BY LYDIA A. CYRUS
We met in our sixth grade math class. Our teacher’s name was Karma, which I think none of us appreciated or ever thought much about. I went to a different elementary school than the rest of the class: I knew no one. The only friend I had was the girl I had known since we were five, but she was good at math, so she didn’t have to take the lower level, dare I say remedial, math classes. She and I looked alike, Mikala and I, as we both had dark hair, dark eyes, and slightly darker complexions. She was taller than me. She has always been taller than me.
The first time she ever came over to spend the night with me my father was working the graveyard shift at the mill. We were supposed to be quiet and stay in my bedroom. We were sitting sideways across the bed, draped across a body pillow. We were watching The Silence of the Lambs. Neither of us had ever seen it before, but at that age, I was obsessed with watching movies that had cult followings. It was our first time sleeping over together, so why not watch a "scary" movie? The only part about that night that I remember now was the moment Buffalo Bill dropped his kimono and stepped backwards revealing his naked body. I remember that because we both screamed in horror at the sight and my mother, who had no idea what we were watching, ran in to tell us to be quiet. Your dad is sleeping.
We were always together, that much anyone could tell you. Somewhere there is a photograph of us together at her mother’s house. Both of us wearing sunglasses, me in a purple LSU shirt. I remember her laughing at how tiny I was and the photo amplified that. My parents had driven forty-five minutes from our home to come get me. If I remember correctly, though it’s possible I don’t, it was the first time our parents met each other. That house, her mother’s house, holds so many memories. There was the time we were all sleeping over, five or six teenage girls under one roof, and I flushed the toilet in the guest bathroom on Mikala while she showered. I remember knocking my right hip into the doorframe and having a bruise all the way down my body for weeks.
There was the time we decided to watch a different scary movie but were so frightened by the previews that we went to bed instead. Her bedroom was a dark blue color with green handprints all over it. It was always hot in there too and I can still hear the sound of all the fans going at once. I spent a lot of time there. I remember all of her dogs: Gunner the yellow lab and her mother’s tiny Yorkie dogs. The old chicken barn with the scrawny chickens I was so terrified of. Her wealthy grandparents lived on the other side of the property and her grandmother always scared me.
We went to our first ever concert together. We saw the hair metal band Poison together in Kentucky in 2007. We had both been obsessed with the reality television show about Bret Michaels, and when they started announcing over the radio that tickets were going on sale we both got really excited. We went with our moms: my mom, Heather, and her mother, Angie. We rode in the back of my mom’s gold minivan and fell asleep on the way home. We had made this tiny box of trinkets that we called "The Poison Box." It was a pink and clear plastic box that held our tickets and drawings. It held notes we passed back and forth during class. Ten years later Poison would go on tour together and come back to the same area we saw them at. We didn’t go.
Part of growing up with someone is learning how to grow apart too. When we started high school we drifted a little. Our senior year we had anatomy together and became friends again. We spent every morning together in the commons area eating breakfast. Our friend, Emily, dubbed us "The Breakfast Club" and decided which characters from the film we were. The night we graduated we all rode together to the local movie theater still in our graduation regalia and we watched back to back movies before going home. My own family had pizza and gathered together, but we went out together instead. I still think about it a lot: the way friends become family.
College was a different story. During our week of orientation the campus flooded and I was stuck there in town with Mikala and our friend Hannah. I slept in the floor on a spare mattress Hannah’s mom bought for such occasions. It was a tiny mattress meant for a toddler bed, it fit me perfectly. Towards midnight we were hungry and walked down fifth avenue in knee deep water to get food. A man riding his bike stopped us and said, "Ladies, I know this sounds weird, but do you know where the road is?" We could only guess.
The first year of college our friend Emily committed suicide. She shot herself at a local chiropractor’s office. The night of her funeral we piled into Mikala’s silver PT Cruiser just like we did as high school seniors when we went to read to elementary school students for the national honors society. I sat on someone’s lap to create more space and Mikala dropped us all off. We were all dressed up in white and black: the same attire we wore to every single high school choir concert we were in. Now, years later, I remember piling into her car better than anything else from that night. I think that’s a fortunate thing.
When I was a kid my first friends were my cousins. Of course I loved them in ways you don’t love the kid who sits next to you in class. That’s family. It took my years to understand that you can love people in many ways and most of them are not romantic. Almost all of them are not romantic. When Emily died I wrote essays about her. Once in a workshop a classmate said she felt that I was "in love" with Emily, she meant romantic love. I said nothing. Then another classmate asked How could you not be? How do you not come to love the people you spend all of your time with? So I love Emily. I love Mikala. Not in the romantic sense but in the sense that Emily was my friend and Mikala was the closest I ever came to having a sister.
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There were long gaps in time where we didn’t speak. Not because I was angry with her by any stretch. It happens that way sometimes. Mikala would go out of state during the summer to work at an amusement park and I would stay back teaching in a summer school program. Our lives still seemed stunted and in transitional periods. Hannah drank a lot. Mikala told me all about it. Mikala had a car payment to make now on a new black car she had ditched the cruiser for. I had a class of fifth and sixth grade boys to teach. We met up for ice cream a few times. Then there was the last sleepover we ever had.
