On a Tuesday in late August, on my way to the ferry landing at Thirty-Fourth Street, I saw a huge, white, rusted-out Chevy Caprice make an illegal turn off FDR Drive, nearly skidding onto just two wheels. The Caprice barreled up Thirty-Fourth Street. When it blew by me I got a quick look at its occupants: three old ladies, all elaborately coiffed: the driver, another riding shotgun, and the third leaning forward in the backseat to better converse with the other two. I imagined they had just come from a group outing to the beauty parlor. Each of them probably had a rain bonnet tucked away in their purses, in case it rained later. The driver was wearing Gloria Vanderbilt–style sunglasses and a smashing shade of coral lipstick that was probably really popular in the seventies. I was quite taken with her. When I’m an old lady I want to drive around with my girl gang in a huge rusted-out white Caprice Classic and piss off cab drivers everywhere, I thought.
The image of the three ladies stayed with me well into the next day, which was also, randomly, Tori Amos’s fiftieth birthday. In observation, a pop-culture site compiled and ranked her 100 best songs. I dumped the top fifteen or so into a playlist and listened to it for most of the day. I felt sad but not depressed, an odd combination for me. One of the reasons I don’t listen to Tori anymore is that I am old. The other is that listening to Tori Amos reminds me of Tracy, my best friend from high school. Emma Straub wrote a piece for the Daily a few years ago called “My Rayannes,” which, in reference to Rayanne Graff from the nineties TV drama My So-Called Life, posits that all teenage girls are half lesbian. Less outrageously, it outlines an adolescent phenomenon in which one seeks a darker, more daring, more risk-taking counterpart—an accomplice in DIY piercings, home dye jobs, and, in Straub’s words, “tempestuous, obsessive friendship.”
Tracy was my Rayanne. She had long, frizzy-curly hair like Rayanne, and, like Rayanne, she was a little weird and crazy. Tracy was a dancer, with a dancer’s compact build and a dancer’s peculiar walk, like her feet weren’t quite part of the rest of her body. She wore the same plaid button-down shirt almost every day over a rotating collection of baby T-shirts and smoked Marlboro Lights. The popular/athletic kids at our horrible, tiny public high school ignored Tracy because they thought she was dumb, but she wasn’t. She just was spacey in a way she didn’t particularly bother to hide, and not good at science. My parents didn’t like her either, in part because Tracy actually knew who Rayanne Graff was, which implied Tracy watched TV—cable TV, even!—which further implied a familiarity with sex, drugs, Michael Jackson, and the Delia’s catalog, all of which were forbidden in my house. This, of course, made me like her more.
Almost everyone at school—this was in rural Illinois—thought I was a little weird and crazy too. I had transferred midsemester freshman year, so I was already starting from a disadvantage. My favorite shirt was black and said KILL YOUR TV, and I wore baggy khakis and Keds a few years before they made their mainstream way to the malls of Middle America. The transfer had messed up my credits and curriculum tracking, so some of my classes were with the really dumb kids and some were two or three years above my actual grade level. I spent my time staring blankly out of the science lab into the half-empty parking lot, or doggedly teaching myself algebra II and trigonometry in the library. I painted my nails green, and the first day I came to English—my one age-appropriate class—like this, several of my classmates passed notes about them.
I think I must have read about Tori Amos in a Seventeen magazine at the library. Or I heard some of her music on my clock radio, which, if I held it and leaned very precariously out of my bedroom window, would sometimes get WJMU, the college station forty miles away.
Tracy’s locker was next to mine (Curns, Curry) and sometime sophomore year she noticed the Tori Amos CDs in my locker, or I noticed a poster in hers. I found it nearly impossible to talk to strangers then, but Tracy had yet to make any comments about my clothes and nails, and the sight of Tori gave me courage. “Do you like her new album?” I muttered, gesturing toward her locker. Yes, Tracy did.
