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Don't Call Me Muffinhead

I got a call from my old friend Julia the other night. She was on her way to a triathlon swimming class and, after a short aquatics-themed chat, we lapsed onto memory lane. All our funny creations, labors of love only childish brilliance can think up. The "Aunt Ruth Song," an ode to a particularly nasty relative; The Beer Slipper, an old wingtip found on the street and, hoisted aloft on a bamboo stick, became a minor deity; The Katherine Show , a theatrical roasting of a gal-pal who had done me wrong. We were the stars of our own stage, coherence and sensibility be damned. We were six and we were fierce. I remember Julia as the dark-eyed, bushy-haired girl who showed up at my kindergarten class one day in overalls and an off-the-shoulder shirt. We became friends. Our parents became friends. We moved up the ranks of our elementary school together.

Julia and I were not always friends, though. Sometimes we downright hated each other, fighting bitterly or giving the other the cold shoulder. But not for long. It was a strange relationship, sisterly in the sense that we were competitive with one another. There was no reason for it, but we did it, subtly and not so subtly. We were locked in a battle of one-upmanship, getting the other's goat time and again. Over after-dinner coffee, Julia summed it up perfectly. "God," she said, "you could always say the one thing that could make me so mad! And I could do it to you, too. And we did it." We grinned at each other, remembering this, our unabashed meanness toward one another. Thinking about it now makes me cringe, but not from guilt. She could make me fly into a teeth-gnashing rage, and I could get her so angry she'd turn red down to her neck. It's not as though any debts went unpaid. It's a funny memory to smile at, but Julia was right, and her comment alluded to more than just sucker-punch jabs at each other's ego. We were, though perpetually locked in pre-teen female-friendship competition, grounded equals, which was worth something in and of itself. And, reminiscing over food and drink, I realized what it meant to us now. Our mutual bad behavior was testament to something bigger, to our understanding and ultimate ease with one another, one that allowed us to be terrible and horrible as well as good and kind. With the angsty middle-school years behind us, our equality had moved beyond teasing and posturing and proved to be something else entirely: a lasting, tough-as-nails bond.

It took me a while to realize this, but Julia saw everything. She saw my life both before and after my mother died, saw my father and I when we didn't know what the hell we were doing, trying to reassemble our lives with a gaping, tearing hole ripped in them. She went ice skating with my mother and me, played in the back-yard clubhouse my father had constructed out of scrap lumber from the basement and brightly colored latex paint, and watched hours of Carmen Sandiego with me on her carpeted floor. She was at my birthday parties, and I was at hers. And there she was amidst the chaos that was the years without my mother. She ate my dad's attempts at cooking, called to check in, passed me notes in class, and traded lunches. She played the recorder with me at my mother's memorial service and she played without a hitch. I can't say this about many people, and I am thankful for it beyond all possible description. It's strange to say, I know, but Julia serves to remind me that there was an old life. She was a part of it. It's a great relief to know that someone knows me, knows that part of me, when everyone else who enters my life will never have seen it.

I'd like to say that we remained in steady contact, but we didn't. Like most teenagers, we had our plates full dealing with ourselves, let alone dealing with another person. After our eighth-grade graduation and the perils of high school, Julia and I drifted apart. At different schools -- hers private, mine public -- we were busy forging our ways -- hers self-actualization, mine self-confidence -- and didn't speak until last December, when Julia called me up (or did I call her?) out of the blue, and we ended up talking for hours. We agreed to meet for dinner at the favorite Japanese restaurant of our youth and proceeded to have one of the best meals -- food and conversation-wise -- of our lives. Part of me knew it all along, but part of me was relieved, and, as we put on our coats to leave, it occurred to me why. I shook my head; duh, I thought, we're older now. Of course it's not like it was before. I almost laughed, honing in on my overriding, specific little worry; I thought she was going to call me "Muffinhead" again.

The phone was burning against my ear, and Julia was running out of time before her class. "Ok, I really HAVE to go now," she said, after finishing a giggle, one that is the same squeaky, bubbly, merry sound it's been for all the years I've known her, "But let's talk Friday. Call me Friday."

www.pianogoesbackwards.negimaki.com

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