My best friend Kathy died from breast cancer five and a half years ago. She wasn’t just my friend, she was my cousin, my roommate, my maid of honor, my ya-ya and my soul mate. Today is her birthday, she would be fifty seven.
We spent almost every Sunday at my grandmother’s house. She made her own root beer and rolls that were so delicious, I couldn’t get enough. I snuck them out of the bread box in her pantry off the kitchen, stuck them in my coat pocket, and brought them home to savor later. I don’t know why I did this, my grandmother would have let me take as many as I wanted.
Until I was in second grade, when my family moved to a bigger house, Kathy’s backyard abutted mine. We played together every day, she was just a grade ahead of me. My sister Maureen and Kathy’s sister, Ann, were a grade behind me. We spent our days sneaking into a tree house by the brook, riding bikes to the playground, and swinging for hours on a swing set where my sister Maureen once got stuck beneath the glider.
After college, Kathy and I shared an apartment in Boston with another girl I knew from school. We lived together for six years. When she finished graduate school, she got a job at Exeter Hospital and moved to Portsmouth, NH. My boyfriend (now my husband) got a job as a home inspector. His territory was the seacoast of New Hampshire and southern Maine. We moved to Portsmouth, too. Kathy met her husband Steve, we all hung around together, my daughters loved her dearly. She had the ability to listen with undivided attention, as if everything you said was important and she cared deeply about your feelings, your dreams, your problems no matter how small. My daughters were fourteen and sixteen when she passed away. I miss her advice, her calm patience, and her insight. I needed her during the tumultuous teenage years. We all needed her.
In the fall of 1981, while living in Boston, we left our jobs and sublet our rooms to backpack through Europe. We were twenty-four years old. Years later, we never tired of telling the stories of those two months when we were young and carefree. When life rolled ahead of us like a train track vanishing in the distance. Anything was possible. We were fearless. Our husbands would laugh at us as we told the same stories over and over again. Give us a couple of glasses of wine and we were right back at Oktoberfest or on the beach in Crete. The stories never failed to make us erupt into laughter, tears rolling down our cheeks, sides splitting. We swore that if we outlived the guys, and as we know most women do outlive their husbands, we’d end up together in a nursing home, smuggling in a bottle of wine, telling the stories to whomever would listen, still laughing raucously. Kathy had such a wonderful, crazy laugh.
As I walked the beach today, I thought about how I alone now tell the stories. For me, it is the way I keep Kathy’s memory alive. In The Reverse Commute, Sophie became the storyteller, like the handsome young Irishman on the train through the Pyrenees, the train Kathy and I rode so many years ago.
So, today, on Kathy’s birthday, I dug out the journal I kept on our trip through Europe. I flipped through the old photo albums. I let myself feel sad. As the Best Boy told the young girl he fell in love with:
“Don’t let anyone fool you with that closure shit. There’s no such thing. You think you’re okay and then some days it comes back and hits you like a ton of bricks. Grief comes and goes, even seven years later.”
Over five years later, on Kathy’s birthday, my gift to her is two stories from the fall of 1981. Her memory is still very much alive in so many of our hearts.
September 5, 1981 San Sebastion, Spain
We woke in our room at the Hotel Isla, with a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, suffering from our first European hangovers. We had bar hopped the night before and ate tapas for dinner; bread with sausages, cheese, olives, a potato pie similar to a quiche. A group of young guys invited us to a disco to go “dancing, dancing.” They spoke very little English. I wrote in my journal, “People here aren’t very good dancers. Bumping to The Clash? Who does that?”
We spent the next day at the beach, lounging and napping on colorful little chairs with canopies for shade. The water was beautiful. Little white fish swarmed around my legs, but I couldn’t feel them. A man walked by with a basket, shouting “Coca Cola, potatoes.” The perfect cure for a hangover.
That night we hit the strip again and stopped in a bar where some guys taught us how to drink sherry out of glass bottles that looked like bongs. We tipped our heads back, opened our mouths, and let the sweet sherry flow.
Back on the street, a marching band passed by. Then police carrying machine guns arrived, followed by an armored tank. Banners were strung from tree to tree in a little park across the street. Neither one of us knew what they said.
