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Leigh Flayton Headshot

First Goodbye to a Friend

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It really did feel like the end of the world when Renee, my best friend in junior high, told me her family was moving away at the end of the school year.

"I have bad news," she said on the phone one afternoon that spring. "We're moving."

"What do you mean? Where?" I asked, shocked and afraid the answer would be someplace far away from our small town on Long Island. "How far?" I managed to ask through the dryness in my throat.

"Florida."

What I remember most about that phone call is how I immediately started calculating how much time we had left: How many sleepovers could there be, how many after school visits to Snooky's Pizza? How many Saturday afternoons to break dance at the mall, where nobody minded a couple of newly minted teenage girls blasting a boom box?

I tried to figure out what to say next. My best friend Renee, that sweet, lovely, Audrey Hepburn-in-the-making I wanted so badly to emulate, finally put an end to my silent misery.

"I'll see you at school tomorrow," she said with the soft intention of consoling me. "We still have a few months."

I hung up the phone and thought I heard a clock ticking, or maybe it was a time bomb. As the school year wound down, I don't know how many more times we went to Friendly's so we could see how many Jim Dandy sundaes Renee could eat -- I think her record was four -- or I lied to my parents about her mother driving us to Oakdale, the town next to ours. Instead, we'd take my radio and blast the Madonna cassette over and over as we walked all the way there, miles from where we lived. We'd make our voices hoarse, shouting the lyrics to "Borderline" at the cars we danced by on Sunrise Highway. That was one of our favorite things to do, and I knew I would miss it so I screamed especially loud in those waning weeks of June.

I had other friends, but Renee was my favorite. I admired her in a way that I didn't admire anyone else. I was such a tomboy, and she had that seemingly miraculous ability to be athletic and strong yet feminine and graceful. I was all the former and none of the latter, and being with her always made that all too clear. She was far prettier than I was and got better grades, too. As we grew older I became interested in drinking at parties and puffing cigarettes, but she would scold me and without reservation make her disappointment clear. She was able to maintain an innocence that I, and so many others, couldn't wait to shed. She was an upright, responsible girl who knew right from wrong, and didn't like to flirt with what was forbidden like I did.

The dreaded day finally came and I tried to be brave and elegant, just like Renee was sure to be. My mother drove me to her house while Renee's family said their goodbyes, and I joined the bunch of kids and neighbors moping on the driveway. None of them cared like I did, I thought, and I felt a relationship to pain like I'd never had before. It was different than what I'd experienced on the soccer field or when my older brother made me box with him and would jab me until I folded into the fetal position and begged him to stop.

One of my last memories of seeing Renee was the sweatshirt she wore. I had never seen it before and thought it might be new. What struck me was the decal pressed onto the heather gray cotton, placed over the heart. It was a rainbow -- something I would never, ever wear -- but because she was Renee she could pull it off without looking childish. Underneath it were the words: "Let me be free, let me be me." I hugged her and tried not to cry as I said my last goodbye.

I rode home in the car with my mother, lonely in the passenger seat. Some kids came to my house for a pool party, and although I thought I might not want the company, I was glad to be surrounded by friends. Strangely, the more I chatted with Trish, laughed with Kristin and swam with William, the sadness that had engulfed me those last few months started to dissipate -- just like that. What had seemed like the end of my life now felt like a kind of beginning. In fact, I was relieved and surprised to realize I actually might be glad Renee was gone. For the first time in all the years I'd known her I thought that I, too, might be free. I was finally able to just be me.