Tracy and I had gym together that semester. We played a lot of volleyball—for some reason, the state championship–winning girls’ volleyball team was not exempt from PE and was, in fact, allowed to play together during the volleyball unit, against civilians. In self-defense, I’d developed a respectable return-of-serve, but then I realized that, like Tracy, I could elect to “run” (i.e., walk) for the duration of the period instead. We started doing our laps of the gym together and left the Lady Hilltoppers to their carnage.
Tracy and I shared with each other the resources necessary to survive a hostile environment, in our case, a tiny, sports-obsessed public high school in the middle of nowhere. Let me be clear: our high school board voted to purchase wrestling mats for a team that did not even exist instead of new English textbooks. Tracy was the only person I looked for in the hall between periods, the only one I sat next to during mandatory assemblies, the only person I walked to class with in the rare event we had one together. I would rather walk, no matter the weather or the distance, than face the certain humiliation of asking anyone else for a ride, would rather go home than ask another girl for a tampon.
That summer we both got jobs at the same truck stop-cum-restaurant. Sometimes after work we would drive around aimlessly in her ancient huge blue sedan, which she called Big Bertha. The tacks attaching the upholstery to the ceiling had come out here and there, so the fabric hung down in curtain-like swags, and here and there she had scribbled doodles and song lyrics on it in permanent marker. She could sketch Betty Boop in about forty seconds. Based on some Google Image research, I’m pretty sure Big Bertha was a two-door Caprice Classic.
Tracy was a horrible driver, even worse than I was. I remember the night she turned the wrong way onto a one-way street—a big one, Dirksen Parkway—and we spent a harrowing thirty seconds screaming and hyperventilating as headlights came at us and cars swerved, their honking drowning out “Hotel California” on the radio, until she managed to pull into a gas station. We laughed in the fluorescent light of the gas station until the adrenaline wore off and chain-smoked all the way home.
I loved Tracy’s house, though we never spent much time there. It was a huge Victorian on a corner lot, beautiful from the outside. Inside you’d find an overwhelming hodgepodge of knickknacks, craft supplies, and her mother’s ashtrays. The TV was always on, and on weekends, her mom and dad would sit in the dining room with their two best friends, playing cards and laughing and drinking cup after cup of coffee. Tracy’s mom was one of those smokers who had multiple cigarettes going in different rooms—she asked me more questions about school and work and boys than my parents did, but I was never tempted to lie to her. She also provided a good cover whenever my parents thought I smelled like smoke, regardless of the source.
Tracy lost her virginity first and told me what it was like. I mostly wanted to know whether or not it hurt and she reassured me it didn’t, not too much anyway. She got me drunk on my eighteenth birthday. Her brother was a few years older than us, squirrelly looking and shifty, with a history of dating much younger girls. It was by way of Doug that I met the guy I lost my virginity to, a louche but very attractive pothead. He was cut from a cloth I would select again and again, though the results were alarmingly similar. “You have a type. Your type is sleazy,” a friend has told me, recently, and more than once.
Eventually Big Bertha gave out and Tracy started driving a very practical Ford Fiesta hatchback. She went to Northern Illinois University for college and I went to Carleton. Freshman year she came to visit me, and I celebrated by doing a beer bong and vomiting operatically from a second-story balcony. I came home that summer—the only summer I would return home, ever, the last time I truly lived at home—and we went to a few parties together, ones that she knew about through her friends from Northern. These were the sorts of epically gross parties where you wake up early the next morning on the floor of an apartment you don’t recognize, sticky and barefoot, with the knowledge that your best friend is behind one of the bedroom doors—and that is, somehow, why you are there.
Sophomore year I started doing the things and meeting the people that led directly to where I am at this moment, sitting at a desk at a cushy, white-collar New York office job. Sophomore year Tracy’s parents got divorced, totally blindsiding her and everyone else who knew them, and Tracy started dating a guy named Dante. They got engaged after a few months together and for a while it seemed like everything would be fine, until she discovered that Dante was actually already married to someone else. She dropped out of school shortly after that and moved back to Mt. Pulaski. We still talked on the phone sometimes, but I was busy with classes and work and my new boyfriend (still sleazy). He was also from a small town in rural Illinois, also a former truck stop employee, also the child of card-playing chain smokers. I always thought I liked him because we were from similar places, but really it was because he was so like Tracy.
