I got kicked in the stomach today. I was rushing to get out the door to walk to a hair salon where they don’t take appointments on Saturdays – only Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and they don’t speak English, only Spanish. I wanted to quickly check email in case there was news about my husband’s arrival in Costa Rica.
When I saw the new mail from Bonnie, my best childhood friend, I got a jolt of excitement, quickly opened it expecting a reply to my earlier email to her saying: “yes, you have the right email address. Send the news, you crazy girl.” Instead, I got a gentle but sad note from Jerry, her husband.
It was as though I sleep-walked into the hind legs of an angry donkey. My middle caved in, my head started swimming, a wave of nausea engulfed me, and I gripped the kitchen counter until my fingertips turned white. Bonnie died. Bonnie passed away. Bonnie was dead. What do you do next?
I almost cried but squelched it. I forced myself to breathe, did a shot of whiskey, unclenched my stomach, grabbed my purse, pocketbook as Bonnie would say, and walked out the door to the sound of thunder. I decided to cry later.
My friend was gone forever. It couldn’t be. Her mother, Claire is ninety-ish. It’s NOT how it’s supposed to work. Bonnie was the kid, an only child. I was the best friend of an only child. When we grew up in the projects in the 50s I got to go places with her. I came over after school and we did cool stuff. I can hear Claire saying: “So, you two girls wanna bake today?” We started out with baking kits that came in a box. It contained a small aluminum tray that was the cake pan. We graduated to hamentaschen by the seventh grade.
Just this morning I sent a note asking which of the three email addresses I had for her in my data-base was the current one. Last week I took a self-timer photo in the striped night shirt I bought in 2010. We had resurrected a childhood tradition of wearing matching nighties for sleep-overs. I had found the original picture taken in 1958, brought both the photo and a brand new pair of matching horizontally striped night-shirts for our reunion in 2002.
We had lost touch in our 20s. We had married, changed names, moved to new cities, new states even.
One day, sitting at my desk in the real estate office, I suddenly got the urge to find Bonnie. Maybe it was because of all those internet ads from classmates.com. You could find anybody these days. Maybe it was because of the shoes; she started the whole shoe thing.
When we were in the fifth grade we used to take the subway to E.J. Korvette’s in Brooklyn’s shopping district. It was Bonnie’s Aunt Kay, I think, who told us about the sample tables in Korvette’s basement. Aunt Kay was a fashion plate we both admired. From time to time she took Bonnie shopping to a boutique called “Young Folks”. I so admired those outfits! I wasn’t as privileged. My mom was a divorced mother of three children, who worked two jobs just to put food on the table. I wore hand-me-downs donated by mom’s boss, Mr. Harvey. In spite of the hardship, mom gave us a weekly allowance of $1.00. I saved up. When I had enough, Bonnie and I went shoe shopping. Samples came in size 4-5. I could just squeeze into the 5s. Our favorites were the jeweled ones. I clearly remember the multi-colored marquis shaped jewels sparkling on pearl flats. We got matching whenever we could. I learned to carry band-aids with me. Mostly I got blisters on my heals, but sometimes on my instep as well. I never complained…just added band-aids.
Thirty-three years later, after I tracked her down in Florida, I came to visit, armed with several pairs of shoes. I had compiled a photo album of my life during the years we had been apart. By then I had four ex-husbands and was searching for number five.
Bonnie’s husband, Jerry, had prepared a feast in my honor. He made all the foods I missed from our childhood: chopped liver, lox and bagels, matzoh balls, roast beef on rye, no hamentaschen.
After dinner he casually asked if we wanted to go shoe shopping. He knew a place that was going out of business. Shoe shopping? Absolutely! By now I was a size 7 and Bonnie a 6. I no longer had to squeeze my foot into too small samples. I could afford the real deal, especially in a discount, going-out-of-business place. I went down my aisle, she went down hers. When we got to common ground, both of us laden with many pairs of shoes, we dumped them onto the counter and burst out laughing. We each had eight pairs and seven were identical! You’ve heard of soul sisters? Well, we were “sole sisters”!
During that visit, unbeknownst to either Bonnie or Jerry, I happened upon a scene that profoundly affected me from that day forward. We were all getting dressed to go out to breakfast at a place called John G’s in Boynton Beach. I was passing by their bedroom, glanced over and saw Jerry, a large man, sitting on the floor in front of the bed where Bonnie sat, foot extended while Jerry buckled her shoe! I was so touched by that scene, I teared up and hoped some day I would find a man who would sit on the floor and buckle my shoes.
I finally did. Meet him. The man who would sit on the floor and buckle my shoe … I was planning to introduce him to Bonnie and Jerry on our next trip to Costa Rica. Ms. Fickle, as she used to chide me, finally found her match. And now I don’t get to do that. Bonnie expired. Too soon.
As I write this, I’m wearing the pink and grey striped night-shirt I bought for us the last time I came through Florida and got to visit … musta been 2011 now that I think about it ’cause Bonnie had her wigs and we laughed about her getting her head buzzed in the wig store. It was surely a temporary situation. She was on the upswing. Having had a minor bout with cancer myself, I never thought it would go any further. I really didn’t. I thought she would be like me and be just fine after they did what they did. In my case, a sub-cutaneous mastectomy, a reconstruction to some nice double Ds and Bob’s yer Uncle! Only it didn’t work like that for Bonnie. She’s gone, dammit! I don’t get to laugh with my friend any more over juvenile stuff like tucking our tongues under our bottom lips, making our eyes big, cocking our heads and mimicking the identical twins from elementary school,saying: “I’s Herbert! I’s Hubert! If you don’t “get” that, don’t worry. Possibly the only person who would is Bonnie. And she expired.
The other day my mom came to visit. Her friend who came with her checked Email and got upset over a message that said: “Freddy died”. My mom shrieked on hearing the news: “Oh, no! Poor Freddie! I feel terrible.” And she started crying. “Who’s Freddie?” I asked. “Faye’s dog; the little one who couldn’t walk any more.” Said mom’s friend. “They moved it from place to place. He was old.” I said: “Yes, it’s sad. Everybody has an expiration date.”
When I said that last week, I never dreamed one of MY friends would expire. We’re the kids godammit! WE are not supposed to die first. Bonnie and I were best friends. Sisters. We’re the kids. We’re not supposed to die before our parents. I’m not happy about this. Imagine how Claire feels. Or Jerry. Or her son, Lance. Or Donna, his wife. I’m sad. I’m sure they are devastated. You never get over it. Life goes on, but it will never be the same. We all have an expiration date, but the stamp that tells us when is missing.
I miss my friend. I want to show her my new shoes.