It was nice to have a Best Friend because I’d already, even at that age, had experiences with two so-called Best Friends who suddenly decided they liked hanging out with other people better. Not in a mean “you suck” way, but just in a suddenly-notice-that-My-Best-Friend-is-s
Jenny and I lived on opposite sides of Madison and quite a few streets apart, so we were mostly friends at school because we couldn’t just drop over to each others’ houses. It was too far to walk, we didn’t have bikes (I was a case of arrested athletic development and didn’t learn to ride a bike till I was about 11) and our parents wouldn’t have let us travel that far anyway. I also couldn’t call her very much because the fone line had to stay free for her dad’s work-related calls, and half the time they didn’t answer the fone anyway because her dad had some sort of shift job, and if his work called and he answered he’d have to go in off-shift when he didn’t want to. (This was before they invented pagers and voice mail, of course.) At some point, though, we made arrangements to visit at each other’s houses. Jenny came over to mine and we played and my mom cooked a special dinner. Big day for me.
Then it was my turn to go over to Jenny’s house for an afternoon. Jenny’s parents were a little younger and a lot more working-class than mine, and she had three siblings. I knew her oldest sister a little bit from school and thought she was stuck-up, unfriendly, and mean to Jenny. (I never minded not having siblings because I almost never saw anybody who was happy with theirs. I knew maybe one family the whole time I was growing up, where sisters actually liked each other and hung out and got along.) There was also one brother around Jenny’s age who was mentally retarded, and people at church would make a big fuss over him. Finally, there was a baby sister named “Colleen” who was about five, had pretty curly blonde hair, and was a totally spoiled brat. Jenny was definitely the “middle child”, not smart like the older sis, not the only boy nor retarded, and not the cherished baby of the family. Jenny’s parents didn’t seem to be as interested in her as my parents were in me. I didn’t understand that and I felt sorry for her.
While I was still taking this all in, we went down to Jenny’s basement to play. (Almost every house I ever went to, kids practically lived in the basement.) Colleen came down too. I didn’t want this bratty little kid around bothering us, but Jenny explained that it was her job to watch Colleen. I couldn’t understand why older sister couldn’t watch Colleen for a while since, after all, Jenny had company and it wasn’t like I came over every single day (like Becky, who lived closer, did). But, big sister had to study, whatever. So Jenny and I were sitting on this old beatup couch of the type usually found in basements, talking up a storm, and Colleen was buzzing around hollering and pestering like 5-year-olds do. There was a big steel pillar near the couch that held up the basement ceiling and the rest of the house, and Colleen started swinging recklessly around and around it and banging on it with a metal hanger and laughing.
Jenny said, “Stop it, Colleen, settle down, you’ll get dizzy and fall and hurt yourself.” We both knew this to be true from swinging around steel pillars ourselves. Many Lakewood houses have such basement pillars and they are fun to swing around and around till you get all dizzy. I should do that again next time I see one.
Colleen didn’t stop, just swung faster. Jenny spoke to her again but Colleen just ignored her, so we went back to our conversation. Suddenly Colleen got too dizzy and lost her balance and fell onto the concrete basement floor. She sat there for a minute, bewildered, and then started to bawl loudly. I thought, serves the little idiot right for not listening.
The minute Colleen started to wail, Jenny’s mom came tearing down the stairs and took in the situation. Jenny said something like, “Colleen was swinging around the pole and she fell down.” Jenny’s mom looked at Colleen, and she looked at Jenny. And then she grabbed my friend by her long black hair and pulled it while slapping her face and yelled, “Jenny, you have the brains of a NUT!!” while I sat there in shock, watching my best friend get hit. The mom then picked the snivelling Colleen up off the floor and led her upstairs.
Jenny sat on the couch silently, looking down at the floor with tears in her eyes. I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say or do. Of course, my mom hit me too, sometimes (All moms hit back then), but she never pulled my hair and slapped my face like that. And my mom would never, NEVER hit me in front of people, especially in front of my friends. And on top of that, Jenny didn’t even do anything! She didn’t hurt Colleen, she tried to get her to stop what she was doing, and she didn’t sass back at her mother or disobey or do anything that would normally bring on a licking.
