In July, I submitted the following essay to the New York Times Modern Love column. Sadly, it was rejected:
Dear Callie Neylan,
Thank you for sending your writing to Modern Love. Although we have decided not to use your essay, we are grateful for the opportunity to consider it. I regret that the volume of submissions we receive makes it impractical for me to offer editorial feedback.
Modern Love editor
The New York Times
Last summer, four years after breaking up the second time, I googled Laura’s name. I discovered a comment she’d posted on a blog about drug addiction: Jessie had overdosed.
I re-read the post several times, debating what to do. I knew I had to reach out to her; there was no way I could not respond. She had reached out to me over the years in attempts to make amends, but I had yet to reciprocate. With this new information, my conscience would not allow otherwise.
I penned an email, pressing send right before learning I’d be flying to Seattle the next day to be with my daughter, Michaela, for an emergency appendectomy. My own 20-something was mired in her own addiction, pregnant by and overdosed on a loser boyfriend, an abusive, controlling man we hated. Laura responded immediately and a few emails, texts, and 3,000 miles later, we met. Once more, we reconciled under the shadow of the Space Needle.
Deep, lasting friendships are forged through fires. Laura’s and mine was forged through the fire of single motherhood for over a decade. Tempered through the added heat of our children’s adolescence. And now molded through the bumbled, naïve staggerings of our 20-somethings. Having grown together through these fires, our spirits were like hot metal: soft and malleable. So that every mark we made on each other – via words and actions, laughter and tears – left indelible prints. Nicks and grooves and intricate lines of friendship, forged permanently on our souls.
I knew what a kindred spirit was before I met her, if only in theory. I love the movie, Anne of Green Gables, where I first heard the term. The closeness between Anne and her beautiful best friend Diana was sweet, unadulterated, and symbiotic. I had many close friends over the years, but few kindred spirits. That classification is sacred, reserved only for those friends who shape you. And whom you shape back.
I met Laura when I was 26. I was a single mother of two, returning to school after separating from my first husband. She – also born in 1967 – was a single mother to Jessica, who was just a few months older than my eldest. Attempting to rearrange the patterns of our motherhood-came-too-early lives, we met at a generic community college in Pasco, Washington. I remember seeing her walk across campus. She was beautiful. A real head turner. The Diana to my redheaded, pale, Anne-of-Green-Gables self. She wasn’t raven-haired like Diana, though, but blonde. Tan, graceful, and leggy. A ballet dancer who gave up a scholarship to the New York City Ballet when she found out she was pregnant. Via glimpses of her across campus, I was smitten. She was my first girl crush.
Speaking of head turners, I turned my own to watch her, figuratively and literally. I worked in the registrar’s office and looked up her academic records. I found out that not only was she pretty, but smart, too. She was transferring to Central Washington University that fall, just like me. What her records didn’t mention, however, was that we were both sleeping with the same professor.
CWU is in Ellensburg, Washington, a sleepy little college town on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. A hundred miles east of Seattle, in a valley between Roslyn – the small town where producers feigned Alaska for the TV series Northern Exposure – and Yakima, home of the fertile hills of eastern Washington, womb for the state’s renowned apples, stonefruits and wine-bearing grapes. I was in Ellensburg driving around campus one day, running errands before the semester started when I saw her crossing the street. I pulled over and said hello.
We made a coffee date and instantly bonded, although I later learned that when she saw me get out of my car, she nervously assumed I wanted to confront her. I also discovered that she had noticed me staring at her on campus in Pasco more than once, squelching the urge to yell out, “Take a picture! It’ll last longer!”
She knew about our shared lover before I did. She asked me about him right away. Full disclosure, she said. Is it just me, or does he have a really small penis? I was shocked, but not surprised. I was a virgin when I got married and he was only my second in a short line of lovers. He was kinky, we both decided. Addicted. Perverted. A needy little freak. And amoral in his pursuit of young, attractive females to whom he had easy access as a college professor. We vowed eventual revenge one day. But mostly we marveled at the fact that in a way, we had slept with each other. We were, in effect, lovers once removed.
