by Olivia Lada
The last time I saw her was maybe 9:30 pm on a Saturday. Everyone had Church early the next morning, so even though the Midwestern sky had only just darkened, most of the crowd began to pack up and head home. That’s just the way things seemed to work, even on a comfortably thick, warm summer night like that one. I remember standing under the huge sycamore tree in her front yard, wanting nothing more than to stay for even just a few more minutes, but also overcome with the sense that neither I, nor anyone else was still welcome. She was hugging the trailing guests uncomfortably. I knew better than anyone that she had never really been much for that type of thing.
I sighed, somewhat torn, and slumped down on the old swing that had been swaying lazily in the breeze, bumping against my leg in a gently pleading manner. Watching my faded canvas tennis shoes make patterns in the dirt as I swung idly, I folded and re-folded the letter I had been fiddling with all night. I sighed again, leaning my head back as I swung, the way everyone used to do when they were a little kid—so far back you feel like you’re about to fall but somehow manage to stay balanced. I knew I was just killing time though, waiting for her to be done with all of those people that weren’t going to miss her nearly as much as I was. I can recall the internal struggle, wondering if I would be able to just walk up and hand her the letter I’d spent so long trying to write.
It seemed impossible at the time, our entire friendship leading up to this particular night, the last one before she left the quiet, familiar town in Southern Ohio for what, in her mind, were bigger and better things. I suppose in a place so fully devoted to the Presbyterian Church, going on a years-long mission trip was something that should strike both pride and maybe a little envy in the hearts of neighbors and friends, but I never quite understood the draw of something like that. The only thing I really enjoyed from the weekly service itself was the ability to sing loudly in public without anyone hearing the true mediocrity of my voice, even if all we got were dusty old hymns. I hummed, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as I sat on the swing now, not really moving, and just slowly rotated as the rope untwisted itself.
This is stupid, I thought, nearly crumpling the worn page of notebook paper. I opened it once more, re-reading the first line. Forgoing formalities, I had skipped the, “Dear friend,” and jumped right into my soliloquy. Figuring out how to begin the letter was never hard—it was deciding when to stop writing that was difficult. When you start trying to tell someone all the things you love about them, the list just keeps getting longer and more detailed every time you think about it. I had to keep it short, because the last thing I wanted to be was overbearing.
You see the thing about Mabel and I was that we were never really best friends. She had her friends from youth group, and I had mine from the lawn mowing service I worked for, and the small school I attended. We only really saw each other at Church, but those were the times during the week that I most looked forward to. She was always far more engrossed in the teachings of Pastor Young than I, and I loved teasing her for it. One of the things I admired most about her was her significant capacity to take a joke. She would smile so that little creases formed at the corners of her eyes and laugh in a way that somehow made me feel better about myself. Every time I told her that cutting in line was a sin or asked whether it was her chastity belt that was making her walk so funny in her uncomfortable Church shoes, she would scold me for making fun of her, but her eyes always betrayed the mirth that lie so shallowly behind her mock reproachful stare. Every now and then I’d say something that brought out her cascading, contagious laugh and the two of us would inevitably end up in stitches, getting reprimanded by whoever’s parent was standing closest by. That melancholy Saturday night, however, marked the end of the giddy laughter breaking up the otherwise vicious flow of a day spent in that musty and suffocating Church. Looking up from the dusty ground, I realized that night had fallen quickly and completely.
The spring peepers were out; sounding their shrill call—a choral chirping that only began at dusk—fading in softly as background noise that you never seemed to notice until it was too loud to ignore. The air remained hot and rich, but it was now slightly tinged with the suggestion of rain. I figured I was overstaying my welcome; I had never been inside Mabel’s house before, only ever stopping by to pick her up if she had needed a ride. Every now and then, whenever we ended up at one of the community events in the park, or at the library, she would ask for a ride home. Those were the only times we ever really talked. Someone who could be so very outgoing when we were laughing or joking suddenly became serious and thoughtful, choosing her words carefully—only adding what she thought was completely necessary, there was never anything frivolous about the things she said. Maybe I didn’t agree with everything she had to say; her views were always more conservative than mine, I would always ask why, something she never did. It got on my nerves, sometimes, the way she never broke any rules. She accepted every commandment given to her by her parents, or teachers, or the Bible itself, without a need for a reason why.
Sometimes those conversations turned into little arguments, but I never minded them. Arguing is one of the best ways to learn about someone, and what they’re really like once the façade of small talk and polite conversation is torn down. I was thinking of all these things—my favorite things about arguably the best person that I knew—as I sat on her tired, old, familiar rope swing in her now empty front yard.
