The summer before college. Three cousins, my little brother in the black shirt, Lindsay in the blue shirt and Jaimie rocking Mr. Rogers red. That's me in the white.
Sarah was beautiful.
She had full lips and blue eyes in a face with the color and curve of a pearl. Her hair was all red and wave, falling down her back and curling at her ears. Her voice sounded like something from an old record, all soft and rounded in the middle of each word. I met her the first week of my freshman year of college at a dorm floor meeting. Nearly every girl there wore some variation of t-shirts and denim. Sarah wore a dress from the nineteen fifties with shoes from the nineteen seventies. She looked like something out of a book I wished I could write.
I was a thousand miles away from the place I grew up but I hadn’t really left home yet. My dorm bed still held the hospital corners my mother had folded onto it and I could hear my little brother’s voice just before the family car pulled away to go home,
“Why don’t you want to come back to California with us?”
He was only seven and couldn’t understand why his sister and best friend wanted to go to a place too far away for slumber parties and pirate treasure hunts. I wasn’t sure I understood, either.
I spent the first day of classes walking with a campus map held tightly in my hand. When I got lost, I smoothed out the wrinkles and found my place in the paper full of boxes with numbers. Once I reached the lecture halls and classrooms, I was struck by the sameness of the experience. My professors were no different from all the other slightly tired, well intentioned people that had taught me all my life. Where was the poetry, the sudden insight of adulthood, the fire? Six hours of class and all I had gotten was assigned seating and a fistful of syllabuses. Sarah was the first truly unique thing in a place I thought would be bursting with novelty.
Over grilled cheese sandwiches and nights spent awake too late, she and I and a handful of other girls became friends. For all of us, except Sarah, the moments spent on campus and in the dark were our first foray into adulthood. Only seventeen, she was in her second year of college at her third school. Her Dad was a professor at NYU and her mother was an academic with a delicate sense of reality. They were at turns distant and oppressive. Generally, she simply fell through their consciousness and was left to explore the world on her own, collecting bits and pieces and carrying them with her.
The things she found were lovely. In the quiet moments between classes and around tables full of laughter, she shared them with me. We talked about the mystery of the atom and the beauty of a bench in Paris. After an evening of pizza and movies, we skipped along Plato’s dualism, tripped over 1930’s cinema and landed somewhere near the boy I liked in my English class.
“Meg, is he someone you want to take to bed?”
When I blushed, she laughed.
“Oh Meg, you are a romantic in the most classic sense. How do you like the poetry of William Blake? It is exactly the kind of thing a person like you would adore.”
The next morning she brought me a collection of his poetry, a slim book that contained a world both surreal and familiar. She saw me and gave me something that would help me see myself.
Sometimes her voice lost its soft tones and became sharp with panic and uncertainty. There had been some sort of breakdown, an episode unnamed, that she fled to our school in the mountains to escape. On mornings when her eyes were dark from sleeplessness, I wondered if it had followed her to her mountain retreat, after all.
She had an older boyfriend that lived in New York. He could be cruel sometimes and slept with other women always, but only, she said, because he felt things so deeply. They spent hours on the phone whispering and then shouting and then hanging up and calling again. One night, after a week of more shouts than whispers, Sarah rushed into my room and crumpled to the floor. She sobbed and I picked up the words where she threw them.
“I bought a plane ticket. I have to get to New York. When I am there, he knows he needs me. But the flight is in an hour and I missed the shuttle. I’ll never make it. I will lose him. And…and…”
“And I will take you”, I said.
We ran to the car and drove too fast to a place she never should have been gone. On the way home, I smiled into the dark thinking I had done something good.
When she returned we sat on the couch and ate cold pizza while she told me about her adventure. He wasn’t there when she arrived, so she waited on his doorstep until he came home at three in the morning. They made love and read to each other. She understood him. She flushed and spoke very quickly,
“Really, I am so glad I went. Everything is alright.”
And then it wasn’t. Only this time there was only one last shouted conversation and then nothing. She stayed in her room. When I knocked, she opened the door just wide enough for me to see her hair tumbled into her eyes. Late one night, she put on all her sweaters and a wool coat and climbed into a bath filled with scalding water. When the RA found her she was unconscious and had just slipped below the water line. I heard the yelling and ran to the bathroom. She was limp on the floor, her coat was a deep wine and her lips had no color. I fell to my knees in the water that pooled around her. In the light of day, after the panic and paramedics, Sarah claimed it was all an accident. She said she had simply been chilled and was trying to get warm.
I began to feel frightened of this girl that danced in the rain and damned the cold. Perhaps fire and poetry did not belong in a world of numbered boxes. Sarah wandered somewhere off the paper and I thought if I followed her I would never be able to find myself. So I did the thing that every great coward has mastered, I walked away. We still said hello, but there were no more long conversations. She met some kindred souls in a house down the hill and started dating a boy that never shouted. One morning, I passed the two of them outside her room as he kissed her goodbye. Her hair was wild and her pink nightgown hung a little off her shoulder. She smiled and winked at me as he walked away down the hall.
I wasn’t present enough to know what really happened in the weeks before her parents came to take her away. The girls in the common area talked about it late into the night. The boy had ended things. She stopped eating and only drank coffee. Her eyes were dark and her clothes were all too big. There were whispers of institutionalization and a mental breakdown. I went to bed sick.
The next morning our RA knocked on my door,
“We need someone to help pack up Sarah’s room and she suggested you and a few others. Would you mind helping?”
I followed her to the door I hadn’t knocked on in months. She pushed it open and I gasped. The white cinder block walls were covered in delicate, colorful drawings. A beautiful bird midflight, a pair of hands clasped over a secret, fall leaves cascading down from the ceiling, a woman with eyes looking at something I couldn’t see. Surrounded by beauty seen and captured, I felt for the first time the painful insight of adulthood. I had been wrong. I had a friend and I was not there when she needed me.
We packed away Sarah’s books, hot plate and a couple of dresses on hangers. Even though I knew the answer, I had to ask,
“What is going to happen to her walls? All of that art?”
“Oh, they’ll be painted over.”
It seemed like such waste. In place of the apology I couldn’t make, I made promises. When she came back, I would be more understanding. I would make it better. I would be the person she saw.
Only she never came back.
So now I have a worn book of poems and the memory of a girl that could impose beauty on a whitewashed wall. And every once in a while, I wander off the map away from boxes and numbers to a place a good friend once showed me. A place of color, possibility and insight by way of starlit nights and grilled cheese sandwiches.