The twisting highways that cut through West Virginia and lead to my hometown, which is on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, are terrifying at night. The last time I made the drive, the fog was thick and low – a meteorological manifestation of my cloudy, burdened mind. Because the hills are steep and street lights are rare, the dim headlights were the only aid my vision had. I couldn’t plug in and listen to my own music because I didn’t have an auxiliary cable and there was nothing on the radio. The hum of the highway was the only sound accompanying us for the ride. My childhood friend, Karin, was sitting at a spine-straight 90 degree angle in the passenger seat and scanning the blackness for shining pairs of deer eyes. My husband was doing his best to stretch across the tiny car’s back seat and rhapsodizing about beauty, undoubtedly in an effort to help unload some of the weight Karin and I were carrying. But we were on the way to the funeral of one of our close childhood friends and our availability for consolation was erratic.
Just 48 hours earlier, my husband and I were departing DC and on our way up to New York for a five day vacation when I received the news that she had died. She died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 28. The misfortune of her passing was paired with the serendipitous fortune of having arranged to stay with Karin in New York. She was a good friend to both of us and as I slumped down on Karin’s futon in her dark Bushwick apartment, I was grateful that, if nothing else, we had each other. We spooned, ordered in food and reserved a rental car.
We had made plans to stay with our friend, Liz, at her parents’ house. Their house was our safe place growing up, a home with both a revolving front and refrigerator door. Her parents have known me since I was 6 years old, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade. Our little car slid quietly into a space in front of their house, which looked exactly as I’d remembered, around 1am. Liz and her boyfriend were waiting for us with Karin’s younger brother on the front porch, illuminated beneath the overhead light. Liz and her boyfriend had just arrived a few hours earlier themselves after a long drive from Milwaukee. We embraced and then discovered that we were gripped by manic exhaustion, the kind that makes your stomach turn while your brain still races. We tip-toed down into her basement, which was still littered with the toys from our childhood, and hung out on the worn-down couches we always hung out on, this time as adults. Contagious, unstoppable laughter erupted every ten minutes or so between the six of us as we recounted hilarious stories of the friend we’d lost. We were childishly frightened of waking Liz’s dad, which meant that our bursts of laughter were followed by a swarm of shushing, which triggered more laughter.
She would have wanted it that way, she was a funny girl, we said.
She was one of the only people I went out of my way to see during the handful of visits home I had made since high school graduation. I hated Marietta when I lived there and I couldn’t wait to move away. But during one of the last visits in Marietta I had with her, she showed me where to find love for the town. We sat side by side in Muskingum Park during the late afternoon, ripping up handfuls of grass as we talked. The meticulously green park hugs the Muskingum River and in the late afternoon, everything glows with the warmth of over-saturation and shimmers with the river’s reflections. A golden beam of light was cast over her face. She looked so unmistakably beautiful.
Her family had asked me to learn and sing a song that was special to her at the funeral. Without hesitation, I agreed. As I removed the tags from the new black clothes I’d purchased in New York with trembling hands, I choked. I didn’t know where or how to find the strength to use my vocal cords in front of a room filled with people I hadn’t seen since high school under such bewildering circumstances when I hadn’t even yet processed the news enough to cry. I bit my tongue and looked out the bedroom window and onto that flawlessly paved, wide street on which I’d learned to ride a bike, on which I’d regularly parked my first car. I went downstairs.
It was weird to see us all dressed up. I didn’t even wear heels at my wedding and yet, here we all were, balancing and clicking in unison. The three of us held hands and walked slowly into the funeral home. We’d given all the hugs and condolences we could give and we still had 45 minutes before the beginning of the ceremony. We walked like a pack of wolves who’d grown up in the wild together down the main street in town and into a bar, one of the few. With urgency, we ordered shots, ciders and beers. Tucked into the wooden booth only briefly, we left as quickly as we came. We walked back in the direction of the funeral home although we were unwilling to reenter a minute earlier than we needed to. Instead, we crossed the street and entered the park, the same park I’d sat in with her not that long ago. We walked down to the river and we sat on the stairs, chewing on our cheeks from the inside out, trying to calm our racing hearts. The sky glowed with that amber hue and I looked over at Liz and Karin, both of their faces washed over with a beauty I now know I’ll never forget.