the thing was, you really felt that she meant it. She had an unparalleled ability to hug a person with words, to convey just the type of understanding you needed, whatever horrible things were going on in her own life.
“Why don’t you come to New York?” I suggested once. I mean it seriously. “You could stay with me while you got a job, got things sorted out; I’d be happy to have you nearby.”
“Oh, my gosh, that would be sooooo great!” she replied, in a way that paradoxically communicated both sincerity—that she actually believed it would be great—and yet a total disinclination to follow through.
She was slippery, and I knew by now that this wasn’t unique to me; indeed, her brother made the same complaint when we spoke about it once. Yet, the irrational part of me struggled with feeling jilted, with a sense that somehow if our friendship were important enough, she’d connect with me.
Still, we both always found reasons to hope. Around our 30th birthday, I asked if she wanted anything. She asked, shyly, if I’d make a donation—in both of our honor—to an alcohol and substance abuse group that with which she was participating. She seemed to be doing well: making friends, staying sober, holding down a job.
“I think they might just save my life,” she told me.
She hung herself a year and a half later. We were thirty-one.
When the call came from Mike, I couldn’t cry. For a week, I felt neither sadness at the situation, nor any palpable yearning that she would come out of the coma in which they’d found her. She remained “brain-dead,” and her vital organs failed one by one. Eventually they pulled her off life support. All of this I experienced as though walking through a corridor of ice. Only Mike’s desperation and grief did anything close to melting those hard walls.
Through Jenny’s funeral, at which I delivered the eulogy, I remained unnervingly composed. In some way I wanted to come apart publicly, to sob and scream, to show outwardly that I had cared for her. But it didn’t happen, not then.
Afterwards, I dreamt that I was trying to get people to come to the service, only to have them tell me they were attending the same youth group event that had conflicted with my Bat-Mitzvah party nearly twenty years prior. At one point, some anonymous would-be funeral-goer had told me, “You weren’t even a good enough friend to be delivering the eulogy.” I woke up feeling in the pit of my stomach that he was right: That I hadn’t talked to her recently enough when she died; that I hadn’t been empathetic enough to her struggles; that I hadn’t been able to prevent an outcome that I’d seen coming, in some form, years away.
Sometimes I still have dreams about her.
In one dream, we’re running side-by-side, in twin strides, limbs lean and coltish; Jenny is tanned, healthy and aglow with youthful vitality. After a while, it will dawn on me that I went to her funeral, and I’ll cry joyfully, “But Jenny, you’re alive after all!” And she’ll turn and give me a strange, serene half-smile, and say, “Ilana. You know I’m dead.” I’ll wake up, nearly crying.
There’s another recurring dream I have. In this one we’re also running, but I know the scope of things completely, even in deepest sleep. Like in our teens, Jenny will be running in front of me, the sun glinting against her blonde hair. Sometimes she’ll turn and smile over her shoulder at me. And this is how I want to remember her: Her gait smooth, long, and seemingly unimpeded by gravity or any other earthly concerns, always running into the light.
Ilana Garon teaches high school English in New York City. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse Publishing; hb 2013, pb 2015).