“Friend” – Abril Linares-Mendoza ’24

I used to spend a lot of time lying alone on the grass field behind my house. I spent summers making out shapes from the clouds and humming whatever Peaches & Herb tune my mom had played that morning. Then I’d take my bike out from the garage and go around the neighborhood, dressed in one of the many overalls my mother got me from the Gap. She said I was not to go past Mrs. Brown’s house, that would be too far for her to know if something had happened to me. I went past it anyways, sometimes. I loved that bike back then. Light blue with white wheels and streamers that I tried to cut off after I deemed myself too old for them. 

I was a quiet middle schooler with no siblings and not many friends from school. I liked to think that I preferred being alone, but really I felt like I had missed the school lesson where they taught us how to be a middle school girl. There were a few imaginary friends to pass the time with. There was Stacy, a talkative, older girl that loved gossip. It’s obvious to me now that she was invented with my wish to be popular like the girls I observed at school. There was also Oliver, an adventurous Boy Scout who I imagined was there whenever I did all sorts of dangerous things. Jumping from one side of the creek that ran by my house didn’t seem so scary when I had a friend with me. 

Then, the summer before my freshman year of high school, Leo moved in two houses to the left. He was awkward and scrawny back then, but we got along instantly. We spent most of our time in silence, simply enjoying the company of each other during the hot summer days. My mother kept telling us to be wary of strangers, but Leo and I reasoned we lived in the south of Maine, so would anything bad really happen up here? We biked for hours at a time, neither wanting to go back to our homes. Although sometimes we did go back to my house. Leo’s parents never seemed to be at his. 

The first time he came over, Leo asked, “Who’s playing the drums in the basement?”

“Oh, that’s just my dad,” I answered. “He’s teaching himself how to play.” 

“Is he any good?”

“No, but he really likes it.”

I noticed Stacy and Oliver weren’t visiting as much anymore. I was content with Leo’s quiet trailing behind me and I could tell that he was too. 

A week before we started high school, Leo’s parents got him a brand new Walkman for his birthday. Leo and I were fascinated with it and biked straight to Camden Records to pick out an album to play. His parents had only given us enough money for one and after looking around the entire store, we settled on The Queen Is Dead. I loved the way the lyrics were written, they made me feel like I had written them myself. During our last few days of freedom we’d sit down and plug both of our headphones in to listen together. We were quiet during the majority of the album, as usual, until we got to track 9: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Our unspoken rule was to always blast the chorus and sing it at the top of our lungs. Then when it was over, we went back to our familiar silence like nothing had happened. 

I assumed we’d be the same way in school but it was never quite the same. We started out as the same close friends we had been all summer. All freshmen were required to join a fall sport, and as the quiet pair we were, of course we went for the sport with the least amount of names on its sign up sheet: Ultimate Frisbee. That and the fact that it was the only sport where girls and boys could play together, meaning Leo and I wouldn’t have to be separated. This was one of the first years the school was offering it and something about the obscure activity with a dog toy seemed to pull me and Leo in. No one had heard about it or went to our games, but this just made me and Leo love it even more. It became our own little community, hidden from the rest of the world. After spending the past two months exclusively with each other, Leo and I felt like we could read each other perfectly. So when we went on the field, we used that to our advantage. I knew where Leo would huck the disc and I would run as fast as I could into the end zone. However, our perfectly oiled machine was too good to be true, but Leo wasn’t the one who ruined it… I was. 

As our high school journey progressed, I started feeling uneasy at school. Stacy was back, and sometimes I’d feel like she had multiplied into hundreds of Stacys circling around me in the cafeteria. I treasured my friendship with Leo, but I had always wanted to be like them, like all the other girls in my grade. The ones that went to parties, the ones that had left their jelly sandals behind and donned the new L.L. Bean duck boots instead. So I quit the Frisbee team. I stopped sitting at the table at the back of the cafeteria with Leo. I joined the cheerleading squad and began sitting at the lovely table of girls so loud I could barely hear my own thoughts. From time to time, I felt terrible about leaving Leo so abruptly, but I distracted myself with the many chants I had to memorize for the squad.  

By the time I was a senior, four years later, I had barely seen or heard of him. I’d learned how to talk to girls by then, but more importantly, I’d learned how to talk to boys. Yet, even after dating a few boys, positioning myself in a respectable female friend group, and properly learning how to style my red Converse, I knew that I didn’t like any of that for me. No guy or so-called best friend made me happy like my summer days with Leo. It had been a long time since then, and Leo had become a sort of memory of my younger days where I didn’t feel as empty instead of a real boy I had known. Leo had turned into a sort of symbol of my junior high summers. Summers where my worries were mundane or non-existent.  

