Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meet Me at the Bell

"Meet me at the bell."

That was how we usually ended our phone calls with each other before hopping on our bikes and joining up for whatever adventures awaited us that particular day. We were best friends, and back then an afternoon could stretch for miles with an infinite number of opportunities dotting its landscape. 

Some friendships are like that, too.

Just like that.

The aforementioned bell was an impressive cast iron affair tucked beneath a red brick steeple in a sturdy stand-alone structure in front of a densely shaded church. Neither of us belonged to this church, I don’t even remember its name or denomination. We chose it for the simple and practical fact that it was centrally located between our houses. We must have met there a hundred times before continuing on to Burger King for a chocolate shake; or to a different bell (one of the Taco variety) for a burrito; or to the nearby lake where we’d carefully cradle the baby ducks in our palms. Sometimes we’d go to the hospital across the street where my father’s key gained us access to the doctors’ recreational lounge, which was almost always vacant except for other doctors’ kids. Once we determined there were no adults to kick us out, we’d play racquetball, idly tug on the weight machines, or hang out in the sauna. All the while we’d gossip and pine over Rob Lowe, his Brat Pack and our favorite, hunky soap stars. And we’d plan our dreams.

We were in the same grade at the same school; attended the same church; and had many of the same friends. I often spent the night at her house, which intrigued me to no end with its impossible quiet and impeccable order. She had only one brother, who I almost never saw, and two little dogs that actually followed rules. These dogs knew what they were allowed to eat and where they were supposed to sleep. They toggled around on tiny, three-inch legs, leaving not so much as an indentation on the spotless carpets. My house held four, loud brothers who rarely followed rules and spun through the place like mad cartoon Tasmanian Devils, marking their territories with crushed pieces of assorted Nabisco products, random articles of clothing and broken boyhood paraphernalia. Our beloved, monster-sized German shepherds crowded onto our couches and beds and, with barely a stretch of their necks, gulped down whole loaves of bread and entire boxes of cake mix ... packaging and all ... right off the kitchen counter, topping it off with long, sloppy drinks from toilets perpetually left in the “up” position.

In my friend’s world, everything had a place. In mine, every place had a thing … or three, piled precariously upon it. I liked my world and was enthralled by hers. Our differences never translated into anything more than a change of scenery.

To me, her house offered a spa-like retreat with bathrooms that smelled liked Vitabath (the bright green kind) and soft fluffy towels that I learned to use to wipe down the shower doors and tiles in a battle against water stains and fluorescent green residue. The absence of sibling rivalry made her home the perfect place to watch the much-anticipated premier of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video or to listen to Jack Wagner croon “All I Need” probably a little too excessively.

If we were in the mood for activity and mayhem, well then my house held just the ticket. Friday night pizza was delivered weekly to my front door in towering stacks of flat brown boxes, the top one of which was always opened and half empty before it ever reached its destination. Long, wispy threads of mozzarella floated in the fragrant steam like silly string as each slice broke free of its host pie, trailing the Pied Piper of Pepperoni like streamers from the elegant front hall, down through the brown-paneled family room and into the farmhouse kitchen. On Pizza Night, the heavy, round oak table that ordinarily anchored all eight members of my family for grace and supper, served as a buffet for half the neighborhood kids. Basketball, Ping Pong and Atari were always high on the agenda and a large lawn that gently rolled into to a backyard lake allowed everyone to thoroughly exhaust their youthful energy and imaginations.

My friend and I never judged each other. After all, we limped through our awkward years together … during the eighties. When you spray Sun-In and wear blue mascara together, you tend to accept each other no matter what.

Just like that.

Eventually we turned 16 and proudly slipped new drivers’ licenses into our Liz Claiborne wallets. The bell became a blur in our periphery as we passed by it on our way to the beach, the movies or a friend’s house. I remember meeting at the bell at least one more time the summer between graduation and college. As if formally acknowledging that time was picking up the pace and change was charging at us like a bull, we vowed to remain friends forever with a fervency of hope and faith distinctive to teenage girls. (We also promised that whomever died first would somehow contact the other to tell her what it was like on the other side. I don’t think either of us are keen for any aspects of that particular pledge to be realized! Is it too late to take it back?)

We celebrated graduation from high school with a trip to Los Angeles where we met Rob Lowe. In the fall, we moved on to separate colleges and for a while stayed connected via peach stationary. Then “we” stopped.

For reasons entangled amongst the complexities of life and the insecurities and immaturity of a young adult, I let that friendship fade like the echo of a distant gong. It would be twenty-five years before we saw each other again … at my mother’s funeral.

It would be twenty-five years and five months before we met again at the bell.


I had run across the parking lot to the church that morning with my husband and sons, trying to dodge the steady drizzle that spotted my dress and reshaped my hair. I planned this funeral and knew the details and sequential order of things by heart. But as I passed through the doorway, my heels fighting for purchase on the slick tile, I felt my thoughts drain away alongside the rush of rainwater that bubbled against the outside gutter and slid beneath the grated grin of the sewer. I stood there, dazed and confused, my arms burdened with heavy picture books filled with my mother’s face.  People were talking, possibly to me, but nothing could penetrate the buzz of nothingness suddenly swarming inside my head. I smiled and nodded like a wooden marionette until off to my side somewhere someone called my name. I turned my head and there she was.
Childhood best friends reunited at the bell.

Just like that.

Some friendships are like that.