“How are we going to get home?” asked Tommy, Kelly’s little brother, who was standing between Kelly and me, shivering in the night. And I couldn’t admit to him then (because I’d lived fifteen years to his eleven—a teenager, after all) that I was wondering the same thing. I tried to make my speechlessness seem as calm as the pure adult vodka vomit hitting the snow next to the car in beige waves.
Earlier that night, the three of us had agreed to go with Tommy and Kelly’s dad, Ed, to a Polish disco. Kelly’s mom couldn’t go because she had to work a late waitressing shift. So we went. We’d been bored, there were no parties that night, and Ed’s offer of dancing and staying out late was as good as it would get for two girls who weren’t old enough to drive. Plus, there was always the chance of cute boys.
So imagine our dismay upon discovering the Polish disco was actually a fiftieth birthday party thrown for one of Ed’s work buddies. Not a cute boy in sight. Just middle-aged women with maroon hair and sequined tops shaking it to “I Will Survive.” So, Kelly and Tommy and I spent the evening dissecting tinsel “Over the Hill” centerpieces as Ed, the life of the party, got Old-World wasted.
Kelly and I met in the sixth grade when she was the new kid at St. Priscilla’s. We became best friends fast, even though we were so different—she the cute, outgoing basketball player, me the introverted Stephen King freak.
From the beginning, I thought Kelly was charmed. She was the only girl in a family with three boys, and so, she had this special connection with her mom, Grace, who kept Kelly’s closet well-stocked with Cavaricci pants and IOU sweatshirts, and, basically, let her do whatever as long as she got up for church on Sunday morning. Once we had to write a paper about our favorite person, famous or not. I chose Stephen King, of course. Kelly chose her mom.
Our freshman year of high school, Kelly got contacts, started plucking her eyebrows, and became suddenly, annoyingly beautiful. Every single boy liked her, which made my social life a fiery pit of raging jealousy. Especially because I still had braces with rubber bands and the Ogilvie home perm that my well-intentioned grandma had used to destroy my hair.
But Kelly was goofy and seemed to really like me, so I could never hold her looks against her. We made up nicknames for our teachers. For Sister Marie: Sister Fuck-Me. For Mrs. Capasso: Mrs. Fat Asshole. For Mrs. White (our sweet, pregnant math teacher, who loved to wear yellow): The Golden Egg. We were obsessed with Far and Away, the 1992 movie starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Irish immigrants named “Joseph” and “Shannon,” which is what Kelly and I called each other constantly. Just like this: “Hello, Joseph!” “How are you, Shannon?!” And everyone hated us for it.
We shared a passion for Jewel—not the singer, but the grocery store. We would ride our bikes there after school, buy raw chocolate chip cookie dough, and down the whole tube out on the curb next to the shopping carts.
I loved Kelly. I thought her life was so perfect. Until the Chateau Rose. Because even though my dad and I fought like rulers of warring countries, he would’ve never done what Kelly’s dad did that night.
In the parking lot, Ed turned from the bank of snow and said, “We go home now.” His lips were slick, his accent not only Polish but drunk. He stumbled toward the driver’s side door.
“I’m not getting in the car with him,” I said, thinking it was under my breath, but Ed heard. He looked at me bleary-eyed. “You get in car, I take you home.” He was fumbling with his keys.
“Dad, you can’t drive us,” Kelly said.
“What? Stupid … I take you home.”
“No, Dad. You can’t.”
Then he turned to Kelly, his face suddenly red, teeth bared. And after dropping his keys in the snow, he charged at her. But he lost his footing; his hulking body dropped on the snow and wet asphalt just as we all stepped back, out of the way.
“Let’s get him in the car,” Kelly said cool as the snow now frosting her dad’s hair. Now this was before cell phones, and it never occurred to us to go back to the party and ask for help. It was like we had to do this. So Tommy and I hurried to her side. Somehow we dragged his 200-something pounds of dead weight into the backseat, and I realized, for the first time, how heavy an adult can be.
