I woke to my phone ringing, a strange number on the glowing screen in the Berlin darkness. Something about the early morning hour enticed me to pick up. “ Ali?! Curly’s dead”. Time and space collided in my mind. It was Rinny, my best friend from Hebron. The one who had lived anyway. Nikki had died of bone cancer, but Rinny had lived, and now she was calling me from India to tell me that her highschool boyfriend had overdosed. I felt like a sponge oversaturated with stinking sink water, memories and emotions I had flushed down the drain now filled me without my consent.
Another overdose. This fate, this pointless, pathetic, arrogant fate was the norm for my generation of white middle class kids in Connecticut. While we were still in highschool at least one student a year would either crash a car or blow too many lines, and every couple years after graduation another foul occurrence would follow. My mouth was a metallic mix of memories and sleep. I didn’t give a shit about Curly, but my heart ached for Rinny. I felt the pain in her voice as it floated around the world and into my ear. I could smell her hair. I wanted to hold her.
She and Curly had broken up nearly ten years ago but had kept in touch, I don’t know why. After college she left the east coast and chased a dream of being a pediatric nurse, caught it and found herself empty. Then she wandered through Colorado to ski and climb and hike with the hippies. She crashed, got a concussion and found herself truly empty. Finally Rinny left the US, left her nursing job and pile of antidepressants for some yoga retreat in India to try and feel again, the pain and the mundane and eventually, hopefully, to feel pleasure too. She planned for a month and had now stayed a year, mirroring my own relationship to Berlin. But even in India our small town demons found her, persistent like a bratty kid who always gets what he wants.
Rinny and I would paint rocks together the last years before our teens. We would go for walks through the hay fields just around the bend from her home. We sought out these quiet spaces and one another’s company. There was a fluidity between us. She too felt like the outsider. Rinny and I had found in one another a refuge.
My two best friends, Rinny and Nikki, they overlapped in my life just a little. Nikki was integrated into a social world I just could not reach. She was at the front of the pack during cross country. She joined the swim team and soccer too. She sprinted in the direction of my sister, of team camaraderie, confidence, and strength, sprinted toward that life right up to the minute she died at 15, a brutal metal trip line pulled taut across her track. Maybe Rinny saved me. If I had had only Nikki when she died I might have just fallen down the rabbit hole. Maybes are pointless. Rinny didn’t save my life, but she transformed it, terraformed it some might say.
I can hear Rinny’s laugh, an uninhibited cackle without the witches intentions. We became true explorers together when she invited me to join her and her father in Italy. “Papa V”, I called him, was a property developer in Miami. A tall muscular Italian-American with impeccable, promiscuous taste. Rinny and I could talk to him about sex and he poured us wine with dinner. I became the adoptive daughter on a trip to Rome, Venice and Lake Como. What a lucky bitch.
The memories of that voyage are like slides falling into a projector, nostalgic and beautiful, captured and timeless. Venetian light spilling through the window in the morning, so golden it felt liquid. Rinny wrapped in white robes. The perfume of rose soap and the crinkle of its patterned paper as I unwrapped it. We drank Bellinis and espresso and smoked Romeo and Juliets. We enjoyed the attention of older men who whistled at our youthful bodies and entertained ourselves by completely ignoring them. Like Fragonard’s Rococo painting, Rinny and I swung side by side, reveling in a world far beyond our small town life.
I could not expect the shift I would experience upon returning from the trip, but now its looming approach is so clear. Day to day life in Hebron went from simply being bland to feeling like sandpaper on my skin. The strip mall downtown, multiple cars parked in driveways, a sea of jeans and baseball hats, it all disgusted me. My walks through the forests and fields were not enough anymore. Before the trip their atmosphere would linger in me, but now I was unable to pull their whimsy through the day. I was only at ease when in these bubbles of beauty, or when venturing to manifest their quality through drawing or writing. Or with Rinny. Especially when she laughed.
We were comrades and prisoners after curfew, held against our will in our parents homes. Within our weekend cells Rinny and I would fake sleep until the blue hour when the mourning dove began its song, then we would join nature, pull out a stash of weed and smoke until the world was new. I remember laying on my back on the bed next to Rinny once, the cloud of high hitting me hard as I looked into my floor-length mirror, our faces upside down. Our chins were our foreheads, our foreheads were laughing, and for the first time I understood how plastic perception was.
I suppose it was inevitable that those early morning voyages would begin to turn toward one another. I can remember the allure of kissing Rinny in contrast to what I was doing with guys at the time. There was a softness as we held one another. There was no power play. I found in those kisses a pleasure without any recognition of the outside world. They were more beautiful than staying at the Bellagio. Since childhood, warm hands in moist dirt planting delicate seedling roots, I had not felt such contentment.
I was sitting in a papasan chair between two open windows in the corner of my bedroom, the walls a buttery yellow, muted in the blueness of pre-dawn. Old Smoke Road lay lazily outside, a random car rolled by, cricket and spring peeper calls thickened the silence. Rinny sat on top of me, kissing, holding. Then abruptly she let the outside world in. A violent flood. I do not know what changed, what I did, why that moment was the moment she felt we had gone to far. She pulled away and looked at me with a furrowed brow. “I am not a lesbian you know.” Through shame and fear I was muted. Why this label? Why did it matter? Was I a lesbian?I felt like nothing at all.
She shrunk me down, down, down, until a tiny fearful me tugged the carpet up and over, and stashed away a part of myself for what would end up being sixteen years. The crickets and the spring peepers grew louder and louder. Rinny and I pulled away from one another and indulged in our equally horrible boyfriends. G was violent and cheated on me and Rinny’s boyfriend would end up overdosing. She was in India, and would call me in Berlin. “ Ali. I am sorry. I wish you could hold me...”