Fifteen years ago, I was trying to stave off senioritis long enough to get through the last month of college. Easter fell on April 12, 1998, but it wasn’t a long enough weekend for me to go home to see my family. Instead, I went to the movies with friends. We saw Primary Colors, and today the only thing I remember about the film was that I recognized Oak Alley Plantation, which was familiar because my high school friend Penelope had taken me to see it when I’d visited her in Louisiana on my spring break the month before.
Penelope and I had known each other since kindergarten, but our friendship had not weathered adolescence well. We’d been best friends through middle school and the start of high school, but then things got rocky. I was unhappy at home and, seeking comfort and belonging, I started hanging out with boys my friends didn’t like and letting my hormones do too much of my thinking. Penelope did not approve. She’s always been smarter and more mature than me, but back then, she was just another judgmental killjoy trying to tell me what to do. We fought more and more often. We said unforgivable things, and then we stopped being friends.
It had been about four or five years since we’d hung out or even spoken to each other when Penelope e-mailed me in the Spring of 1996. She was about to graduate from college and invited me to her senior art show. I was carrying about a bazillion credits that semester and barely had time to shower, much less socialize, so I didn’t go, but I was glad to hear from her. That summer when we both got home from school, we had lunch together, then went for a walk along the Burlington waterfront. I was relieved to find our high school resentments had evaporated, and we were able to talk and joke as easily as we had before we’d parted ways. She had only a few weeks at home before she was due to go to Houston, TX for Teach for America’s teacher training program, and from there to a two-year commitment teaching Special Education in South Louisiana.
When she left, we exchanged letters. I sent her care packages with baked goods and goofy knickknacks I picked up at various shops in Burlington and Northampton. She sent me letters filled with black-ink sketches, snippets of poetry, funny anecdotes about her students, and lyrical descriptions of places she visited and things that she did. Very rarely, we’d be home in Vermont at the same time, and we’d get together for a few hours, but these letters and brief visits soon proved insufficient to nourish the friendship that was rapidly growing more intense than it had ever been in childhood. We started emailing and talking on the phone daily.
We joked about all we had in common. My senior year (her second year in Louisiana), we were both single, but both casually seeing guys who paid far too little attention to us except for the occasional booty call, and even these guys were freakishly similar: their names began with the same letter, they were both artists, they seemed to share many of the same annoying (to us) peccadilloes. (They were not actually the same person: we did not have that much in common!) As Penelope and I bitched together, hour after hour, about these inadequate non-boyfriends, I began to consider whether we wouldn’t be better off just kicking the guys to the curb and taking up with one another, but I didn’t say anything. Penelope had never expressed any interest in women. (As for me, I was at Smith. ‘Nuf said.)
Penelope invited me down to Louisiana to visit her on my spring break. I went, and we had a blast in New Orleans and stayed up late every night talking and snuggling, but though we were closer than ever, we didn’t cross that line. We didn’t even talk about crossing that line.
Back to Easter 1998: When I got back from the movie theater, I called Penelope to share my excitement at recognizing Oak Alley, but she didn’t answer. All weekend, she didn’t answer, and then Sunday night, she called… from Vermont. She’d gone home to visit her dad for Easter, and didn’t have to go back South until Tuesday, and could she drive down and visit me tomorrow? Of course, I agreed, and then I didn’t sleep all night. It felt like our relationship was coming to a tipping point: I thought we were very, very close to becoming lovers, and I’d gladly nudge us over that edge, if only I could be sure she’d be interested. I didn’t want to freak her out and wreck our friendship again. It was better to have her in my life as a friend than not at all.
Monday morning, someone knocked on the doorjamb of the glorified supply closet in the bowels of the art building where I spent nearly twenty hours a week at my work study job, selling art supplies to a parade of eye-popping misfits. (Many Smithies enjoy an eccentric personal aesthetic, but the art majors are a cut above.) I looked up and there was Penelope, having gotten directions from someone in my house. We hugged and laughed about the fact that our trend toward eerie similarity remained unbroken: without discussion, we were dressed exactly alike, in red t-shirts, dark-wash jeans, and black shoes.
She had brought my Easter basket from home, stopping by my parents’ house and demanding it like a chocolate terrorist, waiting impatiently in the foyer until my mother turned it over, while our dog barked madly. (I hadn’t asked her to do that, but I must have mentioned that my mother had said she’d have a basket waiting for me when next I came home.)
We went to dinner with Penelope’s mom that night, driving up to Brattleboro to meet her. We came back to school and watched a movie until someone kicked us out of the living room because they’d reserved the TV. We went back to my room, and the whole time I was a crazy tangle of nerves and anticipation, wondering if I should say anything, wondering if the change in our relationship felt as imminent, as inevitable to her as it did to me, or if my years at Smith had twisted my perspective on feminine intimacy so that I could no longer appreciate female friendship without sex.
In the end, I don’t remember either of us making the first move. It just happened, organically, inevitably, as it was meant to. Fifteen years ago this very morning, we got out of bed feeling as if the magnetic poles of the earth had shifted and everything was suddenly different, suddenly put to right, and we didn’t have to worry. She flew back to Louisiana that afternoon. She had two more months to fulfill her teaching commitment, and I had one more month until I graduated. Neither of us knew what would happen next, but we knew we’d be together — we knew we had to be together.
Happy anniversary, my dearest love. Here’s to the next fifteen years, and the next after that, and the next after that….