I hadn’t started Driver’s Ed. yet, but Kelly had. She’d recently told me that, after years of boasting about how she couldn’t wait to drive, she was actually terrified of it, imagining losing control, crashing into a brick wall. But that night she got into the driver’s seat. She put her hands on the wheel, took a deep breath.
I said, “You can do it, Kell.”
It’s this night I thought of eight years later, the night I heard that Kelly’s mom, Grace—her favorite person in the whole world—was missing. Kelly and I were still friends, but rarely talked. At twenty-three, she was newly married, living in the suburbs, still going to church every Sunday—a life that was the antithesis of everything I wanted. We were always different, but by then our differences seemed to matter.
I heard about Kelly’s missing mom through the grapevine—Grace had been gone for over twenty-four hours. No one could find her. No one had heard from her. My sister and I watched a news report on TV, and there was my former best friend, the pretty, outgoing jock, looking frantic, swollen, a flier with her mom’s photo on it was pasted on a streetlamp behind her. “She’s the glue of our family,” Kelly was saying to the reporter. “If anyone knows anything, please … ”
Watching the segment, my brain raced: maybe Grace had just snapped. Maybe she’d gotten fed up with her marriage and her job, and since her kids were mostly grown, she said fuck it, I’m moving to Hawaii. I was terrified to call Kelly, but when I finally got the nerve that night, I listened to her; “She’s gone,” she cried, “she’s gone.” We both knew it was much worse than a midlife crisis.
Three weeks later, the funeral mass for Grace was held in the church across the street from the funeral parlor where she’d worked and was murdered by a nineteen-year-old co-worker. The co-worker was gay and Grace, a devout Catholic, reportedly questioned him about his homosexuality. The questioning escalated into an argument, which escalated into him strangling her, stabbing her multiple times, and stuffing her body into the floorboards of his apartment.
At the funeral mass, I saw the back of Kelly’s dad, Ed, slumped in the front pew. He was gray-faced and stoic, the opposite of the life of the Polish Disco. He didn’t get up to speak, but Kelly did. Clutching a statue of the Virgin Mary to her chest, she stood there speechless for several minutes.
Behind me I heard the words, “You can do it, Kell.” But this time, it wasn’t me saying them.
After Kelly’s mom was murdered, I wanted to be there for her. I wanted to take the keys and drive her to safety like she did for us that night at the Chateau Rose. I wanted to be there for her like we were fifteen. If it were then, I would’ve slept over every night so that when she woke up afraid, or convinced her mom was still alive only to be spit in the face by the dark of her mom’s forever absence, at least she wouldn’t be alone.
I would’ve made her Campbell’s Cream of Chicken and Jewel bakery bread rolls. I would’ve fed her cookie dough straight from the tube or spoonfuls of pure sugar because she liked those, too. I would’ve been her pillow, her Kleenex, her photographs, her clean clothes, her basketball court and her backyard pool in the summer, but I couldn’t. I still can’t.
I used to think it was because I was afraid, that I wasn’t brave enough to witness Kelly’s pain, to be at the front lines with her. And I used to feel guilty about it. But actually, our relationship now, as it is, is perfect.
Because now—ten and a half years since the murder, and still with nothing in common—we actually get together once in a while. We talk a little about our current lives—jobs, families, her good but hard-won relationship with her dad.
But we both know we’re just waiting to get to the good stuff—the memories, the stupid shit we did when we were twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Fat Asshole and The Golden Egg, Jewel, and “Joseph” and “Shannon” —and we laugh. We laugh so hard that we’re hysterical, both of us red-faced and sniveling. And it’s like we’re remembering and forgetting everything that happened. The pain of that laughter curling our edges, peeling us back, reminding us that we’re old friends. Which means we know exactly what we need from each other, the only thing we need from each other: the occasional dose of the joy, ridiculousness, and valor of our fifteen-year-old hearts.