When I moved to New York, one of the first things I did was sit down at the folding card-table I was using for a desk and type her a letter about how much I missed her and how weird and excited I felt, being alone, being on the East Coast, being in a huge city. I mailed it via USPS because I wasn’t sure she had a computer or an e-mail address. This was in 2003.
When I came home for Christmas, we would try to make plans to see each other, but it was hard. She worked as a nurses’ aide in an institution for mentally disabled adults. Her hours were long and unpredictable. One of the last times I saw her was at a chain noodle restaurant in a strip mall in Bloomington. Her glasses were taped together in the middle and she had scratches on her face from where a resident had attacked her. I felt really broke, living on an assistant’s salary in New York, but she mentioned offhand what she was making and it was, I think, seven dollars an hour. When we said good-bye in the parking lot, we said the things we always did about keeping in touch and calling more and maybe hanging out, next year, but conversation at dinner had been awkward. Tracy had been unabashedly enthusiastic to see me. I had tried and failed to suppress the snobbishness and guilt I felt about the terrible food, the fluorescent restaurant, and the drastically different circumstances of our lives. She drove away in a new car, not the Fiesta, a car where I’d never touched the radio and hadn’t ever ridden shotgun. I sat in my dad’s minivan for a few minutes before driving home myself. I knew—still know—all the country road shortcuts back to my parents’ house, but I got lost that night for the first time ever.
Tracy met a nice guy, Mark, while she was waitressing again at a different truck stop. She asked me to be her maid of honor when they got married. I was living in New Zealand at the time. I couldn’t even come to the wedding. If Tracy was hurt, she never said so.
I’d sort of heard, through my mother and my siblings, that Tracy had a kid, and then another, that she and Mark bought a house. I looked her up on Facebook yesterday and confirmed for myself: yes, two smiling kids, a boy and a girl, a house, a husband. Most of her posts are about trying to lose weight, but she looks happy, with her family.
* * *
The ferry ride that Tuesday evening—that day I’d seen the old ladies—was unusually pleasant. A heat wave had just broken. The relief we all felt from the breeze off the river and the purposeful motion of the boat was obvious on the passengers’ faces. That night, my ex-boyfriend called, the one who reminds me of Tracy. He quit drinking three years ago and lives in Minneapolis, where he has a good job. His name is also Mark. We talked a lot that summer, and while I knew the pleasure each of us took in the other’s company wouldn’t last forever, the appeal of someone who knows you, knows you going way back, was both irresistible and easy to extrapolate. That summer things seemed possible that I hadn’t allowed myself to contemplate for a long time. “I know what I want, Ruthie, and for the first time I feel like I’m in a place to get it,” Mark said that night. “I want to get married someday. I want a wife, kids, a house, a dog.”
“Well, I want a dog, too,” I said. I was thinking about Caprice Classics, the elderly woman with her great sunglasses and her friends. I thought about husbands named Mark. I wondered if Tracy had a dog. I didn’t remember a dog in the huge Victorian house, but maybe there was one, maybe I forgot, amid all the comings and goings and Precious Moments figurines and the constant ringing of the phone. I had forgotten so much, some of it through carelessness, some of it intentionally. I have mostly forgotten, for example, what it feels like to want a husband or a wife, kids, a house, but thoughts of Mark or Tracy can bring those feelings, and the person who wanted them, back with alarming potency. Tracy probably did have a dog. It would be easy to ask, but of course I will not. If I asked her anything, it would be if she remembers when we went down Dirksen the wrong way, and if she’d become a more careful driver, and what she thinks about when she’s driving alone at night and “Hotel California” comes on the radio.