And everything she left behind
By Renee Phile
I woke up thinking about her, and I’m not sure why. Facebook told me today is her birthday, so maybe that’s why. Or maybe it’s because my son had his best friend over last night, and as I watched all the non-verbal communication — their inside jokes, looks, smirks, eye rolls — I couldn’t help but think about Serenity. She was my best friend in fourth grade and the grades after that, and although her name is Serenity, she preferred to be called Sunny for short, so I called her Sunnybird. We met in fourth grade on Mercer Christian Academy’s basketball team. Neither of us was really into it, but we kind of tried. Serenity was home-schooled and there was a chance she was going to join me at MCA the next year, and every day I would call her house to get the status.
“Hello?” her mom answered.
“Is Serenity there?”
“Just a minute. (Pause.) Serenity?”
(Phone going through hands, some stumbling around.)
“Are you coming to MCA next year?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“OK. Talk to you later!” I would immediately hang up.
During one of the many sleepovers we had, she told me that she wished I had talked longer on the phone — that it hurt her feelings when I ended our conversations so abruptly. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I tried to explain. “I just had a question and needed an answer.”
She did end up going to MCA for fifth grade. Our teacher was Mr. Smith, an older, soft-spoken gentleman who always wore a different belt buckle and played basketball with us during recess. That year I stayed up one night reading and writing a report about Florence Nightingale. It was the first documented all-nighter of my school career.
Serenity sat in the desk behind me. She ate saltine crackers and cheese during class and passed me notes, folded into unique designs. The designs were way fancier than the words, and it was fun to spend five minutes opening a note to see her splashy cursive: “Hi! Want to swing instead of playing ball today?”
I spent lots of nights and days at her three-story house right off the main street in downtown Princeton, West Virginia. On Saturdays we had to clean her bathroom and vacuum before we could do anything fun. Fun meant walking the mile or so to Jason’s Market to buy Carmelo bars, cotton candy gum, Cow Tails, and peach Nehis. We left the market and walked to the cemetery down the road and made up stories about the names on the gravestones while we chomped on our gum and blew big bubbles. Once we saw a black-haired man sitting cross-legged on one of those above-ground graves. (I didn’t know they were called mausoleums.) We watched him for a few minutes, turning him into a serial killer in our imaginations, and then trudged back to her house. When we turned around, we saw him walking after us. We began running, turning down random streets, but he was still there. He was behind us, running just as hard as we were. We flew into her front door and slammed it hard behind us, sure we were seconds from being kidnapped and killed by the guy with black hair who sat on a grave in the cemetery. We told and retold the story for years, each time adding a new, dramatic detail. He had a knife. He snarled. We nearly died that day.
Once Sunnybird was snowed in at my house for a week. Or maybe her parents had gone out of town and it just happened to be snowing. I can’t remember. She decided to leave her folded notes for my parents all over the house, to thank them for letting her stay. Some in cabinets, some in bookshelves, some behind the TV. Each one was specific: “Thank you for letting me use your toilet.” Or, “Thank you for letting me eat your peanut butter.” We saved the ones we could find. There may be some still hidden in that house in the mountains of West Virginia.
We were pretty innocent creatures, trying to figure out life and love and other stuff, and I felt safe when I was with her. She moved to Oklahoma when we were in high school and I felt like I had lost a body part. We sent letters back and forth and she still folded them into fancy designs before she plopped them in the envelope. There were no cell phones, so if we wanted to call each other, we could only talk a few minutes because it was long distance and long distance costs money.
We lost touch over the years, but I see her sometimes on Facebook, and I’m back at the cemetery in fifth grade with a Carmelo bar and a peach Nehi, being chased by someone with black hair until I am safe again. PS
Renee Phile loves being a mom, even if it doesn’t show at certain moments.