I was ten. She was my sister's best friend, and my first love. She was a newly America-returned, furious-to-be-back-in-India law student, and my sister's classmate. She would come over on weekends, as much for respite from the matronly clutches of Catholic hostel life as for home-cooked meals and companionship. She was the queen of detached-cool, as apathetic to the disciplinarian regime of our household as she was to brassieres and conversational propriety.
She would complain loudly of menstrual cramps at dinner. She would swear at the maid if her clothes were left in the sun to dry, and openly poke fun at our accents. She was mean and terrifying and the antithesis of everything I was brought up to believe girls were like. She introduced me to Nirvana and Soundgarden, and my sister to lip gloss and mascara. She had black stars on her nails, and heartbreak in every footstep. For two days every week that year, I was a sickly lone leaf trembling in the wake of her hurricane.
She knew, of course. She was nice about it. She would do that indulgent flirty thing eighteen year old girls do- tussle my hair, and wink conspiratorially when I came out of the bathroom, and ask me if I had a girlfriend. I wasn't the only one either. My sister started walking like her, and prefixing sentences with "like". My Dad dug up an old pair of bell bottomed Levis he probably last wore in the Seventies, and started wearing them around the house. I had been asking him for years if I could cut them into shorts, and now they looked destined to explode around my Dad one day owing to sheer gut pressure. My mother -sensible, self-contained mother- said she had a refreshing individuality when she set our Parakeet free. We were a family of fools, all hopelessly enamored with a punk rock princess from hell.
I was the first person she told when she found out she was leaving. For that, I will always be grateful. It was Valentine's Day. I made her a card, with an anatomically accurate drawing of a human heart on the front that I traced from my sister's old textbook. I was certain she would appreciate the humor, that it would unite us forever in loving embrace. I was always one for forevers. I had even prepared a speech for the occasion.
I told her I wanted to tell her something, that she shouldn't go to bed immediately after dinner. She said -to my utter horror- that she needed to tell me something too, to meet her by the water tank after everybody went to bed. The water tank was our place. It was where we went when my sister was at dance classes, or moot court practice. It was on the terrace, on the third floor, and we would sit on it swinging our legs, or lie on our backs, listening to music on her Walkman, one earphone in each of our ears, our faces sometimes so close it was all I could do to stop breathing.
I had never been up there at night before. Judging by the ease with which she navigated the stairs, leading the way, deftly skipping the broken rung, reaching for the banister just before the climb got tricky, it wasn't her first time. She offered her hand, and I refused, determined to be as much of a man as my little lovesick heart would allow me to be.
The sky was everything the movies tell you these moments should be. We clambered on to the water tank and sat in silence, just looking at the stars, the odd foot brushing against the other's in mid-swing. She asked me if I wanted to listen to some music. I declined. We sat a little longer, no words exchanged. I had never felt that calm around her before. She was just a girl. I was going to do this.
And then she did something. A little movement of the hand, a pursing of the lips, that would change my life for ever. She lit up a cigarette. I had never seen a woman smoke before, not even on TV. It was the most beautiful, most sensuous, most ridiculously cool moment of my life. It was the endearing image of my first love, the prototype for the kind of woman I would fall again and again in love with in my adolescence, in my adulthood, possibly the rest of my life.
She offered me a drag. I coughed and she put her hand to my mouth, laughing. The world swum around me, just a little at first, then with great violent thrusts of its limbs that made me seasick. I decided to lie down. She reached for my face, concerned, and did something to my hair that made her seem far away and deep inside me all at once. I struggled back up. "I love you," I said.
She said she was sorry. She thanked me for the card, she loved it. She said she was leaving, back to Seattle where her friends and family were. She said I needed to lighten up, that rules weren't all meant to be followed. "Don't tell anybody," she said, "but you're the only friend I have here." She was gone when I woke up. Typically, she had left me sleeping on the water tank, knowing fully well the trouble I'd get into.
I walked gingerly down the stairs, my face caked with tears and dust. My father sat in his usual chair, the newspaper held across his face. "We'll talk later," he said as I passed him. I didn't care. No parental admonition was going to rob me of my right to grieve and write terrible poetry and break things. But first, I would get some sleep. On my bed, I found my Dad's Levis, folded clumsily like only he can. I never did make shorts out of them. I had just outgrown my roller skates.
"It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time."
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides.