“Between a man and a woman there was always one person who was stronger than the other one. That doesn’t mean the weaker one doesn’t love the stronger.”
—Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
On February 8, 1984, one of the most important people in my life came into this world. While I didn’t know her at birth, I met her in her 10th year around the sun…a long-haired, pale,
tall girl with a medium build and full lips. She wore thick, dark-rimmed glasses and she spoke softly. I remember the day I met her at Hope Elementary, when I had been kicked out of my English class for misbehaving (I was bored), and I was assigned to Ms. McIlvaine’s room as punishment. I was to stay quiet and be babysat by the teacher I came to lover probably more than any other in elementary school (save my kindergarten teacher). The empty seat was by Ash. I can see it now. The tomboyish me sitting next to the girl who looked down, fidgeting with her thumb ring and the left wrist opening of her oversized sweater. I sat on her left and remember her flaking nail polish and longer fingernails (I wasn’t allowed to have long nails because I was a classical pianist). I envied her and how she looked like she didn’t care about her appearance. Looks had been imposed on me for so long and then there she was…the grungy girl I quickly fell for.
We weren’t inseparable, but we were friends. In an instant, I could recognize something we had between us, a deep connection we both knew we had: Pain. The worst kind of pain is family pain and abuse, and we both acknowledged that we both understood that pain. We were miserable kids, trapped in families that were conditional, lacking, neglectful, and unkind. And we were young, subject to the world created for us. The first time I saw her bruises, the first time I saw her tears, I knew she understood the darkness I kept inside, the darkness I never showed. The first time I saw her bottom lip jut out and the ends of her mouth curl upward to form a smile, I saw sunshine. I vowed I would keep her smiling. We would find space from the darkness, hands clasped.
I look back now, and I realize that while this girl was my friend, I was quickly infatuated with her. I adored her kindness, her quiet confidence, her blatant insecurity, her laugh. We played at recess, we talked after school, and she began to confide in me and I in her. At that time, I was vulnerable. We were both awkward and nerdy, we both were not fun to be around. We bonded in isolation. We bonded with nights of giggling, with smarts, with years beyond our years. With her, I learned to be myself and to not give a fuck about what that meant for others. She made the most of every minute she wasn’t in pain because she was in a lot of it.
Ashley was the first person I was able to talk with about sex. About urges. About menstrual cycles. About love. We were just kids, and she was so able to navigate those topics. I remember the first time I met C…I was in 7th grade and she pointed him out. I was amazed by how well she knew my type. She got me. But really, she had me all along. Before me looking at boys, I remember the day Ash touched my hand playfully and I felt a sudden rush of excitement like I’d never felt before. I was crazy about her and she didn’t know it for so long.
I even remember where we were when I told her I had feelings for her. We were sitting on some swings, it was after school at Magnolia, and I said I thought she was beautiful. She laughed it off and smirked the smirk she made. Her lips pouted a bit as her thoughts wandered elsewhere, her stick-straight dark hair blowing softly. I was wearing the bracelet she made for me, and she was wearing hers. I remember reaching over and grabbing the chain on her swing and tugging on it, telling her again that I thought she was strong and still soft. How she was funny and exciting and reminded me that people can be beautiful when so many people are so evil. She said, “Blonde, do you have a thing for me? Huh?” I looked down, started to withdraw, and she grabbed my chain back. “You’re the sweetest person I have ever met,” she said. Then, like we’d done since I was in 6th grade, we put our foreheads together and smiled. Little moments, little secrets. She never shied away and neither did I.
Things weren’t always great. Her dad beat the shit out of her all the time, and all I wanted to do was run my fingers over her bruises and save her. At times she cried uncontrollably. I got to hold her. I got to hide her at my house at times. I got to blast music with her and try to distract her from her own personal hell. My life sucked, but hers was hell. She never talked about being sexually abused, but she was. But there were times when ever Ash put all her pain aside to comfort me. Our friendship was unconditional. Our love was unconditional. But sometimes, physical pain can be difficult to get out of, and we all need a break. In September of 1998, I lost Ash to Ash. I lost her to her own personal hell. She needed out, and I have always respected that. I have cried and mourned, but I have never thanked her…thanked her for leaving me a better person in so many ways.
In 2003, I wrote this poem…on the 5th anniversary of her suicide:
I remember the day you left it was all so sensitive to me-
I watched a boy at Magnolia
Take a grasshopper and crush his small, helpless body in his fist
I cried a soulless cry.
And only for a dead, worthless insect.
How could a life look so fragile?
On Saturday, I picked up the phone to call you
I can only celebrate the big things
with one underneath my feet and above my head
So today, I cry a soulless cry,
But I realize my cry is because you’re an angel
And I want to live for your life but fall short
You’re my dream, and I see the blanketed sky
Looking up and wishing you were here to hear.
I went to see you yesterday
And swore I felt your hair touch my cheek-
Then got into my car and heard you sing.
Does a heart so broken still fly?
Your grace and spirit watching over me.
I realize, it keeps me fully alive.
Ash–I have been sad about you for too long, and those are not the memories I have of you. Very little of my love for you was sad. My God, did you make me laugh hysterically! And warm the cold
, lighten the dark days. You danced with me, ran with me, hid with me, walked for hours with me. We giggled about boys, sang at the top of our lungs, made fun of teachers, and loved our friendship. You never let life stop you…until it did. You encouraged me. So I am writing a new poem. Happy 29th birthday tomorrow, my best friend, my first love. I cannot let innocence and hope die with you because your memory and spirit are right here with me. I can’t wait to launch it here for your birthday. You’re still amazing, and I can hear your whispers in my ear every.fucking.day when I’m being true to myself. I love you, Ash. Wish we could have kept making memories together.
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)
i am never without it(anywhere i go you go,my dear;
and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)
i want no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)