Twice a year, on March 9 and September 13, I ask my mom to place white roses at Nicole's grave. Because I no longer live in Houston, the city where Nicole and I spent so many days playing at each other's houses, my mom is the one who takes the flowers to the cemetery. The March date is the anniversary of Nicole's death. The September one is her birthday.
Nicole would have been 30 this month. She was 15 and warming up for a lacrosse game when her heart stopped.
Nicole and I met in preschool and went through elementary school and middle school together. We were little girls who loved to play, and we were always plotting our next fun activity. When we were in kindergarten or first grade, we decided to establish our own school and spent hours working at the roll-top desk in her playroom. Our students would fold paper fans and use markers to color in the creases, and we filled a basket with prizes like mini-Checkers sets. When we were satisfied with the preparations, we welcomed our three pupils, including my younger sister.
Another time, we were playing in our pre-K classroom at school when Nicole decided I needed pierced ears like hers. She found a toy peg resembling a small golf tee that seemed perfect for the procedure. Then, instead of aiming for the lobe, she inserted the peg so deep into my ear canal that it got stuck. Fearing they would push it even deeper if they tried to retrieve it, the teachers called my mom to take me to the doctor. By the time she arrived, a teacher with long nails had been able to pry it out. My eardrum survived, as did my relationship with Nicole.
Though we were best friends, I sought Nicole's approval. From a young age, she seemed to have a sophistication that I lacked. Her family took trips to Acapulco and St. Tropez, London and Jerusalem, and she developed a love of travel early on. Because her father is from Mexico, she spoke fluent Spanish. Nicole's bat mitzvah party was the first event I attended requiring cocktail attire, and I bought a black dress with puffy sleeves for the occasion. She showered at my house before another bat mitzvah, and I watched as she clipped up most of her naturally curly hair, so she could work her way from bottom layer to top with the blow dryer. I had never seen a beauty process take so long, and I kept coming back to check on her progress. When she finally finished, I was amazed at how straight her hair was. How did she know how to do that?
Nicole and I went to different high schools, and we saw each other only on Tuesday nights at Hebrew school. By then, I felt like I really was a few steps behind. Though she was never rude or dismissive, it was harder to get her attention. She had an older sister, whom I always admired as well, and she could look to her as a model for how to navigate adolescence. They both played soccer, tennis and lacrosse, while I lacked the athleticism to do any sport. I threw myself into my youth group instead.
Nicole also had an actual figure, which meant she not only seemed more grown up, she looked it too. She wore a bra because she needed one, while I wore one because everyone else was wearing one. She even waxed her legs. For a high school student, she was remarkably comfortable in her skin, and she didn't hesitate to talk about what it took to be a young woman. After Nicole's death, her mom would recall the time she greeted friends before a school dance by announcing, "I'm wearing a thong. Is anyone else wearing one?"
My freshman year of high school, I was studying for a biology test with a new friend, my youth-group "big sister," when her phone rang. When she hung up, she told me in a stunned yet straightforward manner that Nicole had died. My parents were out to dinner, and my friend had to call them because I couldn't. My mom remembers the details better than I do: "She said that you were beside yourself, that you were just devastated. Could we get home?" They left the restaurant immediately and called my grandmother, who could get to me faster than they could. Later that night, my mom took me to another friend's house, where a group of girls had gathered. "You just sat in a room and stared at each other."
For the year or so after Nicole's death, anything related to loss, death or regret could set me off. The Boyz II Men song "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," to which my group of girlfriends, including Nicole, had choreographed a dance for our fifth-grade talent show. The Garth Brooks song "The Dance," with its lyric "Our lives are better left to chance / I could have missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance." Even the movie "Selena." Despite the fact that my friend was not a world-famous pop star, I completely broke down, sobbing in the movie-theater parking lot long after the credits.
I vowed never to drift from anyone again, telling myself that if I stayed in close contact with all my friends, I wouldn't have to worry about regrets. It was a nice but unrealistic sentiment, one I would forget by my freshman year of college when I told my mom that I could no longer relate to the girls I grew up with. My college friends were the ones who understood me. I was changing, while my home friends were exactly the same.
What I didn't realize then, or at the time of Nicole's death, is that friendships often curve back around as we get older. There's no master schedule that says X happens at this age and Y happens at that age, so we don't necessarily go through certain experiences at the same time as our friends. We'll all have our first kiss at some point and we'll all go through a period when we feel stuck in our jobs, but in our teens and even in our early 20s, we don't have the perspective to understand how little the "when" matters in the long run.
This summer, I flew with my boyfriend to Houston, his first trip to my hometown. I wanted him to meet my grandmother and other relatives, but it was equally important that he have dinner with some of my closest friends. I've been flying in for their weddings since just after college graduation, and although my life today is different from theirs in many ways, it's not as different as I once imagined it might be. Some of us have kids, some don't. Some own, some will probably rent for a very long time. But at 30, or close to it, we're all undeniably adults.
I have no evidence that Nicole and I would have reconnected. I don't know where she would have gone to school or lived afterward. She could have been one of the ones eating Mexican food with my group of longtime friends in July, or we might have been merely Facebook friends who wish each other happy birthday with three exclamation points. It's hard to speculate based on what she was like as a 15-year-old. And yet her older sister and my younger sister both live in California. What if Nicole had ended up in New York with me?
In 2005, Nicole's mom self-published "Love Letters to Nicole," a book of letters she had written to her daughter since her death, and at the end, she included poems by and for Nicole.
Nicole wrote this one, "Friendship," on August 25, 1997:
What does it take to be a good trust-worthy friend?
There are ups and downs of a relationship.
It definitely takes two.
Friendship is a process that blossoms over time.
It is a priceless treasure.
Nicole has been gone for almost as many years as she was alive. Though I understand that you can't sustain a relationship on childhood memories alone, I also know that those memories can serve as a foundation on which to build. What makes me saddest now is not the loss of my childhood best friend, but the fact that we never got a chance to find each other again as adults.
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