My worst memory of Olivia is my last; the one of our hands reaching- mine out the minivan window, hers through the sticky lamplit air- for each other, only to have the space between them stretched and whisked away when the van drove away; and her tear-choked “No, no…” as the night swallowed her, taking the whole of my sweet Rhode Island year with her.
Aquidneck Island was paradise for a whimsical, homeschooled twelve-year old, with its oceanic mansions, aging stained-glass churches, and fiery-leafed trees along every sidewalk. One of my favorite pastimes was to bike the rectangular block around our house; at the far corner, I would turn the bike with a flourish, pause grandly at the top of the hill, then glide down our street in one huge rush, my head tilted back, and pretend I was flying. Before moving there, homeschooling had meant imprisonment- I was cruelly barred from crossing the street with all my friends in the morning and participating in the wondrous mysticisms of sixth grade. Here, homeschooling meant freedom: it meant midmorning breaks to rush down the hill and English curriculums that let me write any stories I wanted. My brother and I ran circles around each other with my blue Fujifilm digital camera on our break times, making goofy videos of our nonsensical ramblings and adventures, thumping around the oak flooring.
Our house was a wooden-shingled Cape Cod two story bungalow built in 1900, making it the oldest (and therefore the coolest) house we’d lived in so far. I had the biggest bedroom- not unusual- whose closet had a secret alcove behind the hanger rod- very unusual. I put my bookshelf and beanbag back there and christened it a reading nook. The whole house was full of fun tricks like that- doors or alcoves that almost qualified as secret compartments, but not quite. My brother’s closet connected with the one in the guest room; the night before April Fool’s Day, I snuck through via the guest closet and stole all his clothes, leaving only a post-it note for him to find in the morning. Just outside the kitchen was the roof of the basement staircase, which with only a little difficulty Olivia and I climbed up onto- a small, picnic-sized plateau- and spent sunny spring afternoons. The basement was unfinished, which meant our mom didn’t care what kind of mess we made in it. Once all of our boxes were unpacked, my brother and I constructed a cardboard labyrinth in the space, complete with common lounge areas as well as separate chambers for each of us.
I thought it had everything. At that point in my life I never noticed the absence of a best friend. After that year, I would notice it a lot.
In the second drawer in the dresser of my current bedroom, there is a denim-blue heart-shaped music box. It was a Christmas gift when I was eight; I adored it, symmetrically compartmentalized inside, with a spinning blue ballerina tinkling Fur Elise. I used to time it so that I only closed the on the end of a verse, and could open it to a new verse starting, the ballerina rotating serenely, wobblingly resolute on her spring. Perfect. Now, I use it to keep all of my old friendship bracelets.
There are over ten, and I’ve forgotten half the girls they belong to. Hannah’s red and orange band of silken string stands out, and Anna’s powder-blue bangle with the star charm is unique enough. But most are just faded blurs of braid and tangle, mixing with the faded memories of the friends I braided into my childhood summers, adding a new woven cord to the box every few years, when we’d move and I promised myself I wouldn’t forget. These days, I open the box less and less, and the ballerina stays bent under the weight of the closed mirror, her spring sagging. When I do, all I can do is stare at the fraying collection, at the broken strings that represent girls with freckled cheeks and toothy grins that I did, in fact, forget.
I will never forget the afternoons on the neighbor’s trampoline, when Olivia and I stretched ourselves out on the warm black expanse like napping snakes, pointing out the spots in the branches of the great pine above where we’d build our treehouses if we could, our hair mingling- hers sunny strawberry, mine chestnut. I will never forget the night we walked laps around the bouncy edges in the fading dusk of May, talking about how happy we were to be friends, and how sad we were to say goodbye, until all we could say was that we loved each other. I’d never had a friend tell me that before. I don’t have a bracelet for her, but we had something better.
One afternoon, she came over, pink cheeked, bursting with excitement. “Somebody on your street threw a bunch of cool stuff out on the curb! We should go search for treasures.”
Newport’s mystique partially came from its age. All its buildings, restaurants, and people were oozing with history and tradition, and it was a popular retirement destination. Evidently one of the aging couples on our street had decided it was time to purge their decades of junk; and indeed, sprawled on the curb just a couple blocks down Hunter Street were boxes of antique trinkets. We poked through the piles delightedly, snatching anything that might be of use. A spiraled phone cord. Crumbling leather wallets. Faded sepia photos. And in one box, dozens of keys. We grabbed handfuls of these, picking through them for the most interesting ones. Back in my room, we spread our bounty on the floor of my bedroom, making bargains and trades for who got to keep what. We divided the keys evenly, realizing that out of the bunch, two were identical. Ordinary looking house keys, one had engraved in the middle the letter H, and the other a W. Recognizing it as a sign, we each took one (I the W, her the H), came up with secret names for each other by those initials, looped them through a couple of the chains we’d found in the pile, and dubbed them our friendship necklaces.
