You were awful. Just the worst.
Even though you called me fat, and I was very fat and my mom made all of my clothes from Butterick patterns mostly in discounted sheer fabrics in the summer and rough crushed velvet in the winter, YOU were much fatter than me. But I never said it out loud. I never wanted to hurt your feelings even though when I was standing next to you, I was the hot one.
You and I were friends – even though we were forced into it as you were the only girl my age in our neighborhood.
We spent the night at each other’s houses a lot. We watched Shock Theater and Saturday Night Live even though you hated it. And you never laughed at the awesome comedy of Gilda Radner. When you didn’t get Roseanne Roseannadanna, I didn’t judge you.
I also never judged your family for making weird food from Missouri or whatever yankee state you were from. I always took your side, quietly and under my breath, when your strict, Pentecostal parents yelled at you.
Jesus, they were scary.
But you chose to pick on me at Cherie’s party. Your chubby hand raised over the punch your mom made out of a huge block of lime sherbet floating in Sprite, you said in your loud Yankee, farmhand voice, “Lisa is a fatty. See how fat she is.”
I was a shy kid.
But Roni, you knew this. We had whispered this to each other one night during the closing credits of The Midnight Special, hosted by Wolfman Jack. You leaned in, your breath sweet with Hostess Raisin Crème pie and said, “Me too.”
And as we nodded in agreement about how hard it was to say words in front of people, I felt we were so close. Our faces were bright gray in the glow of the 13-inch mini TV in my room. Evel Knievel looking down from the poster over my bed, conjoined in our pact of shyness.
Now here you were, pointing your hand at me. Your charm bracelet, the one I gave you for your birthday, lightly tinkling along with the accusation. The other kids howled with laughter. And instead of feeling awful at the look on my face, you basked in the glow of my frozen humiliation. You were instantly drunk with power.
I wanted to run but I was holding a sticky cup of lime sherbet punch and I didn’t know how to set it down. The table was so over crowded with huge trays of yellow food and humongous red velvet cakes.
I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even turn away. Desperate for the laughing kids to not see my high, white underpants clinging to my chubby body under my paper thin, yellow Swiss dot dress with the white, overlarge Peter Pan collar.
I should say…My mom did her best but my outfits looked more like costumes sewn by the newly out of the closet boys I would later date in college theatre.
I couldn’t move.
I stood there, crimson-faced trying to laugh along with everyone until someone, mercifully, put some Skynard on the record player and all of the bell bottomed-party goers turned to find dance partners.
About an hour later, the punch now a foamy molten lava in my Dixie cup, I side-stepped out the back screen door and walked, hot faced and crying across the high lawn of Cherie’s house, hating all of humanity. Not knowing how to make sense of that moment until my 30s.
That moment at Cherie’s broke us apart. Perhaps you meant it to. If so, well played, my adult self says. My childhood self would have simply cried, “Why, Roni! You’re never gonna get that Olivia Newton John album back. Ever!”
Even though you lived across the road from me. We never spoke again.
The next time, and last time, I saw you was on a summer day a few years later.
Your older brother, Bill, had just gotten a new Yamaha motorcycle. He was a large kid with no friends and all of the neighborhood boys would make fun of his lisp.
He had begged his parents to buy him the motorcycle because all of the other teenage boys in our neighborhood had bikes. He wanted to fit in. So badly.
I liked Bill. Because he, like me, was painfully shy – not like you had claimed, Roni – and had always been nice to me.
He and I had never talked about our near catatonic reaction to any sort of recognition. He simply smiled at me when my face would go bright red.
I was playing in our yard across the road from Roni’s house.
Bill was playing chicken on his bike, by himself. He would run his motorcycle across the road just as a car approached. He had seen the other boys do this. My mother was hanging laundry. With pins in her mouth, she said, “That boy is going to get killed doing that.”
I was cutting up a jellied, hippie doll with a pocket knife that someone left in our backyard when we played G.I. Joes.
And as I cut the jelly, hippie doll in half at the torso, I heard tires screech and then a high-pitched scream that wasn’t human. And then horrible silence.
I ran toward that horrible silence.
I was standing next to Bill who lay beside his crumpled bike, a hole in his American flag half helmet. He was breathing, actually fighting to breathe, in this weird, gasping way. I didn’t see what the driver did. I didn’t look anywhere except down at Bill. All I heard was my mother’s shout of “come back here!” from behind me.
Then she stopped. We both stood there. She grabbed my hand and sharply pulled me to her side. And then people were running to tell his parents. And an ambulance was called.
I just looked down at Bill.
You walked up. We locked eyes, acknowledging that death was here. Then you turned to your mother and you both collapsed into each other, open-mouthed silent wailing.
Something broke loose inside me that day. Standing next to Bill’s body on the hot road, I said goodbye to his gentle spirit.
A few weeks later, I started 7th grade. In homeroom, I cracked a joke I had heard Robin Williams say on an album I got at Lay’s Dime Store. The kids roared with laughter. An honest to god, ear-deafening roar.
Then I cracked a joke about what I was wearing, an itchy deep purple number with an oversized pilgrim tie. And the kids laughed even harder. Self-deprecation became my thing and soon, no one made fun of my weight or my clothes. That was my job. And I loved it. Because I was the one doing the hurting…of me.
It’s because of Bill that I stepped outside myself and tried something new, not wanting to die until people knew who I could really be.
And it’s because of Bill that I forgave you. Even in my young mind, I knew that life for you would never be the same. That this would be a dark thing you would have to carry around.
So I hope you went on to find a great love, a warm group of friends, resolution with your parents over so many things we shared in our bedrooms.
But most of all, joy. Everyone deserves some joy.
But you were still a bitch at Cherie’s party. So I sold your Olivia Newton John album at a yard sale 10 years ago…for a dollar.
Eat that, Roni!
Your old neighbor when we were kids,