For forty years it has lived on my bookcase. Prom, 1982. We are in our matching tailcoat tuxedos, white tie and waistcoats, matching red rose boutonnieres. We are standing because she refused to sit in the white rattan chair. That was the expected pose: girl in the chair, legs safely crossed at the ankle or knee, boy slightly behind with one hand resting chastely on her shoulder. We were not that couple. We were not a couple at all of course, though we obviously were a couple of... something. My left hand is behind her back because the photographer would not take the picture if I showed my wrist-corsage. Also why my fan is folded. Her hands are in her pockets which makes it a rare photo indeed because she does not have a lit cigarette. Everything about this photo was both an act of defiance and a compromise, just like my friend, who I learned just this afternoon has died.
Once, years ago, I put up a bunch of old photos onto social media and invariably a number were of her, my very best friend in high school and a bit after. When she asked me to take these down I immediately did. It had not occurred to me that she would object. Always a very private person verging on reclusiveness, I thought she nevertheless might find the pictures amusing and touching as I did. After all, those kids were long gone, but I was wrong. Her past was private. I had overstepped. A typical misunderstanding, may I say, and neither our first, our worst, nor our last. Didn't really matter much in the end though. We had known each other too long, and for a vital time in both our lives too well not to be forgiven everything, always.
It may be difficult to explain to anyone young enough or secure enough to never have known what it was to be nearly always unsafe in the world as we were then. That is a good thing that has happened. People worked very hard, some worked their whole lives to make that so. She and I were not unloved before we met. We were lucky there, actually. If who were were came to compromise us both in ways that threatened our education, our potential employment, our housing, our safety and our survival, we were lucky to have homes and mothers who loved us and frankly to have refuge in an overtly hostile place. We both knew others who had no such luck. A good part of what became my friend's professional life would be devoted to the care of people less lucky. Each of us found in the other if not safety as such, then an escape. Together we laughed, always. There was courage in this even if we were unaware of why we laughed so much and so hard and often at nothing.
Fuck. She was a funny motherfucker, you know? No one I ever knew cursed more, cursed harder, cursed more frequently or pointlessly or to more hilarious effect. Even as completely grown, largely respectable adults, we were often pretty incoherent within minutes of being again in one another's company. Didn't much matter what other people might think of of us and the spectacle we invariably made in the parking lots of family-style restaurants in our home town. Together we were always frantic children. Usually it was years between reunions. We both became stout, sturdy looking persons. Together we did not change. We swore and howled and raced at each other, threatening to wrestle. We called each other filthy names and pretended to fight like toddlers. We coughed and giggled and greeted each other always as, "hey, fucker" and then made animal noises to convey our undying simpatico. We snuffled and howled. We referred to each other as warthogs; ugly, tusked, tough, dangerous. Really only dangerous to ourselves and maybe to the assumptions of idiots, bigots, and rednecks.
She was my courage when I hadn't anything but words. She was really a rather timid soul beneath all of the guff, easily hurt, an easy weeper, always the first to recommend flight as the best resolution to any conflict. I was and largely remain all talk. Yet together we defied all sorts. That photograph from our prom is not just a portrait of her. That was us testing the limits of everything only because we were, for better or worse -- and it was usually worse -- braver for being together. Her actual girlfriend went to our prom on the arm of the gay boy I was not fucking because Jesus kept getting in the way, but my friend and I had planned out the whole night well in advance. Some of it worked out and some of it didn't. The phrase "off like a prom dress" entered our vocabulary that night for good reason. I did not get so lucky.
Throughout those intensely difficult days we ran together. I pulled her out from under porches and sat her up straight when she was high in class. She pulled me back from actual ledges. We worked together on plays, me onstage, she behind. Once I even bullied her into taking a part onstage when there was no one else to do it and I was convinced I could win in competition in the lead and I did. I was her alibi when she needed an excuse to slip away on that trip to sleep with a girl. We played at being each other's beard wherever and whenever needed. We seduced a boy together just because I couldn't manage it on my own. We stole a little, did a little damage here and there, played merry Hell with everyone's expectations. She pulled me out of the garbage can boys had stuffed me into.
Once she flew at a grown man who was being cruel to me and I sincerely believed, as did he, that she might have killed him. I talked a cop out of arresting her when really he did have every reason to. We went to New York when we had no business being there, stayed with her aunt in the West Village. We walked home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show and were followed most of the way by a slow moving sedan. She was the one who had the brilliant idea of going to the meat rack and asking leather daddies to walk us home which they did. Another trip we stayed in a fleabag off Washington Square and she went with me to The Gaiety strip club and we had a grand time talking to the boys in the "lounge." Another time when we thought we'd lost our tickets home, she wanted to spend the last of our money consulting the advertised psychic in the shopfront behind us rather than call home. Luckily we found our tickets. Later, in college, she went with me to rescue a friend who had been bashed outside a bar and then made the mistake of calling the cops who beat and raped him before letting him go.
Actually, our prom picture is one of two photographs; same subject, same friend, that I've kept and displayed by my desk ever since they were taken. The other is a black and white glamour shot in which she is wearing another unlikely costume, her girlfriend's silk robe. My friend's hair was always terribly important to her. When we were in high school, if the power went out, she didn't go to school. No blow-dryer, no go. In this other picture her face is surrounded by mounds of wavy hair. She's obviously meant to be cool. She actually looks a bit terrified. Telling again.
I cried with her when my high school love went to college and got a girlfriend. She kicked the shit out of garbage can with me when her stepmother invited her to visit and my friend's wretched father yet again made her feel like a mistake he intended to forget. Later, when every seven years she broke up with yet another girlfriend, then partner, then wife, I had the rare good grace to not note the pattern while sympathizing.
Her life proved to be hard in ways we could not have imagined when we were young. Never an easy woman to know, though always easy to love, my friend became all but impossible at times. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to be her. For long stretches, including now at what's proven to be the end, we fell out of touch. She was never good at returning calls. She never wrote. She was often late or simply never showed up. Did not matter in one way at least. I never had a moment's doubt that she loved me just as I loved her and always will. She was my youth and I was hers and that was over a very long time ago for both of us, but it was always there between us. Any excuse and back it came, roaring and cursing and laughing so loud it choked us.
It is important to keep the evidence of love when we can, as well as the memory. In front of me now, in addition to the pictures I've described there are some few small tokens of time spent together, just my friend with me. I will not describe these not because they in any way compromise my friend or would have any meaning to anyone else. Just a few trinkets from my old jewelry box; mementos of trips, and times gone long by, and private jokes. It's true that she would not like me sharing old photographs, but what harm can that do now? These little things I can hold in my hand I'll keep to myself instead. I've always told too much. I should keep some of her secrets. I have and I will. Let these stand for those. Let me hold on to just these. Her I remember here for any and all she touched besides me. I know there were so many. She helped people. Remember that of her. She was my very best friend once. I remember that. With her goes the last of what we were then.
Hey, fucker. Love you. Aaaaaarrrrggggghhhhh!!!!!