I am nine or ten, and I am sleeping over at my friend Holly’s house. (Holly is not her real name. It shouldn’t matter, since she is dead now, but I feel the need to protect her.) I know Holly doesn’t have a dad, which isn’t too strange. This is the early eighties and divorce has become an epidemic in my upper middle class town, and it is always the dad that leaves. Actually, I have no idea if her parents are divorced, or if they ever married. Maybe her father is dead. Strange thing is, I don’t remember seeing her mother that night either.
I don’t remember arriving at her house, or what we ate for dinner but now it is really, really late, hours past my bedtime and Holly and I jump up and down on her bed, loud music is pouring from her cool robot-shaped cassette tape player and we eat candy necklaces. Lots of them. She has an endless supply and there was no one around telling us, you’ve had enough. She has so many cool electric toys, everything I ever wanted from the toys-r-us catalog is lying there on Holly’s bedroom floor.
We are doing every thing I always imagined I would do if my parents disappeared. And it is fun! We are giggling and dancing, being loud and silly and nobody is getting hurt. Well, my tummy is hurting just a little bit. I blame the jumping.
Her room feels small and cluttered and dark. I don’t remember seeing a desk. Just the bed, the toy and candy strewn floor and a closet full of more toys and lots of clothing.
I guess we slept eventually, but no one ever told us to go to bed. The next scene is in Holly’s backyard. It is daytime. A huge tree dominates the square, fenced-in space. There is a dog roaming around, its dried piles of feces litter the patchy grass. There is a man sitting at the picnic table with us and he is shoving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into Holly’s mouth. Holly is sobbing and choking. Snot and tears and jelly smeared all over her face. The man is angry, I made you the damn sandwich and now you’re gonna eat it.
I don’t know who the man is. Her mother’s boyfriend? The concept of a ‘mother’ having a ‘boyfriend’ is too foreign for my sheltered mind. The sandwich this man made for me is disgusting. He slopped the peanut butter and jelly an inch thick over the bread. It isn’t cut up into child sized squares or triangles, I have a hard time holding it, and the excess jelly oozes over my hands as I eat it, fast, bite after terrified bite.
That memory ends there. My mother told me later that she was furious to learn Holly’s mother had left us alone with a stranger. I never went back to her house. I switched schools after that year and that was the end of our friendship.
I have two more memories of Holly. The first is passing by her in the stairwell of the high school. She wore all black, a long black skirt, black blouse, black nail polish, even her eyes were circled in black. The word ‘goth’ wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time, but it fits now. Did we speak? I know she smiled at me. Her teeth were crooked, but the smile was sweet. The moment feels kind in my head. We walked completely different paths through that building, weaving among two thousand other students, and I don’t remember seeing her again.
If I stopped the story here – you might predict drug use, dropping out of school, maybe an unwanted pregnancy, and eventually death by overdose. I already hinted at an early death, no one would be surprised if the story continued on this trajectory. Unfair, true, but that is what we do. In between the bits and pieces of fact we imaginatively fill in the gaps.
I don’t know what the truth is.
My last memory is of her memorial Facebook page, a year after she died of breast cancer. I was not connected to her, but a friend of a friend wrote a note of sympathy and it popped up in my feed. People like to speak well of the recently departed, but I’ve never seen so many specific, positive memories written by so many people. She was married and had a good job; much of the grief came from her co-workers and boss. Her mother and sister do breast cancer walks in her honor. Even now, the page is still updated with variations of the phrase: I miss you.
The memory of that strange and horrible sleep-over, of a neglected and abused child, is the memory I have of her. But the evidence of other people’s memories, and the pictures of a smiling, happy woman, belie my singular experience. An individual life is a complicated, many faceted thing.
I don’t trust memory. And as I am the only person with this memory, there’s a good chance I made it up.