A short while later, a crowd of people began running down the street, singing loudly. Kathy grabbed me, and pulled me into a doorway to avoid getting knocked over by the surging crowd. After they passed, we ran back to the bar. The patrons were going about their business, laughing and drinking, as if nothing was happening out on the street. The bartender smiled, waved us over and said, “Tranquil. Vino Blanco.” We knew what that meant. Si, we will have another glass of white wine. We tried to leave for the Hotel Isla, but the bridge was blockaded by armored tanks, a line of of soldiers with machine guns and banana clips blocking access.
We went back to the bar. Kathy panicked as smoke erupted, seeping in as the bar door kept opening, tear gas filling the room. People covered their faces. A group of women ran down the stairs. A staircase leading to a door appeared to be an access to the second floor. We ran up the stairs only to discover it was a false door, so we cowered on the top step. We were scared, but started laughing at our stupidity, an easy target up there on the top step.
Things eventually calmed down, the bartender laughed, calling us down from the staircase for another vino blanco, on the house. We laughed at how foolish we must have looked, two silly American girls who spoke not a word of Spanish and knew nothing about the politics of Spain. He told us about ETA-Basque Homeland and Freedom-a group of Northern Spaniards, Basques, who wanted to gain independence from Spain. An early terrorist group, two decades before 9/11. We left for France the next morning.
Amsterdam September 16-19, 1981
We were staying in a youth hostel, ten bunks to a room. I was on a bottom bunk, Kathy was in the bunk next to me, on the top. Three girls from Los Angeles emptied small bags of loose diamonds onto a bed. They came to Amsterdam specifically for the diamond markets. We knew nothing about them. One girl picked out a large three carat solitaire for her engagement ring. She didn’t even have a boyfriend. Kathy and I pondered this. What if her future fiancee surprised her with a proposal and a ring? Would he have to replace the diamond with the one she bought?
We ate rijsttaffel at Indonesian restaurants, listened to bands at the Melkweg where they sold hashish from a menu, took a tour of the Heinekin brewery, then a cruise on a freaky hippie boat called the Cura. The beers were free, Grateful Dead music filled the air, and everyone rolled their weed with tobacco.
Each night we returned to our hostel. The first morning Kathy told me her top bunk was rocking all night, like a ship at sea. She could hear the girl below her moaning. She was sure the girl was masturbating. I promised Kathy I would spy on her the following night. I was sleeping right across from her but after the brewery and the Cura cruise, I slept like a log. I heard nothing. Kathy asked, “How could you not hear the bed banging against the wall?”
The next day we took the train to Haarlem. Behind the modern stores we found old streets lined with brick row houses. We stopped in a brown bar, all dark wood with oriental rugs draped across the tables. John and Frank had skipped out of work for the afternoon. They were discussing politics. They didn’t like Americans, but they liked Ronald Reagan. They invited us to join them for more rijsttaffel. I got in an argument with John over Reagan, who I never liked. He said to me, “You tell your Mr. Reagan, he can put his bombs in my backyard anytime.”
We needed to catch the midnight train back to Amsterdam. As we said goodbye, John asked, “You mean we’re not going to score?” We left disillusioned by the fact that European men were pretty much like American men.
Back at the hostel, the lonely masturbator had a small, naked doll she was sticking with pins, making tiny clothes from a lace handkerchief, laughing to herself, and glaring at Kathy. Kathy signaled to me to follow her down the hall to the showers.
“She’s trying to kill me,” Kathy said. “She’s putting a voodoo curse on me.”
“She doesn’t even know you. Maybe it’s a friend of hers or her mother, someone she came to Amsterdam to visit who blew her off. How do you know the doll is a female? It could be a boyfriend who dumped her. Maybe she’s using the doll as a pincushion, while she makes the clothes.”
“Did you see the way she looked at me?”
Well, yes, I did see the way she looked at Kathy, but I didn’t mention it. Kathy stayed awake all night. I slept like a log once again. We left the next morning for Germany.
This was a long one. Thanks for indulging me. The stories aren’t quite the same without Kathy’s input. “No, she didn’t say that.” “It was red wine, not sherry.” Memory and the passage of time plays tricks on us, but the stories live on.