When we were little girls, my friend Vanessa ate hot dogs boiled in filmy water and rolled like sushi between two slabs of Wonder Bread. She chopped them into fat cubes and submerged them in soup bowls of ketchup. She ate hot dogs with a big, dumpy spoon, slurping ketchup as she went along. Big, plastic, empty soda bottles lined her hallway until someone — usually her poor dad — broke down and hauled them over to the dispenser in the Key Food parking lot. Soda, hot dogs and Vanessa made my friend’s home the “fun house” that everyone was so grateful to have as the venue where they could finally shed their inhibitions and be themselves during those god-awful adolescent years.
On nights I slept over — and there were many the year I turned 14 and my parents were “figuring things out” — Vanessa would wait until her parents went to sleep. Then, over the racket of I Love Lucy episodes that blared from the small TV in their bedroom, she would sneak down to the kitchen and paddle back up the carpeted stairs to present me with three large plastic Dixie Cups filled to the brim with White Russian cocktails — one in each hand and a third clenched between her teeth.
Vanessa was bad and fearless, and had skinny legs that made me always glance down at mine when I didn’t think she was looking. She had a hollow, angled face — a sex face at 15 — one she never requested. As far as friends went, we were night and day. She could have laughed at my stupid innocent questions about the number of holes girls have, or the way I wore white rice-paper leggings that allowed for visible peeks of pink flesh (which may sound Lolita-ish but was more “I got dressed in the dark this morning”). But like so many bad, fearless girls who just so happen to have skinny legs, a sex face and the laugh of a girl who wasn’t raised right (though she was raised in a loving household), Vanessa loved me unconditionally and was fiercely loyal and protective of me.
Her choice to hang with me during a time when I was a huge dork and she could have easily been sneaking into over-18 clubs with older girls who wore thick amethyst eyeliner makes me even more ashamed to admit this: We haven’t spoken in years. Worse: She needs help and I am starting to realize how powerless we all are in terms of how little we can change people. Life is not a movie with a happy ending for all those with giant hearts and fractured souls. But I still can’t admit to myself that Vanessa won’t one day regain her beautiful spirit.
A few years after she dropped everything at midnight on a Tuesday to move me into my first apartment in Brooklyn (a long story that involved me having to move fast after a bitter feud with my mother), Vanessa developed a devastating drug habit. Drugs and alcohol had always been around (remember the White Russians?) and even during our teen years, Vanessa was the one who would be up for trying anything once. I wasn’t surprised to find out she was dabbling with cocaine, LSD and MDMA. But the recreational drugs were taking a backseat in terms of things that had started to worry me about my good friend: Her behavior had become more erratic and her moods and emotions so capricious you could never tell what would set her off.
She made poor decisions during those years. There were police incidents, married men, fights with the wives of those men and a mysterious male “friend” who owned an illegal handgun and gave her money.
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My route was more traditional. I got married, had a baby and couldn’t figure out how to keep Vanessa in my life in a way that wasn’t potentially detrimental to my family’s safety, given the cast of characters who had become part of her ever-changing, drifting circle of acquaintances. When I saw Vanessa at a funeral last year she had lost about 40 pounds, had black and blue circles beneath her eyes and had sores on her face. We said hello, I hugged her and felt her skeleton and then she left to go outside and smoke a cigarette. I don’t have a clue what hard drugs she’s taking and we’re no longer close enough for her to share that information with me.
I thought about her for a month after the funeral, but didn’t know what to do with my thoughts. As far as I was concerned, I had given up the right to enter her universe unannounced as if I belonged there.
So I wrote Vanessa a letter. I wanted to force her to remember how wickedly beautiful, witty and full of life she had once been, so I jotted down every memory I could summon. The time we got caught in a rainstorm and, instead of running home, roamed the neighborhood like stray cats, sticking our heads under drainpipes. The time we danced all night at a family party to Prince songs and realized it was so much more fun than having dates. The way she saved dollar bills in a shoebox beneath her bed so she could one day buy a Ferrari. My letter wound up being five pages long, but only because I had to stop somewhere.
A few months later, I ran into Vanessa’s mother at a family event. At one point, she followed me to the bathroom and all she said was, “She got your letter. It made her cry.” I offered to call or meet her for coffee, but her mom made it clear she wasn’t sure if that would be a good idea right now. I didn’t press her for more information. I didn’t feel I had earned that right.
I get a lump in my throat when I consider the possibility that Vanessa has a mental illness that hasn’t been treated. I know how crucial it is to have people check in on you, descend upon you like vultures if necessary, to keep you safe from yourself. But how do you get them to let you in the door? How do you make them see themselves the way you see them? How, if you are Vanessa’s exhausted and stressed-beyond-belief parents, do you force a rehab to keep her there for longer than 30 days?
I might be too late, but I have let Vanessa know I am here for her, whether that means for a lengthy talk about everything over coffee, a quick phone call about nothing at all or a bitter argument where she slams me for leaving her when she probably needed me most. I’ll take any of those. I’ll take being told I could have saved her, even though I now know we can only save ourselves. I won’t give up on her, even if that means sending her one letter a month until she gets sick of all of the paper and calls to beg me to stop.
I can’t compete with drugs and a possible undiagnosed mental illness. All we can offer people who are trapped in their own hell is a hand and an open door. I’ve left mine open.