The way I remember it, she caught me just as I was about to leave. Or maybe I tried leaving a dozen times, but knew that I couldn’t do it without saying goodbye. Maybe she felt bad for the weird kid from Church sitting all alone on the swing in her front yard, but she eventually walked around the corner of her garage, her bare feet, slick from the dewy grass, illuminated by a harsh, yellow light above their front door. The air still smelled heavy with rain, now accompanied by a soft, distant rumble of thunder every now and then. Despite the despondency of the evening, I smiled when I saw her. That was inevitable, no matter what I was feeling. I can recall her rosy face breaking into a grin too, but both of our expressions fell away quickly, and in the same moment. There was some polite small talk, I remember; not anything important. I knew, way ahead of time, that I would surely screw up whatever I wanted to say in person. Maybe I should have been more concerned with that part, but it was comforting knowing that whatever I left unsaid now would be explained in the letter. I grew immensely relived that I hadn’t torn it up earlier in the evening, like I had been planning to. At that point it was slightly crumpled and had been folded and refolded about three hundred times, but I handed it over anyway. She looked a little confused, her expression spoke volumes saying, “Like, come on, a letter? A little melodramatic, don’t you think?”
At that point I’d run over this farewell a million times in my head; any possible scenario had already been dreamt up by my own subconscious, but when she reached out and hugged me, it was so much better than anything I could have thought up. Not the stiff, uncomfortable, side-hug she had given to the multitude of other departing guests, but one of those hugs that make you feel as though you are anchored so safely and permanently to this earth; like nothing could possibly go wrong in that moment. To this day I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I do recall that the sound of the thunder, the chirping of the peepers and the soft rustling of the leaves in the sycamore tree fading away for a while.
I left quietly, soon after that, getting on my bike and heading home. Thinking of nothing and everything at once, I pedaled furiously home, tears just threatening to spill over my eyelids. The rain had begun to fall, but soon turned into one of those Ohio summer showers that seem to fill all of the available space in the air with warm, sweet water. It was quickly joined by the thunder I had heard in the distance earlier, now as loud and mighty as ever. I was grateful for the rain when I reached my house and hurried inside; my mother wasn’t able to detect the tears that were now streaming liberally down my face, mingling with the rainwater from my hair. I ran upstairs to my room and fell on my bed, my clothes still soaking wet. I knew I’d never sleep, so I settled for lying there, watching the occasional lightning strike illuminate my dark room, and listening to the powerful summer storm raging outside. This was one of those rainfalls that seemed to clean the dusty farmland overnight, washing over everything with a violent momentum, leaving nothing weak or temporary behind. I suppose I must have fallen asleep at some point, but I certainly don’t remember it.
When I awoke the next morning, the thunderstorm had long since passed by, leaving an unnatural calm suspended in the dampened air. For a second, as I was getting dressed in my starchy Sunday clothes, I forgot that there was no longer anything to look forward to inside the airless halls of the Ridgeview Presbyterian Church and I hastened to get ready, not bothering to fix my hair or match my socks. It was only when I looked down at the almost completely faded gravy stain on my pants that I remembered.
I had received that war wound during a Church potluck last year when Mabel thought it was okay to use her spoon to fling mashed potatoes at me. Of course I had feigned anger, but there was probably nothing she could do that would ever truly make me mad. I almost told my mom I was sick, that I couldn’t go today. Something I had previously looked forward to all week was now devoid of almost any draw, besides the hymns, I guess. It was so strange to think that right now, rather than fixing her deeply brown, curly hair and putting on her Sunday best, Mabel was on a plane, long gone and almost completely inaccessible. Three years in Kenya on a mission trip was a long time, almost unimaginable. Three years in Kenya might just be long enough to completely forget someone, especially if you only mattered to them a fraction of what they meant to you. Sure, I was worried about that. I still am.
I guess in the end it just comes down to that letter. That letter which took me eleven failed attempts to write, and that started out on the fancy stationary I found in our attic, but ended up being scrawled in my messy cursive on a piece of college-ruled notebook paper, the corner torn off. Maybe she read it right after I left her house, in such a rush to be done with that goodbye, but I like to imagine that she saved it for the plane ride, or maybe for when she was feeling overwhelmingly homesick, or lost, or lonely. Helping her—making her laugh—is perhaps my favorite thing in the world, and knowing that I could have done that at least one more time is comforting, even if I’m not one hundred percent sure that it was true. Sure, three years is a long time. In three years I’ll be long gone from this small Ohio town. Perhaps Mabel will never even come back. One thing is for sure, though—three years, or five years, or several decades’ worth of years could never erase the vivid memory that Mabel has left permanently etched into all of my emotions, and maybe, hopefully, that letter will have the same effect on her.
About the Author: I am in early honors at APU for my senior year, and I will be graduating with the class of 2015. I haven’t made a final decision as to where I’ll be going for college next year, but I am leaning mainly towards Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Aside from writing and literature, history is my favorite subject to explore, however I am not yet sure what I will be pursuing in college. I enjoy writing in a journal in my free time, as well as playing basketball and spending as much time as possible with my friends.