It was August and Mikala was living in this apartment in a dark, sketchy building. It smelled musty and there were only dimly lit lights in the hallway and stairwell leading to her door. Hannah was the only one who could legally drink then, I was two months away from my own birthday. We made a list of alcoholic drinks we wanted and Mikala’s dad took our cash and bought the booze. We spent the night sipping and letting another friend, Meredith, do our makeup. Meredith was so talented at it that it felt like an honor. I slept on the inflatable mattress, Hannah on the futon, Mikala, Kinsey, and Meredith slept in Mikala’s bed. I remember how Hannah would fall in her sleep and the couch would bang against the tile kitchen floor and I would wake up every time nearly having a heart attack. I felt like her mom reaching over and shaking her to make sure she was okay. I remember saying Hannah, Hannah, Hannah.
Mikala and I walked to 7/11 that night too. I can’t remember what we went for exactly, but there’s still the photos on my phone from the walk. A photo of me in my black kimono and shorts standing underneath the red exit sign of her apartment with my hair down my back. Then the photo of Mikala I took as a joke: her with a cigarette in hand standing next to the 7/11 dumpster. Then the last photo: us sitting on the stoop of her apartment building while she smoked. Meredith took me home the next day and we never had another sleepover again after that. That was the last time we were all together in the same room.
From August until February I didn’t hear much from Mikala. Then one day I saw her mom had posted photos of Mikala in a white dress with a man I’d never seen before. She got married. She eloped at the court house and Hannah was the only friend who knew. I thought about the many times we always said if I don’t get married that’s okay. If I do get married that’s cool too, I’d want you in my wedding. It broke my heart in the sense that I didn’t know she had fallen in love. I wasn’t there when she knew she wanted to marry him. I wasn’t there the day she did marry him. I blamed myself for that too: I should have been there for her.
Some of our friends have nothing to do with Mikala anymore. They feel like she was an awful friend by not being around and not telling anyone she was getting married. I thought about it a lot. So much in fact that I talked about it in therapy all the time. I often said I wanted to drive to her mother’s house just to see if she was alive. Mikala posted on social media constantly before she married and for several months she posted nothing. I thought she’d been axe murdered by her new husband for life insurance. I thought she was being abused or was hurting. I had not idea what to think because we’d never gone that long without talking. I would call, text, send messages whatever I could. Sometimes I got a response. Not always.
I saw one evening that she had been on Pinterest. She had created a board about polycystic ovary syndrome. That was another thing we knew in high school: We both always said to each other that something felt different within us and we both thought we’d never be able to have children. Our senior year in anatomy we were inseparable. Mr. Gibbs could never pry us apart for group projects. Once we were tasked with drawing a lifesize body with all the organs drawn to scale. As I sketched out the uterus we both stood there for a moment. Our heads titled to the side as I said it looks like a satanic ram’s head. Mr. Gibbs overheard and he shook his head in agreement. I never would have guess that she and I would forever be stuck with a sense of hatred when it came to our own uterus. After high school I was diagnosed with endometriosis, the number one cause of infertility in women. I wondered if maybe Mikala had found out she had PCOS. It still doesn’t matter to me if I have children or not. But it’s also not important to me because I’m not married, I’m not stable, it doesn’t matter to me.
I decided to send her something through Pinterest to see if she would respond. I couldn’t find anything that really shed light on how I felt. So I settled for a photo of a teddy bear hugging itself that read I just hugged you in my thoughts. I didn’t expect to hear back from her at all. But then she did. She sent back a photo that read: you will always be the sister of my soul, the friend of my heart. I cried for several minutes sitting there and looking at a glowing screen. She was my friend all of my adolescent life and then she wasn’t…or at least that’s how it looked. That’s how my parents thought of it, my grandfather too. People asked why she hadn’t been around because she almost always was. We were still friends, we are still friends.
In our senior year of high school we had seventh period math class together. Our teacher hated each and every one of us. A class of forty-two kids who weren’t smart enough to take calculus. That teacher told me, upon hearing that I wanted to major in English, that it was "a waste" for me to go to college. He often taunted each of us that we would end up in bonehead math when we got to college. I never told him that I did have the test scores to take calculus, I just didn’t want to take it. Take calculus with ten classmates I only knew vaguely? Or take transition math with three of my closest friends? We all sat together at one table and got in trouble constantly for laughing.
At the end of the year we took a placement test to see where we should be placed when it came to college math. Only five people passed the test. I had the second highest score. We hated that class. We hated that teacher. The forty-five minutes we sat in that class doing worksheets and taking notes seemed to last forever. The best part about the class was the walk to eight period afterwards: the black, chunky pavement and view of the football field. We thought it would never be over, that high school math class, and looking back on it now it’s a shame that it did end. It all ended too quickly.
Lydia A. Cyrus is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work as been featured in Thoreau's Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, and Luna Luna. Her essay "We Love You Anyway," was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don't End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural.
She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Southern Appalachia. She enjoys the color red and all things Wonder Woman related! You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world. Twitter: @lydiaacyrus