Nothing about her was expected. Everything was extraordinary.
She made the most mundane or frustrating situations exciting. My parents suggested I take her with us to a three-day convention for Christian homeschooling parents, since there were some sessions for kids and she, a fellow homeschooler, might like them. Between lectures on logical fallacies and competing worldviews, we found entertainment wherever we were placed: the atrium in which everyone ate lunch became the battleground for a legendary, five-floor game of hide and seek, and we invented reasons to ride on the escalator from the lobby to the lecture hall (the longest one we’d ever seen). It was guarded by a sour-looking woman in a forest green blazer, whose vendetta against the two badly-dressed, giggling twelve year olds became so severe that she stopped letting us ride up and down, and we began making up horrific backstories for how she’d become so bitter and unattractive.
Our secret, pixelated videos of her from behind lobby pillars, accompanied by our whispered sniggers mocking her sneering expression, still remain somewhere in the circuits of my family’s home computer. We laughed about it for months, the Mean Escalator Lady. None of it makes any sense; when I look back on what delighted us, it all sounds- on the surface- like the pathetic amusements of badly homeschooled kids who must have been sequestered away, barely socialized and diluted by too much time indoors. But days spent with her were brilliantly concentrated, packed with laughter and delicious life.
Most memories from that year are colored with that same wonder and whimsy, a feeling of possibility that lifted me like magic. A stark image of this is the mansions. Being the picturesque, seaside town that it is, Newport had been (and still is) a popular summer home destination for the wealthy. Along the cliffs that separated Aquidneck Island from the sea there sat a row of colossal mansions, like jewels from the crown of a fairytale princess. The Breakers (summer home of the Vanderbilts in the 20’s and 30’s) was my favorite. From time to time, my mother and I would take self-guided audio tours of it for fun.
“Wanna go down by the cliffwalk and visit one of the mansions?” she’d say one afternoon, out of the blue, and we’d drive down the island and up the gravel paths as if we lived there. Narrated by the soft, museum-y sounding woman in our headsets, we floated through ornate dining rooms, cathedral-sized foyers, and a sprawling, oceanic back lawn that imprinted itself in my mind forever as the most heavenly l place in the world.
A year after I left, Olivia and I began writing fantasy novels and sending chapters to each other for feedback. The entrance to the secret world of mine was based on the stone wall that bordered the grounds of the Easton mansion (just two blocks from my house), through with a hidden door led to a sunlit castle in another world. In my mind, that castle The Breakers. My characters flew their dragons over the emerald lawn and scurried with their encripted books through the grand hallways. Olivia loved it. She loved that I included a strawberry-headed best friend character based on her, and she loved the secret rooms and passageways the characters found. I never finished the novel, because I could never come up with a reason for them to leave the castle. Why should they?
In my mind, I’d never left either.
But of course, I did leave. Five-months-left became three, which became one, and then none. Spring turned into summer, and the heat brought the growl of the moving truck and a lump in my throat I’d never felt when the military had moved us before. As a child, all I cared about during a move was what color my new room would be. Suddenly, I had something to lose by leaving: a best friend. A life I’d tasted but not drunk my fill of yet. I was angry- at the Marine Corps (could you even be angry at the government, I wondered?), and maybe at my parents, for not preparing me for this earth-crushing heartbreak, not warning me against getting too close to be torn away.
I searched for a silver lining to reassure myself (we’d write emails every day, my new room would face our new front lawn, there were girls my age in our new neighborhood), but all my attempts seemed thin as we pulled up to Olivia’s house after my dance recital to drop her off. We wouldn’t leave for a few days, but it would be the last time I saw her. Our goodbye (gripping hugs, the red light of our minivan taillights, a tear-soaked farewell) clocked in at Number One on my all-time saddest moments in my twelve years of life. My mom still remembers it and shakes her head somberly: “I hated having to drive away. It was awful.”
Sometimes, when I need cheering up, I look at Google Images of the backyard of the Breakers. I was once given a meditation exercise where I was supposed to picture the perfect creative space; in my mind’s eye, I looked around a window-lined top floor of a tower to discover I was bathed in the Newport sunlight of that gorgeous backyard, the ocean in front of me; that it was morning, and that I was surrounded by easels and old books. Going to college on the northern shore of Massachusetts was the closest thing I could find to the Aquidneck Island landscape; any house I see with wooden shingles makes me smile.
Olivia is getting married this week. I haven’t met him- we haven’t seen each other since Newport, save a weekend reunion in Colorado three years later. Sometimes I look him up on social media and comb his posts like curbside treasures, looking for something shiny- something that proves he’s meant for her. I hope they build their children a treehouse and that he makes her laugh her delighted, underwatery giggle. I hope being with him makes her feel like she’s flying- down a hill, her head tilted back, free.