Old Friends Rediscovered

Backstory with Gabrielle Idlet

About a month ago, my friend Carmen from second grade found me on Facebook. She said she’d been trying to find me for a long, long time.

When I met Carmen, my family was living in a Mexican neighborhood in northeast LA. In the mornings at my local primary school, half the classes were given over to busywork so the rest of the student body could attend English as a second language. My father was concerned that I wasn’t getting an adequate education.

Integration bussing arrived, and I was sent to a white school in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The bus scooped up Mexican kids from all over east LA before hitting the freeway, the blond driver tuning the radio to FM rock ’n’ roll as we rose in altitude to the tan elementary with its sharp wind and bright skies.

We were foreigners, and we and our new classmates knew it. I was white with a faint Chicano accent, not a fit for either group. I had no friends.

Except Carmen.

She took me home to her family, which was bursting with warm, teasing brothers and a delighted mother I wished was my own. Carmen and I both had glasses and chubby cheeks, and our corduroys dragged in the mud. When she found me on Facebook, she said, unprompted, that she was still goofy. How reassuring, at 40, that that could be true.

A couple of weeks ago in workshop, participants wrote about reconnections with people from the past. Barbara Jaquish’s “Good-bye Vacation” is a response to that prompt.

‘Good-bye Vacation’ By Barbara Jaquish

Oh, the stories she had told me! Of clearing out her mother’s house after the funeral and finding a stockpile of thin communion hosts her mother had hidden for what possible contingency. Of coming home after hours at the bar on a hot Philly night and stripping bare to feel the breeze. Looking down, she saw something dark sitting among her pubic hairs. Crabs! She set down the wine glass, stuck her cigarette between her lips and took up the razor. She was halfway done shaving when she realized the small dark invaders were cigarette ash. She laughed then, and laughed when she told me, and left herself half-shorn.

When I told her I was leaving, she said good-bye in a final kind of way. We’ll write, I said. That never works, she said. When I say good-bye, it’s good-bye.

That was almost 20 years ago. I didn’t know I’d be back until the job posting showed up on a professional website. Reference librarian. At my old university. It was the right job. I was the right person. In six weeks, I was back in center city, just a few blocks from City Hall and William Penn. I’d settled in to my sunny apartment and my not-so-perfect job by the time I saw her just off South Street, squeezing oranges and arguing with the Italian vendor.

Sure she was grayer and stouter, but there was no mistaking the voice with its metallic Easter Shore tones overlaid with a touch of Philly.

“Nancy? You’re Nancy, aren’t you? It’s me, Margaret Robbins. Remember? From Pine Street? 1972?

She looked at me, flat and uncomprehending, still grasping the orange. Her eyes, always small and blue, had sunk into the sag and wrinkles of a 50-year-old face. She squinted. Then her face cracked open in a big-mouthed smile and she pulled me into a tight hug.

“Of course! It’s you! You’re grown up and …” she fumbled. “Groomed! You look like some kind of university professor.”

“Librarian,” I said. “Some kind of university librarian. Back where I started. Are you still there?”

“No no no. They folded the student health center into the hospital, and that hellhole is no place for a sane person to work. Hey, I’m done here. Are you? Let’s get coffee.”

South Philly seemed to be one of the few places in the hemisphere that hadn’t been invaded by Starbucks. Next to the cheeses shop — the same one from the ’70s! — was a storefront with a few tables and a coffee roaster tumbling. We fussed with our coffees, sat and were quiet for a moment.

“So. Where are you working now?” I asked.

“The HIV clinic over by Jefferson. What a world. You see it all there. Little kids. Old people. Even a few gay men. But believe it or not, they’re the minority, thanks to drugs and needles, you know. Drugs and needles and little kids born with that disease hanging over them and the same mothers who gave it to them in the first place die themselves or are too fried to help their babies. So you got grandmas and foster parents bringing in carloads of kids that take boatloads of drugs and get their blood drawn and checked every week …”

I faded out a bit. Nancy was still talking, words tumbling over each other, thoughts straddling other thoughts, cutting them off. Who was the “Craig” she referred to? Another nurse or a patient?

It was like I had only been away on a short vacation. I was back in her chaotic, jumbled world.

Writing Challenge

Find someone you haven’t seen for a long time, and then write about the experience.

▲ Gabrielle Idlet supports writers at every stage in their creative process. She works privately as a consultant and holds weekly drop-in writing groups. gidlet@gmail.com

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