Pretty quickly, though, I moved on and thought I forgot about him. Sam, a college friend of mine, invited me to his band’s gig and I fell in love with the indie rock atmosphere. It reminded me of the bands I used to listen to on an old Walkman I hadn’t seen in a while. I had never learned how to play any instruments, but Sam, the band’s lead singer, told me he thought I would be a good songwriter after I showed him some poems I had written. Not long after, I found myself writing the majority of the band’s songs. I wrote about the summer. I wrote about the 80’s and a boy. A friendly, blonde boy. I wrote hundreds of lyrics of biking in the 80’s heat, the prospect of a budding romance fusing into youthful stubbornness. It seemed like I couldn’t run out of inspiration from two months of my childhood. Unfortunately though, the more I wrote, the emptier I felt. I felt like I was chasing something by writing about it, but I was never close enough to reach it. 

The only place that would book our band was this old, tiny underground cafe. We would play Fridays at 7, although few people ever showed up. I usually just sat at one of the back tables and wrote more lyrics while the band jammed. Sometimes I just listened. I enjoyed writing for the band, it was a role I was comfortable with, but something about not being up there with them bothered me. My friend’s voice was great, but he just wasn’t singing my lyrics right. Sam’s voice was relaxed and a bit melancholic, but I wanted him to sing the way I used to sing The Smiths with the boy from my lyrics. I wanted him to scream and throw the lyrics onto the audience, the way I intended for them to be sung. He never did, and I found myself thinking my mystery boy would. 

Eventually the band died out and I graduated with a degree I had no intention of using. I went back home after graduating to spend time with my parents but mostly to figure out what I would be doing with my life next. I didn’t go outside as much as I remembered I used to. Instead, I laid on the couch, listening to my parents chat over coffee in the kitchen. I liked pretending I was their little daughter again and I found myself wishing I would have spent more time getting to know them when I lived with them. My mom interrupted my thoughts to tell me that an “old friend of mine” was in town as well.

“Do you want me to ask his mother if he’s free this week?”

“No thanks. I would prefer not to have my mother plan playdates for me anymore.”

“But you used to spend all day with him, honey,” my mother said. “Besides, it’ll be good for you to catch up with anyone these days.” 

“Thanks mom.”

My mom planned something anyway and told me to go to the old town bakery the next day, but I had no intention of going. I didn’t want to get my hopes up and go running to the bakery thinking it was him, the boy. I just wanted to feel sorry for myself on the couch for a few more days. I was tired and sick of chasing after a boy from my childhood that wasn’t coming back. I realized I barely knew anything about him and resented that I had romanticized that summer in my head for my entire life. 

However, my mother of course ruined my self-pitying time and forced me to go. To my luck, it was rainy and gross and I missed my bus. I called my mom to get me but she told me she was too far from me to get me to the bakery in time. I waited for another bus but there seemed to be no more coming. I eventually had to call a cab (which I did not know even existed in Camden) to get me to the bakery. I knew it would be two hours past the time our mothers agreed on by the time I got there, but for some reason I kept moving towards that bakery. When I got there, the place was closing and I kind of just stood in front of the doors pathetically. I looked around to see if anyone was still there but no one was. Great, I thought to myself, you’ve abandoned him twice now.

A few years later, I went back to Camden for my high school reunion. My class was big, and I could barely move in the crowd of people stuffed in my old gym. I found myself looking around for him. I didn’t expect to actually see him, and I never did. At the same time, it struck me that I hadn’t made any friends in my high school class that I wanted to reunite with here. Not the cheerleading squad that I had spent every single lunch period with, nor the many high school boyfriends I had dated. Something felt really wrong, suddenly, and I left the party immediately. 

I’m forty years old now, and I no longer feel as empty as I used to when I wasn’t true to myself. I’ve stopped trying to be someone I’m not, and I’ve accepted that I will probably not see the boy from my childhood again. I’m okay with this, I still learned a valuable lesson about maintaining healthy relationships, although I’m still working on that. On this particular morning, I decided to visit an old records store I vaguely remember going to as a young child. I’m not looking for anything in particular, I woke up feeling nostalgic, I guess? As I drive over I turn on the radio and a familiar song comes on. I hum along as the singer goes, “And if a double-decker bus / Crashes into us,” but I can’t recall the name of the band. I finally arrive at the records store and start browsing the shelves for anything that catches my eye.

The silence is suddenly interrupted by one of the employees saying, “Hello, can I help you find anything in particular?”

I look up and meet my eyes with his. For some reason, I hesitate for a second. “No thanks, uh…” I look down at his name tag. It reads Leo. “No thanks, Leo. I think I’m okay actually,” I say as I head towards the exit.

“Alrighty then, we hope to see you again soon!” I hear the employee say as I walk out the doors. I ended up not buying anything but I feel strangely satisfied, like I did find something after all. I drive back home in silence, with the radio off, simply listening to my thoughts.