“But…you didn’t even do anything! You tried to get her to stop,” I said, and “My mom would never, EVER hit me like that.”
Jenny said, “It’s always this way. Always Colleen. She gets everything around here. My parents care about her the most.”
I couldn’t fathom parents caring about one of their kids more than the others. Another reason to be glad I had my parents all to myself.
I guess after a few minutes Jenny stopped crying and we went back to playing till it was time for me to go home. I don’t really remember. I don’t think I ever went over to her house again either after that. Jenny’s mom wasn’t un-nice to me (her dad was always asleep or working) but I somehow, nevertheless, got the impression that “company” wasn’t exactly welcome over there, and besides Becky, who lived nearby, would often be over and I certainly didn’t want to hang around with her.
Jenny and I stayed “best friends” for a few years. Becky continued to hang around; by then I’d become resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to get rid of her and just learned to put up with it. In time, we became friends with a couple of other girls whose company I enjoyed quite a bit. We had sleepover parties and a super-secret club and did the usual silly fun things young girls do. Then, in seventh grade, a new girl transferred into our school and she was that “sensitive” type who would cry babyishly when boys teased her, and make a fuss until the teacher stepped in, and would also sometimes cry when girls teased her. (I.e. when I teased her – I was tough by then from years and years of getting teased and punching out the boys who were doing it, and I didn’t think teasing was a big deal as long as it wasn’t too mean, which I didn’t think it was. But I learned that “oversensitive people” or those who simply want a lot of attention have different thresholds for meanness and will make a Big Stupid Fuss over nothing.) After the new girl got settled in, she seemed to spend most of her time trying to break me up with my friends, and by then it was clear that they were all going to Lakewood High School and I was going somewhere else, so I wasn’t going to be seeing them anymore anyway. I stayed friendly with them but kind of wrote them all off in my mind, and looked forward to making lots of cool new friends at my new high school.
After I went to high school, I didn’t see Jenny any more except to say hello at church once in a while, and that not very often. The next time I can remember having an actual conversation with her was when I was about 20 and taking a driver’s ed class at Lakewood High. (I learned to drive relatively late because my mom wouldn’t let me take driver’s ed in high school, because my dad had just had a massive stroke and she was having too much anxiety over that to also worry about me operating a car.) On this particular evening I had had a fight with my parents over something and my mom had refused to drive me to the class, which was located a very long way from my house, so I had to walk there and I was kind of pissed off. I ran into Jenny on the street. I didn’t recognize her at first, she had to say, “It’s me, it’s Jenny.” So I had to be polite and make small talk and tell her about my college and stuff like that. I was still upset over the argument at home, and didn’t really want to talk to anybody, especially some person from the past that I had nothing in common with anymore, and I got away from her as quickly as I could.
After that my mom would update me on Jenny’s life every once in a while. I think they run into each other in the grocery store, places like that. Jenny’s married, lives in Lakewood, worked some dorky smalltown job for a while, and now has a bunch of kids. My mom mentioned the bunch-of-kids part to me a number of times, and I finally told her I didn’t want to hear about Jenny any more. Partly because I am not interested in discussing the having or not having of kids (grandkids!) with my mom as it’s My business, not Hers. But also because I can’t imagine why Jenny, of all people, would want to have all those kids and a boring lower-middle-class life that sounds for all intents and purposes similar to her parents’. After what she put up with growing up, I would have thought she would have skipped having kids entirely, told her parents to go hang, and taken off to live an Exciting Life in California, or France, or anyplace other than the place she was in. Yet there she is, still right where she grew up, doing the same damn boring things most everybody does back there. Maybe it’s different for her, maybe she’s happy, maybe it’s what she wanted, a family of her own to love more than she appeared to be loved herself. I’ll still never understand it.