Maybe it was because of compatible astrological signs: she’s a Leo, I’m an Aries. Or maybe it was our similar circumstances. Or perhaps just a simple twist of fate. Whatever it was, I’d never had a friendship quite like it. Looking back, I often wonder how much she shaped who I am. We both share a wry sense of humor, something I don’t remember possessing before I met her. Did she bring that out in me? Or did I inspire it in her? I don’t know, but I do know this: I wouldn’t be the same person I am today had we never met.
Her boyfriend during those college days was a musician: the former drummer for the Screaming Trees who jammed with Kurt Cobain. He owned a cool record store in Ellensburg and went on tour a lot. Because of this, Laura and I didn’t run in the same circles. It was a little easier for her to travel. She only had one child and family who lived nearby to watch Jessie. I had some help from my ex, but my family was in the southwest. Too far to help with childcare.
But we saw each other as much as we could. We drove to the Super Mall near Seattle one sunny fall day after we’d gotten our student loan checks. Any additions to our wardrobes were timed around financial aid disbursements. We took the back roads winding through the Cascade foothills on our way to Safeway in Cle Elum. To get through school as single mothers, we both relied on food stamps. It was humiliating: we were both so deathly afraid of our friends or professors seeing us use them at our local grocery stores that we drove 20 miles north to avoid the embarrassment of being outed as welfare mothers.
We took portraits of each other in the lovely light that streamed through Laura’s big picture windows. Short-Getz was her family housing complex, just south of the campus’s main entrance. I lived in Brooklane Village, about a mile from her apartment on the other side of the university; near tall, grassy fields with splendid views of the jagged Cascades.
We sat at graduation together, proud of ourselves for accomplishing so much with so little. She stayed in Ellensburg for grad school, moving in with the drummer. I met a boy – a bad one – and moved to Seattle for a job the next spring. She warned me about him, whispering dark revelations across the aisles in the record store, but I didn’t listen. Instead of breaking up with the boy, I broke up with her. We didn’t speak for three years.
What prompted our first make up, I can’t remember, but we resumed our friendship the first time one brisk, sunny day at the Seattle Center under the shadow of the Space Needle. Jessie was done with high school, Laura was done with the drummer, and I had dumped the bad boy. She moved to Seattle, so we picked up where we left off, going apartment and shoe shopping together, seeing live shows at the Tractor Tavern and the Showbox and indie films on Capitol Hill. She was an elegant maid-of-honor when I married Will – a very good man – in 2003, a lovely affair in a lush hidden garden on the University of Washington campus, tucked under the silhouette of Mt. Rainier.
Then I started grad school, Laura started dating a selfish Jordanian, and our teenage children unraveled. There were bongs in the basement, experimentation in the alleys, and prescription pills popped in the bedroom. My children made it through this experimental phase relatively unscathed; Jessie did not. At 20, she ended up in rehab for drug addiction. The stress was too much; Laura needed more from me than I could muster, so we broke up again. I also felt that, nearing 40, I was too old for a best friend. Wasn’t it kind of juvenile, in a way?
That was January, 2007. I left Seattle a year later; I’d always wanted to live on the East Coast and my husband was offered his dream job at a startup in DC. Leaving Seattle was harder than expected, though; after landing in the mid-Atlantic, I was miserable. I missed my children, my friends. The mountains, the water, the food. And Laura. Though I hesitated to admit it, I missed Laura. In my misery, I realized that maybe I wasn’t too old for a best friend. I thought about her often. Wondering where she was and how Jessie was doing. I made new friends on the East Coast. Good friends, lovely people. But none of them true kindred spirits.
While Michaela was sleeping after her appendectomy, Laura and I walked to Bartell Drugs. As I stood in the laxative aisle, wondering out loud which brand was best for a pregnant woman (my daughter? a pregnant woman?), Laura proffered a wistful pause before remarking, “Callie, remember the good old days in Ellensburg before our daughters were knocked up and addicted to heroin?”
Yes, Laura, I do. With fondness. And someday, I’ll remember these good old days with fondness, too. These good old days after our daughters were knocked up and addicted to heroin. After, as only kindred spirits can do, we helped each other through.