We became friends as most girls do at that age; we went to school together and were neighbors. We did what was expected of us.
Her mother didn’t like me, and if she came home from work and found me sitting at her kitchen table or playing with Barbies on her daughter’s pink rug, she would call my friend into the master bedroom and speak in low stern tones,
Wrap it up. Send her home.
…and my friend would return to the bedroom, where I would be quietly making Barbie make out with Ken in a shoebox, or coloring on construction paper with my friend’s Magic Markers. My friend would say that she and her mom had to go out to dinner or church, or that she had to go to bed soon (even though the sun would still be streaming in through the dotted-Swiss curtains).
My feelings were delicate then, as they are now. The mother was slim and petite and had black hair cut trendily short; I thought she was pretty and fancy. Her lips were always painted, and her nails were always glossy and groomed. Her daughter was less of a beauty, her hair a blonde frizz, her body lumpy and shaped a bit like a potato. I didn’t even like her that much, but I liked her house because she had a canopy bed and a television in her bedroom, and everything was painted white or pink or cream. Even in the living room.
I did as I was asked to, and would leave on my bike, feeling dejected, oily, and awkward. Once home, my mother would ask why I was back so soon from playing, did we have a fight? I always told her that my friend had plans, and would then return to my own pretty, sunny bedroom to read, write stories, or draw.
At school my friend always sought me out, and never I her. I preferred playing with the girls from my class who were from India; I liked the way their hair smelled of incense and curry, and I liked to listen to their soft accents that whispered underneath the American slang they were learning quickly. Their houses were warm, and filled with jewel-toned fabric and small brass statues of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, which I liked better than the sad Jesus paintings that filled the walls of my other friends’ houses. Their mothers always made me food and seemed genuinely glad to see me in their house, and would ask are you sure you’re not an Indian girl, too? With that black hair and pretty skin? I always felt comfortable inside their homes.
But if I played with Veena or Siya at recess, my friend always found me and pulled me away, begging me to go somewhere with her. Once I relented, she would regale me with boring stories about youth group or something annoying her step-brother did over the weekend. I came to dread her constant, persistent presence.
Near the end of the fifth grade, my father announced that we were moving back to Ohio, where both of my parents came from and where my sister and I were born. My friend took the news badly; shouting that she’d have no one to be friends with in middle school, and turned red in the face and spit a little as she shouted at me (as though it was my fault that we were leaving). I was sad to leave my house and my other friends, but glad to have an excuse to leave her and her cold mother who hated me. On one of the last days of school, my friend asked me to go into one of the lesser-used bathrooms after recess, and once we were inside the cool, concrete room she moved close to me and asked if I would miss her. I could smell the cafeteria chicken nuggets that she had eaten at lunch on her hot breath, she stood so close to me. I said of course I would miss her, would she miss me? She looked over my shoulder at the bathroom door, then asked if I ever played with myself. She said she had just learned and that it was neat and I should try it. I didn’t admit to her that I knew what she was talking about, and I definitely didn’t tell her about what I had learned to do with my own hands right before I fell asleep at night. She didn’t need to know about what I did and what I knew, because that was my most private secret and she wasn’t that good of a friend to know my most private secret. So I told her I had no idea what she was talking about, and she narrowed her small eyes and said you’re lying. I left the bathroom walking backwards, saying we’d better go back, we were late.
My family and I left for Ohio a month later, and my friend faded into memory fast, quickly replaced by a different set of friends with flat, northern accents like my parents. My Ohio friends liked my Tennessee voice, and would ask me to say certain words over and over: pocketbook, oil, right, reckon, water. Their mothers liked me.